Not many years ago, it was fashionable to say that racism was dead. “We live in a post-racial society now,” many people said, “And we don’t have to worry about that any longer.” Many white people, that is, said that. Non-whites knew perfectly well that racism has always been the disease at the core of our nation. The hurtful words were confined to private conversations and public dog-whistles of code didn’t fool anyone kept down and apart by racism.
With the rising voices of racism in the last year no one says that anymore. “At least,” in the words of Mike Yard, “We know who the racists are now.” The First Amendment does work. But for all the pain this open racism causes, are we any closer to getting past it? Only if openly acknowledging our racism is the first step towards healing.
Trinity United Church of Christ in Concord, North Carolina, has started working on this. They now hold a weekly “Racists Anonymous” meeting for those who are willing to confront their problem. They have outlined a 12 Step program, modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, where those who are willing to give themselves up to the Grace of God to get past the affliction which causes them to see their brothers and sisters as something less than them. It’s done without judgment in a “safe place.”
It’s certainly a novel approach, and it’s worth seeing whether it catches on. But it has its detractors. In a discussion with many friends online it left some of them cold, and not just for the obvious concerns about a room full of white people only talking about race. “Bigotry is a social disease,” my friend told me, “The only way you really can fully cease to be a bigot is in relationship since it is a relational disease.”
This is a good point, but I argued that racism springs from identity – as well as years of training and habit. We say that someone “is” a racist, not that they “make” racism or “have” racism, for a reason. It’s a state of being that defines a person as surely as they think they are better than someone else simply by accident of birth. How can we resolve this argument?
There are many paths to enlightenment. All must be open.
There is no doubt that the part of racism that springs from and is fueled by hate can only be overcome by love. A good example of this was presented to me in the same argument – a story of finding common ground and working beyond hate with empathy. But love always requires an open heart receptive to the message.
What we all agreed on is that there is only so much good that shaming and shouting can bring about.
The argument broke off as the hours got late, but I think there always has to be more. It all seems to come back to the good work of Trinity Church, which starts in an open heart is willing to lay itself bare with honesty. That moment probably does not come in isolation, nor can Racists Anonymous truly pronounce anyone “healed” in a closed whitewashed world. But it can be a part of the healing, as can many other things.
For example, I would love to convene a panel discussion on racism. The venue would be Comedy Central channel. The host would be Larry Wilmore, now that he has some time to fill, and the panelists would be Mike Yard, Jessica Williams, Gabriel Iglesias, Jeff Foxworthy, and so on. You get the idea. Who better to talk about racism than the comedians who have the tools that can help us all talk about it, free from self consciousness?
I have no idea just what or when might get someone past their upbringing, their identity, their hate, or just the indifference so that we can all get past the terrible disease of racism. My hunch is that everything counts, that everything we can do to work through it helps.
For those who know racism is wrong but still can’t bring themselves past it without a lot of help there should be more Racists Anonymous. It may not be the cure we need as a nation but if it can embolden one person to speak up, one person to reach out, one person to be better than the effort is worth it.
Sen. Bill Bradley famously said, “If you’ve never had a conversation with a person of another race about racism then you are part of the problem.” Before we get there, maybe we all have to have a conversation about race wherever we can.
The first step is admitting we have a problem. That may be hard for some people, so however we can make it happen is a good thing. Where we go from there is a matter of love and empathy, a heart opened up by the Grace of God or maybe just a really good joke. Whatever it takes – we need to try everything and keep all paths out of the darkness well lit.