Saturday, August 18, 2012

What is the Face of Racism?

"White supremacy is the greatest danger we as Americans face as a source of domestic terrorism, and one of the least recognized", writes Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite at the Washington Post's On Faith Blog. Since Wade Michael Page massacred Sikhs and tried to murder a police officer in Wisconcin, you've probably learned more than you care to know about white supremacist groups in the United States. For those of us who imagined such groups were a thing of the past, or at least no longer a serious concern, Thistlethwaite and others are like the little girl in the Poltergeist movie. "There heeerrrreeee", they warn us.

I find myself ambivalent about the amount of attention such groups are being given in the media right now. Clearly any group representing a threat of domestic terrorism is one that the public needs to be informed about. Also, any information that counters the narcotic of color-blind, post-racial ideology is a good thing. On the other hand, there's a risk that renewed attention to white supremacist groups can reinforce the notion that they represent what a "real racist" looks like, which let's the rest of us off the hook.

As a long time student of the issue, I've come to the conclusion that one of our greatest challenges in understanding racism today is a failure to recognize the way that the problem has changed. While racial animus persists in varied forms, particularly when the levers of anger and anxiety are gleefully pulled for political gain, it is racial indifference that the greater threat. The face of racism today is more likely to resemble a yawn than a snarl and sound like deafening silence more than "hate speech". Racist outcomes, reflecting the systematic concentration of power and privilege among White Americans (largely moneyed elites) at the expense of everyone else, no longer require racist individuals.

It is an axiom of physics that a body in motion tends to stay in motion, unless the body is compelled to change its state. The architects of white supremacy, and their enablers, set the body politic of America in motion in a particular way with particular goals. This involved insane amounts of armed robbery and mental torture, creating a legacy of massive, intergenerational trauma and cognitive disorder that affects us still. To compell the body politic to change its state has alway required a profound degree of energy and commitment. This is still true. Passive acceptance of racial equity as an ideal and professions of "color-blindness" will not be sufficient. 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1892 to 1921, put it this way:

What profit is there in agreeing that universal friendship is good, and talking of the solidarity of the human race as a grand ideal? Unless these thoughts are translated into the world of action, they are useless.The wrong in the world continues to exist just because people talk only of their ideals, and do not strive to put them into practice...My hope for you is that you will ever avoid tyranny and oppression; that you will work without ceasing till justice reigns in every land, that you will keep your hearts pure and your hands free from unrighteousness.

It is important to note that racial indifference is not simply a character flaw, but represents in many cases an effort to cope with the realities of oppression. On the one hand, we are medicated daily with a 24/7 assault of bread and circuses to keep us entertained but disengaged. This "infotainment," as some have called it, is ubiquitous and quite effective. On the other hand we are given the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle message that if we resist we risk violence in a variety of forms, physical, psychological, cultural, political, economic, social or spiritual. Under such circumstances, not giving a damn can be an act of survival.

Whether we regard the Wade Michael Pages among us with fear, rage, sorrow or compassion, they will not be the ones who ultimately decide the fate of our nation. They are like dinosaurs raging at an oncoming asteroid. It will be the actions of every day men, women, and children that will either compell the American body politic to change its state or hasten its collision with the inevitable consequences of the color line. Abraham Joshua Heschel offers some sage advice in this regard:

Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation? Our concern must be expressed not symbollically, but literally; not only publicly, but also privately; not only occassionally, but regularly (emphasis in original).
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