During this past Black History month I have been pondering three primary issues related to American racism: How has it affected my own life? How has it affected the lives of African-Americans? And what does it mean to be anti-racist? (Are these also your issues? What would you add?)
In response to the first question, my process has involved consciousness raising, or being “woke” in current jargon. I have been challenged to try to be aware of my “privileges" such as being able to walk into a gas station and to use the bathroom without suspicion, or simply assuming I usually “belong” in most social situations. These “privileges,” I am aware, are not often available to many African-Americans. My growing awareness is an uncomfortable but also liberating process.
In terms of my personal understanding of racism's impact on African-Americans, I have found my most predominant defensive response has been to ask “Who knew?” I know I have justified or rationalized my ignorance about the depth and expanse of the impact of racism by the excuse that I never really got beyond my own personal limited opportunity to really go deep on the topic, especially with the candor and honesty I have discovered in my reading and discussions these past months.. Fair enough as far as my naiveté goes, perhaps. But the answer to “Who knew?”, of course, is that every African-American has known very personally what it is like to be surveilled in a store, to become the only “one” in a new group or class, to be subtly (or not so subtly) treated differently, often creating difficulties that have required carefully nuanced interpreted responses, which meant a person of color had better know well how to relate to a white counterpart.
And finally, what does it mean for me to be anti-racist? How am I to try to correct the interpersonal relationships and the structural systems that sustain our personal and cultural racism? To be honest, I am still in the very early stages of finding my way on this. But here’s my current attempt at an approach.
I was somewhat surprised to realize that the foundation for anti-racism was to establish a deeper sensitivity to racism as an “assumed" way of life, and to reevaluate my principles and values related to how that works in my faith and practice. My Quaker tradition puts a high value on equality and the premise that “there is God in all people (and creation)” which is a good basic orientation, but it doesn’t go far enough in relation to anti-racism. I recently have begun to read the writings of Howard Thurman, the African-American theologian who combined his understanding of the Gospel with the influences of Gandhi and Quakerism as the basis of his most famous book, Jesus and the Disinherited, first published in 1949. Thurman related to Jesus of Nazareth as a poor Palestinian Jew and a marginalized survivor of the Roman imperial occupation. Thurman makes the crucial point that because Jesus knew what it was to “have his back against the wall’ (one of his key phrases). Jesus' radical affirmation was that even the poorest and culturally forgotten outcast had a sacred worth not subject to the approval of the oppressors but only to God. By freeing oneself from responding to hatred not with more hatred but with inclusive love, he advocated for a whole new, ultimately disarming power we identify as nonviolence. His friendship and mentoring had a profound influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence that was so central to King’s civil rights ministry. (If you are not familiar with Howard Thurman I recommend reading Jesus and the Disinherited or watching his inspirational PBS biography at https://www.pbs.org/video/backs-against-the-wall-the-howard-thurman-story-cgv9gi/
The importance of Thurman’s teaching for me is that it actually forces a whole new level of the impact of the Gospel on my thinking and my ethics. If I am to take seriously the life and teaching of Jesus, I must accept how radical it is, how the Gospel has particular meaning to those subjected to various forms of "racism” and power-over imposed on the poor and marginalized. Anti-racism, then, begins with the offer of liberation from subjugation as one accepts the recognition of one’s inherent worth before God. In short, the Christian faith, if it truly means something to me and others, involves a faithful commitment to affirming the love and recognition of personal worth as a means of engaging in anti-racism as modeled by Jesus and interpreted and taught by Thurman and King among many others.
And besides a spiritual grounding anti-racism must also include the reckoning and dismantling of the structures of racism with an attention to amends, and I am working on two fronts to do that.
First, I have currently been supporting legislature in Washington that would restore voting rights for those with felony convictions who are no longer incarcerated (and I also intend to keep working for the enfranchisement of those still incarcerated.) As I have written previously, voter suppression of those with felony convictions has been one of most consistent means of control of African-Americans since Reconstruction until the present. I consider restoration of voting rights as reparation for the stolen political agency of democratic engagement for African-Americans over all these years. It will be a powerful act of anti-racism when the various forms of voter suppression, especially of African-Americans, is no longer possible under law.
And I am just beginning to understand the possibilities of economic reparations as an act of anti-racism. I am humbled always to learn how hypocritically Quakers benefited from chattel slavery in the U.S,. and especially in the Caribbean. Recently the leadership of Brown University commissioned a study of the accumulated wealth from these enterprises among Friends, and included, of course, the far greater extension of the economic development on the backs of slavery supported in both the South and North economic systems. And beyond the shameful legacy of economic exploitation, there are the historical psychological, sociological, and cultural damages created beyond quantitative economics. From the framework of “truth and reconciliation” reparation (or sometimes called “retrospective justice’) would include 1) a process of public acknowledgement of the offense; 2) a commitment to ongoing truth-telling about the impact of chattel slavery; and 3) making amends of material substance in addition to expressions of regret and responsibility. A Marshall Plan approach has been suggested with the goal of providing funds for development initiatives. Perhaps we could use a similar process we have just past to fund the current $1.9 trillion Covid economic package! We are no where close to even envisioning a reparation plan, but if and when we do, this will be a serious anti-racism program. (For more information on my overview, see Harold Weaver, Jr.’s “A Proposed Plan of Retrospective Justice” in the January edition of the Friends Journal https://www.friendsjournal.org/a-proposed-plan-for-retrospective-justice/)
In conclusion the “original sin” of racism in America cries out for - demands! - a “truth and reconciliation” reckoning. I think we all know that. As we stumble along through the pandemic, climate change and the other systemic issues that compel our attention, comprehensive programs of anti-racism must eventually be dealt with. In the meantime, we all need to pay attention and be "woke."