Why the post-racial label only perpetuates racism (COMMENTARY)

(RNS) Racism is not about racists. It is about power that is directed against marginalized groups to keep them marginalized.

Hussein Rashid is a professor of Religion at Hofstra University, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Truman National Security Fellow. He works at the intersection of religion, art, and national identity. Photo by Ali Ansary

(RNS) The shooting of Michael Brown and the failure of a grand jury to indict the shooter, Darren Wilson, are symptoms of a wider malaise.

It is part of a deep-seated illness that infects our body politic: racism.


A candid portrait of the President during a meeting, juxtaposed with the paintings of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, busts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, and the Emancipation Proclamation. Photo by Pete Souza/The White House.

The sad reality is that so many people believe we live in a post-racial society because we have a black president. We cannot address the issue, challenge ourselves and transform our societies without a prophetic voice. Ferguson is the space where I see that voice re-emerging into America’s consciousness.

Racism is not just about individual acts. It is about a system that allows unarmed black boys to be shot at a rate 20 times that of white boys; it allows a prosecutor to deliver a speech as a defense attorney for the accused after he fails to get an indictment. It is a system that has a black president telling people to calm down as the police, in military gear, attack them.

Racism is not about racists. It is about power that is directed against marginalized groups to keep them marginalized. We see this in American history directed against Jews, Catholics, Irish, Italians, Muslims, gays, Sikhs, women and so many more, but always against blacks. It is about prejudice mixed with that power, so that those with power always preserve themselves.

Therefore, the talk of a post-racial society can exist only among those with power who say they are not racist. But that does not erase racism.

To say we are post-racial is to actively engage with and perpetuate racism and racist structures. This is liberal racism, at best, and a desire to maintain the systems of domination, at worst.

The only response to this sort of deep, structural bias is a prophetic reimagining of the world in which we live. The prophetic voice is a vision of the world not as it could be, but as it should be.

Civil rights activist Malcolm X in an undated photo. Religion News Service file photo

Civil rights activist Malcolm X in an undated photo. Religion News Service file photo

When I hear people say we should all protest like Martin Luther King Jr., I have to wonder who they think Martin was. He was not someone who said racism was bad and then got arrested, beaten. He spoke out against war; he spoke for economic equality; he spoke for a total reconstruction of American society.

His vision was twinned with that of Malcolm X. Their successes are intimately linked. It is that shared space of deeply held beliefs, coupled with a powerful love, that allowed both, with so many others, to challenge the inequality of the time. Sanitizing King or X is a part of racism, too. It turns phrases like “content of our character” into a platitude and a cudgel against the very people it was meant to uplift.

Police officer Wilson’s testimony tells us racism is an existential part of the American experience. He called Michael Brown an “it” and a “demon.” He shot Brown multiple times, as though Brown were some inhuman beast.

Yet, the prophetic voice says that because Wilson saw Brown as a demon does not mean God was absent. It means Wilson’s demons stopped him from seeing God in Brown.

How can one summon compassion with such anger at the verdict? We saw it, as faith leaders stood arm-in-arm protecting peaceful protesters; as members of rival gangs stood in solidarity; as clergy walked saying, “This is what theology looks like.”

Hussein Rashid photo by Ali Ansary

Hussein Rashid photo by Ali Ansary

It is compassion that lies at the core of the prophetic voice, to feel the experiences of another person. And that compassion naturally leads to a reimagining of the way we do things.

The tragedy in Ferguson has created a space for that transformative, compassionate voice to emerge once more. May we see a thousand Martins and a thousand Malcolms.

(Hussein Rashid is a professor of religious studies at Hofstra University and associate editor of Religion Dispatches. He is also a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Truman National Security Project fellow and a senior fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.)


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