Ooh! Is That Racism on Your Shoe?

By Chris Rice 07-26-2013 | Series:

A straight-shooting white friend once commented that whenever blacks and whites are together it's like there's a "big pile of poop in the middle of the room" that everybody sees and smells but pretends isn't there. "Let's stop tip-toein' around it," he said, "get us some shovels, and start digging."

Parts of that still-stinking national pile get plenty of air time, and deservedly so: racial profiling, the explosion of hate groups, African Americans still entrenched in poverty, and persistent corporate discrimination, to name a few. But other parts of the black-white pile are rarely faced. I'll step right into my own list.

Don't start with failure. The reason the civil rights movement and affirmative action have inspired every liberation struggle after them—from women's equality to ending apartheid in South Africa—is because they have been successful. Black married families now earn 87 percent of white married families' income. Black women with a college degree or higher earn more than white women with the same education. In his book The Ordeal of Integration, black Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson flatly states, "There does not exist a single case in modern or earlier history that comes anywhere near the record of America in changing majority attitudes; in guaranteeing legal and political rights; and in expanding socioeconomic opportunities for its disadvantaged minorities."

While the enormous progress continues to be a great ordeal, Patterson argues that lack of friction would be "the surest sign that no meaningful change has taken place," and that the viciousness and trauma of change are "side effects of progress, not signs of failure."

Overhaul language on white racism. "Racist" is applied so universally and recklessly that the category has become almost meaningless. This makes it too easy to believe that either nothing is racist or redemption is impossible. We need post-civil rights movement language that is fresh, persuasive, and more discriminating. For example, some scholars estimate that as many as 25 percent of whites are still hardcore racists who favor housing segregation and laws against interracial marriage. That means 75 percent of whites don't fit the label. What are those in this vast white majority who are allies of racial progress doing right, and how can that be impressed upon others? And what are the non-hardcore racists who hold back progress still doing wrong? We especially need to more effectively challenge whites to critique their role in institutional practices.

Black self-critique. Many truth-seeking voices believe that African Americans now suffer as much harm from materialism, individualism, and a crisis in gender relations as from racism. Most of the black affluent in Jackson, Mississippi, were no better allies for the black poor of our neighborhood than wealthy whites. I have witnessed just as much resistance among blacks to bridge building with whites as vice versa. "Growth for us black folks," said Spencer Perkins, my African-American ministry partner, "means no longer being obsessed with the blinders of our white brothers and sisters at the expense of tolerating our own."

Racial intimacy. After an in-depth series on "How Race is Lived in America," The New York Times concluded that "the easy work is done"—building racial trust in daily experience still lies ahead. Our family's recent move to Durham, North Carolina, and the difficulty of finding deep interracial contact in neighborhood, church, workplace, and social settings has reminded me that racial intimacy is hardly even an option in America except for relentless pioneers.

Embracing interracial marriage. Something deep in the American psyche remains unhealed as long as interracial marriage is not as valid as "marrying one's own." These unions are a profound gift to racial progress: Black spouses learn to patiently embrace and educate whites; white spouses encounter racism firsthand and become powerful allies for racial justice; the social capital of centuries of white privilege extends over racial lines. Interracial marriages bring into the world the most passionate voices for racial healing: bicultural children not willing to choose between two beloved heritages. These children will play a crucial bridge-building role in bringing transcendent ideals into America's racial future.

Chris Rice is co-author of More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. This is adapted from an earlier version of "Is That Racism on Your Shoe?" which appeared in the November-December 2000 issue of Sojourners.

Image: Shoes, Cristi Lucaci / Shutterstock.com

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