A Condition Not an Accusation

“Racist” is a word we are hearing a great deal these days: the cops are racist, Confederate monuments are racist, the President is racist, our country was built on racist principles. Moreover, white people are being challenged by Black, Indigenous, People Color (BOIPOC)  to deal with their white supremacy and racism.  Most of the time when the word “racist” is used, it comes off as an accusation, the declaration of a moral and ethical flaw from which one must repent and change. When used as an accusation, the word “racist” sends a sharp wave of guilt, shame, and anger through many a white person’s heart. No one wants to be called a racist and will do whatever it takes to deflect such an accusation.

But what if instead of regarding racism an accusation, we looked at it as a description of our condition as Americans, particularly white Americans. While there are some groups who are vehemently and proudly opposed to the demands and needs of BIPOC, most white people I know are just trying to live their lives, and while they may not have significant contact or personal relationships with black, brown, indigenous or Asian folks, they also don’t go around shouting racial expletives. Yet they are racist. It is their condition. It is our condition as white people in American society.

Recovering From Racism

This is why whenever I am asked to speak on the topic of whites and racism, I always begin by acknowledging that I am a “recovering racist.” I name the condition of the society that shaped me, and like a recovering addict, I seek every day to unlearn racist ways of thinking and acting and relearn ways of thinking and acting that are more just, inclusive, and open. Like a recovering addict, I realize dealing with the racism in my life and in the world around me is a lifelong endeavor, something I must continually address and work on. Let me explain why.

Racism is not just some derogatory words or actions passed between people, it is a system of laws, policies, practices, and beliefs that have infused the American ethos from the very beginning. Racism is a guiding force in the way our society grew and designed itself. It is the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the way we have been socialized to live. It is something built in our system that must be reversed and undone.

Rev. Dr. William Sloan Coffin America’s Original Sin

Sojourner’s Jim Wallis has made famous what the late Rev. William Sloan Coffin, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, once said: “Racism is America’s Original Sin.” From the moment the European settlers landed in Jamestown and Puritans at Plymouth Bay, they encountered indigenous peoples who they diminished and nearly extinguished by guile, war, and disease. Then in 1619 some black slaves were rescued from a Dutch ship, thus initiating chattel slavery through mass capture and importing of men and women from the western coast of Africa. Slavery was written into local laws, and even the U.S. Constitution, such that the indigenous people were regarded simply as “savages” and the Africans 3/5 of a person.

The economy of the South was enriched by the slave-harvested cotton which was then shipped to the knitting Mills of the North. The early years of America’s economic growth grew on the labor of the African slaves and the land dispossession of the native peoples. Even a Civil War, which led to the legal citizenship of Black men, did not stop the degradation of Black people as Jim Crow practices, sundown laws, tenant farming, convict leasing, lynching, redlining, and segregation were practiced well into the 20th century. Similar practices were used against immigrants from China, Japan, Mexico, and elsewhere, thus regarding anyone not considered “white” to be less than fully endowed with the full rights of American citizenship. And while less overt, such discriminatory practices have been documented up until the present.

Through it all, the United States became the economic and political power it now is in the world, often using the free or cheap labor of those not considered “White”. As we are now being reminded, some of our national heroes, such as Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Teddy Roosevelt were avowed and active purveyors of racist practices. Many of the great banks and corporations got their start in the era of slavery and Jim Crow, amassing capital at the expense of BIPOC. Thus when Rev. Coffin said, “Racism is America’s Original Sin… this is what he meant. We would not be who we are as a  nation and as white people, were it not for racism.

Made Clear During the Pandemic

Racism is built into our systems and institutions. The current pandemic has highlighted the inequities in criminal justice, health care, educations, income, and employment in our society. While not solely racially divided, those most affected negatively are disproportionately BIPOC. And then when George Floyd was killed, black people in particular and their allies, rose up to say “Enough!”  As a group, black and brown people had suffered injustice and death disproportionately at the hands of the police. Anyone who has studied America’s history of racism, or paid close attention to current events is not surprised by the marches, the protests, and calls for change. Racist is our condition as people. Racist is history. Racist is our foundation.

Let me give one example. For the past eight years, I have been involved in an effort to compel the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to change the racially biased way they distribute funds for public education. Our group – POWER-  have been able to show that the greater the percentage of students of BIPOC origins in a school system, the less money per student that school district will receive from the State. The legislature has even passed a formula designed to rectify that inequity but chooses to only run a fraction of their education budget through the formula THEY adopted. Now I am guessing most of the legislators are decent, law-abiding citizens who believe in fair play, but they have created a system that is racially discriminatory when it comes to education. This is not an accusation, this is a fact they will readily admit and make excuses for. Racist is their condition.

Facing Our Condition

 About five years ago a doctor told me that my blood pressure and cholesterol were too high, and I had to either lose weight or go on medication. She laid out in clear and certain terms  my physical condition. I had to respond, and I did. I lost weight, changed my diet, and reversed the factors threatening my health.

 It is much the same with us as white people.

Many BIPOC are calling for we who are white to deal with the racism in our lives, in our communities, in our institutions, in our society. They are willing to help us, in fact, they are more than eager. BUT …. We must admit our condition. We must come to terms that we live in a racially discriminatory society that has given whites privileges and access to opportunities and resources denied to many BIPOC. That doesn’t deny our hard work, it just says the system is rigged in our favor. Can we deal with that? Can we face the reality that our system, our society has been racist for 400+ years and still is today?

Racist is not an accusation. It is our condition. Are we willing to face it? Are we willing to change?