Is Racism Ignorance or Disease?
Of course these are not the only two options; it’s possible that racism is both ignorance and disease or neither. But I have been wondering this: Does even really good education about race work to eradicate racism from people? Obviously, one answer is—yes, some people. But what about others? Are there people who cannot be liberated from their racisms by education alone?
Background to my question: It seems to me that we, Americans (and no doubt others), believe that education is the “fix” for all evils. But it also seems to me that even really good education does not automatically fix evils in people’s hearts and minds, attitudes and beliefs, behaviors and actions.
Of course, many people have already arrived at that conclusion and believe the “fix,” insofar as there is any, is coercion—making racism have negative consequences. I wonder, though, if this really changes people or often just makes them (racists) resentful and angry and even more racist than before?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not in favor of the status quo (white privilege, widespread white supremacy). But what I have observed is that some racists I know are not necessarily ignorant of anything—in terms of history or realities about race. They simply don’t like people who are not white. In fact, I can testify that I know some extremely intelligent people (in terms of mental faculties and knowledge of facts) who are not in the least affected by the facts brought forth by the social sciences, the physical sciences, and the historical sciences. If others could read their minds and hearts as I have been able to, they would “see” that these people simply have settled in to disliking non-whites. If you asked them if they think white people (Caucasians) are superior to others they might say “no.” But the words they use and the attitudes they display prove that whatever they might believe about superiority of whites (yes or no) they simply don’t like non-whites, especially people of African descent and usually also indigenous people of North America and elsewhere.
I wonder if either better education or social coercion really helps such people overcome their racism? Some people are helped by them. And certainly education about non-whites’ achievements and abilities and coercion to stop racists from publicly promoting their racism are helpful and useful. I am not at all opposed to such. The more the better. But I wonder how much good these things do for the average, “garden variety” American white racist. I have not known any, that I can think of, who would testify that they overcame their racism by education or coercion.
That makes me wonder if racism—strong dislike of people different from one’s self in terms of color, race, culture, etc.,—is perhaps a disease. Since I am an orthodox Christian I have no trouble believing in “diseases of the soul.” With the vast majority of Christians down through the centuries, I believe in sin as more than just individual, discrete, conscious decisions and actions. I believe we are all infected by what I am calling diseases of the soul. Our souls, our hearts, our inward affections, are twisted in many different ways. Is racism perhaps something secular knowledge cannot really discover in terms of its root causes?
Might racism be a manifestation of the sin of pride—which Augustine and other great Christian thinkers have often identified as the most basic distortion of the soul? By “pride” they/we meant/mean thinking of oneself as higher than one ought to think of oneself. It has nothing to do with pride in one’s accomplishments; it has to do with placing oneself on a pedestal above others. Self-centeredness on steroids.
Could it be that white racism is rooted in a racial disease of the soul—beyond the individual? Could it be sort of like a racial virus that infects white people in America more than others? Could it be more than just “the way they are raised” or “their ignorance” or “their bad beliefs about others?” Could it be—well, evil in the soul?
I have personally known some extremely intelligent, well-educated, smart, otherwise “good” people who almost secretly (but if you know them well you can’t miss this about them) despise people of color? They don’t want any black friends. They avoid Hispanic people as much as possible. They aren’t afraid of them; they simply don’t like them—without any rational reason.
This phenomenon shakes me to the core. What if all our efforts at educating people out of racism are simply to no avail, wastes of time? I personally know people who really seem to have deepened their racism as a result of well-planned and well-executed racial sensitivity training and/or classes including education about racial equality.
So what would the answer be? What could be done for or with such people? What if there are many, many of them in America? What if a significant portion of white America is like this—suffering from racism as a disease of the soul that cannot be helped or healed by education or social coercion? (When I say “suffering” here I do not mean suffering in the usual sense of being victims but of suffering in the sense of suffering from an addiction.)
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that such people ought to be left alone because “they can’t help it.” I believe intervention by friends and loved ones and even fellow church goers or club members or whoever is called for. But will that even help? My experience has been that it often only makes the racists more careful about their language. Their soul disease, harbored in the deep recesses of their hearts, remains untouched.
I hope I’m wrong, but my life experiences—knowing many, many people like this—speaks to me that I am not wrong.
Let me close with this real-life anecdote. Years ago I knew a man, a member of the church on whose staff I served, who was quite openly a racist. He made no secret of the fact that he did not like to be around black people. He didn’t seem to be a white supremacist and he didn’t seem to fear black people. He just didn’t like them or want anything to do with them and he would go out of his way to avoid them. Some of us in the church knew this about him; most probably did not. We prayed for him and I know some of the church leaders attempted to talk with him about this as sin. One night, after the Sunday evening service, he, like many others, knelt at the altar to pray. Suddenly he wept and literally fell on the floor, clearly having some kind of profound spiritual experience. Later he testified that God liberated him from his racism. After that night he sought out black people—to know them and befriend them and do whatever he could to help them (if they needed help). He testified of a deep love he acquired that night—for African-Americans. But it came as a painful gift—like the man in C. S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce who had a lizard-like animal on his back and didn’t know who he would be without it. An angel (you need to read the book!) offered to liberate him from that dreadful thing on his back but he resisted. Finally he relented and allowed the angel to remove it—painfully but effectively. Then he stayed in heaven—instead of getting back on the “bus from hell.”
I am not suggesting that we stop all attempts to fix the problem of racism in America using secular methods. Not at all. But what I am suggesting is that maybe those secular methods can only have the effect, for some people, of causing them to pretend not to be racists—in order to get along in an increasingly non-racist social context (e.g., their school or workplace). Pretending not to be racist is better than acting on their racist attitudes and inclination. Yes, by all means, better. But is it enough? Do we need to shift our thinking about racism in the direction of viewing it as SOMETIMES and maybe OFTEN a disease of the soul rather than just ignorance? I think maybe so. I’m open to correction, but I know what I have experienced. Maybe for some (many) racists the only real “cure” is divine deliverance.
*Note: I speak here only for myself and not for anyone else. If you choose to comment or ask a question, know that hostile comments or questions will not be approved. You will be wasting your time by composing and attempting to post such. This is not a discussion board. Do not include any hyperlinks or long quotations in your comment. Keep your comment or question brief and to the point. Respond only to me, not to other commenters.