Racism: We have breathed it in.


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CaptureThis post also appears in the summer issue of Abundant Times magazine in mailboxes September 1-2.

This fall our diocese will begin offering days of reflection called TOWARD THE BELOVED COMMUNITY: HOLY CONVERSATIONS ABOUT RACE. I am grateful for the team formed from the Social Justice Committee that created the framework and gathered the resources for these days. I look forward to participating and having my vision expanded and my soul engaged.

When I reflect on my own journey of race relations, I can see how my understanding has evolved. When the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s was changing our country, I was too young to appreciate what was going on. It was later, in college and seminary, that I developed a passionate interest in the Movement, studied it in-depth, and spent several summers working with the southern poor.

My admiration for the great men and women that made history working for justice continued to grow through the years. With the cadets at West Point and the youth groups of Grace Millbrook, I placed great emphasis on the witness of Jonathan Daniels – the young Episcopal seminarian who gave his life in the struggle. Underlying this was a belief that if we could all just follow in their footsteps, racism would end.


The four little girls killed in the 16th Street church bombing in Birmingham, AL; The Edmund Pettus Bridge – site of “Bloody Sunday”; Seminarian Jonathan Myrick Daniels, d. 1965

While continuing my deep appreciation for all that has been done for racial equality by so many – the famous and those unnamed in the great cloud of witnesses- my understanding of racism has been expanded by a fable I heard a year ago. Here it is:

A long, long time ago there was a place where people were very poor. They were farmers and their tending of the land produced very little. Life was hard. But then someone discovered a fertilizer that made all the difference. The crops grew and grew. The society became prosperous and remained so for hundreds of years.

Then one day it was discovered that the fertilizer was, and always had been, toxic. The food people were eating, the air they were breathing, was poisonous. It was actually killing them slowly.

Here is the insight. For hundreds of years we took human beings from Africa and enslaved them. They worked on our farms and America became prosperous. Slavery and the racism that comes with it is a big part of our story. Slavery has ended but the racism that comes with it remains. It is not just past history. It is part of us. We have breathed it in.

The struggle with racism is not about “helping black people.” It is about understanding and addressing the toxic atmosphere that makes all of our lives less than what God intends.

Professor Ryan Williams Virden explores this further in writing about racial justice.

“The first step to creating this justice is to understand how it was sidelined in the first place. We must understand the way that whiteness — fitting into the Anglo-Saxon archetype –has been valued historically via formal avenues such as legislation and school curriculum as well as informal ones such as social customs, traditions and practices. Because much of this is passed down through generations, or happens away from public scrutiny, or is largely implicit it is necessary to learn and then unlearn this sordid history and way of being. Once we can come to grips with the ways whiteness keeps us from our own humanity and strangles our souls there is no other choice then to struggle for this justice. We won’t struggle because we are trying to help anyone else, or feel bad for them; we will struggle because our own freedom, our own humanity, is tied up with everyone else’s.”

I’m going to reflect more on this statement and I invite you attend TOWARDs THE BELOVED COMMUNITY: HOLY COINVERSATIONS ABOUT RACE – because “our own humanity…is tied up with everyone else’s.”


Click here for more information about “Toward the Beloved Community: Holy Conversations About Race.