Learning about Racism in America

As I leave the American South for the second time and move on to the next phase of the #RoadToPortland, I’m thinking of last year’s #SouthernTour.

My 2017 journey through the South was an education. At the beginning of the tour, I was struck by a comment made to me by an Uber driver in Washington, DC. When I told him I was setting out on a tour of the South, he said, ‘At least you’re the right color.’ He was African-American.

Growing up in Ireland, the subject of racism and its history in America was not something I knew much about. We had other problems in Ireland: sectarianism, nationalism, terrorism, to name a few. Traveling through the US over the past year, however, I find myself with a growing eagerness to understand this most challenging issue in American society. 

As I looked back through my Southern Tour Diary, I found these clips (below) of a conversation I had one day with a local resident in Birmingham, Alabama. I didn’t get this man’s last name, but he shared the same first name as my father and brother: Michael.

Sitting at the site of the 1963 Birmingham bombing, when the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Sunday morning church congregation, killing 4 children and injuring 22, Michael told me the story of the harrowing events that took place in Birmingham, and about the work of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth who played a key role alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in the beginnings of the civil rights movement in America.

The more I talk to friends about racism here in the US, the more I understand it to be something far more ferocious than a merely abhorrent way of thinking. It seems more like a kind of disease of perception, a distorting blindness that cripples the mind of its thinker. When we perpetrate acts or entertain ideas of racism – be it in the institutionalized structures of society, the unwitting biases of our impulses or in the secret judgments of our hearts – we not only harm those we hate, but we make ourselves fools and victims of a great lie. To consign a person’s identity and worth to their mere membership of a particular group – race or otherwise – is to be blind to the complex multidimensional reality of every individual human being, including our own selves.

I hope, in my travels through America, to arrive at a better understanding of the disease of racism, its various forms, its history, its causes and symptoms, and the demanding nature of its remedy. In my efforts to understand some elements of that remedy, a friend shared with me this passage written by Shoghi Effendi in 1938:  

“Let the white make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority, to correct their tendency towards revealing a patronizing attitude towards the members of the other race, to persuade them through their intimate, spontaneous and informal association with them of the genuineness of their friendship and the sincerity of their intentions, and to master their impatience of any lack of responsiveness on the part of a people who have received, for so long a period, such grievous and slow-healing wounds.

Let the Negroes*, through a corresponding effort on their part, show by every means in their power the warmth of their response, their readiness to forget the past, and their ability to wipe out every trace of suspicion that may still linger in their hearts and minds.

Let neither think that the solution of so vast a problem is a matter that exclusively concerns the other.”

(*At the time of writing in 1938, Negro was a commonly used and socially accepted word)

Beyond the counsels in the above quotation, I’m also beginning to understand that the remedy to racism – in America and the world – demands far more than the mere examining and adjusting of the intentions of our hearts. So deeply ingrained is this disease in the civilization we have built, that its remedy seems to require a complete reformation in the structures of society, in our systems of education and even in the architectural planning of our cities, neighborhoods and homes. If the world is not to be deprived of the untapped talents and capacities of millions of people, surely the remedy to racism requires the conscientious participation of the whole of society.

As I sat with Michael that day in Kelly Ingram Park, looking at the site of the bombing, it was a remark he made at the end of our conversation that spoke to me the loudest:

‘It’s not just a black man’s issue.’

If you’d like to become a patron of my tours visit patreon.com/lukeslott

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: