Monday, April 28, 2014

Racism = Prejudice PLUS Power

Decades ago, I heard Ben Chavis speak on race, racism and prejudice in America.  Back then Ben was the Executive Director of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice.  And he was speaking that day to a room full of earnest and privileged church activists.  His teaching has stayed with me in the years since; and I'm reminded of it every time there's a disturbing public outburst by someone like Donald Sterling or Marge Schott or Paula Dean.
LA Clippers Owner Donald Sterling
Ben insisted that there was a difference between prejudice and racism, that it was important and instructive to describe that difference.  Prejudice, he said, is the bigoted mindset that sets one kind above another: it's the mean-spirited Sterling growling about blacks in his stadium.  It's the unspoken and even unrecognized bias that leads me to pick the white doctor over the Latina doctor--even though both are qualified and equally beloved.  And it's the deep-seated fear that makes me walk a little faster when black teenagers are playing ball in the street.  Prejudice has a still nastier side too; it's the name-calling many of us learned as kids and the name-calling too many leaders perpetuate to this day.

Prejudice extends to other differences as well: we harbor prejudice, some of us, against women; or we look down upon people with disabilities and laugh at their hardships; or we cultivate a fearful bigotry around gay and lesbian neighbors and colleagues.  Prejudice comes in all these forms and more, a bigoted mindset that spills out in all kinds of ways.  It's our responsibility, Ben Chavis said back then, to be vigilant.

Racism, he said that day, is something even more pernicious and deadly.  Racism is prejudice PLUS power.  Racism gets at the systems of privilege that institutionalize oppression and bigotry.  Racism has to do with Donald Sterling--the landlord--working the system to perpetuate hideous living conditions for poor people, people of color and immigrants.  Because he can.  And because he can making a ton of money in the process.  Racism has to do with our courts' decision to roll back 'affirmative action' programs--and thereby make it harder for people of color to make a go of it in certain law schools and state schools and pre-professional schools.  Prejudice PLUS power.  Racism is the imposition of bigotry through unspoken tradition, legal maneuvering and institutional will. 

To recognize and describe this difference--the difference between prejudice in the human heart and racism in its institutional forms--is to provoke conversation about wealth, political power, education and whole host of other cultural realities.  We're all implicated in racism; and it's on all of us to dismantle the system.  The job's undone.
Jabbar in Time Magazine This Week
I think I agree with Kareem Abdul Jabbar when he says that "moral outrage is exhausting.  And dangerous."  Every so many months, someone like Donald Sterling says something stupid, something clearly awful and small and cruel.  And we all get to point and gawk and tell one another how unimaginably terrible it all is.  If Donald Sterling is a racist monster, if he's the poster child for racism in 2014, then I'm off the hook.  And all the other pundits making hay on this week's news.

But racism goes on.  And, as the saying goes, it takes a village.  Racism is a sinister network of white privilege, upper class dominance, cultural prejudice, religious bigotry and more.  Racism means we've grown comfortable with perpetual poverty in America.  And racism means we've always got more work to do, more acting out and acting up, more education and collaboration, more movements to organize.  As long as Congress, for example, is elected by the very rich and for the very rich, racism holds sway in our halls of political and economic power.  Racism is maintained by power.  And power doesn't relinquish its grip without some real effort on our part--on the people's part.

So I agree with Kareem (whom I saw in person, up close, at my first professional basketball game in the early 70s).  My dad and I sat on the floor that evening.  And Kareem cut a giant figure on the Garden parquet.  Skyhooks and simple slams.  Now he makes his point with words.  And he's got a lot to say:
"Let’s use this tawdry incident to remind ourselves of the old saying: 'Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.' Instead of being content to punish Sterling and go back to sleep, we need to be inspired to vigilantly seek out, expose, and eliminate racism at its first signs."

I'm struck tonight by Jabbar's warning about going "back to sleep."  So many of the world's religious traditions invite wakefulness as a spiritual practice.  I pray tonight for wakefulness and watchfulness, and for the courage to participate in the hard work that dismantles racism (and sexism, and heterosexism, all of it).  Let's stay awake together!  Let's dismantle the nightmare and build the dream--together!