Thursday, November 12, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The race hucksters

I promise you that none of what I'm about to say is made up. My opinions are my own, and as such they can't be taken as absolute fact, but as for the rest, I kid you not. Anyway, you've probably encountered this as well.

Apparently, although I was unaware of this until quite recently, there are people out there who think that everything – that’s right, every single thing there is – is somehow related to race. (I know, call me na├»ve. Or call me a cab.)

Proponents of this viewpoint – for the sake of our discussion let’s call them, oh, race hucksters – will steer you to something such as the following ad which Volkswagen ran a few years ago.

In case you can't make out the captions, the one below the black car reads, "Naughty?" while underneath the white care is the word "Nice?" According to the race hucksters, “what is quickly evident [from the ad] is that the ad at some level willingly plays on racial stereotypes. This is simply one tiny example of how pervasive race is embedded in society.” As support for this position they refer to comments from people who were shown the ad and were asked what conclusions they drew from it. “Black is naughty while White is nice,” said one, “Black is bad and White is good,” offered another, and “Black is evil,” opined a third. The moral of the story, such as it was, was that the ad was either racist or insensitive to those who might perceive a racial subtext to it.

Who knew? Me, I saw two cars: a black one and a white one, and wondered which one would be easier to keep clean. (Hint: black shows spots, white shows dirt.)

My most vivid experience with the race hucksters came a few years ago, when I was introduced to the concept of Unearned White Privilege. This is when I worked at the YMCA in Minneapolis, and I'm not entirely sure why we were subjected to the series of sessions at which we discussed these and other burning topics, such as how members of minorities can't be racists, even if they admit they hate people of other colors and creeds, and want to see them all dead. You see, racism is really oppression; ergo, only people in positions of power - white people, in other words - can be racist. Search me; I always thought being a racist meant you thought one race was inherently inferior to another, and deserved to be treated accordingly.

Actually, and I'm going to digress for a minute here, I do know why the employees of the YMCA were put through this Inquisition (like the one in Spain, except not as funny). It's because the daughter of the chairman of the board of trustees of the Minneapolis YMCA was the facilitator for this particular series of seminars, and he cajoled the Y into hiring her company to do this training in order to boost her sales. I don't think they really approved of my attitude toward the whole thing, since I managed to maneuver myself into the group that considered themselves discriminated against on the grounds that as a white man I was subjected to more quotas and obstacles than other employees. My boss at the time said that many people found it a life-altering, cathartic experience. Personally, I think they were probably having convulsions from vomiting, based on the bilge they were being fed.  Or maybe not; my lasting memory of these sessions was a sensitive, bearded young white man weeping and begging for forgiveness from his colleagues for having been so insensitive as to have been born white.

I have a firm notion of personal responsibility, and I've always considered myself dedicated to maintaining a good reputation (because, after all, you never get a second chance to make a first impression). However, my idea of personal responsibility does not extend to the actions which a segment of an element of society with which I happen to share the same skin color happened to do something horrible a couple of centuries ago.

In fact, what is quickly evident to me from this whole discussion is that some people simply don’t have enough to do, while others try their hardest to make a living from race-baiting. Think of it – if race weren’t an issue, they’d be out of a job.

We know who these people are. Think Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton – where would they be if they actually succeeded in their agendas? It’s actually to their advantage to fail – it keeps them employed. That's even better than being a TV meterologist. Show me a job like that and I’ll sign up in a heartbeat.

We know these people have an agenda, and what that agenda is. We’re not here today for an in-depth discussion of that agenda; it probably requires a book to even scratch the surface of it. But we are going to look at one small aspect – the infusion of everything with the stain of racism – and why it doesn’t hold water. For the sake of time, let’s focus on this ad, the ad that “at some level willingly plays on racial stereotypes.” So, white and black = good and evil = racial stereotype. True or false?

Far from being an example of racial stereotyping, the use of white and black as symbols of good and evil is one deeply ingrained in the human psyche, going back to the Bible. One need look no further than Psalm 51, in which the psalmist says, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow." What better color against which to demonstrate the stain of sin than white? It may be difficult to tell the cleanliness of a colored background, but there can be no mistaking the dazzling brilliance of a clean white background.

To the extent that white and black are identified with light and dark (and anyone with eyes to see can make that link), the metaphors associated with these colors are unmistakable. For instance, in Matthew 6:22-23, Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

Jesus seemed to think a lot of this symbolism; in Luke 11:33-36 He says, “No man when he lights a candle puts it in a secret place; neither under a bushel; but on a candle stick, that they which come in may see the light. The light of the body is the eye. Therefore, when your eye is single or healthy, your whole body also is full of light, but when your eye is evil or diseased, your body is also full of darkness. If your whole body therefore be full of light, having no part dark, the whole shall be full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle gives you light.”

Look, darkness is not in fact a metaphor for racism, but it refers to the ability to hide from the light of truth. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out, let alone a scriptural scholar. All it really requires is a little common sense.

In one of his early 60s television shows, Bishop Fulton Sheen recalls Christ’s words, “He who follows me shall not walk in the darkness" (John 8:12). Using his famed chalkboard, Bishop Sheen illustrates this point with a practical demonstration of the effects of light and shadow: when one walks away from the sun (or the Son, if you will), the light will be at your back, casting a shadow before you. The darkness from this shadow is twofold; it serves both as a cloak to hide your activities (and why would you hide them unless they shamed you?), and it also acts to block you from the illumination of grace and truth. On the other hand, the one who follows Christ walks toward the light. This means the shadow is now behind you rather than in front; you are casting off the darkness, exposing yourself to the brilliance of truth, living your life in the open rather than in hiding.

Thus endeth the theological lesson for today. (Want more? Go here.)

Could white and black be used in a racial context? Of course they could; nowadays, words can mean just about anything you want them to mean. But in challenging the basic symbolism linking white and black with good and evil, these race hucksters want to make you think there is something wrong with the whole analogy. Common sense will tell you otherwise. It will tell you that there are strong reasons for this symbolism, reasons that go beyond politics. It will tell you that the hucksters who peddle this nonsense have their own agenda, and in fact they’re hoping that the moral authority in which they cloak themselves will cast a shadow large enough and long enough to hide that agenda from you. And why not, for as John 3:19 says, “men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”

In short, people who see this kind of thing in a racial subtext do so only because they want to. Or because it profits them to do so.

Portions of the preceding were originally published on May 14, 2009.

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