Monday, July 18, 2016

Racism 2016--Wish I'd Said This

My colleague, Philip E. Jenks is a blogger who lives in Port Chester,  New York. He wrote a monthly editorial called The Little Scroll for the American Baptist magazine from 1974-1992. (The Little Scroll is also the title of his blog.) He also has been a newspaper reporter and written for national and ecumenical church organizations. He is a fine writer and worth reading. He gave me permission to use his blog piece on racism. I think it is right on target. Who among us is not some kind of racist--like it or not. This piece is long but good. With all the terrible unrest these days just in our country--this piece rings a bell with me. You can read some of his further writings on his blog: --RL

The Racism Virus

July 15, 2016. Three years ago I wrote this sermon at a time when it seemed racial divisions could not get much worse in the U.S. 

Now the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump has made matters much worse and millions of white Americans are no longer uncomfortable about revealing their racism. “In a country where the wealthiest and most influential citizens are still mostly white,” the New York Times reported this week, “Mr. Trump is voicing the bewilderment and anger of whites who do not feel at all powerful or privileged. But in so doing, Mr. Trump has also opened the door to assertions of white identity and resentment in a way not seen so broadly in American culture in over half a century.” 

Other politicians have jumped on the Trump band wagon. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani flaunted his own racism by declaring Black Lives Matter to be a racist movement. 

Among Republicans, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich sounded a rare note of reason: “If you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”

A recent New Yorker cartoon put it this way: a white man is sitting on an examination table in his doctor's office as a physician shows him an X-ray: “This is the racist bone you said you didn’t have in your body.”

That’s the point: we all have racist bones in our bodies. 

The questions I attempted to address in this sermon are these: which is worse? Brandishing our racist bones as bludgeons against persons we consider “others”? Or continuing to hide our racism while we pray the divisions in our society will go away?

Warning: earlier I censored some of the coarser language and racial epithets that I quoted. Now they have been restored in all their ugliness. 

O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the LORD; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved. Psalm 15.

Back in the day, most hate mongers tended to obscure their identity. What goes around comes around, folks said, and wicked words could backfire. Best to spraypaint swastikas and racial slurs in secret, lest the good guys come after you.

Not so today. Venomous words that used to be hissed in moral sewers are now tweeted from the cyber mountaintops. Most of these 140-letter messages are signed.

There has been a flood of such messages lately. On Friday the President of the United States shared his thoughts about what an African American might feel when an unarmed black teen-ager is singled out, pursued and gunned down by a volunteer neighborhood watchman. When the gunman is acquitted of the crime, Mr. Obama said, the hurt runs deep.

Most African American males, the president said, have been victims of racial profiling. Including him. 

“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” Mr. Obama said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”

Mr. Obama’s remarks were dismissed as “emotional and rambling” by pundits who regard themselves as conservative rather than racist.

But tweeters on the fringes of sanity were more blunt.

Eric D. Vandenberg put it this way: “President Obama said Friday that ‘Trayvon Martin could have been me.’ Most of us wish it would have been you, Mr. President.”

What distinguished Vandenberg from other moronic tweeters is that he refrained from using the ‘N’ word or other racial insults. According to, which collects the tweets normal people would be ashamed of, many threatened the President’s life or flaunted their racial venom.  Charlie 191 wrote, “Nigger Obama is trying to start a race war so no one will be watching him take our freedom away. Fuck nigger obama an his muslam brothers!!!”

Of course we can dismiss these miscreant tweeters as idiots, but the ease with which they dangle their odium in public is a little frightening.

Mr. Obama carries the dual mantel of president of all the people and the first African American president. His ethnic background is complex because he was raised by a white mother and white grandparents. But he spoke Friday as a black man, and nothing he said about white racial profiling came as a surprise to persons of color. 

Some wish he had pointed out that the acquitted gunman, George Zimmerman, was half Latino, because it is important to acknowledge that all humans, not just white people, stereotype and profile those who don’t look exactly like them. 

But that doesn’t make the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death more understandable. A day before Mr. Obama’s remarks, shared the tweets of angry white folks who don’t like Latinos much either. Marc Anthony sang “God Bless America” at that most American of institutions, the All Star Game, while Twitter flakes fluttered:

“Why the f... is a spic singing God Bless America?” asked Chance Jones, using the racial epithet for Latinos. Tyler Pounds wrote, “Welcome to America where God Bless America is sung by a Mexican.” Anthony was born Marco Antonio Muñiz to Puerto Rican parents in New York, a fact that eluded Joshua Vardaman. “To be selected to sing God Bless America for the MLB All Star game,” Joshua wondered, “shouldn’t you at least be FROM America?”

The ironic thing is that all these racist twitterers who think their country is going to hell are entitled to express their views by virtue of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Even stupidity is constitutionally protected – a reality we can celebrate every time we sway to the rhythms of “God Bless America.” And while it can be unnerving that racists express themselves publicly with such impunity, the First Amendment also protects right-wing pundits such as Rush Limbaugh who define their hate speak as mere conservatism. If Rush can celebrate the Zimmerman acquittal as a victory over liberalism, no wonder his less literate minions feel free to use the ‘N’ and ‘S’ words to articulate their views.

But let’s be careful here. As noxious as the hate speakers may be, they clearly fall in the category of those Jesus told us to love.

And recent events also remind us there are at least two types of racists: those who flaunt their hatred and those who deny it.

The fact is, racism persists in our culture like an infection and many who have the most virulent strain don’t even know they are sick. 

Today in a million offices and schools, white folks will make stupidly racist remarks based on stupidly racist assumptions about persons of color. They will react to persons of color differently and treat persons of color differently – and, when challenged about it, they will be stunned and hurt because – as they will tell you – “I don't have a racist bone in my body.”

But even in the age of Obama, racism flourishes in the land and each day the majority finds a new way to make the minority feel marginalized. My daughter, who is racially mixed (as are my five other children), reacted this way a few years ago when President Obama tried to reconcile a cop who arrested a black university professor on his own porch because the cop assumed he was an intruder. Obama invited the cop and the professor to the White House for a beer. My daughter wrote in her Facebook update: “Elita wishes she could have a beer with the president every time she gets racially profiled.”

It goes without saying – or should – that racism is not the sole bailiwick of whites. It’s endemic in the human condition. My wife, who was born in Havana, looked sufficiently different from the locals when she worked in Americus, Ga., in the early 1980s that she was pointedly asked, “What are you?” 

Martha has often commented on the surprise expressed by us American Baptist white folks when members of the Hispanic American Baptist Caucus complained about the domination of the Black American Baptist Caucus in denominational life – as did the Asian Caucus and Native American Caucus. “How can people who live under discrimination and injustice despise one another?” white folks would ask, genuinely shocked.

Occasionally Martha suggests that Cubans – residents of an island that projects a carefully calculated image of edenic racial harmony – are as racist as anyone. “Black members of my family make a distinction between themselves and ‘negros americanos,’ who obviously don’t benefit from the same redemptive mestizaje of the islands,” she says.

But I doubt Cubans have cornered the market on racism. The people I grew up with in Central New York State were too good at it to cede the honor to anyone else. There were only a handful of African Americans in Madison County, some of whom may have been descended from slaves who settled in Peterboro, an outpost of the Underground Railroad operated by the abolitionist Gerrit Smith. Looking back, I am appalled by memories of how the white majority – including me – treated them. Black children were taunted with the ‘N’ word on the playground, or slapped by white teachers and – in one memorable incident – subjected to an incredibly obtuse but well meaning teacher who used the ‘N’ word in a rhyme to select the next person to read from a text book: “eeney, meeney, miney mo ...” 

I can't begin to imagine how uncomfortable we made children of color back then. And most of us oppressors would have insisted that we didn't have a racist bone in our bodies.

I haven't seen Tony Campolo for years, but judging from his press pictures, he's the least changed of my Eastern Baptist College professors from the sixties.

Tony was known for making startling claims with ex cathedra authority, which was challenging in the day when you couldn't vet his claims through Google, and he tried out some of his more famous lines on us: “Last night when you were sleeping, 30,000 kids died of malnutrition and you don't give a shit about it. Worse, you're more upset that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids starved to death.”

Once Tony said something, it was hard to forget it. Among the Tonyisms I remember:

“If you grew up in the United States, you are a racist.”

I first heard Tony say that in Soc 200 in 1968, and the notion surprised me. But as the years pass, I find fewer reasons to doubt it. I’m a racist, you’re a racist, all God's children who grew up in the race-obsessed cauldron of American culture are racist.

Now, that's not necessarily a peculiar aberration. Racism is a sin, and we all know we are sinners who fall short of the glory of God. To deny our racism is to deny we are sinners.

The next time you hear someone say, “I'm color-blind,” or, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” smile ironically and walk away. 

Certainly people in the U.S. (and elsewhere) who openly tweet their hatred are to be feared – loved, as Jesus willed it – but feared nonetheless. 

Particularly scary are those white folks who complain they have lost their freedom and status because a black man has twice been elected president, and because the president declares a commitment to universal healthcare, economic justice, immigration reform, and gun control. 

Those nervous white folks have difficulty seeing that they haven’t lost any freedoms because freedom is being offered to more people. In fact, the more races, ages, ethnic groups, and sexual orientations that are empowered in the U.S. system, the more freedom everyone has.

Be that as it may, the most dangerous people in America are not those who tweet their hatred openly. 

Even more problematical are those who don’t believe they are racists. 

That problem group may include you, me, Obama, Zimmerman, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Al Sharpton, or anyone else who is supposed to have a dispensation from the sin of racism. 

But racism is like any other sin: all have done it, and all have fallen short of the glory of God.

Racism is also a deadly virus in the body politic. Jesus sought to make it clear wherever he went that the realm of God requires opening our hearts and minds and loving God as much as every human we encounter on the shadowy pathways of life.

Loving our neighbors and loving our enemies is the only cure available for the virus of racism.

Repeating the gospel of Campolo: “You can’t grow up in the United States without being a racist.

And the first step toward the cure is to admit we are sick.

No comments:

Post a Comment