The “Myth” of Racism

“One promise of his victory is that perhaps we can put to rest the myth of racism as a barrier to achievement in this splendid country.”
This statement is from an editorial in the Wall Street Journal on November 5, 2008. It concerns me greatly because racism in our society is not a myth. Miriam-Websters Online Dictionary defines myth, “a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence.”
Even with the election and the progress we have made over the last fifty years since Brown v. Board of Education, racism is not a myth in American society. It is a reality. According to Pax Christi USA’s Anti Racism Team racism can be defined as “race prejudice + sanctioned misuse of institutional and/or systemic power.”
Racism deals with the way sociopolitical entities are structured. It does not take a rocket scientist to point out where racism occurs in the structures of our society. Let’s look at poverty. According to the census bureau, 37 million Americans live in poverty. A survey by the Campaign for Human Development says that the amount it takes for a family of four is almost double what the Census Bureau says. In addition to those in poverty we have a large number of working poor. The number of working poor rose 4.7 million to 29.4 million from 2006 to 2006. ( One out of every five Americans lives in poverty in the richest nation on earth. There are more poor whites than poor blacks; however, the percentages of minority groups in poverty are greater than for whites.
What keeps people in poverty? The person on the street will tell you that the poor keep themselves in poverty. If only people would lift themselves up by their bootstraps. “My parents and I did” is an often repeated refrain. That may be very true for some people. However, we must factor in white privilege. It is much harder for poor People of Color to lift themselves up by bootstraps when they do not have boots. The next rejoinder is that we try to teach them how to fish but they will not fish. They are smart enough to know that the pond has already been fished out.
Social, economic and political structures keep people in poverty. This past year one percent of the people cornered twenty percent of the income in America. We are all too familiar with savings and loan bailouts in the 1990s and the massive banking bailout this year. We may not realize that the income gap between the poor and wealthy is increasing.
Racism is a sin. The Catholic Bishops in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship say that racism is an intrinsic evil which can never be tolerated. Incidentally, abortion is also an intrinsic evil which can never be tolerated. How many Catholics would tell you that racism, like abortion, is a grave evil?
We have a moral responsibility to not be complicit in the structures which exacerbate racism. We need to examine social and economic structures to see how we benefit from racism.
During the campaign, Obama talked to Joe the Plumber about redistributing the wealth. I do not know if redistributing is the term to use. Jesus taught us how to stand over against empire and the structures which oppress. Hegemonic capitalism with its emphasis on rugged individualism (I’ve got mine. You get yours—if you can.) knows nothing of the Catholic concepts of the common good and solidarity. It is Christianity, not socialism, which teaches that every human person has the RIGHT to food, clothing, shelter, medical care and education. Jesus will hold us accountable for what we have or have not done for the least among us.
We have come a long way. We still have a long way to go. Dismantling the structures which enforce racism will not be easy. Structures give people power and people do not give up power without a struggle.
It takes intentional constructive action to dismantle racism. When I had the privilege of serving on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Secondary School Principals from 1994-1998, we looked around the table. We then realized that we had sixteen white male board members, one female and one African American who was then the first African American president of the association. We developed a plan to allocate four additional board seats to women and minorities. They were diversity board seats. We had to take this constructive action because the path to membership on the board was through “good ole boy” networks in the state associations. Traditionally, the high school principalship had been the purview of white males; however, the reality in the schools was that more and more women and people of color were serving as high school principals. The plan is still in place today but it seems to have benefitted women more than people of color. Some members strongly opposed this initiative to dismantle racism. It probably cost me the election for the presidency of the association because my opponent backpedaled on the plan he too voted for when he spoke to the electors.
Changing structures takes affirmative, constructive action. We cannot rub the lamp, make three wishes and expect the genie to bring about needed change.
We cannot do it alone. We need the power of small groups—Pax Christi, Network, etc… On Election Day, my new bookend arrived. It is a stone sculpture with this quote from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
The new president will not be able to completely dismantle racism on his own. We elected Obama. We have a responsibility to roll up our sleeves and systematically dismantle structures which treat people differently based on race. We also need to examine structures which treat people differently based on sex, national origin, or sexual preference.
Organize, form small groups, and get to work. Now is our time.

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