In the past few weeks, however, the subject of “racism” has inserted its ugly presence into our national life in a big way. Now, according to the 2019 Merriam-Webster Dictionary App on my computer, “Racism” is defined thusly:
This, seemingly quite logically, leads to the notion that there may be other, similarly determining characteristics, say, for example sexuality, gender, religion, etc. One does not need to be a very serious scholar of American history to know that race has not been the only criteria for determining who we want in OUR country. In fact, one only has to look at the extremely shabby treatment we gave to the people who were present on this land mass BEFORE WE WERE to understand the we, “Americans” are in no position to cast stones; although we did do so at people of Italian, Irish, German, Greek, all sorts of Asian, and other nationalities, as well as Catholics, Jews, and Protestants (of “unapproved” denominations), long before we started going after Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Shinto, etc., to say nothing of LGBTQ folks in all of these groups. Of course, people of “color” have long been easy to pick out, so they have been an obvious target since before we became a nation in any respect. And, by the way, that included the Native peoples we found here when “us God-fearing, civilized, white folk ‘discovered’ this land.” We, Americans, have a long, long history of being VERY “equal opportunity” in terms of our excuses for discrimination. I think the correct, generic, term for this type of behavior is “bigotry.”
Now I am not going to pretend that I have never had a discriminatory thought, although I have tried to suppress any such. I do think I have managed to avoid ACTING on any biases I may have in both my personal and my professional life. I realize now that I was raised in an environment which was probably racially biased, although I don’t remember ever talking, or thinking, about it. I went to the local elementary school because everyone in my neighborhood did. I think my elementary school (attendance was based on where we lived) may well have been all-white. The Junior High I went to was integrated, however, so I had classes with African-American and Jewish kids, whom I don’t remember being present in my elementary school. High School was, obviously, integrated as there was only one high school in the district. As far as I know, that system, based on housing patterns, was in place long before Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. It certainly wasn’t particularly controversial, except, of course, there was some concern when a swimming pool was built at the high school, but, as I remember it, that controversy was shut down pretty quickly.
By the time I hit Junior High, I discovered that there were some kids from other backgrounds whom I liked and some I didn’t much care for. I think this was based more on common interests and values, than on the sort of criteria indicated above. I believe that this carried over into my college years and on into my professional career. It wasn’t my job to be “friends” with my students, although I tried to be “friendly.” It WAS my job to be fair and honest with them (ALL) in terms of assigning grades and evaluating work. Yes, I did get “closer” to some than others. Those who worked with me in the scene shop or were involved as cast or staff of the productions I directed became somewhat “special” to me, although I don’t think they would say that I “cut them any slack” when it came to evaluating their work. I’d like to think that was the case, in any event.
So, acknowledging that I am capable of having prejudiced thoughts, be they based on religion, race, gender, nationality, sexuality (try being bigoted about that in a theatre program, I dare you), I make no pretext of being perfect. I’d like to think I’d be graded pretty high on attempting to not let prejudice influence my actions, however. Then, a couple of days ago, I ran across a reference to a piece written by the senior staff of the Washington National Cathedral. This cathedral is the home of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. In discussing the WNC, however, Wikipedia says,
…from its earliest days, the cathedral has been promoted as more than
simply an Episcopal cathedral. Planners hoped it would play a role similar
to England's Westminster Abbey. They wanted it to be a national shrine
and a venue for great services. For much of the cathedral's history, this
was captured in the phrase "a house of prayer for all people." In more
recent times the phrases "national house of prayer" and "spiritual home
for the nation" have been used. The cathedral has achieved this status
simply by offering itself and being accepted by religious and political leaders
as playing this role.
This article (quoted in its entirety below from the Cathedral web site, www.cathedral.org) stimulated me to consider going outside of my usual “comfort “zone and writing about this issue which seems to be consuming our nation. As Dylan said, “… how many times must a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?” I think I’ve reached my limit of those times…. “The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind….”
Have We No Decency? A Response to President Trump -Washington National Cathedral
July 30, 2019
The escalation of racialized rhetoric from the President of the United States has evoked responses from all sides of the political spectrum. On one side, African American leaders have led the way in rightfully expressing outrage. On the other, those aligned with the President seek to downplay the racial overtones of his attacks, or, remain silent.
As faith leaders who serve at Washington National Cathedral – the sacred space where America gathers at moments of national significance – we feel compelled to ask: After two years of President Trump’s words and actions, when will Americans have enough?
As Americans, we have had such moments before, and as a people we have acted. Events of the last week call to mind a similarly dark period in our history:
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. … You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
That was U.S. Army attorney Joseph Welch on June 9, 1954, when he confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy before a live television audience, effectively ending McCarthy’s notorious hold on the nation. Until then, under the guise of ridding the country of Communist infiltration, McCarthy had free rein to say and do whatever he wished. With unbridled speech, he stoked the fears of an anxious nation with lies; destroyed the careers of countless Americans; and bullied into submissive silence anyone who dared criticize him.
In retrospect, it’s clear that Welch’s question was directed less toward McCarthy and more to the nation as a whole. Had Americans had enough? Where was our sense of decency?
We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.
This week, President Trump crossed another threshold. Not only did he insult a leader in the fight for racial justice and equality for all persons; not only did he savage the nations from which immigrants to this country have come; but now he has condemned the residents of an entire American city. Where will he go from here?
Make no mistake about it, words matter. And, Mr. Trump’s words are dangerous.
These words are more than a “dog-whistle.” When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human “infestation” in America.They serve as a call to action from those people to keep America great by ridding it of such infestation. Violent words lead to violent actions.
When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.
As leaders of faith who believe in the sacredness of every single human being, the time for silence is over. We must boldly stand witness against the bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and xenophobia that is hurled at us, especially when it comes from the highest offices of this nation. We must say that this will not be tolerated. To stay silent in the face of such rhetoric is for us to tacitly condone the violence of these words. We are compelled to take every opportunity to oppose the indecency and dehumanization that is racism, whether it comes to us through words or actions.
There is another moment in our history worth recalling. On January 21, 2017, Washington National Cathedral hosted an interfaith national prayer service, a sacred tradition to honor the peaceful transfer of political power. We prayed for the President and his young Administration to have “wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties that they may serve all people of this nation and promote the dignity and freedom of every person.”
That remains our prayer today for us all.
The Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington
The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Dean of Washington National Cathedral
The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, Canon Theologian of Washington National Cathedral
Personally, I think that the above message should be taken more generally and applied to all forms of bigotry. However, this is a worthwhile first step and it is with great humility that I append my name with that of the individuals above.
Richard S. Beam, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Theatre, School of Stage and Screen, Western Carolina University (Retired), Former Chair of the Faculty