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A Conscious Choice to Love

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First off, let’s stop thinking about Civil Rights as a black/white Issue. It has always been a white issue. That is to say that the application of the one drop rule in the American consciousness has resulted in a binary perception of white/non-white where whites have access to privilege and non-whites do not. In some cases and at some times this binary perception has been codified into law, in the form of Jim Crow laws, Asian and Hispanic Exclusion laws, etc. It is currently illegal to apply this perception of race in public accommodation, but public racism continues in hidden forms.

Racism is founded on a perception of difference that is not real. Scholars today have debunked the mythologies that once classified people according to skin color or blood. When categorizing different people groups, it is almost always done by language families, because scientists have recognized that there isn’t any essential or significant biological difference between members of the human race. This is, by the way, what differentiates the Civil Rights Movement from the Gay Rights Movement, because the former is trying to instill a recognition that there is no biological or genetic difference, and the latter wants to assert the opposite: that there is a “gay” gene that biologically differentiates people with same sex attraction from everyone else.

The goal of Civil Rights movements is to achieve civic equality. Our current efforts to achieve that goal, while historically significant and legally successful, have failed to produce a difference in public perception that makes it real in fact as well as in law. The events of recent months have shown that while racism has been driven from the law books it is still very much alive in the hearts of the people.

This is, I believe, at least partially because the methods of achieving civic equality have focused on categorizing people according to race. For example, every government form one fills out asks a question about race. One must self-identify in one of a number of predefined categories. The purpose of this is to ensure that one self-identifying group cannot achieve access to services disproportionately to another, or in some cases the opposite, to ensure that one self-identifying group obtains access at least on an equal basis to others. Do you not see the irony here? We categorize people according to race (a fictional category) in order to erase the consequences of false perceptions of race.

I think it is interesting that the man most associated with the Civil Rights Movement had a vision of an America that was not divided by race. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., told the nation in his most famous speech of his dream for America:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’[1]

His dream was not for Black people, it was for all people.

One sees his vision of a Beloved Community full of diversity in his earliest writings. And when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968 he was embarked on a campaign against poverty. Poverty is a condition that does not recognize socially constructed racial differences. King recognized this, and he also recognized that poor people have much more in common with each other than they do with more prosperous members of their socially constructed group. In fact, false differentiation according to race is an impediment to rising out of poverty for all groups, not just Blacks. It pits people against each other who ought to be allies.

Overcoming the harmful effects of racism is a monumental task that we as a society have begun but are yet far from achieving. There is no silver bullet. There is no easy or quick solution. I think an essential step in achieving the goal of real civic equality is to differentiate according to economics rather than ethnicity. The effects of poverty are devastating to people regardless of ethnicity. Overcoming poverty will go a long way toward erasing racism. In the United States the political elite are thoroughly integrated, while racism runs rampant among the poor.

But I am convinced that the ultimate solution is to be found in education. It is a fact that humans are taught to hate; by their families, by their environment, and by their culture. But, as Nelson Mandela noticed, if someone can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love. And so our ongoing effort must be to educate the current generation out of racism and into love. And, as King and others (i.e., Gandhi, Mandela) noticed, the only way to do that is to respond to hate with a self-sacrificing love that awakens the conscience of our lost brothers and sisters. We can’t hate our enemies into loving us. I don’t believe anyone makes a conscious choice to be racist, but I believe we can make a conscious choice to love.

[1] “I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963, in James Melvin Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 220.

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