A year and a half ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, a 9th grader named Zyahna Bryant started a petition to remove the city’s statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

In a letter to the editor of her city’s newspaper, Zyahna explained her petition this way:

I am calling on [Charlottesville’s] city council along with my peers and members of the community to remove the Robert E. Lee statue because it doesn’t represent what Charlottesville is all about. It is offensive to not only one group of people, but essentially it can be offensive to all people.  

In her letter, she explained her opposition to the Lee statue:

When I think of Robert E. Lee I instantly think of someone fighting in favor of slavery. Thoughts of physical harm, cruelty, and disenfranchisement flood my mind. As a teenager in Charlottesville that identifies as black, I am offended every time I pass it. I am reminded over and over again of the pain of my ancestors and all of the fighting that they had to go through for us to be where we are now. Quite frankly I am disgusted with the selective display of history in this city… let’s not forget that Robert E. Lee fought for perpetual bondage of slaves and the bigotry of the South that kept most  black citizens as slaves and servants for the entirety of their lives.

Zyahna Bryant

Zyahna Bryant

Hundreds of people signed Zyahna’s petition, and this past April, Charlottesville’s city council voted 3 to 2 to sell the statue, but a judge issued an injunction temporarily stopping the move.

Today, Charlottesville exploded with neo-Nazi, white supremacist anger and violence over the issue of that statue—and the much deeper issue of race-based hatred. Three people died, and dozens were injured. That ugly violence forms an apt example of how we often deal with our country’s deeply-embedded racism. While things may sometimes look healthy on the surface of our multicultural society, America’s centuries-long battle over racial prejudice has not healed. Racial hatred pushes itself to the surface regularly, and we all continue to face the consequences of its terrible, violent legacy.

If you don’t believe overt racism still exists in America, just watch the news reports about the deadly violence in Charlottesville. You’ll see that the American brand of race-based ignorance, prejudice and hatred has not gone away. If that doesn’t convince you, take a look at these statistics from a recent CBS poll of white Americans on their attitudes toward black people. The polling results do show some positive news—that American racist attitudes have progressively waned over the past 40 years. But they also tell us that just because they’ve diminished doesn’t mean racism has gone away. The poll found that:

  • 21% of whites say they would oppose having a close relative marry a black person, and the same percentage of whites say they would not want to live in a place where half the neighbors are black.
  • 40% of white Americans say “whites are more hard-working than blacks.”
  • When asked why they think blacks, on average, have worse jobs, income and housing than whites, almost half of all whites (45%) say that “most blacks don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves out of poverty.”
  • 28% say it’s okay to discriminate when selling a home.
  • A third of whites (34%) agree with the statement “blacks shouldn’t push themselves where they’re not wanted.” – CBS News, 30 April 2014.

These frightening numbers have something very important to tell us–racism is not dead. We do not live in a “post-racial” society. We have not conquered prejudice–far from it.

In one way, though, hideous reminders like Charlottesville can serve a valuable public function–they give us another reason to have the conversations and do the hard self-searching moral inventory necessary to actually deal with the reality of racism. They prompt us to review our own inner landscape and ask ourselves some tough questions about what we’ve personally done to advance the healing. They prompt us, once again, to see if we can find ways toward the racial unity the Baha’i teachings so strongly endorse.

Those teachings say this kind of hard work begins with seeing the spiritual heart of every human being:

God maketh no distinction between the white and the black. If the hearts are pure both are acceptable unto Him. God is no respecter of persons on account of either color or race. All colors are acceptable unto Him, be they white, black, or yellow. Inasmuch as all were created in the image of God, we must bring ourselves to realize that all embody divine possibilities. – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted by Shoghi Effendi in The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 37.

When these public racist outbreaks occur, they give us all another opportunity to broach the uncomfortable and challenging subject of our culture’s racism with people who normally might not be open to the discussion. They allow us to ask the open-ended question: “What do you think?” and then follow it up with an actual exchange of views. They give us a window of opportunity to help us confront our own overt or covert prejudices.

The Baha’i writings address racism openly and directly, establishing a clearly-delineated path toward its resolution. Speaking boldly to those who insist that racial prejudice is somehow inherent or unavoidable, Abdu’l-Baha tells us repeatedly that prejudice of any kind destroys human development:

Baha’u’llah has also taught that prejudices, whether religious, racial, patriotic or political are destructive to the foundations of human development. Prejudices of any kind are the destroyers of human happiness and welfare. Until they are dispelled the advancement of the world of humanity is not possible …. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 182.

Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, writing in the 1930’s, specifically asked white people to take ownership of this issue:

Let the white make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority, to correct their tendency towards revealing a patronizing attitude towards the members of the other race, to persuade them through their intimate, spontaneous and informal association with them of the genuineness of their friendship and the sincerity of their intentions, and to master their impatience of any lack of responsiveness on the part of a people who have received, for so long a period, such grievous and slow-healing wounds. – Advent of Divine Justice, pp. 39-40.

This reminds us that the recalcitrant racist opinions of neo-Nazis and white supremacists actually represented mainstream views in America not that long ago. As the polls clearly show, those ignorant, diseased prejudices persist in millions of people. They will not disappear magically. It takes generations to understand, address and begin to solve the racist inheritance of a brutal post-slavery legacy.

The Baha’i teachings directly address America’s racist past and present, confronting the issue head-on and asking us to allow no prejudice or separation between us and any other fellow human being:

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

26 Comments

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  • Aug 17, 2017
    People across both the political spectrum and the religious spectrum are uniting to categorically reject bigotry, discrimination, and prejudice of all kinds. I follow the news on Religious News Service and Indpendent Political Report which has fueled my social media posts on all the groups who either were among the counterprotesters against the alt-right or couldn't make it so they released a press statement condemning the alt-right, bigotry, discrimination, and prejudice. My social media feeds are full of people who I follow and my friends weighing in on how bad bigotry, discrimination, and prejudice are from whatever space on the ...religious and political spectrum they are. People of all genders, races, orientations, religions, etc agree.
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    • Aug 20, 2017
      “In the final analysis, racism is evil because its ultimate logic is genocide.. … If one says that I am not good enough to live next door to him, if one says that I am not good enough to eat at a lunch counter, or to have a good, decent job, or to go to school with him merely because of my race, he is saying consciously or unconsciously that I do not deserve to exist.”
      Dr. King also famously declared, “All that needs to happen for evil to prevail is that good men do nothing.”
      Committing ourselves afresh today ...to advocating for the values of Buddhist humanism while standing up for human dignity, SGI-USA will never relent in its efforts to build a culture of peace in the United States.
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    • Aug 20, 2017
      That same history teaches us that apathy among people of goodwill is an accelerant for the bigotry and hatred that feeds the fire of physical violence. The passive violence of white nationalist ideology, if left unchallenged, will always march toward its ultimate goal of physical violence. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made this vital point in his 1967 speech “The Other America.”
    • Aug 20, 2017
      SGI-USA Statement on the Racial Unrest in Charlottesville, VA
      The members of Soka Gakkai International-USA repudiate hatred and bigotry and appeal for equality and justice for all. The white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA, last weekend stands in the starkest contrast to the beautiful tapestry of all people that America should be.
      It is difficult to believe that in 2017, we must stand witness to individuals bearing torches while chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. It harkens back to the darkest days of American history.
  • Cristina Munk
    Aug 16, 2017
    Hi Chris, thank you for sharing your views. While I agree that racism can be practiced by any person, I disagree that is only on the fringe of our country. In the Advent of Divine Justice, Shoghi Effendi says, "As to racial prejudice, the corrosion of which, for well-nigh a century, has bitten into the fiber, and attacked the whole social structure of American society, it should be regarded as constituting the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Bahá’í community at the present stage of its evolution." (p.33)
  • Traci Sims
    Aug 15, 2017
    Thank you. Lovely article.
  • Aug 15, 2017
    Racism is just part of the story. We are divided in every way imaginable. Women vs. Men, White vs. Black, Liberal vs. Conservative, Scientific vs. "Alternative Facts", Hetero vs. LGBT, any religion vs. any other religion vs. no religion, etc. I gave an interview to the local paper about energy conservation and climate change, and now my neighbor won't talk to me. It feels like our society is coming apart. The only cure I see is teaching the Faith but nobody will listen.
    • Christine Muller
      Aug 19, 2017
      Daniel, it's so nice to meet you here again. I am glad that you gave that interview to the local paper! I think that the strong divisions and increasing social, economic, and environmental problems are part of the "birth pangs" of a new world order. I believe that it will get worse, far worse, but that people will then wake up and be ready to listen to God's healing message brought by Baha'u'llah.
  • Aug 15, 2017
    Well said Chris. I believe racial tensions are at an all time high in this country. But I think we need to distinguish between racial tension and racism, they are not the same. These fringe groups are getting too much attention from the media, and I think it's giving these people a sense of validation. The haters in Charlottesville were estimated to be about a few dozen to 50, while the counter protesters were in the hundreds. Yet the media doesn't report that, which is misleading at best and irresponsible at worst. A few idiots wearing swastikas and waving flags ...is hardly an "plague."
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  • Aug 15, 2017
    In July 2017, the ecumenical and interfaith clergy group Congregate Charlottesville called for a thousand members of the clergy to counterprotest at the rally. Groups counterprotesting included representatives from the National Council of Churches, Black Lives Matter, Anti-Racist Action, Antifa, the Democratic Socialists of America, Redneck Revolt, the Industrial Workers of the World, and Showing Up for Racial Justice. In opposition to the rally, the Charlottesville Clergy Collective created a safe space at First United Methodist Church, which was used by over 600 people.
    Even the religious part of the counter-protest was being violently threatened by the alt-right protesters. Even ...clergy from the National Council of Churches were attacked
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  • Joyous Messenger
    Aug 14, 2017
    "The poll found that"
    Can you link the poll?? I don't trust any poll these days until I see the response rate and methodology. Without linking your source I just, instinctively, can't trust the numbers you cite.
  • Kees Poolman
    Aug 14, 2017
    Bahá'ís a just people; no one already is a bahá'í, but all are trying to be one. I regret all the times I haven't been bahá'í enough in the past ... forgive others and especially yourself, which is the hardest part. In the early bahá'í groups in Íran and Akká the same things happened; we only can read about these early bahá'ís and how Bahá'u'lláh reacted in those cases and learn from it.
  • Kees Poolman
    Aug 14, 2017
    A fire cannot be stopped by spraying oil. A fire can be ended by spraying water on it, or and this is the most realistic part for a person ... just let burn it out. Because Unity of Mankind only can be reached when ALL are WILLING to have it. Meanwhile try to reach unity of man in your small environment, your family, and learn to consult in case of differences. That is difficult enough ... Then you'll understand that you by yourself are in no position to take part of these public difficulties. You are strong, because you know ...the ultimate solution, show your strength ...
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    • Coriolano Guarani-Kaiowá Correa
      Aug 14, 2017
      I think you're right,Kees, although it can be quite a test when you or your family are personally affected (by prejudice, for instance.). Becoming a baha'i doesn't mean you're going to change for the better as if by magic; it's just the beginning of a journey along the path of our spiritual development. My wife and one of my sisters used to be a baha'i when we first got to know the Faith 40 years ago but, partly because of the bad conduct of some friends, they turned away, though my wife still supports our principles in general. Being human, ...I've become a little embittered myself, but not to that point, as I know the Faith itself is not to blame for the mistakes of some of its followers. Cori
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  • Aug 14, 2017
    The hard reality of the matter is that the dominance of white people over people of color is sustained almost entirely by the actions of people who don't think of themselves as racist. Psychologically, it's possible to maintain this contradiction so long as we have a habit of always portraying racism as a problem that other people have. Unfortunately, real live Nazis chanting "blood and soil" in a public space is so lurid, so captivating in its repulsiveness, that it can easily become a distraction from the hard spiritual work of racial self-examination.