Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Culture of Racism

-along a wilderness trail-

Over the past few days,"racism"  has once again raised its ugly head in the blatantly bigoted remarks about African Americans made by Donald Sterling, owner of the L.A. Clippers. Yesterday, when Sterling was punished for his remarks by being "banned for life from the NBA and fined 2.5 million dollars," howls of delight could be heard coming out of various sectors of the country (especially here in Southern California) - prejudice cannot be tolerated, justice has been done.

I was driving in my car and listening to the radio yesterday. An African American sociologist and cultural commentator was being interviewed. While he was grateful and even relieved that Donald Sterling had been justly punished, he also warned everyone not to be too smug about the incident.

He went on to say that it is way too easy to label Mr. Sterling as "the" bigot who has been punished and now justice has been accomplished. Then he said something that really caught my attention, "Most people (especially in the White majority) are simply unaware of their own racist attitudes simmering beneath the surface of life in America today." 

At first I took serious exception to what this guy was saying. When I look at myself I don't find a trace of racism in me. I had been the rector of one of the most diverse parishes in the country. Many of my close friends are people of color.  I wouldn't even think about using the kind of blatant, heinous, bigoted language Donald Sterling used in his rant about African Americans. 

And while I do not at all consider myself to be a racist,  as I drove along and listened to that interview yesterday, I was struck by a sudden flash of memory. 

Recently, my wife and I were doing some shopping at our local Costco.  As you leave this store you are required to present a receipt of your purchases to a "guard" standing at the door who verifies that you have, in fact, "paid for" all the stuff in your cart.

The other day at Costco, the person checking our receipts was an older white woman - very officious and looking very serious. When we arrived at her checkpoint she looked us over -  me and my wife (also older, White, seemingly professional types ).  Then without even looking at our receipt or even glancing at what we had in our cart, she smiled pleasantly and waived us by.

It was then that I noticed the young Mexican family behind us - a mom and a dad and their three kids.  The woman at the checkpoint wasn't waiving them through - not at all. She was carefully checking their receipt, item by item, and then examining everything in their cart to be sure that every single item was accounted for.  If she could,  she probably would have "patted them down" to be sure that they weren't stealing from the store.  It was embarrassing to say the least.

As I drove along yesterday,  listening to that program about racism simmering beneath the surface of the culture,  that flash of memory from Costco really hit me between the eyes.  Maybe the guy on the radio was right. No matter how clean and pure I may think of myself when it comes to racist attitudes, I  live in  a culture in which racism is still very prevalent, just not always so obvious.  As a privileged White male, I am likely often unaware of the bigotry that is constantly being perpetrated around me every day. I may even be unaware of my own racism simmering beneath the surface of my own attitudes.

So I guess I need to pay closer attention. 

The newest scientific evidence suggests that, in reality there is no such phenomenon as "differences in race." DNA studies suggest that  there is only "one" human race - no real DNA differences along racial lines among people anywhere. All the many and various racial categorizations are nothing more than human constructs - artificial labels that we use to divide ourselves from one another.

In my heart of hearts I truly do believe that we human beings are a complex web of inter-relationship. We are "inter being," all united by a universal energy of love flowing in and through us all. There are no different others.

And yet I also believe that we do live in a culture of racism and it's easy to get pulled down into it. The events of the past few days have made me more aware of the fact that I need to start paying closer attention to what may be simmering beneath the surface of my life.

The next time a Mexican couple is stopped by the store police and "frisked" because of the color of their skin, instead of just feeling bad for them, I plan to go up to the lady at the door and ask her why the same thing wasn't done to me when I went through the line.


  1. Perhaps anytime anyone is perceived as an "other", this is the opportunity for prejudice to take root. Because poverty disproportionately affects people of color in this country, the "other" can easily ignored as a race issue. It almost makes it too easy for us to whitewash the problem. Because "cultures" are different, we can insulate ourselves In our homogenous community and ignore our tendencies to exclude. Hence we are able to disguise to ourselves our potential to be racist.
    Sterling obviously views people as commodities to be used and exploited. He did not pay his employees. He "provided" for them; the benevolent Master. If they did not seem to be an exploitable market (African-Americans, Latinos) as a reliable revenue risk (the housing lawsuit), you get rid of the problem. If you view people and cultures as commodities, they become lumped together like wheat or corn.
    Racist actions are insidious. If one locks a car door because a black man is walking on the sidewalk and you are at a red light, that can be racist, especially if there are no other indicators to warrant such a precaution. As a salesperson or shop owner, if one hovers over a person of color while they are looking over merchandise but doesn't for the Caucasian, if there are no other indicators, that can be racist.
    We teach these things to our children be it by our actions or our words. Language is powerful. But words with out the corresponding active modeling are futile. As a society, are we saying the right words but failing to root them in fresh, clean soil?

    1. Thank you for this heartfelt and very insightful comment- totally agree.

  2. I always forget to indicate that it is I who write these things on occasion.