Racism is the demeaning of an entire group of people and refusal to see them as fully human in the way we see ourselves and those we deem to be “like” us. When we fail to see the humanity of the “other,” we ascribe to them ugly characteristics that somehow justify treating them with less honor and less generosity than we would others who are part of the groups we do see as fundamentally like us. From this place of separation we justify denying the “other” equal rights, benefits, and caring that all human beings deserve.
Racism in the United States has a long history. It was foundational to U.S. expansion throughout the North American continent, allowing white people to justify to themselves genocidal policies toward Native Americans, to allow slavery, and to incorporate into our Constitution a provision that would count African slaves as three-fifths of a human being so that Southern States would have higher representation in the Congress, though racists both North and South didn’t think of them as human beings at all.
Racism has persisted as a major factor in American politics even after slavery and then segregation were abolished. Though racism exists against Jews, Latinos, Asian Americans and more generally people of color, its most striking manifestation is in the horrendous treatment of African Americans.
Paul Krugman, in a New York Times column on June 22, 2015, cites the considerable evidence that people in Southern states (those who fought in the Civil War in order to preserve their ability to hold slaves) are the core of those in the U.S. who vote against their own economic well-being rather than support policies which would also benefit African Americans.
The Republican Party moved from marginality to a powerful force in the U.S. precisely by providing those Southerners with a variant of conservative politics that gave them code words for the racism that shaped their consciousness and permitted them to allow their fear and hatred of African Americans to overcome what might otherwise have been a tendency for middle income and poorer whites to vote for their material self-interests (opposing rises in the minimum wage, supporting candidates who would cut social security benefits, most recently denying to their own fellow citizens Obamacare benefits of reducing the cost of their medical care). And with the assistance of clueless liberals like Senator Dianne Feinstein and many Senate Democrats, Republicans were able to vote in the U.S. Supreme Court justices who failed to see the humanity of the “other” and predictably undermined democracy by giving the super-rich opportunities to shape the outcome of elections while effectively dismantling the key parts of the Voting Rights Act – the crowning accomplishment of those who imagined civil rights legislation would end racist practices.
To uproot this racism at every level in which it manifests, we need a systematic program. As spiritual progressives, we start first with the need to grieve all the suffering that victims of racism have suffered throughout human history, and more particularly what African Americans have suffered in the U.S. through slavery, segregation, and now the rapid incarceration of Black young men, police harassment, murder by police or by white racists, unequal treatment in the courtrooms and prisons, constant discrimination, and much more. Please take a moment to allow your grief to be expressed (yes, right now, but also later with other people as a prelude whenever you enter a discussion about racism). And then, move on to an action agenda such as we propose below. Here is what we Spiritual Progressives recommend:
1. To deal with the racist dimension of police violence, we need to mandate police review commissions in every municipality, half of whose members would be elected by the community and half of whom would be appointed by the leadership of the relevant racial minorities, empowered to investigate charges of racism and to bring indictments against police officers who are accused of systematic harassment of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, or other frequently targeted groups, or accused of using excessive violence against anyone (not just African Americans), or skipping the normal grand jury process.
(A potential different approach to dealing with police problems is suggested by Fania Davis, writing in Yes Magazine: a restorative justice model that brings youth, families, and communities directly affected by the killings–along with allies–to partner with the federal government to establish a commission. Imagine a commission that serves as a facilitator, community organizer, or council of elders to catalyze, guide, and support participatory, inclusive, and community-based processes. A truth and reconciliation process could create safe public spaces for youth, families, neighbors, witnesses, and other survivors to share their stories. Though this will happen in major metropolitan hubs, the truths learned and the knowledge gained would be broadly shared. Importantly, the process would also create skillfully facilitated dialogue where responsible parties engage in public truth-telling and take responsibility for wrongdoing.)
We have to approach police with the same compassion we seek for everyone. Most police are not bad people. Yet the situations they are placed in, and the culture of racism that they often encounter in their training and in the daily discourse in the police stations has a cumulative impact. So too does the culture of violence that is part of their training. Police officers are better trained and equipped to respond violently than nonviolently, causing unnecessary harm and suffering for their community members. To counter this trend, we need to have mandated training for police officers in nonviolent response to nonviolent action, nonviolent communication and conflict resolution, and de-escalation of violence through nonviolent responses.
2. To deal with the economic legacy of slavery and segregation, we need an economic program that ends Black poverty without creating a new reason to resent Blacks by seeming to provide them with goodies that lower-income white people don’t have. The solution, of course, is to eliminate the vast inequalities in Western societies, most pronounced in the United States. Here are some of the necessary steps:
a. Raise everyone’s wages to that of whatever is deemed by the Living Wage Calculator (developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Project) – a sufficient “living wage” (not a minimum wage, but a wage sufficient to provide for the food, shelter, clothing, energy, education, and health care necessary to care for oneself and one’s dependents. This calculator is based on local standards, not a national standard to take into account the different costs of living throughout the country).
b. Expand Medicare to include everyone (what is sometimes referred to as a “Single Payer” system). Medicare is a system that already works well for seniors and does not force any patient to see a doctor they don’t want to see or any doctor to see a patient they don’t want to see.
c. Provide community-controlled childcare and elder care provided by well trained teachers and caregivers.
d. Offer free higher education, including graduate or professional schools (with recipients of this benefit committing to provide a comparable number of years to community service projects), and an inheritance for all to be paid to each person after completing a minimum of two years of full-time community service either after higher education or if they do not go to college, after receiving skills training. (For a full explanation of this inheritance-for-everyone idea and how it would work as well as many other valuable ideas, see Anthony B. Atkinson’s book Inequality: What Can be Done?).
e. Pay for this by raising income tax rates to a progressive level comparable to that which the U.S. had in early 1950s (adjusted for inflation), a tax on inheritance sufficient to pay for the universal inheritance plan described in point d., a tax on every financial transaction involving monies above $1 million, and a tax on wealth including financial assets and debts for anyone whose net wealth is above $7 million in 2015 dollars.
f. Municipalities that have a higher rate of neighborhoods in which wealthier people live without a significant proportion of people from the lower 50% of income earners and wealth holders live shall pay higher taxes to the federal government to help pay for these programs until the wealthier neighborhoods are integrated on a class basis so that the wealthier people can enjoy the benefits of knowing what it is like to live with far less income and wealth than they.
3. We must affirm the Humanity of All Education Requirement. Any school receiving federal aid or federal loans, or using roads paid for by public money must teach a course affirming the humanity of everyone on the planet, starting in earlier grades by teaching the history of racism in the US and around the world, but continuing through college and professional schools, and in courses in the U.S. Armed Forces and anyone receiving federal benefits (including participating in social security, or using banks that receive FDIC insurance).
These courses must teach love and caring for the “Other” (the stranger, people who are different from you in race, religion, sexual preference, gender, cultural history, physical appearance, abilities and intelligence, nationality, or location on the planet), empathy, compassion, non-violence, generosity, and instill in students a desire to assist and protect these Others, particularly those who have been previously discriminated against or oppressed. (We know schools are capable of helping students care for the Other because we see this in the anti-bullying efforts that have been put in place in many schools throughout the nation.)
While a major focus of this education should be on undermining racism against African Americans, there should also be focus on Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Jews, and Muslims, and even some attention to the demeaning of Irish, Italians, and Poles.
In the higher grades these programs should also teach compassion and caring for all people on the planet and foster a sense of global solidarity with the peoples of the world. A strong record of caring toward others should become an important factor in college, graduate, and professional school entrance requirements and in scholarship awards. The organization Teaching Tolerance provides a wealth of information, programs, exercises, and teachings that could provide a strong foundation for any program of this nature.
Racism has a long history and claim on the unconscious inheritance that gets passed on from generation to generation, so none of these programs will be sufficient to fully eradicate racism in a single generation. But pursued with real commitment and intention for several generations, they have the greatest possible chance of making a real dent in reducing the kind of criminal acts of racism that are a part of daily life in contemporary America. All of this should be done with a focus on empathy and compassion for those who have grown up with teachings that instill in them racist ideologies. We want to transform our world with the love, caring for the other, compassion, and empathy that we want in our world. We do not seek to stigmatize racists, but to transform racist institutions, economic realities, and racist behaviors.
None of this is sufficient. As Tikkun Editor-at-Large Peter Gabel (in his forthcoming book The Desire for Mutual Recognition) points out, defeating racism requires addressing the underlying psycho-spiritual causes of racism. Gabel’s central point is that a young man like Dylann Roof, the man who boasts of his racism before being arrested for killing nine African Americans in their church in Charleston, is not a “mentally ill individual” or a merely a madman driven by hate or a desire to terrorize others, but a social person caught in a web of human relationships in which he feels humiliated for never having been fully recognized as a human being and who feels he has no way out of his worthlessness. In response, he and countless others develop a “false self” he imagines to be worthy and powerful, a member of an idealized “white race” that provides him with a substitute sense of worth and value covering over his inner emptiness and sense of valuelessness. Yet because this sense of collective value is what Gabel calls “false” or imaginary, Roof and people like him feel constantly under attack from an imaginary, demonized “other,” which in the historic context of the American South is the African American people who he imagines are “taking over” and trying to recreate his experience of humiliation. Thus he comes to feel they must be killed, just as Hitler (or Heinrich Himmler) felt about the Jews prior to the “final solution” of the Holocaust. To truly address racism like Roof’s, Gabel suggests, we must not only condemn it and outlaw its manifestations, although of course that must be the first step, but also include as part of our response addressing the legacy of inter-human distortions that produce and reproduce racism as a pathological way of seeing the world.
It is also important to remember that racism is rarely confined to just one target. According to what writers like Henry Krinkle and Emma Quangel have identified as his manifesto, as reported in the Daily Kos, Roof approvingly described East Asians as “very racist,” declared Hispanics to be “our enemies,” and went on at length about how much he despises Jews. He says that much of the problem with Blacks is that they are too sensitive about their identity and he blames that on Jewish agitation. Roof writes:
Unlike many White nationalists, I am of the opinion that the majority of American and European jews are White. In my opinion the issues with jews is not their blood, but their identity. I think that if we could somehow destroy the jewish identity, then they wouldnt cause much of a problem. The problem is that jews look White, and in many cases are White, yet they see themselves as minorities. Just like niggers, most jews are always thinking about the fact that they are jewish. The other issue is that they network. If we could somehow turn every jew blue for 24 hours, I think there would be a mass awakening, because people would be able to see plainly what is going on.
And yes, racism is a worldwide phenomenon, and no people can be fully ruled sinless. Yet for us in the U.S., the most pressing racism is that against African Americans, and hence our corresponding obligation to take major steps to combat it.
The creation of a society in which humiliation is replaced by empathy, love, generosity and mutual-recognition is the primary goal of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and is articulated and explained in our “New Bottom Line” (please read www.spiritualprogressives.org/covenant).
This is not a utopian fantasy, but a project that will take at least as long as overcoming sexism and racism. The NSP has a step-by-step plan for how to make this happen. It will take millions of people embracing the New Bottom Line and engaging in public action to remake all our public and private institutions in ways that embody this new consciousness. That is precisely what the NSP seeks to achieve. So it is important that when engaging in struggles to achieve any of the other parts of this anti-racism agenda which we’ve put forward above that you simultaneously articulate the larger version of The New Bottom Line. And that in turn is why you should join our Network of Spiritual Progressives and then engage with us in the specific ways that you can in your own community. Please don’t say “I was against racism and hated what was happening to African Americans and other victims of racism, but I didn’t know what to do.” THIS IS WHAT TO DO–JOIN US.
Rabbi Lerner always welcomes your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org (though he reads everything he receives, the volume of his emails preclude him from answering everything he reads). Once you join the NSP, you can contact the executive director Cat Zavis to discuss how to take the first steps in your community (email@example.com). If you are not ready to become actively involved in some way, joining the NSP is nevertheless an important step you can take to help us promote these ideas in the public sphere by giving us the financial backing we need to continue this consciousness-raising work.
Cat Zavis is the executive director of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. A lawyer, mediator, coach, and trainer of “empathic communication,” Ms. Zavis leads trainings on how to be a spiritual progressive activist and how to talk compassionately to people with different perspectives than one’s own about the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine and co-chair with Vandana Shaiva of the interfaith and secular-humanist welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives. He is also rabbi at Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in Berkeley, Ca. and author of Jewish Renewal: A path to healing and transformation; Embracing Israel/Palestine; The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right; Spirit Matters; The Politics of Meaning; with Cornel West: Jews and Blacks–Let the Healing Begin; The Socialism of Fools: Anti-Semitism on the Left; Surplus Powerlessness: The Psychodynamics of Daily Life and Work; and more.