Our Presiding Bishop has asked every Episcopal Church to address issues of racism on Sunday, September 6. As it turns out, the lessons for the day have something to say about that, and I will have something to say about where God in Christ Jesus is leading us as a part of my sermon. But it seemed to me that before then it would be worthwhile to explore with my tiny rural congregation a few of the more secular issues that are involved. This is what I wrote to them.
Few people want to admit that they are racist. I certainly don’t, and am ready to argue the point. Most of us, I think, will say and do everything we can to prove that we are not. Maybe that’s why attendance at anti-racism workshops has been so low. That’s the good news in a way. Most of us know very well how corrosive racism has been in our society, and we find it appalling to think that we might have been a part of it when we are sure that we were not.
With that in mind, it might be helpful to review two facets of the issue: personal beliefs and systemic racism.
Each of us, everyone of us, lives with a set of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors about others who are not like us. What makes them not like us might be social or economic class, geographic location, religion, education, skin color, ethnicity, gender, age, or maybe something else. Beliefs are the assumptions we take to be true about the kind of people they are, how they measure up to our standards, and our sense of their general worthiness as persons. Attitudes are the emotional reactions we have to those beliefs as they make themselves known when we meet, hear about, or see others who are not like us. Behaviors are the things we do and say as a result of our beliefs and attitudes. Sometimes we are able to recognize that our beliefs and attitudes are wrong or socially unacceptable, and modify our behavior to cover up beliefs and attitudes we hold but find embarrassing. At other times we just let it all hang out. Which it is tends to depend on the company we keep. I can only speak for myself when I say that my complicated, and often conflicting, inventory of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors does not make it easy for honest self evaluation. But it’s worth a try.
Systemic racism is another matter. It includes matters legal and cultural that exist almost invisibly in the background of everyday life. I’ll share a few examples. Take housing and land use for instance. The north did not have segregation like the south, but a combination of zoning practices, FHA and VA mortgage loan program requirements, and the customary restrictions placed on deeds, assured that post war America would be segregated with middle class whites entitled to most of the benefits, blacks restricted to the inner cities, and the poor of any race left on their own. The house I live in was built in the early 1970s and had an original deed restriction prohibiting a sale to blacks or Jews. Highways and utilities were planned, not out of malice, to benefit wealthier neighborhoods and cordon off poorer ones in ways that assured little or no mixing between the two. None of this was done with racist intent, but it ended up that way just the same. The famous Stanford-Binet IQ Test, the SAT, and other testing for entry into higher education and better jobs were all normed for white upper middle class values and cultural knowledge, giving people like me a terrific advantage over people not like me. The effects of various laws such as the Chinese and Japanese exclusion acts, the reservation system for American Indians, and the mass deportation of legal residents of Mexican heritage during the first half of the twentieth century, lived on long after they had had been repealed. These are just a few examples that have helped form the fabric of American society in a way that has systematically worked to keep those who were not of white European heritage at a disadvantage. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but one we have to acknowledge.
The good news is that most Americans really do believe “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as our Declaration of Independence proclaims. Moreover, our Constitution, particularly the fourteenth amendment, establishes the principle of equality as the law of the land. American Indians were finally given the right to vote in 1924. The armed forces were officially desegregated in 1948. Schools were officially desegregated in 1954. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other legislation began to dismantle some of the long standing systems of racial practices by which whites, particularly middle and upper class whites, maintained control and advantage over others. The work is slow and difficult not because we oppose it, but because we dislike being shown that we have been a part of it.
It has been said that America is the great experiment. No government like it had ever been tried before. It’s a land of different and competing regions, interests, economies, cultures, ethnicities, and races. Most foreign observers were certain that we could not keep it together. The Civil War almost proved them right. In a few years persons of European heritage will no longer be the majority. Indeed there will be no majority race, heritage or ethnicity. Does that make any difference? We have made uneven but steady progress for almost 240 years; will we continue to lurch forward, or will we collapse?
I think we will continue to make progress. And, I believe that Christians following where Christ has led will be a big part of seeing that we do.