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Learning the Reality of Racism

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Sometimes white people think that racism is a dead issue, because they do not experience it. Yet it is not wise to judge other people's experience based on our non-experience.

In 1991, I converted to the Black Church. Unlike my earlier conversion from atheism, it wasn't a religious conversion so much as a social conversion. I had been through the most difficult time in my life, and I found that the Black Church knew how to deal with pain. In fact, they had centuries of experience dealing with it.

I also had begun feeling deceived by my own culture. I thought the civil rights movement had mostly ended any serious problems regarding race, except for a few crazy white supremacists here and there. But when I began living in an African-American neighborhood, I would listen as friends and neighbors talked about a world unfamiliar to me. And I was horrified as some of the students at the university I was attending chatted about their almost daily experiences of racism. People had said or done things to them that I didn't think happened any more, simply because they didn't happen to me.

One day, after hearing my friends recount multiple racist encounters, I confidentially asked one of the students, Arthur, about it after the others left. Recognizing that I had lived a sheltered life, he simply recounted the story of his first English course at the university. He was the only African-American student in the class, and the teacher called him aside after the first day of class. "You need to drop this course," she advised, "because you are not going to pass it. And if you tell anyone about this conversation, it will be your word against mine." Arthur chose to stay in the class and, undoubtedly to the teacher's surprise, he earned an A. I was horrified by the incident he recounted. "That doesn't happen often, does it?" I inquired. He eyed me sympathetically, recognizing that I didn't get it yet.

Some years later I was living in a different African-American neighborhood in a different town. This time there were many drug dealers in the neighborhood, whom I sometimes found sitting on my front porch. Some neighbors complained that the police cracked down on the drug dealers only when they strayed from our neighborhood into a white neighborhood; this policy was called "containment." Then some white people complained that we had a drug problem in our neighborhood.

Finally, my fourth year there, the police began cracking down on the drug dealers in our neighborhood, and we were grateful. (I even sent the police department a thank you note.) But one day when I was out jogging, a police officer pulled me over. "Sir," he warned compassionately, "do you know what kind of neighborhood you're in? There are drug dealers in this neighborhood!" I glanced around at all the neighbor children who were playing. He hadn't warned them. I concluded that I had finally been pulled over on account of my race.

In the part of the U.S. where I was living, most residents at that time envisaged ethnic conflict as primarily the division between black and white. Many whites had defended slavery, opposed blacks being able to vote, supported segregation, and even in my own time many continued to act prejudicially. Whether any black people wanted to or not, blacks had never held the power as a group to treat white people the same way. Insofar as there were just two sides, it was clear which side was the right one, so I converted to that side. Though there were many whites who did value racial reconciliation, for years I viewed my skin color as a mark of shame to be answered for, until people got to know me and forgot what complexion my skin was.

I eventually learned, however, that the social principles involved in white racism were not limited to complexion. That is, if white people were devils, as Malcolm X had once held, they were not alone in that characteristic. I learned this especially from my wife, Dr. Médine Moussounga. She experienced her share of racism among whites; for example, when she showed up for a job interview in France and the interviewer saw that she was black, he said simply, "Oh, we don't hire blacks here." But she faced more dangerous ethnic prejudice in her own country in Central Africa, where she spent 18 months as a war refugee due to ethnic conflict there.

A majority of nations in the world have ethnic minorities among them, and usually there are misunderstandings, tensions and often worse. As one African-American preacher put it, "Racism is a sin problem, not a skin problem." When human selfishness is taken to a larger social level, we privilege our own group -- race, nation, tribe, religion, class, gender, etc. -- over others. Recognizing that principle does not absolve us from addressing those prejudices concretely. Obviously in cases like apartheid or Jim Crow, black-white tensions have dominated. But provided we take into account differences, some principles we learn from those struggles may help us as we address justice in other conflicts as well.

I don't worry about my skin tone anymore; my friends know my heart and my commitments. But racism and related behaviors continue to cause untold suffering to people here and around the world. Sadly, they did not end in the '60s, even though they have improved. Remembering the lessons of the past is one important step toward working for justice in the present and future.