After connecting the dots recently, the pattern stood out almost three dimensional: unarmed black men were being shot. Black church-goers at prayer were being killed. Black people died while in custody and even a black child was slain while playing with a toy gun. Each incident possessed unique characteristics in exceptional circumstances, but underlying all these tragedies people of faith can identify the covert and overt killer: racism.
As we attempt to examine ourselves and challenge others to identify the scars of racism born from slavery and nurtured by our culture and economics, the pattern of racism presents an invitation for a personal journey through stories of struggle to a new level of consciousness, stressing not an end point, but an on-going process of conversion. Like an examination of conscience, reflecting on the racial divide reminds each of us about what we have done, and what we have failed to do.
Racism: From the Visible to the Concealed
A number of years ago, the Ku Klux Klan vowed to march and recruit in every county seat in SW Virginia. On the day the Klan came to Gate City in Scott County, church workers were prepared. They offered helium-filled balloons with “Love Thy Neighbor” to townspeople who lined the three block center of town. The state police showed up in force, and nearly every county worker was deputized to insure the peace.
Because the Klan’s permit allowed the march for only an hour from three o’clock, anticipation grew till finally the school bus escorted by police cars with flashing lights discharged its 19 Klansmen. Some were old, one even on crutches. Others looked mid-life healthy, but two were young teens holding confederate flags, yawning and appearing bored. Spontaneously, someone in the crowd started “Amazing Grace” and most onlookers joined in. One young tough with his own confederate flag shouted, “Long live the Klan!,” but the singing and discipline held the crowd. The march that Sunday afternoon fizzled like a dud firecracker.
Researchers find the Klan attracts people with a limited education who face economic insecurity. The easy reason for their problems is somebody else–blacks, Hispanics, Muslims–but never the complex socioeconomic system they inhabit.
Sometimes racism grows from small town isolation. Richard Toboso, a Glenmary seminarian from Kenya assigned to Lafayette, Tennessee, was playing tennis when a group of teenagers drove into the park and watched him. After a few minutes racial slurs filled the air.
“I guess they were expecting me to react, but I remained quiet and continued playing,” Richard said.
Frustrated, the teens drove off, but returned shortly after and parked next to Richard’s car. More slurs. Finally, when the game ended, Richard walked to his car.
“To their surprise when I reached them I greeted them–and they felt a sense of shame.”
Richard reported the harassment to the Lafayette police who listened empathetically and encouraged him to report future incidents immediately.
“I left the police station contented,” said Richard, “and with true forgiveness for those teens who never thought what such utterances can cause.”
Yet, while overt racism throbs like a black eye in some small towns, other expressions simmer subtly below the surface. Susan Sweet, a church worker in rural Mississippi, explains, “For the most part, one would never guess that there are racial problems in small southern towns. Nobody talks about race. People of various races mingle in restaurants, stores, parks and other public places. They work together and play together–but they exist in parallel cultures.”
She described hunting for a house years ago in a Mississippi town. She complained to her neighbor there appeared no houses for sale, so she was told to find a realtor.
“It seems a realtor has a list of homes for sale unmarked with a ‘for sale’ sign, so that potential buyers might be screened,” she observed.
This was verified by her black friend. She was shown only homes in black neighborhoods, till she insisted she knew a house downtown for sale. Indeed the realtor showed the house, but quoted a price double the asking for whites.
Discovering White Privilege
People of faith might never march blatantly with the KKK, or shout racial slurs to visitors in the neighborhood. However, behind a sales counter church-goers might make race-conscious decisions in real estate, lending practices and business deals. And there are still other covert sides of racism.
Fr. Frank Ruff participated in an Undoing Racism Workshop years ago with 20 community leaders from Todd County, Kentucky. He said, “One of the biggest learnings was how privileged white people are without even knowing it!”
He realized that white people were taken seriously, respected and trusted. Not one white participant had experienced being followed by store personnel while they shopped. “Yet,” he said, “every African American in attendance had that experience.”
Perhaps white privilege remains the subtle, unexamined part of racism that only dialogue and self-examination can disclose. While dismantling structural racism inherent in our culture and economic system remains essential, identifying white privilege begins the process of saying No to division, No to hatred, No to racism. But it opens the risky Gospel mandate to say Yes to dialogue with those different from ourselves, which allows us to say Yes to conversion.
Rev. John Rausch, glmy is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace and member of the National Council of PCUSA.