Racism is an ugly blotch on our American ideals

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February 17, 2010


In the movie South Pacific there is a particularly poignant moment when Nellie meets Emile’s children from his first wife. She is very much interested in marrying Emile but Emile has kept his children from her sight until this moment. With a look of disdain Nellie backs away from Emile and cannot marry him because the children are brown. Emile then sings “You have to be carefully taught” to be prejudiced. Nellie’s inability to accept the children came from what she was taught about being white and the privileges that go with that. Let this be the backdrop for today’s column about divisions in our society.

Racist comments

            Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-NV), said in a private conversation in 2008 that the country was ready to elect a black man as President, especially one like Obama who is “light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” according to the Christian Science Monitor (1). President Obama accepted Reid’s apology. Others called for Reid’s resignation, comparing his comments  to Trent Lott’s public statement that “we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years” if  the segregationist Strom Thurmond had won the Presidency in 1948. (2)

            Distinguished black men like Boyce Watkins, a professor of finance and social commentator at Syracuse University, and op-ed columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. said that Reid was merely expressing the state of political landscape when he made those comments. (1)  It was in no way a degradation of Obama or black people, but Pitts mildly chastised Reid for using the word Negro which went out of the American vocabulary a half century ago. (3) Lott on the other hand was extolling segregation.


            A popular talk personality said that President Obama and his administration will use the Haiti earthquake “to burnish their … credibility with the black community, in the light-skinned and black-skinned community in this country.” (4) These comments are racist and inflammatory.

            A Christian pastor said on his national TV show that Haiti brought the devastation on itself because its leaders had made a pact with the devil in 1791 in return for their independence. But even if that alleged agreement was made, it ended in 1991, nearly twenty years ago. (5) This pastor’s comments are racially offensive and religiously insensitive.


            We have generally described racism as hatred or discrimination against a race other than one’s own. But as the Anatomy of Peace says, “'If you see people of a particular race or culture as objects … your view of them is racist, whatever your color or lack of color or your power or lack of power.” It applies to “all divisions, whether between rich and poor, old and young, educated and uneducated, religious and nonreligious, Catholic and Protestant, Shia and Sunni.” (6)

Recently South Carolina Lt. Gov. André Bauer, running for governor on the GOP ticket. likened “the poor to stray animals.” And his grandmother taught him not to feed stray animals because “they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply.” (7)  That’s racism too. His comments scarcely received public notice, much less criticism.

            Many people have called for a dialog on race in this country. Candidate Obama took up this challenge when he delivered a remarkable address on race in Philadelphia in 2008 (8). Some say he is not doing enough and others say he is talking about race too much. I hope he accepts the challenge to engage us in a dialog about race.

White identity

Being white in America means being a member of the majority and dominant race and it is more than being white skinned. Thandeka, associate professor of theology and culture, Meadville/Lombard Theological School, shed new light on the issue of racism in studies regarding white identity (9). There is an identity that goes with being white. For example, a person’s natural instinct is to reach out to others without any racial or class considerations. When this instinct is disrupted by parents or other adults who do not want whites associating with other races, there develops a self betrayal for stifling one’s own natural feelings. This self betrayal is then expressed as disgust for another race. It is not enough to be white but that whiteness must be expressed in separation from black people (or brown, red, yellow for that matter).  Adults too can stifle natural feelings of affection and thus engender the same self-betrayal.

            This white identity becomes so deeply engrained that poor whites do not even recognize their natural solidarity with poor people of other races. Even though both groups share the same condition, whites fail to see it and distance themselves socially as well. As whites grow up they don’t even recognize this characteristic of being white. Thandeka. further wrote that this white identity allowed whites socially and legally “to taunt, police, humiliate, mob, rape, lynch, jibe, rob, jail, mutilate, and burn” black people. White identity camouflaged the immorality of these actions. Some of these are dramatically described in a recent novel called The Help. 

            I have a dream, to paraphrase Martin Luther King’s famous speech, that one day people will see each other as human beings, regardless of race, gender, religious affiliation, country of origin, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. May that day come soon.


(1) “Harry Reid: racist or political realist?”, Christian Science Monitor,


(2) “Lott apologizes for Thurmond comment”, CNN, December 10, 2002.


(3)  Leonard Pitts January 13, 2010


(4) http://www.freep.com/article/20100115/BLOG24/100115001/Rush-to-judgment

Mike Thompson, January 15, 2010

(5) “Pat Robertson: Haiti "Cursed" After ‘Pact to the Devil’”, CFS news.com, January 13, 2010.  http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2010/01/13/crimesider/entry6092717.shtml

Also: http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2010/01/pat-robertson-blames-earthquake-on-pact-haitians-made-with-satan.html

Also: http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/4733/9/

Has the prayer allegedly used which sounds like a prayer to God, not Satan. Site also debunks other claims about this alleged “pack with the devil:. The natives rejected the Christian God as oppressive.

(6) Arbinger Institute, The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2006.

(7) Leonard Pitts Jr.  “Public silence greets poor's powerlessness”, Miami Herald 02.02.10, http://www.miamiherald.com/living/columnists/leonard-pitts/story/1454250.html

``He'' is South Carolina Lt. Gov. André Bauer, running for governor on the GOP ticket. Speaking of those who receive public assistance, he recently told an audience, ``My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better.''

(8) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/03/18/obama-race-speech-read-t_n_92077.html

(9) Thandeka , The Cost of Whiteness,