Aug 282014 7 Responses

Why We Can’t Say Racism Is a Thing of the Past

Anytime race becomes part of the social narrative, one of the most common statements I hear is “why can’t we just get over it and stop talking about it?”

It sounds appealing–let’s forget the past and assume everyone is equal. Yet there is a reason we can’t do that. (See: Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean I Should)

Let me illustrate why:

If you have small kids, play this game with them.

Take 200 $1 bills and say, “I’m going to split this money between you.” Then give the first child $5 and the second child $1. When the second child screams, “That’s not fair,” ignore him. Give another $5 to the first child and another $1 to the second. When the second child once again screams, “That’s not fair,” ignore him. Repeat this process 33 times until the first child has $165, the second child has $33, and you have $2 left. Now recognize what your second child has been screaming about.

Ask, “Why do you say this is unfair?”

The child will easily explain that giving five to one and only one to another is not equal.

Ask the child, “What would be fair?”

The child will quickly say, “You should give each of us the same amount.”

Respond as though your eyes have been opened, like you didn’t know and now you do.

Apologize for getting it wrong and then gleefully take your last $2 and give one to the first child and one to the second child.

Then ask, “Does that make it all fair?”

Obviously it won’t. Even though you handed out an equal amount the last time, inequality is still present because one child has $166 and the other has $34.

As a society we have come a long way regarding race. Proof of how far we come is how difficult it is for me to imagine many of the things which have happened in our nation’s history. Slavery and segregation are concepts I have studied, but they aren’t realities I have seen. Blatant racism is so foreign to my understanding that the few times someone has said openly racist comments it was a shocking experience.

Racism is not simply a thing of our past. It is very much part of our present. Everyone does not get an equal shake. We are closer than we have ever been, but we are still aren’t there. (See: 10 Reflections on Ferguson from the Pastor of White Cops and Black Men)

Yet even if we were there, things would not be equal. There is still a past which greatly influences a present. It affects how we interpret events, influences the opportunities we are given, and helps define what we think is possible or impossible.

Where we have come a long way is regarding the issue of race on an individual level. Openly racist individuals are more the exception rather than the rule. There may be no position, title, or opportunity which an individual is unable to attain. While racism still exists on an individual level, it is much more rare than it once was. (See: Why I Can’t Say ‘America Is Going to Hell in a Handbasket’)

Where we still have a long way to go is on the institutional level. For as long as governments, corporate boards, CEOs, and other positions of power do not fully reflect the diversity of our communities, racism still exists. Not that the individuals in power are racist, but that the systems in place are doing something to hold back the full spectrum of all our neighbors.

Consider:

12% of the U.S. population is black, but 44% of the prison population is black. 13% of the US population is Latino, but 18% of the prison population is Latino.

There are two possible conclusions from these statistics. Either:

1. Evolution was right and different races have different nuances which could lead some to be more violent and less civilized than others. (See: Beliefs Have Consequences)

or

2. God created us all equal, but we have a systemic problem which is creating a culture leading to the great disparity. (See: Don’t Tell Me Every Religion Is the Same)

If all God’s children are equal, but our society sees great disparities by race on key issues, then we have a societal problem more than an individual problem.

Clearly individuals are responsible for themselves. Every person must take ownership of their own lives and do everything they can to find success and happiness. As a leader, I can never let the outcome of one individual define who I am or the job I’m doing. Each person is responsible for him or herself. However, as a leader, if large numbers of people are experiencing bad outcomes, I have to question my responsibility.

As it is with teams, organizations, and churches, so it is with communities and countries.

Each individual is responsible for their own decision making, but when great disparities exist in wealth, incarceration, and other key statistics, we have to ask what are the systematic issues creating the divisions?

This is why we can’t just claim everyone is equal now so let’s forget about the issue of race. We can’t forget about the issue of race until everyone truly is equal. For as long as most of the wealth belongs to one race and most of the prisons are populated by another race, we can’t claim everyone is equal.

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7 Responses to Why We Can’t Say Racism Is a Thing of the Past
  1. Joe Reed Reply

    “There are two possible conclusions . . .” is simply too simplistic. There are more possibilities – many more – that you have not listed.

    Otherwise I find myself in at least general agreement with your article. However, the implication seems to be that I (a white Protestant male) must give some of what I have to equal out the inequalities of the $166 vs. $34 scenario. You lose me there. I tithe to my church. I give to local and national charities. Sometimes – fairly rarely – I give to individuals.

    If I have less than you, then I suggest you start by giving some of what you have to me . . .

    We will ALWAYS be able to find someone or a class of someones who has not had every advantage that someone else has had. I suggest each of us start by putting on our pants one leg at a time and then go out into the world and make something happen for ourselves. It is not a possibility for each of us to start from the same place with the same advantages/disadvantages. Will we end up being the next Warren Buffett? I doubt it. The next Bill Cosby? I doubt it. The next Marcus Dupree? Still doubtful. But each is possible.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Joe, My fear of the opening illustration was that by using a money illustration people would think about money. That wasn’t my intention, but I couldn’t think of a better illustration. Think about the 5/1 ratio more as opportunity. I haven’t been given $5 to every $1 others have received, but I have been given 5 opportunities for every 1 opportunity. And the ratio is probably far higher than 5/1.

      As for the opening point, I’m not convinced it is too simplistic. Clearly the answer to the issue would be very complex, but reasoning out why the problem does exist can probably be settled into those two categories. The issue the the second category can have a thousand different sub points underneath it. What I like about the two point division is it helps expose what Christians should believe. We are taught that all people were created equal so where vast inequalities exist among a large number of people, we can’t simply say “that’s their problem.” It forces us to consider our role in the issue.

      Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comments.

  2. Cheryl Reply

    You’re right. The playing field isn’t equal. But this is a far too simplistic assessment. For just one example, you say the problem is cultural. Yes, it largely is: but which culture? Is white American culture solely to blame, and the ones that have the responsibility (paternalistically) to fix things?

    The problems with black under-achievement will never be fixed while we ignore the absence of married fathers within the black community . . . which is as much a spiritual, moral problem as it is a social one. And I don’t see how it is fixable by those outside the community.

    But while children are raising children, literacy holds little value, violence is a real part of impoverished communities, and so forth, all the affirmative action in the world is still only going to help people who wish to be helped and have some initiative, and it’s only a band-aid solution. Five hundred years from now we can still look back at slavery and say that’s the reason, if we want to. Or we can admit this problem is far more complex than “white culture racist, black people have no chance.”

    For what it’s worth, I was the only white person on my street for seven years (inner-city Chicago) and spent a lot of time (more than a decade) volunteering my time with black children and teenagers in two different cities . . . so I have some firsthand experience that this issue is far more complex than this.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Cheryl, Thanks for the comment. I have no doubt about the complexity of the issues at play. Whenever I made the two-part division, I was fully aware that the one I wanted people to agree with had many layers underneath it. I think you have seen some of those layers. But notice that much of what you think I said, I actually did not say.

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