I have no way of knowing if Sonya Sotomayor will make a great associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, but I was impressed by her comport last week. I was, however, shocked by the racist and sexist displays of the committee members; senators who did everything but twirl their mustaches as they went after her. Shocked not by the racist impulses of the senators, but by how utterly brazen those displays were, and how unconcerned the committee members seemed by how small their comments and conduct made them look.
I suppose he was trying to be funny. In perhaps the most
startling and inappropriate moment of the needlessly tedious
U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for U.S. Appellate Court Judge
Sonya Sotomayor, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn (R) adopted a sadly
inappropriate faux-Cuban accent and joked with the Supreme Court
candidate, "...you got some 'splainin' to do," echoing
bandleader Dezi Arnaz's famous signature line from the 1950's
sitcom I Love Lucy. Sotomayor jovially overlooked the crude
remark (where, in my pinion, an icy silence while she sipped
water would have been the better choice) before continuing the
latest of what seemed to be dozens of explanations of a humorous
off-the-cuff remark she'd made in several speeches. Sotomayor
often said that she hoped those experiences would help her reach
better judicial conclusions than someone without such a varied
background might reach. The line was almost identical every
"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion."
That sentence, or a similar one, has appeared in speeches Sotomayor delivered in 1994, 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2001. In that speech, she included the phrase "than a white male who hasn't lived that life" at the end, which sparked cries of racism from some Republicans. (CNN©).
The worst kind of racist is the person who doesn’t think they are. As soon as you or I begin thinking of ourselves as being somehow above or beyond racism, that’s when we become the most vulnerable to it. Racism is an evil and insipid condition that afflicts everyone on the planet. I dare say everyone on this planet, from kings to the poorest homeless Sudanese villager, has been both the subject of racism and has practiced it in one form or another. To deny that fact is to deny reality. Racism is real. Racism is pervasive. It is sin and we, all of us, are flawed, sinful creatures made perfect only through penalty of death. A penalty paid by a Man who Himself suffered tremendously under racism.
Racism causes us to perceive one another in flatly incorrect ways. Racism causes us to feel threatened and/or oppressed by one another when no such condition exists. As I said in my previous essay, Sunday continues to be the most segregated day of the week for the Christian church. While there are, indeed, a growing number of “multicultural” churches, here in Ourtown, at least, those churches tend to be white churches, founded by whites, led by whites, with white folks in the key power positions. These are ministries led by men and women who, following the conviction of the Holy Spirit, have made strides to reach out to the community at large, no longer satisfied by clear racial and cultural demarcations. Black churches, on the other hand, do almost no work in reaching out to whites. I’ve observed black churches being fairly hostile to or, best case, indifferent to whites, as we blithely go about our business of hollering and wailing.
I was visiting a white church last month when one of the sisters, elated to see me, called to me from across the room, “Well,” she said, “I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age.” Now, I know, for an absolute certainty, she meant no harm by the remark, but the room fell silent as everyone turned to her. She blithely continued chatting, completely unaware of the impropriety of the remark. Later, the pastor came up and jovially gave me two out of the four stages of the “black power” handshake before launching into his own chat, speaking to me in the kind of deliberate voice one might reserve for children. Again, knowing this guy, I’m certain he meant absolutely no harm, but one would only have to observe him speaking to white men and white women to see him using a different tone and not attempting the “brother” handshake. I’m 48 years old. I’m a church pastor, just like he is. And, while I appreciate his efforts to understand our culture, the first thing whites and other ethnicities must understand about black culture is we are a culture of one, a plurality of individuals—just like white people are. Shifting into the softer, monosyllabic fourth-grader’s voice and giving me the “brutha” shake was an insult. One I’m convinced he did not intend. But as this pastor journeys forward, making efforts to understand urban culture, he needs to try harder to know people first and foremost as individuals. I don’t use the “black power” handshake, and I hardly need anyone to simplify their language for me. And this pastor will offend far more people than he befriends until he learns to see blacks and other minorities as individuals first and back individuals second.
As I said in my previous article, I’ll admit: racism is something I’ve never understood. It just seems completely stupid to me, hating someone for the color of their skin. After all, there’s so many other things someone might hate me for. I’m obnoxious. I’m obstinate. I’m usually going in a different direction than black church folks typically go. Hating me for something over which I have absolutely no control just seems ridiculous.
Last week’s historic confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Nominee Sonya Sotomayor was yet the latest reminder that this country has not fully come to terms with the reality of racism. While racism is hardly exclusive to the United States, America’s self-stated goals and principles—that all men (and, presumably, women) are created equal—enforces a corporate hypocrisy as such “self-evident” truths were not wholly embraced even as they were being written, and are upheld even now only under penalty of law. Law we’d hardly need if such truths were indeed self-evident and if America actually was what it claims to be. The larger truth is such declarations speak more to what America strives to be or what constitutional authors wished this nation to be: a utopian ideal. Utopias don’t need their principals enforced by the state.
The larger truth is biology and the simple failure of humanity to fully embrace humanism. The natural law of survival of the fittest engraves fear into our genetic code. Human beings tend to fear the unknown: what or who is around that corner. What might happen if… We tend to govern ourselves by fear, making our choices much more out of fear of certain consequences than any idealistic hope of future potential. The U.S. Constitution itself is a document whose central power relies on fear of the state. The majority will always fear the minority, those in power will always fear the powerless. A black family moving into a quiet, white neighborhood will always provoke anxiety, which has at its root fear.
Racism is perhaps fear at its most ignorant. We feared Al Capone and John Dillinger because they jumped out of cars and shot people. Had they not done that, we’d likely not feared them at face value. But we—all of us, white, black, Latino, Asian, pan-African—assign certain behavioral stereotypes immediately to persons whose differences from us are most readily apparent by their gender, ethnicity or sexual preference. These people, having never once jumped out of a car and shot anyone, are nonetheless assigned negative traits and undesirable attributes simply based on how they look. For example, when I enter an elevator carrying several whites, or, worse, a lone white woman, the tension in the elevator tends to polarize the lift until I finally speak. I mean, it’s gotten to the point that I will often go out of my way to say something to the lone white woman rider just to demonstrate a reasonable articulation of the English language. Universally, without fail, the tension in the elevator lowers dramatically once she hears my voice and understands I can intelligently enunciate the language. She gives me better odds of being, “one of the good ones,” and less likely to rob her. Which is utterly ridiculous, as I know a great many under-educated black men who would never think of robbing anyone, and I’ve known ruthless street gang leaders who were also gifted college students.
But this is what we do: look at somebody and categorize them. Racism is an irrational hatred of someone in search of a reason. That hatred is often difficult to accept, as most whites I’ve ever met in my entire life become instantly offended at even the suggestion that they might be racist—which is absurd. We’re all racist. I honestly don’t know any black people who aren’t racist. You can’t possibly be oppressed and denied all of your life by a segment of society and not develop a generalized mistrust of that group. For a liberal white guy to get offended by my pointing out his racist behavior only compounds the problem. The problem isn’t even white folks’ racism so much as their failure to embrace it; to admit that it’s part of American DNA. These people are like alcoholics who deny they have a problem, and thus never develop tools for managing this American disease.
The worst thing a minority person can do is give a racist a reason to hate them. Most racists, most especially most white liberals, feel they are not racists, that they are beyond racism. But they have no black friends. Oh, for sure, black people they might be friendly with, but no trusted insiders. They relate to blacks with a cautious unease and unsteadiness and they are overly-cautious about the politically correct use of language. These people become incredibly uncomfortable in their own skin and likely resent the minority person for making them feel that way. I am speaking form personal experience, white liberals who become preemptively angry at me, feeling I am accusing them of something or blaming them for something. I went to school, during the formative years of my life, with white Jews. I was comfortable around them and frightened to be around large groups of blacks. I am accusing white people of absolutely nothing. I am not in any way ill at ease around them, and yet I often discover how ill at ease many whites are around me, and for no apparent reason. They are angry at me for accusing them. They feel convicted of something. And their friendly overtures are simply that: overtures. There is no substance behind them. And, to my personal experience, many of these people mistrust me and watch me closely, looking for a reason to unleash hell and vent their frustration against me. Which tends to enlarge even minor issues among us: oh, he didn’t mow his lawn. Oh, he keeps complaining about my barking dog. This one woman stood on my lawn, on more than one occasion, yelling at my house, “Why don’t you just move!” Add in any circumstance and rationalize this behavior any way you want. It is what it is: hate. These are people I’ve lived among for a decade and who, for the most part, show me hate. And, when I realize I am not welcome among them and stop trying to integrate myself into their community, the hatred is ratcheted up. He’s no Christian, he doesn’t even speak to Mrs. So-And-So when he drives past. Well, Mrs. So-And-So needs to stop coming on my property and screaming epitaphs at me. This is hatred. Irrational, blown out of all proportion to whatever their problem is. This is white folk venting their anger at my simply being.
Sip Water and Regroup: Supreme Court Nominee Glenn Close from The West Wing.
The White Male Superiority Bubble
The Sotomayor confirmation hearings provided shocking and sad
evidence of this. Shocking in that the U.S. Senate inquisition
wasn’t better prepped for asking delicate questions to a
historic candidate. I mean, these guys acted as if they somehow
did not realize the hearings were being televised. Their
awkward, clumsy and transparently—embarrassingly—political
attempts to somehow paint Judge Sotomayor as racist might
actually have been considered comical if only they did not
reveal the sad and frightening underbelly of racial and gender
bias among this nation’s leaders. Even when they attempted to be
funny (Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions channeling Dezi Arnaz,
telling Sotomayor, “…you got some ‘splainin’ to do!”) they
simply underscored, to a shocking and terrible degree, how
utterly lost they are, cocooned, one might assume, within their
White Male superiority bubble. By trying so hard not to come
across as racist and sexist, they, shockingly, did both: the
racism they exposed in those hearings was their own.
However, Sotomayor herself can be blamed for providing a cause which enabled the committee members to vent their racism and sexism. In that sense, minority peoples must live perfect lives, as any imperfection gives whites an excuse to overreact and vent the pent-up hatred that has likely always been their to begin with. The moment we don’t sweep the sidewalk or play our music too loud will be recorded, for all time, in the minds of the ignorant, desperate as they are to find a reason to do what they did the moment you appeared on their horizon—hate you. Intellectuals are troubled by hatred and embarrassed by racism. They reject both, and so, since their dislike of you can’t possibly be racism, they spend the entirety of their time with you, hard drives spinning, looking for a reason to hate you. Looking for something to—a ha!—justify that “gut feeling” they’ve had about you all along.
Judge Sotomayor provided fairly little in the way of reason for the hate laid out in shocking quantity over four days last week. For the most part she sat quietly, perhaps assured of her confirmation and thus unconcerned about the ignorance on display before her. Men tend to consider confident women arrogant, but Sotomayor displayed an innate sweetness that balanced out her cool toughness under fire. When one Senator characterized her as a “bully,” she just smiled at him. Republicans routinely support tough judges, demand tough judges, and criticize liberal ones. Sotomayor is hardly a liberal, though the committee went to great lengths to paint her as one. But she is tough, a quality typically valued by the same gaggle of hypocrites now claiming Sotomayor’s toughness makes her a “bully.” “Do you consider yourself to have an attitude problem, Judge?” one Senator asked her. Sotomayor sat, perhaps disbelieving the inherently racist and sexist question—a question never asked any white male judicial nominee ever—before stoically answering, “No.”
Of course, these guys are out to get Sotomayor, to embarrass her, to score political points on the cheap. But they are scoring political points with bigots. Even liberal whites are aghast at how clumsy the GOP ambush of Sotomayor has been; at how the hearings became a referendum on the *senators’* racism and sexism, becoming, in fact, much more about the senators than about the nominee. The continued, day-after-day-after-day hammering on Sotomayor’s flip “wise Latina” remark not only bored and exasperated the American public, but proved how utterly thin the GOP attack portfolio was. They simply didn’t have the goods to go at Sotomayor, so they kept asking her the same question. Were I to fault Judge Sotomayor, it would be in that she kept changing her answer, essentially illuminating her responses to some degree. The judge was under absolutely no obligation to make any of this interesting or entertaining. The “wise Latina” question had been asked and answered. Perhaps, after the third, or, say, tenth question about it, she should have simply referred the committee to her earlier statements on the matter.
Oddly, I felt as if Judge Sotomayor were giving the committee members a break. That, on many occasions, she overlooked or ignored patently racist and sexist behavior. Which means she was either expertly prepped (and I’m sure she was), or that was simply her actual personality: to not fixate on things that are evident but unchangeable. These are men. White men, Republican white men. Sotomayor should not have been (and, from all evidence, was not) shocked that they’d come after her guns blazing. She kept he composure and failed to respond to hateful comments and rhetoric. In that sense, she was quite Christlike: composed, warm, and unwilling to be distracted from her goal.
I have no way of knowing if Sonya Sotomayor will make a great associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, but I was impressed by her comport last week (if a little disappointed that she didn’t fire back at those guys which, honestly, would have been the worst thing she could have done). I was, however, shocked by the racist and sexist displays of the committee members; senators who did everything but twirl their mustaches as they went after her. Not that the racist impulse of the senators exist, as I surely know they do, but by how utterly brazen those displays were, and how unconcerned the committee members seemed by how small their comments and conduct made them look. Worse, I am saddened by the certain knowledge that last week’s racist display will likely not impact these gentlemen’s political futures in any meaningful way. In fact, it may have helped them. From country rednecks who wear their bigotry on their sleeve, to the in-denial intellectual crowd, the senators merely gave voice to hatred—spoken or unspoken—harbored throughout this country. I sincerely doubt any voters will penalize them for it.
A Case Study: Racism in the Bible by LINDA H. HOLLIES
Racism and sexism rear their ugly heads in many of the stories within our Christian canon. This particular incident found it’s way into two passages — Mark 7:24-29 and Matthew 15:21-28. Jesus has had one of those awful encounters with the temple leaders over the unorthodox behavior of the disciples. Tiring of petty conversation, he and the disciples slip away into the region of Tyre and Sidon. Mark records:
He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet (Mark 7:24-25).
The woman was a foreigner, a Canaanite.
Canaan had become the Promised Land of the Israelites. They lived in houses they had not build, drank wine from vines they had not planted and ate food they had not produced because they "took" property from the Canaanites. The former landowners became refugees, forced to flee their homes and lands. Division and racial hatred was inevitable. Wholeness and happiness for one group meant homelessness, hopelessness and despair for the other. Knowing the walls that separated them, the woman found Jesus and the disciples and immediately began pleading with Jesus, Have mercy on me. Lord, Son of David (Matthew 15:22).
She is very specific in whom she addresses. She does not use a plural designation to include the disciples in her appeal. Yet, they are the first to reject her. She was "the other." She was not even a proper Jewish woman who knew her place. She was not a member of the temple. She did not serve their God. She didn’t fit into their group. And, surely, she was not informed of protocol. So these men, in training to be witnesses of a loving God, behave in a most ungodly manner. The church failed to welcome her. The First Church had no written rules, regulations, bylaws or mission statements about how to do outreach ministry to "the other." So, while she pleaded for divine intervention, the Church said, Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us (Matthew 15:23).
Jesus says nothing. As a woman of color, this bothered me, troubled me, confused me. Why was the Savior silent at such a critical time?
Then, the teacher in me came alive! When you have been teaching a lesson over a period of time, you expect your students to master it. Jesus came and gave unselfishly through his ministry. Jesus included those who many considered "ner-do-wells" and gave them a primary position in First Church. Did the disciples comprehend this essential lesson of loving inclusion? Perhaps Jesus was waiting to see if they had internalized the lesson. If so, the fellows flunked the test.
In Jesus’ silence, the Church had ample opportunity to show loving compassion. It had a chance to enlarge the circle and draw the woman inside. The disciples had the privilege of becoming helpful, big brothers. Instead, their ethnic pride and macho egos blotted out the message Jesus had been teaching so persistently. In the silence, without resolutions, petitions and debates; without conferencing, caucusing or counciling; without checking the political pulse or the cultural climate, they could have been charitable and stepped over the walls that separated them. But they could not see the woman as a person. She was too different — "the other."
Dialogue of Justice
Even Jesus, a product of his cultural upbringing, responds, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 15:24). This woman did not concern herself with his agenda, the disciples’ snub or the divisions between them. Her child deserved a new beginning. She desired to be free herself. So she cries out again, Lord, help me! (Matthew 15:25)
It’s not nice. We don’t like to admit it. It doesn’t sound like the Jesus we love, but as a Jewish male, even he refers to her as a dog — the common Jewish reference to gentiles. Biblical commentaries often try to soften his answer by saying that Jesus’ use of this word was in reference to a little house dog. But, a dog is a dog is a dog! Girlfriend, is not angered, embarrassed or shamed. The stinging rebuff does not shut her up. She engages in the dialogue of justice. She stresses the point that she may well not be a lost sheep, and, indeed she may well be a "little, female dog." But, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table from God’s amazing abundance, she boldly declares (Matthew 15:27). Jesus agrees!
He praises her great faith. He steps outside the established agenda and provides deliverance for her and her daughter. The inclusion of "those people" turns on the relentless pursuit of a woman of color. Thank God for women who continue to cry out for the liberty for which Jesus Christ died. Praise God for women who long for the day when their children might inherit freedom, equality and equity in every system. Praise God for Jesus who saw her need, felt her pain and included her in God’s amazing grace.
The Reverend Linda H. Hollies is minister of missions for West Michigan Methodist Conference. She is author of several books including her latest, Jesus and Those Bodacious Women, Pilgrim Press.
We may not see a resolution to these problems in our lifetime. The ignorance is, frankly, too deeply ingrained into our cultural DNA. It is also being taught, either overtly or by example, to succeeding generations by our own ignorance. Racism, as Reverend Hollie points out, has always existed--even before biblical times. ethic hatred has been the causus beli of unspeakable human viciousness. The Holy Spirit is the only truly transformative power that can elevate us from our ignorance and dispel our fear. Sadly, even many of us who know Christ allow out fear to guide us, preventing the Spirit from freeing us from our vices and ignorance.
Perhaps the only thing truly worse than our insipid, generational fear and hatred of one another is our own denial that it exists or that it is at work within each of us. If there's a chief reason racism continues, it is our refusal to see it in ourselves.