THE BLOG

Racism: Who Is Guilty? Who Is Not Guilty?

08/21/2014 06:13 am ET | Updated Oct 21, 2014
  • Malcolm Boyd Bestselling author, 90-year-old gay elder and civil rights pioneer, Episcopal priest
Kevork Djansezian via Getty Images

The war of words is raging. Evidently there is plenty of guilt to tarnish virtually everybody. What are the facts? It seems easy to find statements and views that bolster one's own opinion.

Much of it is shrouded in huge blocks of history. Slavery existed in the United States. It was institutionalized. Some people owned slaves. Repeat, owned them. Other people were -- what shall we call them? I believe they were labeled slaves.

This went on for multiple decades -- in fact it moved into granite-hard generations. In recent years we've experienced an explosion of books, films, plays, biographies, autobiographies, poems, sermons, et al. An explosion! The road and choreography of slavery now bolster best-seller lists. In fact, it is a kind of open experience. It is inexplicably, eternally a lingering memory. Geography becomes involved, so do dollars, along with countless, countless lives.

Some people think the answer is to be found in an endless outpouring of experience. Others suggest more subtlety, a more indirect sort of communication. They claim the answer is legion, writ large and small, all over the place.

Is it? The point is that black American life and white American life stay rigidly separated at absolutely key moments of human communication. A visitor from Asia or Europe senses this immediately upon entry to this culture. Do some people feel they are "better" than some other people? Or maybe it's not that at all. Does it, in fact, cut far deeper?

Is it ownership of wealth and position? Is it hereditary? Does it involve one's schooling experience, network of friends and acquaintances, perhaps a very definition of opportunity? Today the Obama kids are learning in one of the finest private schools in the nation. Why not? What is an alternative? It requires the closest cooperation between the Secret Service and other powers that be. Isn't this the best solution? Indeed, the only one?

Yet racism literally means a kind of separation. Haven't most Americans, at one stage of life or another, experienced the shadow of racism? It can keep kids from knowing each other. The neighborhood party to which one has just been invited -- how open or closed is it? How and when do people relax together?

Schools are ideal places to break down barriers. In the better schools, as in the better neighborhoods, there is an entrenched code of behavior; indeed, an entrenched morality. It isn't' simply what fork or spoon to use in a particular situation. It's when to laugh or not. It's really "security" in a given social situation. This can become awfully, awfully complicated.

God help people of good intentions on every side of the so-called racial issue. Do I have anything concrete to suggest?

Be open to learning the life story of someone else. Avoid making an easy judgment when someone else's life experience is involved. Take another look at what's funny. Maybe it isn't funny at all. Are you ready to open up your family to include some new people?