[Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs press release] “Let us dream of a world where every family, language, people, and nation is gathered in the commonwealth of God,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said at the groundbreaking public forum Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America. “Learn vigilance, teach and work for justice, that we might become the beloved community of God’s rainbow people – every family, language, people, and nation gathered before the Lamb, himself one of the lowly and rejected. Dream that world into being here on earth, and drive out hell to bring it to birth!”
Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America, presented on November 15, explored racism in today’s society and was sponsored by The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Mississippi.
The on-demand video of the 90-minute Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America will be available the week of November 18. The on-demand video will include the Presiding Bishop’s keynote address as well as two panels, moderated by well-known journalist Ray Suarez. The first, Racism in America today – why does it persist? featured the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina; Mrs. Myrlie Evers-Williams, civil rights activist and journalist and widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers; the Honorable William F. Winter, former governor of Mississippi and founder of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. The second panel spoke to Racism in America’s future – where is there hope for change? and included the Honorable Byron Rushing, Massachusetts State Representative, civil rights leader and vice president of the Episcopal Church House of Deputies; Dr. Randy Testa, author, vice president of education at Walden Media LLC; Dr. Erma J. Vizenor, chairwoman of White Earth Band of Ojibwe, educator and community organizer; and Tim Wise, educator and author of White Like Me, Colorblind and Affirmative Action.
This year marks significant landmark anniversaries in the struggle to end discrimination, provide equal rights and combat racism: the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 50th anniversary of the pivotal March on Washington, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers, the 100th birthday of Rosa Parks. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
The Presiding Bishop’s keynote address follows.
Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America
15 November 2013
St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Jackson, MS
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
… there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. …
Who are these?…
‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; … they are before the throne of God, [who] will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb … will be their shepherd, and … guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
That vision shows humanity restored, living in peace in the near presence of God, their diversity a cause for celebration rather than division. Racism exploits and demeans the diverse nature of human creation, diminishing the spirit within each person, and despoiling the possibility of abundant life.
It is sinful, indeed evil, to identify some as lesser or worthy of exclusion because of their created nature. The concept of race is a human construct, often designed to quickly identify the “other,” a way to recognize threat by association with skin color. Human beings have used countless ways to distinguish who is kin and who is not – accent, facial characteristics, hair color, bodily adornments, tattoos, and scarification. The distinctions may not even be evident to those outside the social system – most Americans cannot easily distinguish between Hutu and Tutsi, but the genocide in Rwanda made those distinctions in the blink of an eye.
The history of human oppression of other human beings is a depressing litany of fear, domination, and power-seeking that has almost always been abetted by defining another group as less than fully human. Those boundaries and definitions are the foundation of racism, and they are legion:
- the yellow stars and pink triangles of the Nazi regime
- the prohibition of women’s headscarves in France
- incarceration of American citizens of Japanese descent during WWII
- the Chinese exclusion act of 1882
- the racial categories of South Africa’s apartheid regime
- removing citizenship from people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic
- taking indigenous children from their families to teach them “whiteness”
- struggles over immigration everywhere
- slavery and its continuing consequences.
Racism depends on defined difference and division. Racial distinctions are taught, often based on largely unconscious cultural assumptions. Unlearning them is not easy, but it is essential to that vision of human flourishing and celebration that we know as the Reign of God.
Redeeming these divisions takes hard work, and it begins with the conscious will to love and include as fully and equally human everyone identified as other. In the larger society that becomes the work of justice – formal, legal assurance that every human being has the same access to dignity, rights, and all available social possibilities. The founders of this nation called that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and asserted its necessity for all men – meaning adult, white, male, landowning human beings. Our history has seen a lurching expansion of that definition from one category of human being to ever larger ones, as boundaries and divisions are removed.
Robert Frost famously said, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” The human heart is larger than the fences we build between us. The Christian story is about the leveling of all such walls and borders, that we might all be one. We dream of a society filled with all sorts and conditions of people, as an image of heaven on earth, creation restored to true and just peace.
We are still a long way from seeing that dream realized, but many continue to tread the stony road – moving together toward a dawning reality. The wall of division is being deconstructed stone by stone, in spite of rearguard attempts to reinstitute barriers to voting and equal representation in government, in spite of racially targeted denial of benefits to the poor, in spite of attempts to remove affirmative action as a way of leveling the road. There is good news in the increased crossing of old boundaries, and hope in the shrinking ability of younger generations to recognize those boundaries.
Yet continuing vigilance is required, beginning with our own interior lives. What happens when we first meet a stranger? What assumptions have we already made as we see that person? How do we then decide to interact?
Vigilance is about keeping watch, and it is an essential spiritual discipline, linked to examination of conscience and to repentance. That kind of conscious awareness is equally necessary in all human relationships – in families, local communities, and the larger world. Are our actions loving and just? Is the social practice and legal structure of our city, state, and nation leading to greater justice or to increased oppression of some group of others? If the path is increasingly stony, our response is demanded. Will you respect the dignity of every human being, loving your neighbor as yourself, and urge others to do the same?
My start on this path began in early 1966 as I entered a new school in the middle of 8th grade. At age 11, it was my first experience in a racially mixed environment, and I was wholly naïve about the anger I was beginning to notice. My English teacher challenged me to write a paper on something I had never heard of – the Ku Klux Klan. It horrified me, and it started me on the journey down this road of justice.
Will you be vigilant, and watch for the morning? Will you seek after justice, encouraging others to join you on this road? Jesus called us friends, and challenged us to see all humanity as friend, rather than enemy. The decision to love our enemies begins with the decision to treat the other and the stranger with justice and dignity, as bearers of the image of God.
Let us dream of a world where every family, language, people, and nation is gathered in the commonwealth of God. Learn vigilance, teach and work for justice, that we might become the beloved community of God’s rainbow people – every family, language, people, and nation gathered before the Lamb, himself one of the lowly and rejected. Dream that world into being here on earth, and drive out hell to bring it to birth!
 Revelation 7:9,13-17
 Mending Wall, Robert Frost, 1914.
 John 17:21
 Lift Every Voice and Sing, James Weldon Johnson, 1900.
 Psalm 130:6