So the Wall Street Journal Believes Institutional Racism No Longer Exists…Seriously?

Seriously, WSJ editorial board? After the racist Charleston Church Massacre, your best effort is to print your collective belief that institutional racism no longer exists?  Is that is the best you could do?

It seems to me that people who believe that institutional racism is dead operate from posture of privilege that prevents them from truly grasping the meaning of racism as they mute or discount the experiences of African Americans and other People of Color who work or volunteer within their institutions.

While no Jim Crow segregation laws remain on the books in the United States, there remains a frequently unacknowledged yet very active undercurrent blowing across the land, one that maintains that White people ought to be in charge of society and the world, and that White historical narratives and figures; world views; notions of beauty; definitions of success; religious values, theologies, and art; and more, ought to form the normative template that sets the shape and tone for all other expressions of human life.

This White cultural template is alive and well in the United States and beyond.  It is the operating system that can be found on society’s cultural and political hard drive and in any realm that is considered “normative” or “mainstream” (notice the bias in these terms!).  It is, simply put, the given.  This template, hardwired into mainstream institutional life, maintains that White ways of knowing, being, and doing are inherently correct and worthy of replication by all.  Whether conservative or moderate; whether liberal or tea party inclined, the template is there and it knows your email address and password.

The template dictates that non-White people form a clear and present threat to the well-being of White people.  This must account for the fact that so many White people double and triple check their car alarms, purses, and wallets when they see me approaching in the grocery store parking lot, even when I am wearing a business suit and am obviously weighed down with bags in both hands;

It is the template that determines who gets hired, who gets selected as board trustees, who gets promoted, and whose version of truth gets accepted as fact;

The template says it is perfectly fine for the White side of town to have numerous venues for high quality grocery and retail shopping while the Black and Brown sides of town must contend with few stores of any kind and accept their limited selection of products and higher prices, or drive to the White side of town;

It is the template that makes it acceptable for Black and Brown males to comprise over one half of the US prison population and to be given sentences that are sharply harsher than those given to Whites who commit the same kinds of crimes;

It must be the template that approves the narratives that lead to the mysterious terminations, resignations and buyouts, as well as scandalously poor workplace treatment of African Americans in industry, government, and even in church settings;

The template allows for rewarding White people’s creative endeavors and calling them faithful, provocative, and innovative, while denouncing the creative endeavors of African Americans, calling them reckless, unnecessary, and too costly;

I believe it was the template that created the climate of racial hatred and deadly violence that perversely nurtured Charleston’s murderous, domestic terrorist, Dylann Storm Roof and the others that we have yet to hear from;

Finally, the template calls on all people to accept and internalize its White privilege-oriented demands without critique or serious conversation about them, and… many Whites as well as People of Color, consciously and unconsciously do just that, carrying the template right into their places of work, their board rooms, their church houses, and into matrix of public and private institutional life.

Life in the Institution

When African Americans and other People of Color aspire to work in a historically White institution, be it public or private, secular or religious, they must have a track record that demonstrates competence not only in their professional or vocational areas but also in the value systems, norms, perspectives, world views, the template of White America.  In short, they must prove that they can work and play well with White people.  By comparison, it is often the case that the White co-workers, colleagues, and supervisors of African Americans and other People of Color are never required to produce a résumé that reveals enrollment in courses about or led by a Person of Color, nor must they show a track record of harmoniously and successfully working with People of Color in serious non “power-over” contexts.  Their employment requirements indicate no demands that they show mastery of an African American or People of Color cultural template, nor must they even acknowledge that one exists.  This imbalance with respect to academic, social, and professional employment preparation is staggering, and reveals the mechanics of White privilege in the workplace.  Moreover, it sets the stage for the lethal cocktail of racial prejudice and institutional power, which is racism, to shape practices and policies that work against African Americans and other People of Color in the workplace.

African Americans and other People of Color in institutional contexts are often supervised, evaluated, and judged by White people who know very little about them as persons and the rich, diverse, and complex cultures they represent.  Sure, the ways People of Color sing, dance, play sports, and even preach are appreciated and celebrated, often stereotypically, and sometimes utilized; and sure, People of Color may be hired as managers, executives, and even bishops of historically White church bodies.  However, careful observation would reveal that while some of these steps reflected honest, good faith effort on behalf of people of good will, many were often no more than mere cosmetic adjustments that were adopted in the interest of maintaining some sort of public image of compliance with existing and emerging calls for diversity that equip leaders to boast, “See, we’re not racist!”  This, of course, is tokenism 2.0.

Very often, African American and People of Color staff in historically White institutions are ignored and isolated by those charged to provide support, even as they inherited significantly difficult if not impossible work assignments and challenging institutional realities.  Instead of experiencing the satisfaction of having their successes and accomplishments lifted up and celebrated (as done with and for White staff), African American and other People of Color staff often have their mistakes – real and imagined – magnified, and find themselves scapegoated and blamed for institutional dysfunction that they did not create but tried to remedy.  On numerous occasions, African American and other People of Color staff have been victimized by leaders in historically White institutions who used their power not to support People of Color staff but to caucus themselves, promote personal agendas, hold exclusive communication forums, reach negative conclusions, and make hostile decisions (with no fair and just input from People of Color staff and often outside of the organization’s adopted methods of operating) in ways that undermined the integrity, perceptions, and success of African Americans and other People of Color staff.

This, dear reader, is how 21st century institutional racism works.  While establishing legally acceptable proof of institutional racism illogically requires that one show evidence of burning crosses, a paper or electronic trail of correspondence with the N-word, or invitations to neo-nazi or KKK meetings posted by the water cooler, African Americans and other People of Color staff know it when they see and feel its presence and effects.  They know when the institution considers them less than human and worthy of no respect and honor even when their contributions and efforts are praised by outsiders.  They know that while they may hold power positions, real and true institutional power has often been conferred onto a collection of Whites who serve as the actual faces of the institution.  The burning questions are:  Will Whites holding institutional power use it to advance the impact and influence of their institutions by supporting African Americans and other People of Color staff and helping them to succeed in their roles?  Will they call out unfair treatment of People of Color staff and demand justice?

Beyond ornamental hiring and profit driven program planning/product producing realms, historically White institutions and society as a whole would do well to consider these questions:

*How are the histories, aspirations, values, and norms of People of Color taken seriously and woven into the fabric of historically White institutional life, thus creating new ways of operating?

*How are perceptions of success, modesty, effectiveness, beauty, faithfulness, etc., of People of Color being factored into the operational stance of the institution?

*How are agenda-setting, decision-making power forums inclusive of People of Color leadership?

*In which ways are all board members, staff, and volunteers required to become students – not just participants –  in ongoing anti-racism and cultural competency training (which extends beyond diversity/sensitivity training)?

*How have People of Color leaders been fully vested and authorized to do the work they were hired to do?

*Which people among the guardians of historically White institutional life are personally committed to shaping institutional attitudes and marshalling resources toward helping African Americans and other People of Color to be viewed as valuable human beings by the institution, taken seriously, and otherwise succeed in the workplace?

*Who has the power to hold the institution accountable for its fair and just treatment of African Americans and other People of Color staff, and where can People of Color lodge grievances when they feel it necessary to do so?

*How do we encourage and support the significantly high numbers of People of Color and White people, younger and older, who categorically reject society’s racist template, and work feverishly to dismantle it in institutional life and beyond?

Until the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal demonstrates that its own organizational fabric is clear of any threads of racism, I consider its obituary on institutional racism to be premature and ill-informed, and its members unqualified to make such a judgment.

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Hold Up on the Harsh Judgment of Ms. Rachel Dolezal

Ok, do I wish former Spokane NAACP branch president Ms. Rachel Dolezal had been honest about her race?  My goodness, yes!  If she had been truthful about her race, Ms. Dolezal would have been rightfully and cheerfully counted among the untold numbers of courageous White people who have labored honorably and sacrificially alongside African Americans and other people of goodwill to defeat the often discounted and always unnecessary systemic evil which is racism.  Having established that, I would caution the scores of people who seem quite willing to denounce Ms. Dolezal.

As a former NAACP branch president, I can bear witness to the fact that the road toward racial justice has significantly more bystanders and onlookers than travelers.  It seems to this writer that those who are heaping hot coals on Ms. Dolezal’s head should check to make sure their résumés reveal evidence of public anti-racist activism and advocacy.  To be sure, racism is an equal opportunity destroyer that consumes both the oppressed and the oppressor.  America’s racial house is experiencing a multi-alarm fire and we need anyone with water, regardless of their race, to help extinguish it.  I offer my thanks to Ms. Dolezal for her dedicated work to dismantle systemic racism, and I pray for healing within her family and the Spokane branch of our beloved NAACP.

Racism: The Continuing Contaminant

One of the most difficult realities for many to accept is that the contaminating sewage, which is racism, continues to seep into social, political, and religious systems and remains there, untreated and very lethal to African Americans and other People of Color. It goes undetected by many power/privilege-possessing people because their perspectives, values, and fears form so much of what is called valid or “mainstream.”

Mainstreamed racist contamination leads to institutional callousness and arrogance that discount the realities, perspectives and aspirations of African Americans and other People of Color, and nullifies their existence except in fields such as arts, entertainment and sports. This happens every day, even in the church. In fact, church racism is quite debilitating because people confuse smiles and “we love you” sentiments with justice. They are not the same! The presence of an African American president or as other senior leaders in church and societal realms DOES NOT mean there is no racism in their systems. In many ways, it just gives license for many to believe that systemic racism is cured. I can tell you, it remains untreated and deadly in church circles.

Fixing systemic racism in public education, church organizations and society requires power/privilege-possessing people to admit they hold these advantages, while using their positions to create avenues for anti-racist power analyses, listening, truth telling, and power sharing en route to building and maintaining diverse, multicultural systems that have justice at their core, valuing all while trivializing none.

From Fear and Self-Preservation to Faith and Goodwill

On July 4, 2014 my family and I were part of a massive crowd of people that attended an outdoor concert when out of nowhere the elements of fear and self-preservation were released into the crowd causing a stampede.  Several people, including one of my daughters and me, were knocked to the ground.  Scores of people on a nearby hill stood motionless as they watched the rampaging crowd.  For a moment, I thought my daughter and I would be crushed!  By God’s grace, we collected ourselves and sprang up in time to witness a small yet bold and dedicated security crew diffuse the mayhem and prevent serious injury and loss of life.  After calm was restored, my daughter and I had our injured knees bandaged by Red Cross personnel visibly on the scene.

Four learnings: 1.  Fear and self-preservation can lead people to believe they must engage in irrational, unjust acts that can harm the life and well-being of those around them; 2. Many people stand and watch as others are consumed by fast moving, dignity-nullifying groups who have numbers on their side; 3.  It doesn’t always take a large group to end chaos and establish justice.  Small yet bold and dedicated crews of people, motivated by a sense of goodwill and fairness, possess the ability to effectively work for change; 4. People who are injured by those who have numbers and power on their side need places to go for healing.

I pray that the church of 2015 and beyond will never allow fear and self-preservation to give it the ill-conceived view that it must lead or be part of stampede-like actions that hurt others, or even to live as bystanders to social and ecclesiastical mayhem, for such inactivity erodes Christian credibility and gives consent to systemic misbehavior.  Instead, I hope we follow Jesus and adhere to the love-justice ethic of our faith and work together to establish and maintain human dignity and to end injustice wherever it exists – in social and economic realms, and within church operated corridors.  I hope we will acknowledge the brokenness of people all around us and position our churches as visible stations of healing and hope for victims of the stampedes of life.

Thanks be to God, our knees are better now!  Praise God for the security crew and the Red Cross personnel on the scene.  Amen