Some people wonder why, as a middle-aged white guy, I talk about racism so much. Let me try to explain . . .
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a sermon at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., March 31, 1968. He said,
“It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle – the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly – to get rid of the disease of racism . . . I submit that nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion . . . We're going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands. And so, however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent [the] explosions are, I can still sing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
So, how do you think we’re doing? Is Dr. King’s dream realized? Yes, we as a society have made gains. Yes, our awareness has grown and there’s no turning back. Yes, people of goodwill, including those who forged the civil rights movement, HAVE put their bodies and souls in motion for equality. But, have we overcome? Is the will of Almighty God still heard in our demands for equality?
I want to believe that each one of us longs to live up to our own best hopes. We all desire a world of equality and even of healing, where the suffering of the past can be salved and the future can be built on new trust. But it takes a lot of hard work, doesn’t it? Like many progressives, I’d like to skip this work. I’d like my actions and good intentions to speak for themselves. I’d like to think that I’m beyond the need for examining racism in society. But racism troubles me. It affects ,my family. It's roots are buried deep in U.S. history. Talking about it is difficult.
When we address injustice in the world, we heal the world. This is a significant point for those religious liberals who tend to dismiss healing as a central part of religion. I think part of the purpose of religion is to heal the world; part of the function of religion is bring wholeness when we are damaged by the injustice of evil systems.
Someone recently sent this quote to me. It comes from Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound. Writing about racism as white man of majority, Berry confesses,
“. . . I write with the feeling that the truth I may tell will not be definitive or objective or even demonstrable, but in the strictest sense subjective, relative to the peculiar self-consciousness of a diseased man struggling toward a cure. I am trying to establish the outlines of an understanding of myself in regard to what was fated to be the continuing crisis of my life, the crisis of racial awareness – the sense of being doomed by my history to be; if not always a racist, then a man always limited by the inheritance of racism, condemned to be always conscious of the necessity not to be a racist, to be always dealing deliberately with the reflexes of racism that are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak"
I highlighted that phrase at the end. It resonates with me -- the reflexes of racism. We've been conditioned, down to our synapses, to accept racism without even thinking about it. The good news is that we can learn a new reflex! We can be reconditioned! We can become aware!
If we want to address society’s racism problems with prayerful action, we need to confront racism on systemic, institutional, and individual levels. For all the work we’ve done, racism lurks everywhere. I cannot think of one area of American life that is not touched by this ongoing evil.
According to census data, 26.6% of all Hispanic persons and 27.4% of all black persons are living in poverty. If we want to care of the poor, we will end the poverty of racism.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice indicate that black males are incarcerated at a rate 6 times higher than white males. There are over 2.5 times as many Hispanics in jail as whites. Many African Americans and Hispanics are less able to afford high quality legal services and they may be subject to discrimination in prosecution and sentencing. If we want to address the injustices of the penal system, we also need to address the injustices of racism.
African American women who have college degrees, who have insurance and who have good jobs actually have higher rates of infant mortality than white women who dropped out of school after eight grade, who don’t have high occupational status and who don’t have very good health care. Why is this? Some research says racism has a physiological affect that overloads the body. These affluent or middle class African American women experience so much daily stress from racism, their bodies can’t rest. Their blood pressure stays elevated at night. Their immune systems become compromised. Racism and discrimination are a public health matter. African Americans routinely get less access to health care and less quality care. If we want to heal our nation’s public health crisis, we also need to heal the disease of racism.
If we are going to talk about poverty and housing, then we need to talk about the environment to which they are linked. In the United States, lead poisoning continues to be the number one environmental health threat to children living in inner cities. Nationally, three out of five African Americans and Latino Americans live in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites. Some predict global warming will negatively affect poor American families who will have to spend even more on food and electricity, which already represent a large proportion of their budgets. If we want to care for the earth and her people, then we must eradicate the toxic racism that poisons our Home.
Speaking of homes, a recent study using data from the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas found that living in a predominantly African-American area, and to a lesser extent Hispanic area, is a powerful predictor of foreclosures across the nation. Predatory lending aimed at racially segregated minority neighborhoods led to mass foreclosures that fueled the U.S. housing crisis. If we want to help construct housing markets where all people in this land have a solid roof over their heads, then we also need to deconstruct racism.
What about our schools? Institutional racism is subtle, and often unintentional, but always potent. Many students of color do not have access to fully credentialed teachers or high-quality curriculum materials and advanced courses. The Southern Poverty Law Center reviews civil rights history curricula in standards across the country. Most states, unfortunately, get a failing grade. Last time I checked, sixteen states do not require any instruction about the civil rights movement. In another 19, coverage is minimal. If we want to solve our education crisis, then we also need to dissolve racism.
Dr. King knew that it was not up to God to deliver anyone from racism. God is not that kind of deity. Dr. King might say that you cannot wait for miracles. You have to march forward and seize them. He might say that the Reign of God will come it its fullness as soon as we open our eyes and truly see the many hues around us and the real challenges that come with awareness. We refuse to gloss over history but see the pain and hear the suffering of others. We seek to live not in a melting pot where all is formless and void, but in a place where all of our stories, languages and cultures are valued; where our wounds are healed by deliberate listening. We strive to know and respect our differences and make possible the highest expectations for humanity. We do the work of liberating ourselves from hatred beginning in the modest places of our longing souls and always reaching out with our words, our actions, our prayers, our love and our hands to all souls. ALL souls. This is how we can be made whole again. This is how the world can be made whole again and all her people one.