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Working Group on Racism

Thinking about Race

2012 Items

Racial diversity in schools and colleges (January 2012)

A significant policy move was reported in the New York Times on December 2, 2011:

“The Obama administration on Friday urged colleges and universities to get creative in improving racial diversity at their campuses …. ‘Post-secondary institutions can voluntarily consider race to further the compelling interest of achieving diversity,’ reads the 10-page guide sent to college admissions officials.” A parallel 14-page outline for the nation’s 17,000 public school districts, explains what government lawyers consider to be acceptable ways that educators can seek to reduce racial segregation, which has been increasing nationwide [emphasis added].

“The new guidelines issued by the Departments of Justice and Education … [suggest] that institutions use other criteria — students’ socioeconomic profiles, residential instability, the hardships they have overcome — that are often proxies for race. …. The guidelines state, ‘An institution may permissibly aim to achieve a critical mass of underrepresented students.’

“For kindergarten through 12th grade, the guidelines tell school districts that they can shape policies on locating schools, drawing attendance boundaries and governing student transfers to achieve a better racial mix. ‘Diverse learning environments promote development of analytical skills, dismantle stereotypes and prepare students to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world,’ Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement. This week, the Department of Education also released a report documenting how schools serving low-income students get less state and local money for teacher salaries than schools serving higher-income students.”

(February 2012)

Jay Smooth, a video blogger and host of New York’s longest running hip-hop radio show, presented at a TED conference meet-up at Hampshire College. In the talk, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race,” Smooth says it’s sometimes difficult to talk about race because we’re taking the wrong approach: “We deal with race and prejudice with this all-or-nothing, good person-bad person binary, in which either you are racist or you are not racist.” The truth, he says, is that discussions about race are a lot more complex than that. And once people acknowledge that fact, they’ll be able to have more honest and productive conversations. He adds, “Anytime we’re dealing with race issues, we’re dealing with a social construct that was not born out of science or reason or logic. We’re grappling with a social construct that was not designed to make sense.”

On YouTube, search for Jay Smooth and then choose “How To Tell People They Sound Racist.” To see the full talk, go to

March 2012

The following is excerpted from Sojourners’ SOJOMAIL, a weekly email-zine of spirituality, politics and culture, 1/26/12. This is one question from a quiz, “Racial Jeopardy,” in a Guest Commentary by Lisa Sharon Harper:

10) Has the United States ever sought to repair the damage done by more than two hundred years of institutionalized racialized slavery and one hundred years of racialized Jim Crow law?

Answer: What is “no”?

As a result,

- the median wealth of white U.S. households in 2009 was $113,149, compared with $5,677 for blacks and $6,325 for Latinos, according to July 2011 data from the Pew Research Center.

- at the height of the economic downturn, the poverty rate in the black community was 27 percent, compared with 9.9 percent for whites.

- if you were to lay down a map of the nation's most toxic or polluted land and lay on top of that a map of all the most black, Latino, and Native American communities in the country, you would find a nearly one-to-one correlation.

- the U.S. incarcerates black men at a rate 6.6-times higher than that of white men.

So, my answer to the question of whether America has become a post-racial society is this: African-Americans have been completely free for just 47 years. Our nation still has work to do. Race will continue to matter in the United States until we take active, structural steps to counter the more than 300 years of racialized politics and policies ….

“What would a racially just society look like?” (April 2012)

Tim Wise, a white-anti-racist activist, responded to the question “What would a racially just society look like?” during an interview. His answer: “It’s hard to know, because I’ve never seen one. I imagine one indication would be when I could look around a neighborhood and not be able to tell--by virtue of which businesses were there and which were not, and what the houses looked like--who lived there. Because right now I can recognize signs of economic deprivation and apartheid and racial inequity almost immediately. When I can no longer do that, I will know things have changed.”

(This interview, by David Cook, appeared in the magazine The Sun, July 2009, Issue 403.)

What do you like about being White? (May 2012)

Adapted from A Race is a Nice Thing to Have by Janet E. Helms, PhD, 1992. Helms is a psychologist who has done groundbreaking work on the topic of racial identity development.

“Find a sheet of paper and a writing utensil. Set your timer for two minutes. Without censoring your thoughts, write down as many answers as you can to this question: “What do you like about being White?” For best effect, write your answers before reading further. Now, go through your answers and cross out all of the responses that (1) involve comparing yourself with other racial groups; (2) use variants of the word “racist”; or (3) involve defining yourself according to what you are not. Count the number of items remaining. This is your ‘White identity’ score and is an indicator of how you view yourself as a White person. Here is an example of your responses might be scored:

Answer                                                Disposition

1. I’m not a racist.                               Cross out this one (see above, # 1, 2, and 3)

2. Whites are the majority.                  Cross out this one (see #1)

3. I’m not Black.                                 Cross out this one (see #1)

“Thus, this person would receive a score of zero, meaning that he or she could not think of any positive consequences of being White. I have encountered few Whites who score higher than 1 on this exercise, and most score zero. So, if you scored higher than 1, then you are probably more advanced with respect to White identify development than your White counterparts.”

June 2012

Living Our Testimony on Equality: A White Friend’s Experience is a recent Pendle Hill pamphlet (December 2011). The author is one of BYM’s own – Pat Schenck of Annapolis Friends Meeting. The following passages provide a glimpse. This is from p. 5:

“… white Friends will ask, ‘What does this have to do with me? I’m not prejudiced!’ But racism has a number of aspects: the prejudice that may exist in individual people’s thoughts and actions is one aspect; institutional racism, such as who gets the best schools, health care, and jobs, in another; and cultural racism, the fact, for example, that history is generally written and taught from a European American perspective, is a third. As individuals, we have little control over institutional and cultural racism, but we benefit by it. Life is just easier if you are white, all other things being the same, and that is not fair. But a white person may not be aware of his or her advantage.”

And from p. 29: “Remember, being anti-racist does not mean being totally free of prejudice; it means committing to recognizing prejudice in ourselves and racism in society and then doing something about it.”

Summer 2012

“Race obliviousness” – Excerpt from Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks & Whites, Harlon L. Dalton, 1995, pp 109-110.

“Why do most White people not see themselves as having a race? In part, race obliviousness is the natural consequence of being in the driver’s seat. ….

“Whatever the reason, the inability or unwillingness of many White people to think of themselves in racial terms has decidedly negative consequences. For one thing, it produces huge blind spots. It leaves them baffled by the amount of energy many Blacks pour into questions of racial identity. …. It blinds Whites to the fact that their lives are shaped by race just as much as are the lives of people of color. How they view life’s possibilities; whom they regard as heroes; the extent to which they feel the country is theirs; the extent to which that belief is echoed back to them; all this and more is in part a function of their race.

“This obliviousness also makes it difficult for many Whites to comprehend why Blacks interact with them on the basis of past dealings with other Whites, and why Blacks sometimes expect them to make up for the sins of their fathers, and of their neighbors as well. Curiously enough, many of the same folk wouldn’t think twice about responding to young Black males as a type rather than as individuals.”

September 2012

from Open City: A Novel by Teju Cole, 2012, p, 251-252. Here, the narrator is attending a concert at Carnegie Hall.

“Again the oboist played an A, and this time the woodwinds tuned, and they were joined by a flurry of strings. At last a signal came from the stage, and a hush fell on the hall. Almost everyone, as almost always at such concerts, was white. It is something I can’t help noticing; I notice it each time, and try to see past it. Part of that is a quick, complex series of negotiations: chiding myself for even seeing it, lamenting the reminders of how divided our life still remains, being annoyed that these thoughts can be counted on to pass through my mind at some point in the evening. Most of the people around me were middle-aged or old. I am used to it, but it never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city, and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tall, causes no discomfort to the whites in them. The only thing odd, to some of them, is seeing me, young and black, in my seat or at the concession stand. At times, standing in line for the bathroom during intermission, I get looks that make me feel like Ora Benga, the Mbuti man who was put on display in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. I weary of such thoughts, but I am habituated to them. But Mahler’s music is not white, or black, not old or young, and whether it is even specifically human, rather than in accord with more universal vibrations, is open to question. Simon Rattle, smiling, his curly hair bouncing, came onstage to applause. He acknowledged the orchestra, and then the lights dimmed further. The silence became total and, after a moment of anticipation, Rattle gave the downbeat, and the music began.”

October 2012

“Shortly after World War II, a French reporter asked expatriate Richard Wright for his views about the ‘Negro problem’ in America. The author replied, ‘There isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a white problem.’ By inverting the reporter’s question, Wright called attention to its hidden assumptions—that racial polarization comes from the existence of Blacks rather than from the behavior of whites, that Black people are a ‘problem’ for whites rather than fellow citizens entitled to justice, and that, unless otherwise specified, ‘Americans’ means ‘white’ ….

“Most of us in the white group … do not understand ourselves as privileged. This denial of the ways in which we benefit by belonging to the white group is a central denial of the race construct. … ‘to be white in America is not to have to think about it.’”

From The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism to People Who Don’t Want to Know, by Tema Okun, 2010, p. 38. Tema Okun facilitates long-term anti-racism, anti-oppression work as a member of the dRworks collaborative. She is an adjunct professor in the Educational Leadership Department at National Louis University in Chicago.

Tribe or ethnicity – what’s the difference? (November 2012)

This question arose in a recent conversation about the appropriateness of talking about “tribes” vs “ethnic groups.” Some Friends were adamant that “tribes” was the proper word to use, and others said that this could be seen as condescending. Just as fish don’t know what water is because it’s just the way things are, so, too, are we strongly influenced by our culture to think that the words and images we choose describe reality. But, when we are able to see that a word implies that some people are more important than others, this insight brings us closer to the truth expressed by our Testimony on Equality. David Zarembka (Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams) gives this perspective in his book, A Peace of Africa (p. 125):

“While the word ‘tribe’ is used in East Africa rather than ‘ethnicity,’ the word ‘tribe’ to most Westerners has negative, ‘primitive’ connotations. Why are Native Americans considered tribes, but Italians or Poles are not considered a tribe? What is the difference between the Scottish ‘clans’ and tribes? Since language is often what separates one tribe from another, why are not the Welsh considered a tribe as they have their own language? When did the Angles, Saxon and Norman tribes that conquered England stop becoming ‘tribes’ and become English?”

December 2012

Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe – At the Walters Art Museum through January 21, 2013

This exhibit opened in October. It is “the first time that a major art museum has taken a systematic look at Europe’s black inhabitants in the 15th through the 17th centuries.” (From a review in the Sun. See,0,7580460.story.)

Ben Vinson is professor at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Africana Studies and a consultant to the museum on issues of historical accuracy. He says, “It’s the role of a museum to put hard issues out there so we can think about them. And, when we’re talking about race, nothing is hallowed ground. We need to be honest in our conversation and put our cards on the table if we’re ever able to achieve reconciliation.”

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