Staff & Sling

Joseph E. Hébert, Ph.D.

98119 N 3745 Rd
Okemah, OK  74859
918 623 3078

The True Nature of Racism

Sunday the 11th of February, 2007, is recognized as Racial Reconciliation Sunday by the Southern Baptist Convention. No, I do not hold great hope that much reconciling will be accomplished. Oh, to be sure we put on a good show from time to time. Most Americans recognize and readily admit that there is a problem, an ongoing racial tension in our society. But for all of our grand discourse on the subject no solution is ever forthcoming. There continues to this day a schism between black and white in our nation, and even worse in our church.

So why, if we all recognize that there is a problem, and if we all admit that there is a problem, do all of our conversations on race relations inevitably reduce to no more than so much sound and fury? Why does the problem persist? It persists for a couple of insidiously synergetic reasons.

First, this problem persists because no one will speak of the matter directly. No one will speak out for fear of other's perceptions. I won't pretend to speak for black people, but from what I've observed most black people, a vast and silent majority of black people at least, seem worried that they will be thought overly sensitive by white people at the first perceived criticism. And white people won't speak on the matter for fear of being labeled racist at the first misspoken word. And the principle consequence of this is that the problem continues unexamined, and thereby unimpeded.

And therein is the second reason that this problem persists. Because it remains unexamined, the problem remains unidentified. And so this is my aim, to identify the root problem that we must all confront if we are ever to live up to that great Christian creed, " thy neighbor as thyself," (Matthew 22: 39; Mark 12: 31; Luke 10: 27; Romans 13: 9; Galatians 5: 14; James 2: 8). No doubt many who read this will think less of me for it. And if so, then sobeit. I for one will not be party to subverting the Law of God, my Christian duty, to the fear of what others might think. If I am thought poorly of, at least it will be because I dared to speak the truth in love.

To begin with we err when we treat the word "racism" as though it was interchangeable with the words "prejudice," "discrimination" and "bigotry." It is not. Though bigotry, discrimination and prejudice can be racially motivated, they are not always so. And while I can not think of an example wherein bigotry is not bad, I can think of examples wherein prejudice is at least benign. Moreover, in many cases discrimination can actually be an admirable quality.

But when motivated by racism each of these things become particularly repugnant. So let's not get distracted with tangential obfuscations about bigotry, prejudice and discrimination. Let's instead go straight to the heart of the matter and consider racism. Let's deliberate its true nature, and we will find that the problems we all recognize as want for solution are not so intractable after all.

In years long past I have seen racism first hand. I have observed the true nature of racism empirically, with my own eyes and from both sides, and so today I can share a rare if not unique perspective of the matter. But take care not to misinterpret my words. I do not mean that I have experienced racism from both sides, which is to say that I've both behaved like a racist and been victimized by racist behavior. Okay, the truth is that I have experienced racism, from both sides, but that is not germane today. There is nothing rare or unique about experiencing racism. Most people have experienced racism, from both sides, despite the many who adamantly cling to denial. And yet, for all of that collective experience, none seem any closer to offering a solution.

So again, I am saying that because I have observed racism, not because I have experienced racism, that I now understand something of its nature. I now have an insight to share. And hopefully in the sharing we can all come one step closer to healing our national wounds.

I grew up in a thoroughly segregated Lake Charles, Louisiana. The city was divided into two parts. There was the part south of Broad St where (For the most part) white people lived. Then there was the part north of Broad St where (for the most part) black people lived. The city's segregation was perhaps most vividly manifest at the North Beach on Lake Charles (the actual lake, not the city). The west part was a nice sandy beach, much like one would expect a beach to look, and was where only white people were allowed. The eastern end of the "beach" was grassy, looking more like an unkempt lawn than a beach, and was where the black people were relegated.

Now I want to make something clear. My parents taught me that black and white people were no different in God's eyes, only in each others'. My parents taught me that God loves black people just as much as white, and that He died to save black people just as much as white. They taught me that it was a sin to hate black people because we are supposed to love everybody. But they also taught me that the reality of life was that people, both black and white, kept to themselves because that's the way it was. And terrible as it was, whether it was done willingly or through the coercion of peers, it was nonetheless true.

So it should come as no surprise that when I was a child all black people really did look alike to me. I know it's terrible, but as before it is nonetheless true. Oh, I could tell black boys from black girls and black men from black women. But as a boy I could not tell one black boy from any other.

When I was in the first through fourth grades I went to Eastwood Elementary School. Most of the kids were white, but there were about six to ten black children among the student body. And no, I could not tell them apart, except of course to the extent that I could tell the boys from the girls.

When I started the third grade I was assigned to Mrs. Rhames' class. Now it happened that year that one of the little black girls was also assigned to the same class. I will always remember the day when I went out for recess, saw three of the little black girls standing over on the side of the playground, and for the first time I recognized one of them. Her name was Maime Brown and it was the very first time in my life that I saw a black person, any black person, and could recognize them as an individual. She was standing with two other little black girls, but they were just two little black girls. I couldn't tell them apart. She, on the other hand, was Maime Brown! She was one of my classmates from Mrs. Rhames' room! She was one of the little black girls and I recognized her and knew who she was!

That was a seminal moment in my life. I don't remember whether it was a few days or a few weeks into the school year when this happened, but I do remember, and will always remember, the event vividly. It was an epiphany. Neither do I have any memories of similar events with other black people. I do know that on that day Maime Brown was the only black person in existence that I could recognize, that I could distinguish from other black people. And I know that by the end of the fourth grade I could recognize black people as readily as white people. Moreover, I can't honestly say that I remember what it's like not to be able to distinguish people, but I do remember that it was more than just not knowing who they were. I could always tell white people apart, even if I didn't know them. By the end of the fourth grade the same was true of black people, and it all began, that day in the third grade, with Maime Brown.

Then I started the fifth grade. I was transferred to Riverside Elementary School. Now there were only about 10 or 12 white students, and a few hundred black. Yes, I was tormented, but no worse, I suspect, than the black students had been at Eastwood. I had never participated in picking on the black students, but others did. More importantly I never tried to befriend any of the black students. Similarly, most of the black students at Riverside didn't participate in picking on me. But none of them really tried to befriend me either.

It wasn't until I got to the seventh grade that I made what I would call actual friends. They were Ted Nelson and Michael Palmer. We became friends because we were in the band together. Michael and I played trumpet and Ted played drums. We formed a combo and played the theme song from Hawaii 5-0 in a talent show. We didn't really continue as friends, mainly because they were good students and I was more a delinquent. But we did all continue in the band when we went on to Marion High School. And yes, I was the only white student in the band. But alas, I didn't finish high school. I dropped out in the tenth grade (because I was going to fail the tenth grade) and got a GED instead.

And, being sixteen years old and knowing all there was to know, I went on to college at McNeese State University, never once even considering the possibility that if I couldn't handle tenth grade I might not be able to handle college either. I couldn't. I only completed about 6 hours (out of 12) in my first semester, and I dropped out altogether two weeks into my second semester. But while there I had the second of my racial epiphany moments.

I was sitting in the Ranch, the student union building, when a guy I knew from high school came in. We saw each other and waved. As he made his way over to my table, I saw him against the background of that sea of white students and I realized, for the first time in a long time, that he was black. Now I don't mean that I didn't know he was black all along. Of course I did. But I had lost all consciousness of him being black. I wish I could remember his name, but the truth is that he and I weren't particularly friends. We were more of acquaintances. Still, I had completely lost sight of the fact that he was black, until that moment when I saw him in a crowd of white people.

It was the diametric moment to that day in third grade. I had gone from being incapable of distinguishing one black person from another to a point of being totally and completely oblivious to race. This is what I mean when I say that I have observed, as opposed to experienced, racism from both sides.

And this is the fundamental truth of the nature of racism. It is rooted in perception. It is the manifestation of the tendency of all creatures to group together with like creatures. When we observe this behavior in nature we describe it with the adage, "Birds of a feather flock together." Recall that while in school, it was only after three of us found that we shared something more important than race in common, namely music, that we became friends. For us, for a time at least, playing music became our defining characteristic.

When I worked at the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory, I observed the same behavior in the cafeteria. There people divided themselves according to job description, or education level, or by work group, not by race. Scientists and physicists and engineers tended to group together, as did administrative, clerical and technical support people. And the groups were small enough that race simply didn't matter.

Similarly, in corporate cafeterias and student unions the world over, office workers and executives, students and faculty, they all tend to group themselves according to job, to department, to major subjects, to more important commonalities than race. Business majors sit with business majors. Now when the groups become too large they will fragment into smaller groups, along increasingly subtle lines of distinction. At the SSC Laboratory, scientists and physicists subdivided into theoretical and experimental groups. Music majors will subdivide into woodwinds and percussion. And yes, eventually even these groups, if they grow sufficiently large, will begin to fragment along racial lines, but only once the people in the group perceive race to be the most significant remaining line of distinction.

The fact is that people, all people, as do all created beings, tend to associate themselves with others that they perceive to be most like themselves. The question is fundamentally one of how people perceive themselves, and others around them. And if one knows nothing else about another person, if one has no other basis for making a distinction within their group, race has been, and remains still, a socially sanctioned and readily obvious distinguishing characteristic. Unfortunately, it is very much a distinction without any real difference, save that which is imposed by society, by the tyranny of peer pressure.

On the other hand, I can tell you from experience that if we look past race, it can and will vanish from our perception. But I can also tell you that it won't happen until and unless we so choose. It will take a conscious effort on all of our parts, but it can happen. Perhaps that means that white people will have to consciously remind themselves that just maybe black people are not overreacting to being singled out for slower service in a store or restaurant, or maybe if they are it's because they've been conditioned by years of such treatment. Perhaps that means that black people will have to consciously remind themselves that not every perceived insult is an insult at all, and that sometimes a misspoken word is just a misspoken word. Perhaps it means that we will all have to do a lot of understanding and forgiving. But then again, is there any relationship wherein that is not true? I know this. If we make those choices, our friends and neighbors will no longer be black and white. They will just be our friends and neighbors.

And finally what of us, the Church, the Bride of Christ? What about Christians? We too divide ourselves. We divide first along theological lines, some significant and some not, into various denominations. But we also still keep ourselves segregated along lines of race, and for us it is sin. There is one and only one characteristic, of any import, that we share, namely that we were forgiven our sins and cleansed by the blood of the Lamb.

Why then is it sin for us to divide along racial lines? Because to be a respecter of persons is sin (James 2: 9). Because we are our brothers' keepers. Because racism unimpeded is as invidious as it is insidious, and we are not to be a stumbling block (Matthew 18: 6; Mark 9: 42; Luke 17: 2). Because we can not love our neighbors as ourselves if we segregate ourselves from them. And now that I've answered your question, you answer mine. Why are you still asking Jesus who is, and who is not, your neighbor (Luke 10: 25 - 37)?

Matthew 22:
35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, 
36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 
38 This is the first and great commandment. 
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Mark 12:
28 And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? 
29 And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: 
30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. 
31 And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. 
32 And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he: 
33 And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. 
34 And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question.

Luke 10:
25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? 
26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? 
27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. 
28 And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. 
29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour? 
30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. 
31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 
32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. 
33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, 
34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 
35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. 
36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? 
37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

Romans 13:
9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 
10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Galatians 5: 14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

James 2:
8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: 
9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.

Matthew 18: 6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Mark 9: 42 And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.

Luke 17: 2 It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.