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On Fighting Racism

It’s not enough to be non-racist, you must be antiracist. ~ Angela Davis 

These stirring words by political activist, professor, and author, Angela Davis, Ph.D. (b. 1944), demand active participation in the ongoing battle against racial oppression.  And Black history month is a prime time to add to one’s arsenal by learning the history and understanding the struggle. In short, these words are a call to action.

Black history month is a time that focuses on the contributions and struggles of Black people in the United States and around the world. However, Black history is also filled with examples of bigotry, violence, and injustice against Black people—again, in the United States and around the world.  Racism and the fight against racism are themes that run the gamut of more than 400 years of African American history. 

 The battle against white supremacy and racism as well as the struggle for equality and justice has raged in the United States since the Europeans initiated their first genocidal acts against the indigenous peoples on the American continent. The African slave trade and slavery were the continued outgrowth of this white supremacist and terrorist mentality—as were segregation, lynching, state-sanctioned violence, mass imprisonment, and continuing forced labor of African Americans. 

It is a battle between the oppressive racist system and the oppressed under that system. While the white supremacist structures are growing more sophisticated and repressive, the oppressed people are continuing to fight against (and even destroying) these structures. They are working to create a society (and a world) based on economic, social and political equality as well as justice and tolerance.  There are only two sides: Either support the existing white supremacist structure or fight against it.  And activists have pointed out this dualist line since the battle began. There is no gray area.

Taking a scriptural approach, American theologian Rev. Dr. James H. Cone (1936 - 2018) noted that learning about equality and freedom created a “crisis situation.” An enslaved person was forever changed when he or she was introduced to the enlightenment ideas of equality and freedom. In his groundbreaking and eye-opening book, Black Theology and Black Power (1969), Rev. Dr. Cone states,

The hearing of the news of freedom through the preaching of the Word always invites the hearer to take one of two sides: He must either side with the old rules or the new one. ‘He that is not for me is against me.

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Rev. James H. Cone

Rev. James H. Cone

Rev. Dr. Cone decidedly points out,

There is no neutral position in a war. Even in silence, one is automatically identified as being on the side of the oppressor. ~ Black Theology and Black Power

In a special message to liberal whites, he powerfully concludes,

There is no place in this war of liberation for nice white people who want to avoid taking sides and remain friends with both the racists and the Negro.

~ Black Theology and Black Power

Then Rev. Dr. Cone bluntly asks: “Whose side are you on?”

Nobel Peace Price recipient and radical activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 - 1968) also saw the battle and that everyone must take a side. He refers to “silence” and “non-racist” not as neutral but rather as supporting the position of the oppressor.

Dr. King said,  

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

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There are many examples of organizations and individuals who fought against oppression. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led marched against segregation. The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) rode integrated buses into the segregated southern states. Individual activists protested injustice and inequality and fought for civil rights under dangerous circumstances. But Dr. King knew that their battles were constantly undermined and weakened by the “non-racist” standing silently on the sidelines. 

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In a rare expression of contempt, Dr. King scolded,

The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict. ~ Dr. Martin Luther King

In this war against racism, many people are still working to dismantle the structures of racial, economic and political oppression.  And opportunities to fight racism are constant. Yet many people do not understand or believe that the battle even exists; they see and criticize only the individual “bad actor” (or racist) rather than view the large number of “bad actors” as part of what Dr. Angela Davis wisely identifies as “the apparatus” of racism.  They don’t have the “crisis situation” that forces them to choose a side.

Dr. Davis notes, “I fear that if we don’t take seriously the ways in which racism is embedded in structures of institutions, if we assume that there must be an identifiable racist who is the perpetrator, then we won’t ever succeed in eradicating racism.” 

Notice the clothing of the loan officer!

Notice the clothing of the loan officer!

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In a stunning poem by racial equity consultant and trainer, Desiree Adaway presents a Black woman’s perspective on living in a racist society that transcends the individual racist. Instead it describes the effects of the racist system and its supporting structures:

It is Not Enough

I am a Black woman.

Being a Black woman can get me killed.

My identity can get me killed.

Can we just sit with that reality for a moment?

My identity can get me killed.

But, I have known this my entire life.

These systems kill us whether it is the face of a militia member carrying automatic weapons or politicians using pens as they draft legislation.

Me and mine are in danger.
If I am in danger, then so are you.

When we talk about who we are as a country we never mention the laws, norms, and systems which make it clear that this country is built for the comfort, ease and success of some of us.

[She ends the poem with a call to action.]

 “It is not enough to not feed the machine,

We have to take the machine apart piece by piece.

~ Desiree Adaway

Read the entire poem here.

In the war against racism, the sides are clear.

Whose side are you on?

Consider this…

 While examining how to dismantle the “apparatus of oppression,” American feminist, womanist, poet and activist, Audre Lorde (1934 - 1992) presents her view of the war against racism in her radical and insightful essay, Learning from the 1960s:

“Can any one of us here still afford to believe that efforts to reclaim the future can be private or individual? Can anyone here still afford to believe that the pursuit of liberation can be the sole and particular province of any one particular race, or sex, or age, or religion, or sexuality, or class?”  

If there is any doubt about her commitment, she continues, 

“We share a common interest, survival, and it cannot be pursued in isolation from others simply because their differences make us uncomfortable.” 

Then Lorde strongly proclaims:

“To refuse to participate in the shaping of our future is to give it up.”

And follows with an uncompromising call-to-arms.

“Each of us must find our work and do it. Militancy no longer means guns at high noon, if it ever did. It means actively working for change, sometimes in the absence of any surety that change is coming.”

This is the work of the antiracist.

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