Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Race and American Insecurity


(Firemen unfurl an American flag over the Pentagon after the September 11, attacks)

Conservative African American author, Shelby Steele has a truly fascinating (whether you agree with it or not) article in the Opinion Journal called, White Guilt and the Western Past
Why is America so delicate with the enemy? A portion of this remarkable article is included below:

America and the broader West are now going through a rather tender era, a time when Western societies have very little defense against the moral accusations that come from their own left wings and from those vast stretches of nonwhite humanity that were once so disregarded.

Europeans are utterly confounded by the swelling Muslim populations in their midst. America has run from its own mounting immigration problem for decades, and even today, after finally taking up the issue, our government seems entirely flummoxed. White guilt is a vacuum of moral authority visited on the present by the shames of the past. In the abstract it seems a slight thing, almost irrelevant, an unconvincing proposition. Yet a society as enormously powerful as America lacks the authority to ask its most brilliant, wealthy and superbly educated minority students to compete freely for college admission with poor whites who lack all these things. Just can't do it.

Whether the problem is race relations, education, immigration or war, white guilt imposes so much minimalism and restraint that our worst problems tend to linger and deepen. Our leaders work within a double bind. If they do what is truly necessary to solve a problem--win a war, fix immigration--they lose legitimacy.

To maintain their legitimacy, they practice the minimalism that makes problems linger. What but minimalism is left when you are running from stigmatization as a "unilateralist cowboy"? And where is the will to truly regulate the southern border when those who ask for this are slimed as bigots? This is how white guilt defines what is possible in America. You go at a problem until you meet stigmatization, then you retreat into minimalism. (Read the whole thing here)

The Baha'i Writings describe racism as the "most vital and challenging issue" facing America, the elimination of which is a prerequisite for the fulfillment America's destiny in the world which is to become a nation of spiritual distinction and leadership that will rally all the other nations into that Peace promised in all the Holy Books. These writings describe racism as a "corrosion of which,...has bitten into the fiber, and attacked the whole social structure of American society" that Americans must cast, "away once and for all the fallacious doctrine of racial superiority, with all its attendant evils, confusion, and miseries" and "demonstrate to the world at large" our freedom "from the taint of those prejudices which have already wrought such havoc in the domestic affairs, as well as the foreign relationships, of the nations". (Selections quoted from The Advent of Divine Justice, Shoghi Effendi)

Though Shelby Steele is right to acknowledge that many white Americans have, "achieved a truly remarkable moral transformation" relative to their overt rejection of white supremacy, the psychospiritual legacy of racism has not simply disappeared because of the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. The following statement about racism from the Promise of World Peace addressed to the peoples of the world by the Universal House of Justice, offers insight into what
I mean by the "psychospiritual legacy of racism":

Racism, one of the most baneful and persistent evils, is a major barrier to peace. Its practice perpetrates too outrageous a violation of the dignity of human beings to be countenanced under any pretext. Racism retards the unfoldment of the boundless potentialities of its victims, corrupts its perpetrators, and blights human progress.
(The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Oct, The Promise of World Peace, p. 3)

One of the limitations that I've always noticed in the analysis of "progress" made by minority groups is that progress is generally measured in a purely materialistic, egocentric way. If more minorities are able to enjoy the benefits of a free market economy or some legal protections or experience less bigotry directed at them as individuals then it means that the problem of race has been solved. Steele's article makes it clear though that the psychospiritual legacy lingers and continues, as the Baha'i Writings point out, to wreak "havoc in the domestic affairs, as well as the foreign relationships, of the nations." We have reached a point in our nation's history where we seem unable to have a rational discussion about domestic or foreign policy because whether we like it or not, race keeps coming up in the equation. We can't talk about Hurricane Katrina, immigration reform, the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, education, health care, the criminal justice system, genocide in Darfur, HIV/AIDS in Africa, or any number of other compelling issues facing us because it quickly becomes a shouting match of "you're a racist", "no I'm not!" In a post 911 world, not being able to deal adequately with the psychospiritual impact of racism on our society exposes our nation to dire peril. It is perhaps this very peril that was meant by a statement attributed to 'Abdu'l-Baha , the son of the Founder of the Baha'i Faith and leader of the Baha'i community from 1892-1921, during an interview with a Baha'i in the early part of the last century:

"If the races do not come to agreement, there can be no question or doubt of bloodshed. When I was in America, I told the white and the colored people that it was incumbent upon them to be united or else there would be the shedding of blood. I did not say more than this that they might not be saddened. But, indeed, there is a greater danger than only the shedding of blood. It is the destruction of America. Because aside from racial prejudice there is another agitating factor. It is that of America's enemies. These enemies are agitating both sides, that is, they are stirring up the white race against the colored race and the colored race against the white race. But of this the Americans are submerged in the sea of ignorance...Now is the time for the Americans to take up this matter...Otherwise, hasten ye towards destruction! Hasten ye toward devastation!"

It is time for the American people of all races to unite, to heal our wounds, and fulfill our true destiny as a nation. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate. Politics, economics and social engineering have taken us as far as they can. It is time to call on the one power which can save us from ourselves:

"...there is need of a superior power to overcome human prejudices, a power which nothing in the world of mankind can withstand and which will overshadow the effect of all other forces at work in human conditions. That irresistible power is the love of God." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 68)