What is an Earnest Discussion of Racism?

The recent racist shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has sparked discussion. This is good, right? This is progress, right? We can rest assured that in a few months we will have finally arrived: we will be a nation of unprecedented racial equality complete with counter-racist institutions and leaders who openly acknowledge the enduring, pernicious effect of race in America. Right? Surely we have taken a significant step forward…

Not exactly. It takes more than a few “race talks” to make lasting changes in our infrastructure. We need more than a discussion; we need an earnest discussion. Here is what I mean.

An earnest discussion of racism acknowledges privilege.

People who talk about race must first acknowledge where they stand. They have to understand the difference in altitude between their lookout points and those of everyone else. Let’s use a silly example to illustrate. Suppose a giraffe and a rabbit are looking for food in the savannah. Suppose all the grass in this region was recently burned in a wildfire. As a result, the rabbit is starving. However, the giraffe happily eats leaves from a tree that the fire did not touch. The rabbit asks the giraffe for some leaves, but the giraffe coldly replies, “Just stretch out your neck and get them yourself.”

When people who talk about race fail to acknowledge their own unearned advantages, they make the same mistake as the giraffe. They suggest, for instance, that minorities in America are responsible for their own disadvantage. But they ignore the real effects of racist institutions, which create an environment that either deliberately or incidentally favors the prosperity of one group to a disproportionate degree. Therefore, anyone who talks about race earnestly must acknowledge privilege.

An earnest discussion of racism acknowledges ignorance.

Even with full knowledge of one’s privilege, it is impossible to know the experiences of people in a group to which one does not belong. White people, for instance, cannot suddenly become black and understand what it is like to face the daily discrimination and institutional barriers that come along with being black. (This of course does not stop some from trying.) It is an unalienable feature of our human experience not to understand what it is like to be anyone but ourselves. Therefore, anyone who talks about race earnestly must understand that people in other groups have had different experiences.

An earnest discussion of racism leads to political action.

Discussions have many purposes. They can create understanding between estranged groups, enrich our understanding by bringing together a variety of perspectives, and even provide a peaceful means to conflict resolution. But words are empty without action. Millions of people are talking, but most of the discussion groups fail to make lasting change because they end without a practical plan of action.

By all means, talk. And talk earnestly. Acknowledge the unearned advantages that you have over others. Acknowledge the fact that there are limits to your understanding of the struggles of other groups. Do talk! But end every discussion of race by committing to lead a peaceful protest with the rest of your life. Speak up for the oppressed. Pull out the “race card” when our politicians lack the courage to do so. Vow never to grow complacent and coast along with a status quo that (often violently) destroys freedom. Write your representatives in the name of racial equality and racial justice and lobby for legislation that truly counters the effects of racism.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step—not with a discussion group.

Responding to the Tragedy in SC

Today when I checked the news, I was deeply saddened to hear of the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina. If you are unaware of what happened, here is the gist: last night at 9:00PM, a 21-year-old white man walked into a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and opened fire. He killed nine people, spared two others and then fled. He has since been arrested.

The Charleston police spokesman Charles Francis claims, along with the leading investigators, that it was indeed a hate crime; the victims, he says, were killed “because they were black.” Photos on the shooter’s Facebook page also suggest that the act was rooted in hate.

Hate crimes take many forms. Some hate with words, some with silence. Some hate by taking, some by refusing to give. Some hate with non-lethal force, and some elevate themselves to the status of a god and judge their “enemies” by taking their lives.

People who hate often do so because they are afraid. Acts of hate such as this shooting are based on a refusal to entertain the idea that you could in fact share something with people who look different from you or belong to different group. They are closed-minded acts and, ultimately, acts of cowardice.

Although hate burns us, I do try to remember that a fire cannot burn if it has no fuel. What do I mean by this? Nothing can burn in an atmosphere of carbon dioxide; fire needs oxygen. In America, the fuel for the fire of hate crimes and racism is made up of many things: bigotry is one of them, but so is the existence of racist institutions. While we might not be able to remove bigotry completely from the human condition, we can change our cultural atmosphere to stifle the spark of bigotry before it grows into a full-fledged flame.

Much of my research has dealt with the ways in which black optimism in America (with regard to their socioeconomic prospects, etc.) is far greater than their actual attainment. This is partly due to the false belief that, in this country, race no longer matters. Incidents like this massacre in SC, however, remind us painfully that it does matter. It kills. Mother Emmanuel church was founded in 1816 by blacks seeking liberty. This shooting is an attack on black liberty.

Until everyone in this country—whatever the color of their skin—realizes how terrible the effects of race really are, racism and violent bigotry will continue to hold back our march to freedom.

In the meantime, let us join the nation in mourning this tragic loss of life. Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston has created the Mother Emmanuel Hope Fund to support the grieving families. To donate, send a check to the following address:

Mother Emanuel Hope Fund
C/O City of Charleston
P.O. Box 304
Charleston, SC 29402

Color-Blindness Hurts

Color-Blindness Hurts

What exactly happened to Tahera Ahmad on that United Airlines flight?

According to news reports, a flight atteimagesK8O95V7Jndant denied Ahmad an unopened can of diet soda.  “Big deal,” you might think. “It’s probably just some obscure airline regulation about canned drinks, right?”

Unfortunately, no.  This is about race.

In Ahmad’s words, “This isn’t about me and a soda can.  It’s about systemic injustice that is perpetuated throughout our community.”

Specifically, it’s about the way that our system can overlook or even justify the most horrific prejudices.  It’s about how nobody stood up for Ahmad when another passenger told her to “f… off” because she “knew that [she] would use [the unopened can] as a weapon.”  And most importantly, it’s about the myth of color-blindness, a doctrine that is still actively being spread today.  This doctrine states that color doesn’t matter anymore, that minorities have won the battle for equal treatment, and that they no longer have any reason to think they are oppressed.

But what happened on this airline reminds us that color does matter.

And more than that, Ahmad reminds us that it’s not just non-white color that sends the system into defensive-oppressive mode.  It’s the colors of minority religions and cultures, too.  It’s about islamophobia propagated by irresponsible and unreflective media run by the privileged.  Not only do people’s visible differences still affect them.  They affect them every day—and it hurts.

Tahera Ahmad was in tears.

She wrote on her Facebook that she was “in tears of humiliation.”  She had hope that some fellow passenger would stand up and defend her, but all she received were profanities and the shaking of heads.

United Airlines is an institution like any other corporation.  Its top priority is self-preservation.  After this blunder by one of its flight attendants, the airline swiftly “redeemed” itself by terminating her employment.  While this is surely a gesture of its disapproval of religious prejudice, it still serves to sweep the issue under the rug.

The more the Civil Rights movement sinks into the background of our minds as an event in “history,” the more the doctrine of color-blindness sinks into our minds like a poison.  The ideology of color-blindness doesn’t make us immune to racism.

Ironically, color-blindness makes us blind to the real importance of color in our everyday lives.

In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the commencement address at Oberlin College.  He said to them, “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work…without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation” (King, 1968).

I agree with Dr. King.  Every day that we spend waiting for justice is another day that injustice has triumphed.  What should you do?

Follow the example of Dr. King.  Lead peaceful collective protest of United.

And tell everyone you know.