Friday, July 23, 2010

Rescuing "Racism"

A few months ago, I wrote about some troubling tendencies that I was seeing regarding race and racism in the U.S. Here is part of what I said at that time:

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).

We've been provided with yet another dramatization of this troubling trend through the swift fall and equally swift redemption of a government employee falsely accused of racism. Yet again we witness a parade of apologies and hear the din of the chattering classes. But, are we really learning anything? Do we understand what is at stake socially and spiritually when the innocent are falsely accused of racism?

I'm beginning to think that political correctness on the one hand, and partisan politics on the other, threaten to rob the very concept of racism of its meaning. Political correctness encourages a hypersensitivity that contributes to knee-jerk reactions. Partisan politics encourages the wielding of "racism" as a rhetorical weapon to discredit your opponents. How can we effectively address the problem of racism, if the concept itself becomes meaningless through abuse or manipulation?

Racism is too important to be reduced to an accusation leveled as an emotional outburst or a means of advancing partisan agendas. People of good-will concerned for the well-being of our nation need to rescue the word for the sake of the successful elimination of the problem.

"For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century." (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 264)


  1. Anonymous12:24 PM

    I think you're right about the term "racist" being overused. Yesterday evening a man from Turkey said, "Racist!" to me when I mentioned I was red-haired, green-eyed, and Irish. (No, he couldn't see me, it was a Baha'i chatroom where we teach the Faith. And my hair is no longer red anyway, I'm old. LOL) My mouth jaw dropped. I told him my grandmother was born in Ireland. I'm definitely Irish, But he insisted. Seems he has an Irish friend. Since his Irish friend has dark hair, he called me "racist" for saying I was Irish with red hair and green eyes. Craziness!

  2. Rick Schaut1:45 PM


    While I agree, entirely, with everything you've said, I fear it doesn't go far enough. In the face of this kind of abuse of the word, "racism," I feel that we're obligated to clearly define, by way of example if possible, what the word really means.

    And the situation involving Mrs. Sherrod provides a perfect case for doing so. The USDA has a very recent, since the Reagan Administration dismantled the civil rights division in 1983, and checkered past wherein black farmers were systematically denied loans and other forms of financial assistance that had been accorded to white farmers. The Sherrods themselves were victims of this racism.

    The legacy of that unlawful discrimination persists to this day, as the Federal Government owes black farmers some 1.15 billion (with a "b") dollars that Congress has yet to allocate despite several attempts to pass legislation that would do so.

    Moreover, Mrs Sherrod's personal story offers an example of Shoghi Effendi's exhortation, addressed to people of color in the Advent of Divine Justice, "to wipe out every trace of suspicion that may still linger in their hearts and minds."

    There's a lot of meat in this whole story, and I think this presents a shining opportunity for us Baha'is to step up to the plate and speak with candor about what the issues really are.

  3. Anonymous6:59 PM

    I really appreciate Mrs. Sherrod's full talk and her honesty about her own initial feelings towards helping a white farmer. How many of us haven't experienced the same feelings about helping someone who is 'different' from us and realizing that we are in it together. When women began to speak out about domestic violence and to develop program to help abused women, it was not in most people's consciousness that there was female to male domestic violence. The real issue moved from male to female domestic violence to any kind of domestic violence. Poverty transcends race.

    Mrs. Sherrod is a remarkable woman on many fronts. Instead of being bitter, hateful and angry about her father's murder, she remembered her father through service to others. She has helped poor farmers keep their farms which not only helped the poor farmers but provided food to local people.

    Ironically the blogger who edited and posted her talk on youtube enabled Mrs. Sherrod to speak about her positive racial attitudes and showed her to be person of high moral character. And the bloggers and others came out looking simply partisan and nasty.