Donald Sterling“Are you a racist?”  That was a question shouted by a reporter to Donald Sterling as the L.A. Clipper’s owner headed for his car.   It’s a provocative question, but it’s the wrong question for Sterling, and it’s the wrong question for each of us.  Except in cases where a person is hateful or ignorant enough to want to be identified as a racist, the question does not call for a “Yes/No” answer.  Racism is not an all or nothing situation.  It’s not a switch you turn off once you are no longer a racist.

The better questions for each of us might be, “How do your racial biases affect the way you think about others?” “In what ways do your racial biases show themselves in your actions?” “When do you recognize and knowingly condone institutional racism?”  Those kinds of questions suddenly bring us all in on the conversation.

Cliven BundyIt takes the arrogance of a Donald Sterling, the ignorance of a Cliven Bundy, or the immaturity of a recent group of college students right here in Abilene to bring race back to the headlines, but it never goes away from our daily lives.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Blink, describes the Implicit Association Test, developed by three Harvard psychologists.  The test measures our conscious attitudes on a number of dimensions, including race.  Conscious attitudes are those things we choose to believe.  These are the attitudes and beliefs we can articulate, and they typically guide our deliberate behaviors.

Beyond that, however, the test does a frighteningly effective job of measuring our unconscious attitudes, those immediate, automatic associations that pop into our heads or tumble out of our mouths before we’ve had time to think.  We don’t deliberately choose these attitudes and may not be aware that they are even there.  According to Gladwell, “The disturbing thing about the test is that it shows that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values.”

If you grew up in this country and are old enough to read this article, regardless of your race or ethnicity, you have absorbed racist beliefs and stereotypes, and they have shaped your life and outlook.  It’s part of the air we breathe, and it is endemic in every institution in our society.  The question is not, “Are you a racist?”  The question is, “How much do you recognize your racial biases?  How complicit are you in the many forms of institutional racism?”

In the midst of a recent casual conversation, a local businessman uttered a despicable slur regarding our President.  I was stunned.  I had been lulled into believing that intelligent, respectable people don’t say such things about any other human being, no matter how much they may disagree with them.  With the bar lowered to that level, it would be easy to excuse myself with the assurance of, “At least I’m not like that guy.”  But we each have to deal with our own conscious and unconscious racism.  We all participate.

And it isn’t just about Blacks and Whites.  The recent shooting in Kansas by the White supremacist reminds us of the mean, cruel, and sometimes deadly nature of intolerance toward any group.

Using the word “racist” or “homophobe” or some other such term makes the issue too simple.  Such words dichotomize things and people, and once divided into categories, we can say, “I’m not one of those.”  But it’s not that simple.  Intolerance is rooted in ignorance, produces fear, and is often acted out in hateful words and actions.  We all participate, and we all suffer.  Intolerance sometimes kills the body, but it always damages the spirit, first and foremost of the person who is afraid and acting out of that fear.  And that includes all of us.