Thoughts on Racism – 4
What it is and its legacy
The threshold of tolerance for racism since the mid-20th century is very low and should be. The Soviet Union under Stalin executed or sent to the Gulags whole classes of persons based on group identity. Aristocrats, merchants, Ukrainians, Cossacks, Kulaks (prosperous peasants) were murdered or imprisoned by the millions. Germany under Hitler did the same: Slavs, gypsies, and most notoriously, Jews were slaughtered in concentration camps solely because of the groups to which they belonged. Newsreel pictures of emaciated and dead bodies stacked like firewood shocked the world. Post-World War II television images of firehoses and police dogs and bleeding black protesters in the American South awakened the conscience of Middle America. The “killing fields” of Pol Pot in Cambodia wiped out a third of that nation’s population solely on the basis of class, eliminating all who were educated, prosperous, urban or in any way westernized. Given the scale of and/or visibility of these group-based evils, whether based on race, ethnicity, or class, the result was a world-wide revulsion of race or group-based hatred.
For the above reasons, the worst accusation that one can hurl at a person today is that he or she is a racist. One may be an adulterer. One may abandon one’s spouse and children in favor of one’s lover. One may be publicly known for the most deviant and shameful sexual practices. All this comparatively gets a pass. However, a racist is a pariah, ranked alongside of a child molester and a wife beater for the simple reason that taken to its logical extreme the result is Gulags and Death Camps. One known to have uttered racial slurs or harbored racist attitudes is publicly shamed and shunned today as thoroughly as a heretic in 17th century Puritan New England.
Consequently (here is the downside), the accusation of racism itself is a potential political weapon that the unscrupulous can use to leverage power. Those with the status that is necessary credibly to charge others with the evil of racism wield tremendous influence in today’s society. They are able to control conversations (because they make up the rules) influence public policy, and even shape personal perceptions.
Given the lethality of the accusation, we have sought carefully to exclude from that which necessarily is racist such things as preference for the familiar, recognition of racial differences, privileging of one’s own, rational risk assessment, unequal outcomes, discriminating choices, concern for national or cultural integrity, and youthful banter. All eight of these categories of behavior may be racist. Often they are. Or they may not be racist. This means that no one should be pre-judged simply because an individual or group may manifest one or more of these eight patterns of speech or conduct.
What, then is racism? Racism is the harmful attitudes (contempt, hatred, scorn) and actions (discrimination, bias, partiality, bigotry, prejudice, injustice) directed toward others on the basis of race. It is the belief that some races are inherently superior, others inherently inferior. It is hatred directed against a group and its members on the basis of their immutable physical characteristics (e.g. skin color). It is classifying people and treating people not as individuals but according to their group identity. By this definition, there was widespread personal racism in America’s past. Bigoted comments about Jews, Asians and other minorities were common in my childhood and youth. By this definition, systemic, institutional racism was present in America throughout most of our history. Race-based slavery was racist and evil. Race-based legal segregation was racist and evil. Race-based denial of access and opportunity was racist and evil. All this should be recognized, regretted, and repudiated.
The legacy of this racist past continues to the present. Among the important after-effects is mistrust. There is mistrust of the police in minority communities. Given the Bull Connors of previous generations, given the history of vigilante justice, of unprosecuted lynchings, this is to be expected. There is mistrust of the courts. Again, given the manipulation of the judicial system in the past by the white majority, particularly in the South, this is understandable. There is mistrust of the healthcare industry. Once again, given the unequal application of healthcare in the past, one standard for whites, another for blacks, and given medical experimentation without consent (e.g. Tuskegee Syphilis Study), this is natural. There is mistrust of the housing and banking industries because of the “redlining” practices of the past which determined loans and interest rates not on the basis of individual merit, but group identity, minorities being worsted in the process. There is mistrust in employment opportunities. There is mistrust in admissions policies. We could go on and on. This mistrust is warranted and deep-rooted. Its sources should be recognized, regretted, and repudiated. Continuing mistrust should be understood and accommodated by the majority culture.
Yet this historically justifiable mistrust may distort one’s perceptions today. The sins of the past may influence one to misinterpret the present, to read into the words and actions of individuals and whole institutions meaning that is not there. Today there are individual racists of every stripe, of every nationality, every race, and every ethnicity. There continues to be racists (as we have defined them) in America. It would be absurd and even dangerous to deny this. There will always be hatred and bigotry based on race as long as the world exists because hate is endemic to the human condition. Undoubtedly there are scores of anti-minority and anti-Semitic and other haters in the United States today.
At the same time, we can be thankful that racial attitudes have changed dramatically. For example, polls measuring racial attitudes, intermarriage, and the integration of public life all show that the world is a different place than it was in 1950 or even 1965. Racial slurs and demeaning ethnic humor and stereotypes that were tolerated in the past are utterly banned from private and public discourse. Whereas segregation at mid-century was de jure (legal) in the South (the Jim Crow regime) and de facto (in practice, if not in law) in the North, the America of the post-Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the America of 66 years later, the America of today is a very different place. With blacks playing a prominent role in every aspect of American life, with Americans electing a black President (twice), a black Vice President, and having appointed a black Attorney General, a black Secretary of State, a black Secretary of Defense, with dozens and dozens of black legislators, judges, police chiefs, and so forth, and with American blacks being the richest people of African descent in the world, progress is to be celebrated. Asian prominence in academia and the white-collar professions tell a similar story. To say that racism today is as prevalent as it was during slavery or Jim Crow, is to trivialize the suffering endured by those who were the victims of the personal indignities and legal oppression of those eras. To identify today’s problem of racism with yesterday’s is to dishonor the heroism of the early civil rights leaders, and to slander our nation today. Moreover it inflames racial tensions today, and sadly, divides Christians from each other.