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Caseythoughts I imagine that some would object (at least strongly question) the objectivity of a white, aging, Anglo-Saxon male in post-modern America when he speaks of the question of race relations, and the apparent ongoing failure to live in a more harmonious world. The assumption of privilege arises, as defined in certain quarters, but I think (and hope to prove) that that assumption is specious and distracting.

Johannes Brahms, on a totally unrelated topic, once said 'One should show one's head, first'... and in that vein, I will state my premise up front: racism is a fact in our world, but, more importantly, we need to stop using the word racist in our discussions and debates, as it is currently wantonly and wrongly used. Racism is a disease and the cause of much pain, suffering, death, economic disparity and desperation and is a reality throughout much of the world's (not just America's) past and present, and is a moral challenge to our spirituality and honor as humans, as children of God. A distinct danger to our future.

I think the problem is the word 'racist'. I feel it may very well say more about the accuser than the accused. This word is being bandied about frequently not as a description of true, defined and specific racism, but more frequently as a way to throw gasoline on the fire, figuratively, and as a way to describe people's motivations for their thinking and opinions, is often grossly unfair, and appears to be a method to shut down fair and honest debate about what is going on in our country.

Calling someone a racist, or branding their words racist so often automatically (and quite intentionally) puts them on the defensive and ends any rational and reasonable discussion; debate and honest opinionating will end at that moment, and the ability to make progress is chopped off as sure as an emotional guillotine (anyone who has argued with a partner can easily note what happens when a legitimate difference of opinion devolves into name calling and/or accusations). Honest people can honestly differ in opinion, but accusing people (which is what calling someone a racist truly is) can only result in recrimination and distrust, to say the least. At worst, it ends in tears, despair, and violent outbursts which I feel is our current situation in America. I'm going to separate the true racists from this discussion: the events in Charlottesville and other locales of extremist white supremacy have no quarter in this discussion of rational and reasonable discussion of this most prime question of America today.

Instead, a word which seems to be in disrepair, even dis-use, could be 'prejudice'. When I was growing up in the early days of the civil rights movement (yes, again as privileged white male in suburbia), the word prejudice had as much import as racist, but without the overtones of hatred. 'He's prejudiced' seemed more realistic a term to describe an unknowing, perhaps ignorant practitioner of behaviors and attitudes/actions which showed their deficiency of understanding and empathy, especially in reference to racial differences.

It didn't imply they wore a white hood at night and burned crosses in front yards, which racist implicitly means, or the newest iteration of 'alt-right' demonstrations without the hoods. Looking back, I think I recognize that I could address my prejudice (for surely I had as much as any white teenager had then) since it was a condition that had potential for personal remedy and recourse. Those remedies and recourse were, first, empathy, and attempts to understand the situation of black Americans through participation in civil rights marches, encouragement by a couple of priests who were active in the movement, speaking out against prejudice when I saw it, and active participation in positive community efforts to help less fortunate neighbors.

This empathy was a personal effort to diminish my prejudices of which I had no real idea of their genesis, but needed to be recognized and addressed on an individual level. Immersion, the second remedy, was brought about by asking others what I could read, and books such as Black Like Me, Soul on Ice, The Me Nobody Knows, Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Fire Next Time, absorbing and discussing authors like Carmichael, Cleaver, Baldwin, whether I could agree (or even understand them), became prime in my soul's education on this so critical topic. I didn't know who Malcolm X was until he was assassinated, but soon afterward made it a point to read some of his speeches at the library. Reverend King continued to scorch my young conscience with questions about race and fairness and America's role as a country that still seethed with racism (both North and South) where racism was a real and visible political concept, not a term that eventually lost its usefulness in reasonable debate about America's direction as a fair nation.

But, 'Prejudice', was a real term that described people like me that could help me address inequality and misplaced values, as well as my internal dialogue and misconceptions about 'other' people which I could change with empathy, intelligent reading and conversation, as well as immersion in the lives of the people who were affected by my community's prejudice. I surely couldn't have expected these benefits of growth if I was called, or in turn, called someone a racist. That would have probably been the end of the 'conversation' which brought me to some understanding of not only the problem, but my relationship with others who were affected by these misunderstandings and mistrust, not to mention the hundreds of years of the history of slavery.

The racism of practice and people is just too big to get my arms around, and I think that's true of anyone, and all the sermons and legislating would very well fall flat on its face because of the enormity of the problem and faulty understanding of individual prejudiced thinking. To me, there was and still is a huge difference between prejudice and racism, and I only learned to deal effectively with the former, which was a tremendous step forward in my thinking as an adult, my relationships with others, and my education on race in America. I addressed my prejudices with honesty and hope, and think we all can do the same without name calling and bomb throwing.

The United Methodist Church here in upstate New York is currently initiating a program entitled 'Imagine No Racism', and is commendable. Being a enthusiastic member of the Methodist faith, I say 'God bless them', but, again, the nomenclature of 'racism/racist' short circuits its intent and potential. No one I know or ever knew (well, maybe except for my grandfather and a few people I knew in the Army) would call themselves racist. However, many I have known would state this denial 'I'm not a racist...', and then the next word is 'But...' and proceed with perceptions, misunderstandings and downright prejudiced thinking, and not recognize the ability of an individual to change a thought pattern for the better.

But to call that person a racist or accuse them of racism accomplishes absolutely nothing, and precludes action and potential possible personal reform, one incremental thought and action at a time. A church (in this case, the United Methodist) getting up committees to address attitudes and thinking is a commendable step forward, but it also needs to look out from the pulpit and see the lack of 'diversity' in color and ethnicity of its own congregations (this is absolutely true of ALL mainstream ideologies in the U.S.). I disagreed with Bill Clinton on practically everything he ever said or stood for, but one thing he said rang so true: 'Sunday morning in America is the most racially divided hour in our country.' We seem never more divided racially than in our church attendance.

A wonderful acquaintance of mine in Ithaca prodded his congregation to team up with a traditionally (but not exclusively) black congregation a few blocks away to help clean up an abandoned lot and turn it into a playground and parking lot, along with other collaborations to foster understanding, brotherhood and trust between the two congregations. Methodists and Baptists working together for community and diminishing prejudice, building trust and cooperation. How many church communities would be willing to risk that? More than words, more than legislation, faith and action (how many times have we preached that, heard that?) hand in hand, no name calling, no questioning of motives, less misunderstanding. A coming together of thought, hope, and deed. Hand in hand, and individually working on an understanding of deeply held prejudice which can be eliminated with hard, hand to hand (and hand to plow) work. Simply asking another group of people 'down the street', how can we work together? What can we do for you, with you?

After that Starbucks' fiasco in Philadelphia we all had a moment to reflect, didn't we? Would I be asked to buy something to use the bathroom in a coffee shop? I may be wrong, but I would think this was prejudice in action, but hopefully not racism. The two men arrested have now settled with Starbucks for (are you ready?) a dollar apiece in damages, but with a Starbucks' commitment to fund an entrepreneurial effort for disadvantaged Philly youth. That's a true commitment to diminish and eliminate prejudice and foster understanding and economic advantage, much more effective, I would predict, than closing Starbucks for an afternoon and having thousands of employees take 'sensitivity training'.

Calling Starbucks institutionally racist, or privileged, will most likely accomplish nothing except get you on a newscast for one hour. A spokesperson for Color of Change, an activist group in Philadelphia, told the Financial Times that Starbucks 'has an opportunity to talk about the larger cultural responsibility in this country, but Starbucks alone cannot fix the problem that happened inside that store. It's really hard to 'train away' racism.'

He's right on two counts: racism will not be trained away. But prejudiced (pre-judgement, you know) attitudes and opinions can be worked on by action, immersion and empathy, not pre-packaged programs and legislation. We will not legislate or shout down ignorance the way we are trying to legislate against discrimination in housing, jobs, banking, etc. But, we can start in our own heart of hearts. 'Act as if...' we say in 12 Step, and where the heart goes, our brain will hopefully follow. Work on changing your own secret heart, address your fears, establish your hope, then act accordingly to change your little part of this world.

Another commentator in Philadelphia said: 'Companies don't have diversity problems. They have people problems, and we have to be held accountable as people.' I agree, and people can change, one person, one thought, one attitude, one action at a time. What have I done today to ease the problem of prejudice? How about you?

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