NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Depending on one’s perspective, racism has been nearly put to death by years of legislative and judicial assault coupled with an enlightened populace, or it remains lurking about undeterred by well-meaning attempts to get at its roots.
A USA Today poll last year asked blacks and whites if black Americans were treated less fairly than whites in several common venues. Of the blacks polled, 45 percent said there was not equitable treatment in the workplace; only 14 percent of whites said blacks were not treated fairly on the job. Regarding shopping, 46 percent of the black Americans polled said their race was not treated fairly in stores downtown or at the mall; only 19 percent of whites indicated blacks were treated less fairly.
In every case — on public transportation, in restaurants and by the police — white respondents suggested blacks were treated more fairly than blacks said they actually were.
It is no surprise, then, that the same poll found 66 percent of whites calling for the elimination, reduction or freezing of affirmative action programs, while 88 percent of the blacks polled said the programs should be maintained “as is” or increased.
While race relations on the surface may have improved over the past 40 years, black Americans continue to express serious frustrations with the fences that remain in place blocking them from gaining an equal footing.
Racism is “no longer what we were once accustomed to — the derogative racial remarks that were spit in people’s faces,” says Derric Morrison, African American pastor of Mt. Sinai Baptist Church in Tupelo, Miss. “Now it is hidden with varying agendas among different groups.”
Most acts of everyday racism are “unconscious, unintentional and not malicious,” writes Garlinda Burton in her book, “Never Say Nigger Again!”
Beyond individual racist residue, she writes, “it is cloistered in the walls of churches, nailed into the beams of corporate America, tucked between the pages of academic texts, and written in invisible ink just above the bottom line of municipal, county, state, and federal budgets.”
This is not, for the most part, racist behavior predicated on the belief that whites are superior to other races. Modern racism, according to George Yancey, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, instead claims racial discrimination is a thing of the past, that skin color is no longer an impediment to economic or social advancement and that “racial minorities can compete in the marketplace as well as whites,” Yancey writes in “Beyond Black and White: Reflections on Racial Reconciliation.”
From this reasoning, it follows that any remedies to aid people of color are unnecessary and, in fact, unfair because these groups are achieving advantages as a “special interest group.” Modern racists may well respect people of color as individuals but are distrustful of minorities as a group, Yancey notes.
Citing wage and employment statistics that the economic position of black Americans has not improved relative to white Americans in the past 40 years, Yancey notes the modern racist perception does not match reality.
In some ways the state of race relations is worse than it was 30 years ago, Raymond Winbush suggests, noting reports of hate crimes against people of color on the upswing. Winbush is director of the Race Relations Institute at historic Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.
“Racism is more subtle than it was 30 years ago,” Winbush says. “You don’t see ‘colored’ and ‘white’ signs on water fountains, but you do have the Texaco tapes of corporate America” reflecting racist attitudes among its executives. It remains a sin that “kills people; it saps life from people,” Winbush says.
“The discrimination of our history did not go away just because we passed Civil Rights laws,” Yancey writes. “Rather, it seems plausible that racism has been institutionalized into our society in mechanisms that are not inherently racist but that operate in such a way as to maintain the advantage that whites have over racial minorities.” This “institutional discrimination” goes beyond personal prejudices, operating in subtle ways to help maintain society’s status quo, he writes.
“The more subtle forms of racism, what I call hidden racism in our culture, remain intact,” Winbush says. “So even though (golfer) Tiger Woods wins the Masters, he can still within a day or two be called by (golfer) Fuzzy Zoeller a racist name. And Tiger Woods still cannot play golf at 25 major country clubs in this country because they don’t allow blacks.”
The purging of this hidden racism must be an intentional process, Winbush insists, saying a good start is to begin talking to people of races other than one’s own. “One of the greatest examples of anti-racist behavior is found in the fourth chapter of the book of John when Jesus is with the woman at the well,” he continues.
Noting it was unlawful for a Jew to associate with a non-Jew, Winbush says Jesus’ behavior depicts color lines as unscriptural. “The diffusion of racism is the example that Christ gave us. He did not tolerate racism. He truly didn’t,” Winbush says. “Christ could have sat at the well and gotten his own water. Yet he wanted to do something to show her that he was not prejudiced against the Samaritans.”
Racism is not a skin problem, but a sin problem, writes Tony Evans, a Dallas-area pastor and popular author and speaker. “That’s actually good news, because that means the problem can be fixed. As long as we make racism a problem of skin, it will never be fixed,” Evans writes in “What a Way to Live! Running All of Life by the Kingdom Agenda.” When racism is seen as a “skin problem,” it is confounding how “three hundred years of slavery and court decisions and marches and the federal government” still haven’t fixed the problem, he explains.
“But once you admit that racism is a sin problem, you are obligated as a believer to deal with it right away,” Evans continues. “As long as the issue of race is social and not spiritual, it will never be dealt with in any ultimate sense.”
The roots of modern racism are no different than the yesteryear’s “Bull Connor” racism, Morrison explains. “We fail to realize all of this is about our adversary, the devil. The Bible points out it’s not a struggle of flesh and blood but against principalities and powers of darkness.”
Until believers acknowledge the spiritual roots of racism, that racial tension is a tool of Satan to keep people divided, Morrison says, “We will forever remain defeated.
“Reconciliation is what God’s children ought to be about,” Morrison continues. Salvation is man reconciled to God, which should prompt reconciliation within humankind, he says.
“We don’t know each other, and you’re always afraid of the unknown,” says Laurie Lawson, a professor of social work at Mississippi College in Clinton. Of the race-based fears that divide us, she says, “It’s what people have told you or told me about a certain person, about their characteristics. There is a lot of fear. It’s ignorance; it’s lack of knowledge — an unwillingness to get to know each other. …. Where there is lack of knowledge there are a lot of assumptions made, and we build on these assumptions. It’s been done for hundreds of years.”
Whites must begin “checking” one another on their subtle racist comments and behavior, Winbush suggests. Gary Frost, pastor of Rising Star Baptist Church in Youngstown, Ohio, and a past second vice president of the SBC, says whites must “intentionally reach out across the racial lines and establish friendships.”
Americans must be cognizant of cultural differences which will not be bridged but should be respected when crossing color lines, Frost says.
“We have to co-labor,” he says. “Too often African Americans have been the recipients of ministry and not co-laborers in ministry. If the black community is only seen as just a mission field, that is not going to work, but if it is seen as an opportunity for those outside the black community to work with the black community, to co-labor in fulfilling the Great Commission, that’s where the strength is.”
Frost said “co-laboring” provides a fertile ground for reconciliation. “You can’t reconcile sitting around dialoguing, talking about it. Reconciliation happens while you are performing a common assignment.”
Adapted from the January-February issue of Light, bimonthly publication of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.