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)