. . . time for every purpose . . .
-- Ecclesiastes, 3:1 (KJV)
'Tis the old wind in the old anger.
-- A. E. Housman, "On Wenlock Edge"
Racism has a new face. Or rather, turned its old one up again.
If you tell a racist he's a racist, he'll say damn right and hit you on the head with a two by four.
If you tell a liberal he's a racist, he'll say, "Gosh I guess you're right, let's spend a truly miserable weekend thinking about it."
A decade ago, quarreling with my liberation theology professor, I wrote that racism had been driven underground, and the driving of it had been a great achievement. Racism is a sin, no more to be erased from the world than lust or greed or gluttony; but if we could construct a world in which our hateful and violent impulses, rather than parading down the middle of the street in gaudy underwear, could only flit in shadows of the alley, we would have done something for the future and for our children who must live in it.
This is what we liberal religious believed, plausible at the time. We had loved the Huxtables, and in a year or two would send an elegant, unflappable, articulate and professorial black man to the White House. We turned therefore from confrontation with persons to confrontation with systems, and with ourselves.
We took stock of the categories and their demographics, and looked for ways to make the groupings look like America. Many advantaged groups have fewer persons of color than America as a whole (or none at all). Many disadvantaged groups have far more persons of color than America as a whole. It was clear that we should iron out the differences, particularly when those differences instantiate the divide of rich and poor, powerful and wretched. We didn't talk much, in these discussions, about the National Basketball Association or the African Methodist Episcopal Church, because they pose a question inconvenient for the leveling impulse: is it not possible that certain concentrations of race and culture instantiate the pride and nurturance of those with whom we would ally?
But we also took inventory of our selves. It's as if we thought that, if we stood for justice and yet perfect justice had not come, the reason for that imperfection must be imperfection in our souls. Fitting and proper that we should search ourselves for ignorances, assumptions of our limited experience, judgments written in pre-conscious experience; but if we wait for justice-work until there's nothing wrong with us we'll wait forever while the world burns. Taken too far, our soul-work is a narcissism. The zits of my spirit are just not that all-fired important.
We are, as my professor said, socially located. We are, as Mark Belletini said, embedded in radicalized structures. We are, as Christians say, all sinners. And we cannot wait.
No immaculate conception for us, and no transfiguration, no seminar that makes us whole. Messy as we are, we talk and act, and take correction, and repent, and talk and act again. We'll blunder, and we'll misconstrue, and we'll forget and we'll ignore and we'll be our partial selves, confess and be forgiven, and orient again toward the greater purpose. That is the sacred life.
When I was a teacher in the theatre I used to say, don't think about what's wrong with you. Your inadequacy will always be with you: Just think of it and there it is, staring you down, blocking your view. Look through it, to what you must see.
Racism and other abominations came out of the shadows last month. It isn't hiding any more, but marching down Main Street. It sings from the seat of power, and authorizes ministers to wreck the infrastructure of hope and opportunity. The malign sirens seduce one group of dispossessed to strike against the others, assuring the forever reign of those who have much, and plan soon to have more. Naked personal hatred is in the streets again, with flags and banners.
It's the old wind that knocks us sideways, in the old anger. The year turns tonight. Let's turn into the wind.
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