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Unintended Racism

August 8, 2016

Last week I was a guest speaker at a Mennonite retreat center. One day, while eating lunch, I heard a white man say, with a smile on his face, “When there’s a call for police in a white neighborhood, the police rush to get there; when there’s a call for police in a black neighborhood, the police take their time and flip a coin.” The man thought this was amusing and deserving. A little later in the week a white man asked me with concern in his voice, “You live in Richmond? Isn’t that a black city?” And on my final day at the retreat center, when I suggested that the biggest challenge facing the white church in the United States is race relations, I was bombarded by white men protesting that it’s up to blacks to get their act together, assimilate to white culture, and stop being violent.

None of these white men thought they were expressing racism. They all considered themselves good Christians. They all thought they treated all people the same. They were perfectly happy with me telling them that God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves; but when it came to talking about relations between blacks and whites, all they could think about was what was wrong with blacks.

Racism is more than just hatred or verbal abuse toward a racial group. Racism lives also in our assumptions, our stereotypes, our racial-cultural supremacy, and our blindness to our privileges. Racism is treating black communities as a threat and as less important. Racism is blaming the oppressed and the disadvantaged for their own problems. Racism is being ignorant of the cultural and historical forces that have created and help perpetuate the current situation. Racism is insulating ourselves from other races out of discomfort and fear. Racism is being offended when someone seeks to affirm that “black lives matter.”

Do African-American young men commit violent crimes at a significantly higher rate than Anglo-American young men? Yes. Is that a problem that needs to be understood and corrected? Of course. But it is morally wrong–and it exacerbates the problem–when whites then hold in their minds a negative stereotype of young black men. No one should be treated as a stereotype (whether the stereotype is positive or negative). Each person has their own unique personality, character, and potential. Each person should be held up with the same value. People tend to be shaped by our expectations of them. When we believe in people and encourage them, they tend to succeed. When we denigrate and distrust people, they tend not to succeed.

White Americans commit significantly more violent crimes than white Swedes. Should Swedes then fear white Americans? Should they avoid living near them or letting their kids go to school with them? Should they laugh at the idea of police flipping a coin to decide who should respond to white American crime? Should they have fear in their voice when they ask if someone lives in a white American city? Should they insist that white Americans get their act together and start acting like Swedes before we talk about the problem of American-Swedish relations? Treating individuals or groups based on stereotypes and statistics is flat-out wrong.

It seems to me the problems faced by the African-American community are mostly that–community problems, not individual problems. And minority-community problems are affected by dynamics with the larger community that holds economic and political and cultural power. When that larger community denigrates the minority community and under-funds its schools and needed social services, the stigmatized community gets stuck in perpetual negative cycles.

But regardless of what we think are the underlying problems in poor communities or communities that experience higher crime rates, we still need to value those communities and all the people in them. We need to give them equal value with our own communities.

When I was twenty-five I discovered that I was racist. Someone told me about a woman who was stabbed to death as she stood in line at a restaurant. I was shocked and horrified. Then the person told me that this happened in a black neighborhood and that the woman was black. My internal level of shock and horror lessened. I suddenly realized black lives didn’t matter as much to me–and I was ashamed.

Since then I’ve concluded that we’re all racist–white, black, Latino, Asian, etc. We all operate from stereotypes, and we all tend to hold different levels of value for different racial groups. I think the first step toward racial healing is to see our racism and admit it. The next step is to listen carefully to those who have less power and influence–they have more to reveal to us than we have to reveal to them. And finally, we must recognize that racism is most dangerous and undermining of progress when it is unrecognized by the group that has most of the power.


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