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Issue Date:  April 4, 2008

-- CNS

Fr. Bryan N. Massingale
Race, racism engage us at a gut level


At Marquette University, where I am a theology professor, I teach the course “Christian Faith and Racial Justice.” Over the course of the semester, I ask the students, “What are you feeling?” I have realized that discussions of race cause deep emotions to well up, which, if not acknowledged, impede intellectual engagement with the material we are studying. I note each emotion as it is called out: fear, anger, confusion, resentment, guilt, helplessness, shame, outrage, despair, resignation.

I then give them the following reassurance and challenge: “What you are feeling is perfectly normal. We are dealing with difficult stuff. These emotions are to be expected. But we don’t have to be controlled by them. Acknowledge what you are feeling. But remember, you don’t have to act out of what you are feeling.” That reassurance and clearing the air is often what is needed for us to engage once again in the tasks at hand.

My point is simple but often overlooked: Discussions of race and racism engage us at a gut level, stirring up fears and anxieties of which we are often unaware. And unless these are acknowledged in some way, no reasonable discussion of race and racial injustice is possible. Racism cannot be resolved by rational appeals or intellectual debates alone. We have to contend with what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “nonrational barriers” that hinder racial unity.

This insight affords a perspective for understanding the widespread unease caused by some incendiary remarks spoken by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of the church attended by Sen. Barack Obama.

Rationally, one would think that Obama’s repeated denunciations, direct condemnations and emphatic repudiations of this pastor’s rhetoric would have been enough to quash the issue, and we would have moved on.

For what religious person hasn’t heard a priest, minister or rabbi utter from the pulpit boneheaded, ill-advised, insensitive, embarrassing or even stupid statements that offended common sense and even one’s religious convictions? And yet decided that because the church’s merits outweighed the minister’s shortcomings, one could remain a member of the congregation? Who among us would want to be held responsible for every pronouncement made by our faith’s leaders?

The fact that many seem unable to grasp these points is a signal that something more is fueling this ongoing discussion. And until we name it, we won’t be able to move beyond it.

I suspect that an underlying issue is this: Obama’s association with Wright raises a visceral fear in many whites that Obama may be another “angry black man.” They dread that he may be a closet Al Sharpton, a secret Louis Farrakhan, a stealth advocate of racial hostility, an undercover agent for racial “payback.”

This sounds absurd, even preposterous when put so directly. But race-based anxieties are not rational, and this would not be the first time that racial absurdity has affected the public discourse of Obama’s candidacy. How else would one characterize discussions such as: “Is Obama black enough?” or, “Is he too black?” or “Why are ‘all the blacks’ voting for him?” (disregarding the reality that he couldn’t have carried Wisconsin -- not to mention Iowa, Utah, and Idaho -- with only the black vote)?

Because most whites know few if any black men in any depth, the Wright controversy causes many to view Obama through the filter of “black men” that has been constructed for them. They see him through the lens of what they have heard -- and fear -- about black men. Obama thus becomes not a black individual, but an entity based upon a composite of the few political black men whom whites “know” through the media. Men like Sharpton, Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson. This is not rational, but it is real.

What is happening to Obama is a common experience for many black men. He has become a walking “ink- blot,” a living Rorschach test upon which white fears, fantasies and anxieties are projected.

As a black man who is also a Catholic priest, I am familiar with this dynamic. Well-intentioned white parishioners have told me after a service that I remind them of Denzel Washington (though I wish I were that handsome), Clarence Thomas (though I hold political views that are the polar opposite of his), and Jesse Jackson (though I could never match his rhetorical riffs). I am seen through the prism of the only black men they “know.”

I have also been told by well-meaning whites that I am “too soft on race” (that is, not black enough), while others have written that I am nothing more than a “race hustler” (that is, too black). I have had a white coworker, a good friend, run from me in fear as I approached her at dusk wearing a baseball cap and without my identifying collar. I have come to realize that for many, without their conscious awareness, I am a living Rorschach inkblot upon which they read their own unexamined concerns, fears and anxieties.

This is one of the deepest tragedies of racism or any social prejudice: It robs one of the freedom to be an individual -- to be “me” -- rather than a “category” (for example, “angry black man” or “racial assimilationist”).

I am not arguing that the choice is to support Obama or be considered a racist. My point is that we have to be aware of the latent fears -- fears that could be deliberately exploited -- that may skew our view of him.

Whatever shortcomings Obama may have or whatever our political disagreements with him, at least let us understand that he is not a stealth agent for black supremacy. He couldn’t be for a simple reason: He has been intimately shaped, influenced and loved by his mother, grandfather, and grandmother -- all of whom were white. He loves, and is loved by, both white individuals and black persons in a way that few Americans can ever understand or will ever experience. Interracial love is a cure for racial domination, not its incubator.

In the New Testament, it is written, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear.” In my classroom, I have witnessed the transformative power of love. My experience teaching about racial justice shows that when people are able to confront their fears and anxieties with understanding and without condemnation, they can move beyond them. We can’t help how we feel, but we can decide not to be controlled by our feelings.

Love is what fuels Obama’s hope that Americans can move beyond our visceral fears to end what he calls our “racial stalemate.” It is up to us to demonstrate whether we are worthy of such trust.

Jesuit Fr. Bryan Massingale is an associate professor of theology at Marquette University. A version of this column appeared previously in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008

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