Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Holder: Americans are “Cowards” About Race Issues

Eric Holder, the first African-American U.S. Attorney General, has given an excellent speech on the problems of racism in the U.S. in 2009.  Holder talks about the progress made in the U.S. since the end of legal segregation (’64, ’65), but also spells out how far we have to go.  He notes that the media has been far too quick to view the election of Barack Obama to the presidency as proof that we now live in a “post-racial” society.

Noting that most workplaces are now integrated, Holder also points out that work is about the only place that whites and blacks (not to mention Asians, Latinos, etc.) associate regularly.  We mostly don’t live in the same neighborhoods.  We don’t hang out with each other after work.  On weekends, we mostly associate only within our own racial groupings–both in terms of socializing and definitely in terms of where we worship. (11 a.m. Sunday is STILL the most segregated hour in America as very few churches make any real efforts to be multi-racial or multi-cultural–even if they are located in such areas.)

Holder also claims, rightly, that while most Americans no longer use openly racist language, we are “cowards” about talking about racial issues–especially with those of other racial/ethnic groups.  Because such conversations are uncomfortable, and could offend, we avoid them–and thus avoid challenging ourselves to go beyond superficial friendliness or civility to actually breaking down barriers of misunderstanding.

The speech lacks the power of Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race and religion in America last year during the Democratic primaries.  But this is still a bold speech that is provocative in a manner that may actually help us as a nation.  I do think some critics have a point that Holder could have gone further and spelled out some of the issues that should be raised in these painful, uncomfortable dialogues–but this speech is a beginning, not an end.

Read Mr. Holder’s full remarks here.  Then, take him up on the challenge: Invite colleagues from work who are of different racial/ethnic background home for dinner.  If you have friends from different racial/ethnic backgrounds, try to find ways to begin such conversations.  Challenge your church (and, if it is not multi-cultural, it should team up with one or more churches of different backgrounds) to provide “safe space” for such dialogues.

Honestly, folks: The military was integrated in 1948 and, sadly, it remains one of the most integrated institutions in the United States.  I went to a mostly black junior high in Orlando in the ’70s (I was easy to spot in school group photos!) and to a pretty mixed (Caucasian, black, Asian, Latino) high school in Jacksonville Beach later in the same decade.  I have taught at two historically black colleges (an experience both fun and VERY challenging) and I live in a mixed neighborhood and go to a somewhat multicultural congregation (it used to do better than  currently). And I am constantly surprised at how far we HAVEN’T come in this country.  We are having to fight the resegregation of the public schools (not helped at all by the “home schooling” movement). 

How many white pastors or theologians regularly read African-American, Latino/a, or Asian American theologians or biblical scholars? (If you look at the footnotes and bibliographies of “minority” scholars, they are always fully abreast of the scholarship of the dominant Caucasian culture, but the reverse is not very often true.)  Look at how little diversity there is in major news anchors (although local stations do better than the networks). If you are a well-read, college educated, white American and I came over your house, how many non-white authors (fiction, non-fiction) would I easily find on your bookshelves?

Is it any wonder we are so incredibly IGNORANT of each other–and, thus, regularly fear and misunderstand each other even when we have no desire to be personally prejudiced? 

Our current Attorney General has laid  down a significant challenge.  Let’s take him up on it, shall we?

February 19, 2009 - Posted by | prejudice, race


  1. Recently I realized I do know many mixed-race couples. I never even thought about it. When I think of a mixed-race relationship it is usually white-black, or anything-black. It’s probably just the fact that where I live (Southern California desert) there are not a lot of African Americans. But over 40% of the population is Hispanic or Latino. I never even thought of a white-Latino couple as a “mixed-race relationship.” Around here it seems the segregation is between the culturally-Latino and the culturally-USAmerican. One neighbor who has the Cinco de Mayo party, and her neighbor (also Latino) who does not. Of course the USAmerican culture is really a white culture, and we can’t have the opinion that everyone needs to adopt our white culture to fit in (as some *Dobbs* suppose).

    Clearly when we talk about race relations this differs from region to region. But you’re absolutely right that race relations need to be addressed. I kid you not that as I write this a conversation is taking place in my office just behind me about how LA is becoming “little Tijuana” and you can’t “avoid” traveling through the “bad” spots (read: mostly Latino) to get to the rich white ghettos.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | February 19, 2009

  2. Wrong. Especially the next to last paragraph about “we are so incredibly ignorant of each other.”

    Many Whites – but not enough – are very aware of blacks and their nature. We want nothing to do with blacks. It is an educated, not ignorant, decision/choice. Blacks are a perpetual failure in America. Blacks are also parasites on any host they can attach to. We want nothing to do with blacks.

    Sorry you had to go to integrated schools. You’re a grown up now, I assume, so you can hopefully choose to work and live with your own kind. Before your diverse, multicultural neighbors rob/rape/kill you.

    Comment by Lyn | February 19, 2009

  3. I agree with Holder’s “cowards” comment up to a point. I was born in a small South Carolina town that was about evenly divided when it came to the races. I believe that even though segregation was outlawed vestiges of it have stayed with us up until today. The various races ( and not just black and white) tend to stick with their own racial groups. I think Dr. W.E.B. Dubois said that the problem of the twentieth century was the color line. It is with us in the 21st century.

    Comment by Paul | February 19, 2009

  4. I have found both the Obama speech and this one largely meaningless. Obama’s speech was not powerful because of any substance. It was largely forgettable like this one on that score. It was dramatic only because of the personal drama playing out between him, his pastor, and Hillary at that moment. He played it well and defused the race issue for the moment.
    But of course instead of just seeing it for what it was we use all this meaningless talk about “starting a dialogue”. That’s liberal gobbledy-gook speak. There is nothing to talk about. We are not ignorant of each other. Segregation is largely a matter of biology and human nature troubling no one. Policing bookshelves and church pews? We worship with a black church once a year and both congregations enjoy it and the 51 Sundays off in between. How about if I came to your house, would I find small appliances and gadgets patented by members of all races? This is silly.
    This is mostly about middle class whites and status seeking. Like in the immigration debate, middle class whites who don’t feel threatened by other racial groups economically want to show this by their big-heartedness. They have no culture identification except shame at their European inheritance. They want to make their white underlings have a “conversation” and learn that shame. We know who will do the talking here.

    Look no further than Steven’s comment. Conversation where one calls L.A. little Tijuana is deemed racist when by all accounts L.A. is bleeding its black and white population and is largely Spanish speaking and crime ridden, much like, I don’t know, Tijuana. I imagine he is like most people who won’t even use the word “Mexican” anymore without switching to hushed tones.

    No conversation will ever happen that deals with crime stats by race, education achievement or IQ by race, 70% out of wedlock rates among blacks, similar trends among hispanics, unassisted achievement by Indians and Asians, degraded culture, the need for assimilation by immigrants, the need to limit immigration (legal and illegal), the future of the multi-cultural cosmopolitan white culture with its declining birth rate. The future economic doom due to birth rates and terrible education outcomes. One could go on and on about the unmentionables in this “conversation”. Who are the cowards?

    And don’t blame home schoolers who are simply trying to raise cultured i.e. culturally aware children. I recall studies from seminary showing racial socialization was actually superior among homeschoolers and private schoolers. Its largely a function of intelligence to be civil to those different from you. I live with 8 Black teenagers by the way, so swing away. Frank discussions of race is my life.

    Comment by james | February 20, 2009

  5. Wow. I disagree with everything in this comment, James. But thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 20, 2009

  6. Lyn, you are a complete bigot. People like you make me want to puke. But, at least you are an HONEST bigot, unlike most of the Fox News pundits and Bush lovers.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 20, 2009

  7. Lyn: ok, if you were right, does it mean it is ok to kidnap northamericans here in Colombia and kill them? You know, we southamericans must be aware of any kind of integration before my multicultural (i.e. anglosaxons) rape/rob/kill me.

    Ps: I don’t hate northamericans. I just wanted to show you how stupid racism is.

    Comment by mountainguy | February 20, 2009

  8. Isn’t it odd how a bigot shows their ignorance ? Blacks have contributed a great deal to our country. To be honest there are some Whites who are less than accomplished at anything. (I am White just so you know) I prefer to use character as a yardstick in my estimation of a person’s worth.

    Comment by Paul | February 21, 2009

  9. […] L. Westmoreland-White at the religio-political site Levellers thinks Holder is dead on about self-segregation. Noting that most workplaces are now integrated, Holder also points out that work is about the only […]

    Pingback by Weekend Opinionator: A Nation of Cowards, Stimulus-Wielding Chimps and Hip-Hop Republicans - The Opinionator Blog - NYTimes.com | February 21, 2009

  10. Hey Michael, It’s the Doug from Liberty U and our old go rounds on the SCP listserve. Keep up your holy badgering! It was the major factor in convincing me. I am now living in a new monastic community my wife and I helped get started here in Toronto and am working for the Mennonite Central Committee as a Street Pastor. These past few weeks I’ve been in an apocalyptic whirl working on issues very relevant to the questions of race (in this case racialized violence) that directed my here to you after seeing your name pop up in the NYT story. Congrats! And see the links below (the story has briefly made national news here in Canada).



    Comment by Doug Johnson | February 21, 2009

  11. Hi, Doug. Congrats! I was quite surprised that the NYTimes quoted me.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 21, 2009

  12. I don’t say “Mexican” in hushed tones. But why would I call my Salvadorian friend “Mexican?” I don’t want to lump all of my friends under that nationality.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | February 27, 2009

  13. By the way, I don’t know if you’ve been to Tijuana, but it’s a cosmopolitan city. It does have bad areas, just like most international cities.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | February 27, 2009

  14. “Whenever a difference of race, colour, religion, or breeding is not so overcome in the rush of common work or duty as to pass unnoticed or even unknown, if an attempt is made to ignore it in comradeship, society, marriage, or place of residence is instantly recognised, and an irresistible impulse causes the groups to segregate. This is set down by democratic doctrinaires to prejudice or snobbery. They do not perceive that contrasts of character and taste can be ignored when people are engaged in some instrumental action, to which moral diversity is irrelevant; but as soon as the labour is over, and the liberal life of play, art, affection, and worship begins, both sides equally require moral comprehension and are equally chilled, bored, and rendered sterile when comprehension is absent…Vital liberty differentiates. Only vacant freedom leaves all in the same anonymous crowd.” – George Santayana

    Comment by Mr. E | October 26, 2009

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