Being Called a Racist and Understanding Racism

By Chris Lahr

The crap seems to have hit the fan. There are riots in the streets, blatant racist acts are multiplying by the hour, and Trump hasn’t even been sworn in yet! The rift breaking through our country saddens me, as I love many people that both voted for and against Trump. One common theme I have noticed in the numerous conversations occurring online is that white people do not like to be called racist. On several occasions Trump has been called on to denounce (which he later did in most instances) the many racist acts occurring in his name, and in response, people that voted for Trump are quick to point out that they are not racist and then shift the focus to the need for Obama or Hillary to denounce the violence occurring in the anti-Trump rallies (all the while ignoring the fact that multiplying racist acts are occurring).

Since Tuesday there have been signs painted stating, “Black lives don’t matter, and neither do their votes.” People have been beat up for the color of their skin, while attackers yell “Trump Nation,” The KKK has plans for a rally to celebrate Trump’s victory (should be noted that the GOP has denounced this), and swastikas are being graffitied on walls in places like Philadelphia. Now, having friends and family who voted for Trump, I do not know a single one that would accept the blatant racist behavior mentioned above. I’m convinced that the bigger issue isn’t whether or not someone is racist because they voted Trump, but the fact that many white Americans have a limited understanding of what racism actually is.

A few years ago I did a “race” training where I showed the powerful movie, American History X. The movie was about a group of skinheads who bred hate and lived violent lifestyles. In short, the main character (a skinhead) spent only three years in jail for murdering an African-American man. Upon his release, he broke ties with the racist group he was a part of and convinced his younger brother to do the same. The movie ended when the brother of the murder victim shot and killed the brother of the main character. The story is a very powerful depiction of the cycle of hate and violence.

As we were debriefing the film, the only African-American male in the room, stated that the movie told a good story, but that in reality no one in the room (mostly white) would go to the extremes of racism as it was portrayed in the video. He went on to say that the movie was dangerous because it made white people think they were “off the hook,” because they disassociated themselves from “that style” of racism while overlooking their “everyday racism.” 

One of the most powerful books I have read is called, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum. In the book the author makes a distinction between prejudice and racism. Prejudice is a “Preconceived judgment or opinion, usually based on limited information” (Tatum, p.5).  She goes on to say,

Prejudice is one of the inescapable consequences of living in a racist society.  Cultural racism—the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color—is like smog in the air.  Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in day out, we are breathing it in.  None of us would introduce ourselves as “smog breathers” (And most of us don’t want to be described as prejudiced.), but if we live in a smoggy place, how can we avoid breathing the air?  If we live in an environment in which we are bombarded with stereotypical images in the media, are frequently exposed to the ethnic jokes of friends and family members, and are rarely informed of the accomplishments of oppressed groups, we will develop the negative categorizations of those groups that form the basis of prejudice” (Tatum, p.6)[1]

There is much more involved with the pollution of racism than “being mean” or calling people names… racism involves an unjust system. Tatum defines racism as a “System of advantage based on race” (Tatum p.7). She makes a distinction between active and passive racism. Active racism is currently on the rise… KKK rallies, violent attacks, saying the “N” word, etc.; but it is passive racism that we can no longer ignore. The rise of active racism is not something that occurred in a vacuum, but it has its roots in a more commonly accepted passive racism. Many white folks, sitting comfortably inside their homes, believe that racism was a thing of the past.  What they do not realize is that racism has taken on some different forms.

Though slavery is outlawed, Jim Crow is history, and the KKK is obsolete; racism still exists in our society today (and did so long before Trump). Racism, as a system of advantage based on race, is manifested in the prison system where 727 of every 100,000 white folks are in prison while 4,777 of every 100,000 African Americans are imprisoned (see Michelle Alexander’s incredible book, “The New Jim Crow” for a detailed analysis of this). The system also rears its head through how immigrants are treated and laws are used to marginalize them. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in his book, Racism without Racist, also talks about the housing market in light of racism when he writes, “Blacks and Latinos also have less access to the entire housing market because whites, through a variety of exclusionary practices by white realtors and homeowners, have been successful in effectively limiting their entrance into many neighborhoods.”[2]

So the question isn’t just, “am I a racist?” but “am I benefitting from a system in our nation based on race?” If you do not have to think about race, you benefit from that system. Who makes up your inner circle of friends? If everyone looks like you, you may benefit from this system and it will be very difficult to understand how people different from you live, or why they are so angry about this election. Martin Luther King Jr’s words are still true for us today: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

81% of evangelical Christians voted for Trump. It is time for the church to break these social barriers and to embrace in authentic relationship people that are different. It is time to listen to the cries of justice and to speak out against both passive and active racism. It is time to expand our inner circles, to listen and to advocate for those being marginalized. Racism is a real problem and we must all be active in dismantling its destructive power.

[1] “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum

[2] Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo Racism without Racist: Color-Blind Racism &Racial Inequality in Contemporary America, Third Edition, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC, New York, 2010. p.2. 

Chris and Lara Lahr live in Philadelphia, where they raise three daughters. They have been married twenty years, with 17 of them taking place in the city, where they reside. Lara is a community nurse working with babies and mamas in their neighborhood. She is currently going to school to become a midwife. Chris works with a non-profit called Timoteo (www.timoteosports.org).Timoteo is a mentoring program that uses flag football as a means of mentoring urban youth. Timoteo serves over 300 youth in the neighborhood and over 150 adults. Chris is a graduate of Asbury Seminary and Eastern College. Lara is a graduate of Asbury College.

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