Why Racism Is (Almost) Omnipotent

mdgn / shutterstock
'We are living in the dark days before the Advent.' mdgn / shutterstock

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.

Over a half century ago, my New Testament professor often 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 over 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.

Thirdly, racism has been endorsed by religion and education in ages past and denied and disowned in the present age. There was a time in ages past when religious leaders and college presidents owned slaves. Let us not forget that Dr. King’s Letter from A Birmingham Jail was written in response to eight Birmingham religious leaders — leaders who condemned Dr. King’s non-violent direction protests but would not condemn the brutal fire hoses, vicious dogs, and police beatings against children.

Today the ugly attacks on Affordable Health Care are just as vicious. And when we consider the millions of families and individuals in need of Affordable Health Care, SNAP Programs, and Head Start, the attacks are just as vicious and even more pervasive.

Fourthly, those who want to make racism yesterday’s reality must say that marching around the White House with a Confederate flag, today’s racist reality, is wrong. This Confederate flag is an ugly expression of racism, hatred, violence, lynchings, and mobs.  But not enough of us are raising our voices with moral courage for love and justice.

We are living in the dark days before the Advent. To pretend (or believe) that the light came and racism ended with the election of President Obama is like saying that cancer ended with the development of chemotherapy; therefore, all research, treatment, care, prevention, and funding should be immediately ended.

In Shaw’s presentation on Joan of Arc, one character in this drama, speaking of Joan’s execution says: “Thirty minutes to burn her, four hundred years to declare her a saint.”

It takes only a short time to do irreparable harm through sequestration, government shutdowns, voter suppression, gun violence, budget cuts, blocked nominations, delayed immigration reform, and opposition to Affordable Health Care. This Advent season, we must lead our congregations to meet these ugly forces with the beauty of love, justice, truth, and reconciliation, no matter how long it takes. This will assure the world that racism and hate are mighty but never almighty. It will reinforce the truth that injustice is mighty but redeeming love is almighty. God is love.

Otis Moss Jr. is an American pastor, theologian, speaker, author, and activist. Moss is well known for his involvement in the American Civil Rights movement and his friendship with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Martin Luther King Sr.

mdgn / shutterstock

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

In This Series