Thursday, January 14, 2010

Race and Racism in America: Troubling Tendencies

Brad Hirshfield, author of the blog For God's Sake has one of the most interesting takes on the latest race-related controversy (what some have dubbed "Negro-gate"). His comments focus on the ritual practice of "scapegoating". Here's a portion of his post:

"Nevada Sen. Harry Reid is our newest national scapegoat, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Despite the bad rap it gets, scapegoating, when done properly, is actually a brilliant spiritual technology. Consider the Hebrew Bible's use of the scapegoat -- the original case from which the term derives its name.

According to Leviticus 16:21, the scapegoat was the animal over which Aaron, the ancient High Priest, confessed "all of the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat". Scapegoating in the Bible allows people to confront their failings and then rewards them for doing so, by watching them carried away.

Contrary to the popular use of the term, the goat is not blamed for anything! He is merely a vehicle for transporting the people's sins once they have admitted to in fact having sinned.

Far from offering an easy out, one which lays blame upon an innocent or unwitting victim, the Biblical ritual of the scapegoat demands real awareness of the sins committed by the entire community. The success of the ritual hinges on the community and its leaders' willingness to take responsibility for the wrongs they have done. In fact, it is precisely the opposite of the way we usually think about making a scapegoat of someone - just ask Senator Reid." (Read the whole thing here)

The current national debate sparked by Senator Reid's comments got me thinking about several tendencies that I find troubling.

The first is a tendency towards reflexive, knee-jerk accusations of racism. To accuse another human being of racism is a serious thing that demands serious thought before it is done. Today, there can be very real and even devastating consequences for groups or individuals identified with racist beliefs or behaviors. This is itself and indication of the progress we've made on the issue as the Universal House of Justice has pointed out:

"Racial and ethnic prejudices have been subjected to equally summary treatment by historical processes that have little patience left for such pretensions. Here, rejection of the past has been especially decisive. Racism is now tainted by its association with the horrors of the twentieth century to the degree that it has taken on something of the character of a spiritual disease. While surviving as a social attitude in many parts of the world -- and as a blight on the lives of a significant segment of humankind -- racial prejudice has become so universally condemned in principle that no body of people can any longer safely allow themselves to be identified with it." (The Universal House of Justice, 2002 April, To the World's Religious Leaders, p. 3)

The accusation of racism needs to be leveled with great care because when the accusation is false it can do great harm. Not only can it do great harm to the individual or group of people being accused but also to the very goal of eliminating racism by undermining the integrity of the concept. "Racist" like "love" is a term that ultimately suffers from overuse or misuse. I would go further and suggest that falsely accusing others of racism can do harm to the accuser as well because it is potentially spiritually corrosive. Baha'u'llah has emphasized the importance of being fair in our judgments:

"Say: Observe equity in your judgment, ye men of understanding heart! He that is unjust in his judgment is destitute of the characteristics that distinguish man's station" (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 203).

When confronted with what might be racism, I think we could all benefit for being much more reflective and much less reactive.

Another troubling thing about the Harry Reid episode is what I consider an overemphasis on scrutinizing the utterances of people regarding race. This tendency is a product of the culture of political correctness which is primarily concerned with encouraging (some would say coercing) people to "say the right things". I don't mean to suggest that what people say is unimportant. Words matter a lot as the Universal House of Justice has made clear:

Speech is a powerful phenomenon. Its freedom is both to be extolled and feared. It calls for an acute exercise of judgement, since both the limitation of speech and the excess of it can lead to dire consequences. (The Universal House of Justice, 1988 Dec 29, Individual Rights and Freedoms, p. 7)

Words do matter, but my sense is that in the Baha'i Faith deeds matter more. I think we need to shift the balance, especially regarding race, from encouraging people to "say the right things" to encouraging people to "do the right things".

"Let your acts be a guide unto all mankind, for the professions of most men, be they high or low, differ from their conduct. It is through your deeds that ye can distinguish yourselves from others. Through them the brightness of your light can be shed upon the whole earth." (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 305)

If we are going make judgments about people regarding race or racism, deeds are a better standard of judgment than words.

A final cause of concern is the manipulation of the issue of racism for partisan political ends. I want to be clear that in my observation, this tendency is not limited to any particular party or point on the ideological spectrum. This tendency is also not limited to any particular race. It has become a pattern in political discourse because people know how powerful accusing political opponents of racism can be. When people behave in this way, it is harmful for the all the reasons I've already mentioned. Race should never be used as political weapon because it is truly a weapon of mass destruction; destructive both to civility and democracy.

What do you think?