“The Problem of Racism in ‘Post-Racial’ America”: a Talk on a Topic Essential to World Peace Now on YouTube, Contributing to Public Discourse

The Universal House of Justice, in a letter written on its behalf, in a reply in 2011 to an individual wondering about Shoghi Effendi’s comments in 1938 about the importance of resolving racial issues and prejudice in America, explained that the issue is still relevant to Bahá’ís now and for “future generations” but went on to say that “the situation is infinitely more complex.” 

Bahá’ís, the letter stated, must be concerned with many more relations than those between “black and white, essential as they are.” They must understand that “expressions of racial prejudice have transmuted into forms that are multifaceted, less blatant and more intricate, and thus more intractable.”

The Bahá’í Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, College Park, in its Annual Lecture on September 18, 2014, added significantly to discourse on the thorny issue of racism in America, by selecting as its keynote speaker Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, who spoke on “The Problem of Racism in ‘Post-Racial’ America.”

Dr. Bonilla-Silva is a professor in and chair of the Sociology Department at Duke University, where he has affiliations with units in African and African American Studies, Latin American Studies, Latino Studies, and the Institute for Critical U.S. Studies. He has written a number of books including White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era and is now working on two additional books and a project called “We Are All Americans! The Latin Americanization of Race Relations in the USA.”

A passionate and funny speaker who used power-point slides and other visuals, Dr. Bonilla-Silva may help us to make concrete what the Universal House of Justice meant when it referred to racial issues and prejudice as being “more complex,” more “multifaceted, less blatant and more intricate, and  thus more intractable.”

But, first, it is important to get the flavor of the Annual Lecture and to get a glimpse of how the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace is contributing to local, national, and international dialogue on the critical topics of our time. Dr. Hoda Mahmoudi, Research Professor and Chair of the Bahá’í Chair, opened the annual lectureship by introducing Professor Gregory F. Ball, who, on October 1, would become Dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland, the college housing the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace. He spoke about the importance of the Bahá’í Chair (the first of three endowed peace chairs housed in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences) and its commitment to replacing outdated structures and patterns in the pursuit of world peace.

Then Dr. Mahmoudi introduced Mr. Kenneth E. Bowers, the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, who spoke further on the purpose and aims of the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace and discussed a comment by a staff member with whom he had spoken earlier in the day about the University’s mission of searching for ideas that can change the world. Then, on behalf of the Bahá’ís of the United States, he presented to the University of Maryland and the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace a check for $100,000.

Next Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Maryland, talked briefly about the ways, big and small, that we collude with cultural violence, making the realization of peace more difficult.

In introducing Dr. Bonilla-Silva, Dr. Mahmoudi explained that the purpose of the Annual Lecture was to invite a distinguished scholar to speak on topics of concern to the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace and to offer solutions to the problem of the deep-rooted prejudice in America. She also noted, as would Dr. Bonilla-Silva in his talk, that institutional prejudice is far more damaging to individuals that is personal prejudice.

Dr. Bonilla-Silva opened his keynote address by asking why we find it so hard to talk about race, why are we still talking about race fifty years after . . . . Over and over he stressed that prejudice affects all of us—whites, blacks, Latinos, everyone. He started by defining racism, which he called systemic racial privilege. It is part of our social system. It is something we all participate in. It happens every day. He then provided the characteristics of the “new racism” that has replaced Jim Crow racism. It has morphed (as the Universal House of Justice has explained) from the obvious to the more subtle and harder to take to court.

Then Dr. Bonilla-Silva discussed the dominant prejudice of contemporary America, which he calls “color-blind racism.” He listed five kinds of color-blind rhetorical styles: systematic moves (“I am not a racist, but . . . ; some of my best friends are African Americans”); projection; use of diminutives; avoidance of racial talk; and rhetorical incoherence. He also listed a number of racial stories that individuals use to avoid coming to terms with racism: the past is the past; I don’t know any slaves; I didn’t get a job or entrance to college because . . . ; there should be no reparations.

Near the end of his talk, Dr.Bonilla-Silva, using power-point slides, as he had throughout his talk, listed a number of points he wanted to leave with his audience:

1.      Racism is structural (systemic) and is alive and well and is more than just “prejudice” [good, educated nice white folks participate in it, too]

2.      Discrimination remains in place, but has changed in form (New Racism). [good, educated nice white folks participate in it, too]

3.      The Jim Crow racial ideology of the past is all but dead, but it has been replaced by the formidable ideology of color-blind racism. [and good, educated, nice white folks participate in it, too.]

Dr. Bonilla-Silva then addressed the issue of why we cannot talk straight about racism:

1.      We conceive the “problem” of racism differently and in ways that reflect our position (and interests) in the racial order.

2.      We will NOT talk about racism in straight fashion because the “problem” is not one we can settle by talking or having a “beer summit” . . . it is not about craziness, ignorance, or misunderstanding one another.

3.      Issues of inequality are always settled through social movements, social protest, and political pressure by the aggrieved parties and their allies.

Always looking to involve everyone in the problem of racism, Dr. Bonilla-Silva kept stressing that we all have a moral responsibility to work for social and racial justice. We must not become non-racist but rather anti-racist.

Dr. Bonilla-Silva ended with a quotation from Frederick Douglass that shows the spirit of how to deal with the historical racial problem:

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. . . . The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.

Dr. Bonilla-Silva’s talk is worth listening to more than once, and it would make an excellent jumping-off point for discussions with friends and relatives about a difficult-to-solve problem. We all need to call ourselves to account each day. Dr. Bonilla-Silva stresses that, for the issue of racism, we need to reexamine our lives with input from people of color.

To access the entire Annual Lecture of the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace (which we strongly recommend), click on http://bahaichair.umd.edu, then scroll down a tiny bit, and click on “WATCH VIDEO: Bahai Chair ‘The Problem of Racism in Post-Racial America.’ Then select “Watch the lecture.” After watching the lecture, you may also want to click on “Watch the Q&A discussion,” which is fascinating. If you only have time to watch the lecture, you can access it on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Be33vEE52YM&feature=youtu.be.

The Bahá’í Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland is an endowed academic program that advances interdisciplinary examination and discourse on global peace. While drawing certain initial insights from religion, the program aims to develop a sound scientific basis for knowledge and strategies that lead to the creation of a better world.

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