Also this week, words like "racism" and "racist" have been in the news a lot. Dylann Roof has just been sentenced to death for the hate-crime murder of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. And Senate confirmation hearings for Donald Trump's Justice Department nominee Jeff Sessions have revived questions about his position on race-related issues. I'm reminded of a comparison that's been helpful to me: Think of racism as something like a virus.
What we call "race" is not based on significant biological difference, but a category that culture and society have invented in order to classify people. For example, our skin colors are different because of the way our ancestors' skin adapted to the amount of sunlight they were exposed to. Skin color has a lot of different gradations and variations. There is no DNA marker for "black" or "white." These (and many others) are names people have invented as a shorthand way of grouping people with similar backgrounds and physical characteristics together.
This might not be a problem if "race" was just a neutral way to describe people. Unfortunately, human beings are very skilled at turning category differences into hard tribal lines. I live in a part of the world where just wearing clothing with maize-and-blue or scarlet-and-gray patterns can lead people to judge your character. And there are many places in the world where "race" has been a dividing line that leads people to discriminate against one another, oppress one another, proclaim the right of ownership over one another, kill one another. This is the sinfulness of human tribalism gone too far. We deny biology and the full human variety of each other, exchanging those realities for a stereotype based on our cultural and social ideas about "race." It's stupid and short-sighted. It prevents us from knowing others, or ourselves, fully. And it leads to a lot of suffering.
In areas, like the U.S., where ideas about "race" have gotten caught up with social, cultural, and political power, there is "racism." An -ism is what happens when an idea becomes a way of life. Enough people believe it, and believe it's important enough to structure life around, that the whole system of life is adapted to it. In this country, even farther back than our declaration that "all mean are created equal," there has been racism, where traditions, language, policies, laws, and social structures are intentionally designed to perpetuate "race" divisions and the false beliefs about them.
One effect of thinking about racism as a virus is that gives a more clear and specific way to use the word "racist." If there's an -ism that seeks to make an idea a way of life, than an -ist is an individual or group or part of society that actively contributes toward the fulfillment of the -ism. There's no doubt that in America, some individuals, groups, and parts of society do function this way. But I think their numbers are actually comparatively small, and in almost all cases, the pro-racism function they perform is not 100% of their existence. So while it might be possible to point to a racist person, or a racist group, or a racist policy, the word "racist" usually won't completely describe them. Years ago, I wrote another blog post about how words can become labels that let us write off someone else's full humanity. So even where "racist" might be an accurate word, I think it's good to avoid using it as a label. Taking a few more words to describe how the action of the person or group or part of society is perpetuating racism can educate, provide context, and avoid shutting down a conversation.
Thinking about racism as a virus can also help focus on where racism is most harmful. If you look up "racism" in a dictionary, you're likely to find a definition that makes racism sound the same as a race-based belief. But that doesn't go deep enough in describing the damage. Another definition used in sociology is that "racism is prejudice plus power," meaning that true racism is the belief in racial superiority combined with a real, effective ability to bend society around that belief. Or, here's a fuller definition, from a Harvard class description:
At root, racism is “an ideology of racial domination” (Wilson, 1999, 14) in which the presumed biological or cultural superiority of one or more racial groups is used to justify or prescribe the inferior treatment or social position(s) of other racial groups.The racism virus can be introduced with the mere idea that "race" makes a critical difference among people. But without the specific changes in how people treat one another, it's just another of many stupid, wrong concepts that float around. However, the virus then begins taking hold, spreading, and causing damage, when prejudiced ideas about "race" combine with power and action to artificially build one group up and put another group down. This is when the virus becomes most harmful, and when it's most important to work against it.
When a physical human body is infected with a virus, it triggers an immune system response to identify, isolate, and eliminate the virus. Our experience of being "sick" includes both the action of the virus itself and our own body's work to defeat the virus. For particularly bad viruses, we've also invented anti-virus medication, vaccines, and other drugs to give us relief from the symptoms. We work with other people to observe, diagnose, and treat the virus. We hope for an outcome where the virus is totally defeated and expelled from the body.
I think it can work like this with racism, too. Individuals, groups, institutions, and social structures can all be infected. In the U.S., the virus of racism has run rampant for our entire history as a nation. At times, racism has been so successful that very few people even questioned it. At other times, the "inferior treatment" of some human beings by others has raised the sickness to a level where we've begun to see and identify it. In the 20th century, scientific research debunked some beliefs that put a scientific gloss on racist beliefs. There have been waves of efforts where awareness and relief have made a difference. But we haven't yet come close to eliminating the racism virus from all people, or all segments of society, or all public policies and practices.
With Jeff Sessions, I've heard accusations and questions. Is he "a racist?" And that question seems to be limiting us to thinking in terms of a Yes or No answer. If an accuser says Yes, and a defender says No, then where can there be any ground to agree on? The virus of racism leads to another dividing line where we feel obligated to write somebody else off as totally wrong, or just a dupe parroting some group's party line. The reality is clearly that Jeff Sessions has taken some actions in the past that perpetuate our country's system of racism - yet this doesn't define his whole life or career. A better question for evaluating his past is: What has he done to work for, or against, the virus of racism? As a person of power and privilege, has he shown that he will work against the virus by doing more than the minimum, more than standing by with no action while racism's spread continues? And a better question for deciding his fitness to lead the Department of Justice is: Is he giving evidence that he will actively work against racism, to help move our nation closer to true justice?
For Dylann Roof, it seems easier to answer Yes to the question: is he "a racist?" He shot and killed nine people, just because their existence put them on what he was judging to be the wrong side of a line of racial difference. But the evening of the murders, he apparently sat with these people and wrestled with what to do. Some part of him seemed to be aware that they, like him, were fully human and made in God's image. I would say Yes, his action was a racist action, Yes, the belief that these murders would accomplish anything good is a racist belief. If he found some online group that urged him to kill in this way, then Yes, that is a racist organization. But the bigger truth about Dylann Roof himself is that he is a product of our society. We can't just answer a simple Yes and label him as a "racist" and send him off to die. We owe it to every member of this body to understand that racism is a virus that affects all of us, and that in the murders of these members of Emanuel AME Church, the virus has led to death and more death. A better response than "Yes, he was a racist" is to take this whole situation to heart as proof of our sickness and pain, and to stand and work against the virus of racism in all its forms.
As with Jeff Sessions, as with Dylann Roof, the question for every American is not, "Am I a racist?" With very few exceptions, I would guess that anybody reading this article could honestly answer No; being a racist, actively perpetuating the inferior treatment of one group, does not sum up my identity. A better question is: "What will I do about the virus of racism?" or maybe: "How will my life as a Christian and an American help lead to the health and justice for the whole body that racism works to deny us all?" Who are our influences? Where do we get our information? How are we stretching beyond our own experiences and our own place in the system, to understand what it's like for human beings who see it all differently? Where are we speaking out and opposing the actions that result from racism? How can we see more of the truth, shed this sickness and sin, and take small steps toward healing?
For me, there's only one response that makes any sense at all, and that is to do what I can to go after the virus of racism, the same as I want to get rid of the flu virus. I want to be an anti-racist, to actively work against racism wherever I see it. I want that to be a core value, something close enough to my very identity that it's just something I do.
It's not enough to be neutral, especially for those of us called "white" who have benefited from the injustices of racism. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of my heroes of the Christian faith, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."
I'm a small, nearly insignificant voice in a great sea of people who are badly infected with this virus. At age 52, I feel like a baby learning to walk in this effort. I can't do everything, but I can do something. By fighting off the virus within myself, by seeking to stop its spread to others, by working to encourage others to fight as well, I'm sick but I'm trying to make the whole body better. That's what I'm going to try to do about this virus.
What about you?