Is Racism America’s Original Sin?

It has been over a year since I contributed to Secular Outpost. Multiple responsibilities and distractions took me away. I would like to return to SO with a post that is somewhat tangential to our usual discussion topics here, but the issue is so important that I think we need to discuss it whenever we can:

I am an old white man. What can I say about racism? Whatever I say, I am sure it will not be enough, since I have not experienced the daily reality of marginalization and humiliation in overt and subtle ways. Nevertheless, each of us must try to gain what wisdom and insight we can. Racism is a toxin that poisons every aspect of society. Nothing that we do is left untouched and undistorted by racism. Every institution, public and private, is affected by it. If I may speak in a theological vein, racism is the original sin of America that was with us in the beginning and in every succeeding generation has done its insidious work to prevent the realization of liberty and justice for all. Law, politics, business, medicine, religion, education, and even our leisure activities are skewed by racism. Unlike Augustine’s concept of original sin, racism is not passed on biologically. Small children seem to be immune to it. Yet the pervasiveness and intractability of racism is such that we may say, speaking metaphorically, that it is stamped into the cultural DNA of American society.

But haven’t things improved? Have we not made steps in the right direction? Surely we have. I am old enough to remember travelling by car across the South from Atlanta to Houston in the early sixties. The trip took us through some of the more paleolithic areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, where service stations still had separate “colored” restrooms and restaurants defiantly posted “whites only” signs.

In Atlanta, the city that prided itself in being “too busy to hate,” restaurateur (and future governor of Georgia) Lester Maddox brandished ax handles to chase black people out of his establishment. Governor George Wallace stood in the door at the University of Alabama to deny entrance to black students. In Neshoba County, Mississippi, three civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan with the connivance of local “law enforcement.” In Birmingham, the Klan blew up a black church, murdering four young girls. Surely, we must think, we have come a long, long ways since those terrible days.

Then George Floyd was lynched. Who needs the Klan when cops can casually murder a helpless black man in a major city in broad daylight and obviously expect no punishment? And Floyd was just the latest in a long, disgraceful series of such incidents by the very officers appointed to “serve and protect” us. And the perpetrators nearly always have walked free, many not even being fired by their departments. Small wonder Floyd’s murderers arrogantly expected impunity. When it comes to race, America is like the hamster on its exercise wheel; we run and run and get nowhere.

So, what, if anything, can old white people like me do to improve the situation? Well, obviously we can tolerate no racism on the part of our public officials. Learn to recognize all the code words and dog whistles for racism, and be aggressively intolerant of those that use them. When you hear a politician calling for “law and order,” remember the history of that phrase. It is a classic dog whistle. That locution became popular during the Nixon years in response to the perceived threat of black crime and violence. Politicians who touted themselves as “law ‘n’ order” candidates were reassuring white voters that they were all for cracking black heads.

Call out racists when they try to claim the moral high ground. When someone responds to the slogan “Black Lives Matter” by piously intoning that ALL lives matter, don’t let them get away with it. People who say that are really just hypocritically invoking a moral platitude to disguise their refusal to admit that black lives really are valued less.

And in America today black lives really are valued less. Face that fact. Consider environmental racism. When a dirty, polluting plant, like a cement mixing facility is being located somewhere in town, guess whose neighborhood is chosen. I live in Friendswood, TX, a well-off, predominately white neighborhood. No mixing plants near me. The shocking fact is that zip code is one of the most reliable predictors of life expectancy in the Houston area. Not only do black and brown people have to live with pollution, they often are in food deserts, where the nearest grocery stores with healthy foods are many miles away. The shockingly greater mortality of the COVID-19 pandemic in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods is indicative of the underlying poorer health of residents and their greater difficulty in getting access to quality healthcare. Also, higher paid workers have largely been able to telecommute, but those in “frontline” jobs like postal or home healthcare workers, have no choice but to work in environments with a higher risk of exposure.

What about confronting your own racism? Touchy subject. Many of us, myself included, would be seriously offended if called a racist. In fact, I would consider it a defamation of my character. In my classes I make every effort to make everyone feel comfortable and included. I have gotten extremely positive feedback from students of all races and ethnicities. Many have taken multiple classes from me, and quite a few have earned outstanding grades. I am proud to have known these students and to have made a positive impact on their lives.

Still, to be perfectly honest—and we all have to be perfectly honest if we are going to make any progress—it would be a miracle if I, a white man in a society that devalues nonwhite lives, had never unconsciously absorbed any racist assumptions or attitudes. What do I do about it? Do I monitor my thoughts constantly and obsessively review everything I say to see if there is any tincture of prejudice? Do I engage in rigorous self-censorship, repressing any thought that might betray bias? Do I repent in sackcloth and ashes or wear a hair shirt? That sounds like the way to make yourself a neurotic, not a better person.

I think that the way to confront your own racism is to treat it like you would any other irrational thought or impulse. First, you have to notice it. Do you get angrier when a black person is rude to you than when a white person is? Do you expect more deference from people of color? Do you unthinkingly expect a black or brown professional to be less competent than a white one? When you hear about a holdup on the local news, do you automatically assume that the criminal was black? It is hard not to. Every time you watch local news, you are likely to see at least one video of young black men committing a robbery or break in. It is easy to think of crime as having a black face, but we forget that the overwhelming majority of white collar criminals are white. Bernie Madoff, the Wells Fargo crooks, and the Enron con artists stole more than armies of street criminals.

When I see security camera footage of a black teenager pistol whipping a convenience store clerk, it makes me mad. And it should. But you should be much angrier when the criminal is a wealthy white man who went to an elite university and occupies the executive suite of a large corporation and has bilked innocent people out of their life savings or retirements. Remember that a great deal of the really rotten stuff in the world is done by rich white people. Rich white people pollute your air and water, corrupt Congress with bribes and legions of lobbyists, gouge you for your insulin, bribe officials at top universities to admit their dimwit children, exploit dodges and loopholes to shift the tax burden onto you, bust unions, create monopolies, slap harassing lawsuits on ordinary people who have the temerity to stand up to them, and—should they (mirabile dictu!) ever actually be charged with a crime—are insulated from punishment by a phalanx of lawyers.

So, if racist thoughts or feelings bubble up into consciousness, or you find yourself making racist assumptions, confront them with reason, not guilt. For me it helps to remind myself that nearly everyone who has caused me any problem in life was white.

It also helps to have friends, not just casual acquaintances, but genuine friends who are not white. For many years, until his untimely death at the age of 56, one of my closest friends was a black man who was the son of a single mom who raised him and his brothers in a tough Philadelphia neighborhood. Gerry was an amazing human being. I thought that I knew something about the history of the Second World War, priding myself on having read a few dozen books. Gerry had read ten to every one that I had read. Add to that his exhaustive knowledge of cinema and classical music. You could ask Gerry about the best performance of any piece in the classical repertoire, and he would name the conductor and orchestra. I followed his advice many times in my music selections, and was never guided wrong. But Gerry also knew how to enjoy good food, good company, and a big laugh. Gerry had the greatest laugh of anyone I have known; it was an unrestrained eruption of pure mirth. God, I miss him.

OK, well those are my thoughts for now. I am sure that they are not profound: Do not tolerate racism in yourself or others. Confront irrationality with truth and reason. Have friends, real friends, who are people of color. Let me add that when black or brown people talk to you, listen to what they are saying. Really listen, even if what they are saying rubs you the wrong way. Especially if it rubs you the wrong way. They may be wrong. Just because someone is black does not mean that they can’t be talking nonsense. On the other hand, maybe they are saying something that you need to hear.

I am old. Racism is not going away in my lifetime. Probably not in yours, but as Voltaire said at the end of Candide, we must all tend our gardens. We must make the difference we can make.