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Why racism is (almost) omnipotent

Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr. | 12/4/2013, 9:08 a.m.
We are living in difficult days. To pretend (or believe) that the light came and racism ended with the election ...

I must use the adverb “almost” because there is a necessary distinction between all and some. It is the difference between mighty and almighty. But we must never forget that whatever is mighty can harness the power to destroy lives, families, communities, institutions and nations. This is what racism does on a daily basis. We have, to some degree, lost the will and/or the capacity to identify and challenge this destructive and powerful force in our culture and institutions. This advent season presents the church with a great moment — an opportunity — to sharpen its discernment. It is an opportunity for the church and the world to experience a new birth in love, racial justice and reconciliation.

My New Testament professor – over a half century ago – frequently quoted one of his professors who often said, “The customs of a people are omnipotent.” This was an intentional hyperbole, but the point was a teachable exaggeration. Customs and habits are not easily removed even if they are wicked and unjust, but profitable and politically rewarding.

We once had a relevant U. S. Civil Rights Commission with subpoena power. It had the responsibility to investigate, research, expose and recommend. Its recommendations went to the President, Congress and the people. But it was despised by some and stripped of its relevance and effectiveness. It was a valuable tool of education and conscience. It lifted up a mirror to the nation. But rather than look in the mirror for examination treatment, prevention and cure, the mirror has been destroyed. This was one of the great errors of President Ronald Reagan.

Why is racism so powerful throughout such a long period in American history? Let me give, in my opinion, a few responses to this question and invite you to join the dialogue. Let us share with calm reasonableness, love and a quest for justice and reconciliation.

First, for centuries racism has been at the center of our culture. It is a decisive and divisive force in our economics, politics, religion and education. Since no one is born a racist, the song in the play “South Pacific” has a truth-telling message for the past, present and future:

You've got to be taught before it's too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight

To hate all the people your relatives hate

You've got to be carefully taught!

Through decades and centuries, racism has been taught and made economically profitable. From the buying and selling of human beings (Chattel slavery) to interest rates, insurance rates, payday loans, prison sentences, stop and frisk laws, cradle to prison pipelines, prison privatization, the “New Jim Crow,” voter suppression and “slavery by another name,” racism is a powerful force in our culture. It is designed to make some wealthy by keeping others poor and disenfranchised, by keeping some powerful and others powerless. Secondly, racism thrives in a climate of denial, insensitivity, apathy and disbelief.

When this systemic arrangement goes unchallenged, it receives silent endorsement. Henry David Thoreau was right: “Whoever can protest and does not is an accomplice in the act.” What is lacking today is a coherent national policy against persistent racism. The measures of prevention are too weak and corrections and cure are too elusive.