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December 15, 2021
I Have Heard of It, But I never Really Understood Until Now
I imagine, that like most people, you have heard the term institutional racism. I most certainly have, and I have even used the term myself. Unfortunately, I never really understood what the term implies. In all of my seventy-five years, I have never seen a public building called the Institution of Advance Racism. So, I always thought of institutional racism as sort of a metaphor for racism. I had never really considered how the United States government had deliberately continued, and still continues, to promote racism in the United States in the name of law. In 1869, after the Civil War, there was a generalized fear by whites, that the newly freed slaves would seek reprisals against the white populations of the South, and into the North. Out of this fear, States enacted “Jim Crow” laws to segregate populations by race. The name Jim Crow refers to a theatrical characterization of the Negro person who survives as a trickster. The “Jim Crow” laws had become part of the fabric of the American legal system, supported by the U. S. Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson, 1896, demanding a separate but equal doctrine for schools and other public funded projects.
In 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in the Brown vs Board of Education, that segregation of schools was unconstitutional. I presume that most people reading this were too young, if born at all, to have given this decision any thought. Yet, some of us might recall Governor George Wallace, of the State of Alabama, demanding that the U. S. government was usurping state’s rights by forcing the enrollment of black students in all white universities. I remember sitting in my living room, in California, watching the news and seeing Governor Wallace standing in the doorway at the University of Alabama, ranting against integration. (Nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling). I have even more vivid recollections of the trauma caused by the court mandated cross-district bussing. On both sides of the line, there was great anger.
Clinically speaking, anger is a feeling, a normal function of our human response to a sense of threat, of being threatened. Whether we strike out against the threat, run away, or do nothing, the very sense of threat changes our brain chemistry, releasing stress hormones. We most commonly name this visceral response as anger. Yet, there is a deeper side to the idea of anger. At the very cote of any threat, is the implication of danger, the arousal of fear. Most often, anger is a response to fear. Unfortunately, the fear does not need to be rational, it only needs to be experienced, to be felt. Years ago, I read a book, Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad, by Fergus M. Bordewich. I thought it was a fabulous book that provided an insight into the greater issues of racism, slavery, and real freedom. One of the ideas presented by Mr. Bordewich, is the idea of fear being the fundamental motive of segregation. There was a great fear that the freed slaves would turn with great violence against their former white owners.
As I think back, over the years of racial disruption I experienced growing up in the United States, I can see, even in myself, levels of fear. But what was I afraid of? I was afraid of losing something I thought was mine. I thought that I might be losing my rightful inheritance of being a white male. And this, I am now convinced is the real core of what I understand institutional racism to be about. The government has always, and still today even continues to promote inequality among classes of people. Women do not enjoy a federally protected right to an equal pay for equal work. It is a part of our human nature to romanticize about our growing up years, our childhoods. Who we are today is greatly rooted in the history and traditions of our youth. If we grew up in the tradition of being afraid of blacks moving into the neighborhood, taking our jobs, raping our sisters, etc. then we are going to be driven to anger whenever we see a black person, a woman, an immigrant demanding a right, a share in what we have been convinced is ours. In 2017, Richard Rothstein published a book, The Color of Law, in which he chronicled government mandates and enforcement policies of segregation in schools, housing, and transportation. The very first chapter in his book describes Richmond, California, where I lived, where I went to school and that I could only relate to in hindsight. I knew from lived experience what he described in his book. Whether we like to admit it or not, the ultimate reality is that our federal government was institutionally dedicated to promoting and enforcing the fear of persons of color. That is institutional racism. This is a racism that we all grew up with, and all struggle with.
We are Christians. We are by our baptism inextricably untied with Christ. We are called to live the way of Christ, the love of Christ for all people. It has been said, often said, that the opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is fear. We cannot effectively live a Christian life of loving others if we live in fear of others. As we take a moment to prepare the way for the coming of Christ at Christmas, let us – myself included – fill in some of the ruts of subliminal racism we may have dug through years of denial. Let us – myself included – chip away at the mountains of fear we have built up over the years to see all people on an equal plane.
Deacon Bill Stimpson