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"Is Racism Permanent? A Symposium (Part 2),"

by R. Jay Allain November/December 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

The question "Is racism permanent?" resembles a Zen koan, one of those provocative questions the master would pose to the disciple. If the student quickly answered either yes or no, the master would give a brusque reply, signaling that the neophyte had failed to ponder the matter deeply. In our case, while the dominant (white) culture has obviously thought too little about the social costs of racism, the question about its permanence is somewhat absurd. For example, the healer does not fixate on the prevalence of illness; she heals. A more useful question is, "What must be done to make racism less virulent?" And clearly, while many of us grasp the urgent need for a radical social transformation that would cast racism into "the ash heap of history, "the journey will be long and difficult. Let me briefly explore three interrelated social forces that assail us so that we might be more cognizant of them.

First, consider the power of denial, denial that would not only attempt to suppress or rationalize the human costs of racism on its victims but would also disavow the very privilege that whites receive simply as a function of skin color. The French thinker Simone Weil spoke to the silence of victims when she wrote: "As for those who have been struck by one of those blows that leaves a being struggling on the ground like a half crushed worm, they have no words to express what is happening to them." As for the others, the perpetrators of racism, most will sincerely state they do not commit racist acts, as if that were enough. They fail to realize that in a society permeated by collective and institutionalized racism, one must actively seek to dismantle its pernicious effects. Denial persists because of the terrifying (to many) insight that to acknowledge racism is to concede one's complicity in its maintenance.

Second, to begin to see racism is to admit the need to act. And, to act is to risk. Yet Erich Fromm has pointed out our societal obsession with security over risk taking, our collective reticence to traverse unfamiliar social terrain. The German theologian Dorothee Solle described the estrangement she experienced as she grew more radicalized in her essay, "Resurrection and Liberation" (in Border Regions of Faith, Kenneth Aman, ed., Orbis Books, 1987):

Neighbors stopped greeting me, and colleagues ceased their chatting when I entered. On the one hand, I became lonelier; on the other hand, my eyes were opened to persons who had been invisible to me before. I learned a new type of relationship based on the common cause.

Each of us must consider then: Am I willing to accept such invalidation? And are we able to nurture the community bonds that will help others to risk such stigmatization? To go forward, we must be able to answer yes wholeheartedly to each question.

Third, and finally, historically we know that animosity between people from different races, social classes and genders increases as the economy has deteriorated. Almost 60 years ago, W.E.B. DuBois wrote of the impact of early capitalism in words that resonate powerfully today: "God wept; but that mattered little to an unbelieving age; what mattered was that the world wept and still is weeping and blind with tears and blood."

At present the established order has effectively exploited white middle-class fears about the underclass, thus deflecting legitimate rage from itself and subverting the prospects for progressive social change. Yet as the middle class comes to experience the savagery of economic oppression and displacement, a savagery people of color and the poor have known for centuries, the organizing possibilities for the Left may well expand. Rather than maintaining the feeble hope that the floundering economy and ossified political structures will somehow right themselves, we must help create a popular groundswell that insists on accountability and an improved quality of life. This will necessitate forging coalitions and breaking down age-old barriers that have allowed the commonweal to be fractured.

Be assured that the enduring vision of real egalitarianism and power-sharing among all peoples in the United States will not be disseminated through the mass media or mainstream publications. For a livable future, we will increasingly need to look to alternative sources of information-and each other. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." Only we can force power to make concessions.


R. Jay Allain tutors part time in an inner-city high school and is a community activist in Springfield, MA.


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