Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Superstition Pure and Simple

As some of you may know, I'm an adjunct faculty member at Boston University's School of Social Work. I've been teaching a course about the implications of racism for social work practice. At our last class we watched and discussed a lecture given by Tim Wise (you can watch the lecture here and I highly recommend that you do so). One of the things that Tim Wise talked about was the denial of white Americans of the reality of racism, citing recent poll data and polling done in the 1960's.

Today, Charles Blow of the New York Times offers commentary on another poll with some data you might find interesting:

"The poll found that 62 percent of whites who identified as Tea Party members, 56 percent of white Republicans, and even 53 percent of white independents said that today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Only 30 percent of white Democrats agreed with that statement.

It’s an extraordinary set of responses. And my question is the same one used by the right to defend the Tea Party against claims of racism: Where’s the proof? There’s a mound of scientific evidence a mile high that documents the broad, systematic and structural discrimination against minorities. Where’s the comparable mound of documentation for discrimination against whites? There isn’t one." (read the whole column here)

What I would say is that Charles, there doesn't need to be a mound of documentation for discrimination against whites. People just have to believe it to be so. I would also say that this represents not only an intellectual or political problem but a deeply spiritual one. Baha'u'llah put it this way:

"People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude...God grant you may be graciously aided under all conditions to shatter the idols of superstition and to tear away the veils of the imaginations of men." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 57)

Superstition is a term that I rarely hear used in the context of discussing race and racism in the United States, but I think it is a good fit for the beliefs of many white Americans (and Americans of color too for that matter but that's for another post). Speaking in Paris in the early 20th century, 'Abdu'l-Baha made the following statement: "Concerning the prejudice of race: it is an illusion, a superstition pure and simple!" (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 148)

Denial is an accurate, but insufficient term to describe the phenomenon reflected in polls like the ones that Charles Blow and Tim Wise are referring to. Superstition may be a better term because it speaks to the inherent irrationality of such beliefs and the commitment people have to upholding those beliefs in spite of the evidence. Superstition also goes beyond beliefs and is enacted in behaviors, rituals, practices. The beliefs reflected in such polls become personal behaviors and public policy which is where their true power finds expression. Perhaps superstition is a word that needs to be introduced into our discourse about race and racism in America.