Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Penny Drops

I was just emptying my pockets when a penny hit the floor. I picked it up and looked at the unusual object. Unusual, I say, because it was a US penny, and I live in Canada. Now, I am something of a numismatist, a coin collector, except that I don't really collect them. I just appreciate them, especially the artwork that goes into making them.

But there was something about this penny that caught my eye: the design on the back.

In case you don't know, the US penny has an image of Abraham Lincoln on the front and for many years has had his memorial on the back. This was very significant, for it was a symbol of freedom from slavery for many people. From 1959 all the way through 2008. this was the symbol that adorned the back of this small, but significant, coin. Freedom from slavery.

In 2010, this symbol was changed. I remember when it changed, and it bothered me at the time, but I could not have told you why. It's not that I was particularly attached to the Lincoln Memorial, but I definitely didn't like the new symbol: a shield sporting the logo "E Pluribus Unum", or "out of many, one". And while the 13 stripes on the shield "represent the states joined in one compact union to support the Federal government, represented by the horizontal bar above", according to the US mint, I think there is a deeper, more subtle significance.

In 1959, when the civil rights movement was really getting underway, the implication of the Lincoln Memorial on the back of the penny was great. By 2010, though, the whole importance of the civil rights movement had faded, and the memory of 2001 and the Twin Towers was far more in the consciousness of the US population. The "attacks on Christmas" were in the headlines. The Occupy movement was underway. Civil unrest was at a height not seen for many years. Both the government and the media were giving greater and greater importance to kindling the sense of fear in the country, having already promoted at least one war, and generating the feeling of need for another. And so a shield on the back, denoting the importance of protection while under attack, seems eerily significant now.

In 2014, the multitude of slayings of unarmed black men by white police officers has brought the entire civil rights movement back into the spotlight.

Regardless of the guilt or innocence of any one particular police officer in any of these incidents, the sheer number of them, and the subsequent dismissal of the most grievous of these from going to trial, has shown the extreme disparity inherent in the US legal system.

Racism, in other words, is still a major issue in the States and must be faced square on, and finally dealt with.

When speaking with Baha'is all across the States, I regularly hear the same tired refrain. "Sure, racism is the most challenging issue", many say, "but I'm not racist."

And that, dear Reader, is where we have failed.

Now, this is not meant in the sense of success and failure, but rather in the sense of having failed to perform a task. We have failed to continue to uphold the banner of racial equality.

Before I talk about that, though, I should mention that I also believe that we have failed to remember the words of our beloved Guardian. You see, the Guardian never said that racism was our most challenging issue. He said, and I quote, "it should be regarded as constituting the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Baha'i community."

Why do we leave out the word "vital"?

This is not just some issue that needs to be relegated to a committee and handled with a simple march or a picnic. This is not some principle that is to be included in an old list and rattled off with a dozen or so other principles, important as they all are.

This is an issue of life and death.

This is an issue that is so difficult to understand, so complex, so painful to recognize the depths of, so problematic to solve.

And this is the one issue, out of them all, in which we need to be the leaders.

In a recent meeting in Washington DC, President Obama called together the recognized leaders in this arena to discuss the issue of race and, for the first time I am aware of in many decades, there was no Baha'i present. We are no longer seen as leaders in this area.

In one community, a major city in the central States, the Baha'i Faith grew in numbers back in the 60s because the friends there stood out. Their stance on racial unity was light years ahead of everyone else, as it had been for many years. In the racially torn years of that time, the Baha'i community was significantly better than what was available outside of it. Remember, "Until the public sees in the Bahá'í Community a true pattern, in action," wrote the Guardian, "of something better than it already has, it will not respond to the Faith in large numbers."

From what I have seen, since the mid-80s, in regards to racial equality, the Baha'i community has not grown. But the rest of the culture has. We no longer stand out. We no longer offer something better for those facing the racial disparity of the greater community. We have become the norm. The rest of the community has caught up with us, and, in some ways, surpassed us. If you are looking for a community in which your race is not a matter of stigma, there are plenty of communities and groups offering that.

But there is another area in which we are in a state of crisis.

In that community in the central States, the members of the Assembly have taken the race issue off their agenda, in a sense, for they regard themselves as not being racist. And while that may be the case, it is not the issue.

They are a large enough community to have neighbourhood Feasts, which in and of itself is not a problem. But, when the Feast is held in a black neighbourhood, or at the home of an African-American, the number of those attending drops significantly. "The White folk", as my African American friends say, "just don`t show up."

If we wanted to, we could try to claim this is some sort of manifestation of racism, but I don't think it is. I think it is more a fear of the neighbourhoods that racism engenders. It is like the time we were teaching in a very dangerous neighbourhood in Winnipeg. We told the friends involved to get out of the neighbourhood a good 30 minutes before sunset. Was that racism? No. It was realism. We knew the neighbourhood changed after sunset, and were justifiably concerned. In fact, one woman did not heed the advice and ended up in hospital.

But here, in this one city, with its Feasts at various homes, if there is an issue of concern, they need to find a way around it. Whether it is a group who provides escorts, as I have seen in another city, or ensuring that the Feast occurs during the day when it is safer, as others have done, a way must be provided. Watching the numbers fall and allowing this sense of racial disunity to grow does nothing but engender this crisis that must eventually be faced. I have had a number of friends in this city, all African American, say that if it weren't for their love of Baha'u'llah, they would have left the Faith already. We know that we are our own worst enemy, that people will leave if it were only the community holding us together. Fortunately it is the love of Baha'u'llah that binds us into a single unit and elevates us to undreamt of heights.

You see, the problem is not freeing ourselves of any racist tendencies, as important as that is. It is not about us. The problem is upholding the standard of racial unity. It is raising that banner and keeping it in front of us, for all to see. It is about using that outward-looking orientation we love to talk about, and standing up for what is right in a culture that has forgotten about such things. It is about going to those homes, not because it is safe and easy, but because it is right and just, and it is where our friends and family are.

And it's not about forgetting the core activities in order to do this.

It is about doing what is needed, where it is needed, when it is needed.

And today, that means picking up that standard, once again, and going to the front lines where this issue is being fought. It is about changing that fight from battling racism to promoting race unity. It is about understanding the issues faced by many millions of people every day, acknowledging their daily reality, facing their complaints and criticisms with heroic fortitude, and surrounding them with an all-embracing love that is worthy of the name "Baha'i".

For those of us not living directly in these areas, it is about seeing the pattern of action that the Universal House of Justice has given us in regards to defending the rights of our brethren in Iran and applying that pattern to defend the rights of brethren in the States. In Iran they are persecuted for their beliefs, while in the States they suffer for the colour of their skin. In Iran there has been an outpouring of loving encouragement to stand up for justice through a flow of letters to those in positions of power. Perhaps we, through a similar coordinated effort, could do the same. After all, we know that the majority of police officers and officials want to see a better world for all. Perhaps a flow of loving words will help them stand up to the agents of hatred and respond to the variety of situations they encounter in a manner more worthy of the badge they wear and the position they hold.

For all of us, it is about going back to our own Writings, studying this issue one more time, at the very least, and confronting those challenges that have been laid before us. We have been told that racism has "attacked the whole structure of the American society", that the principle of the oneness of humanity "implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society", and that America's "peace, her prosperity, and even her standing in the international community depend to a great extent on the resolution of this issue".

Now is the time to rise up, put down that shield, and pick up that banner once again.


  1. STORY TIME: My first dorm roommate (assigned) was a white beer-swilling, fast-car owner from Topeka who put up posters of girls leaning over motorcycles. I knew his ilk from high school. He didn't frighten me.

    He didn't like my (engineering) geek need to study on weekends. So, a massive roommate swap happened behind my back. A new guy's stuff appeared one day, which was fine by me but rather startling.

    If turned out my new roommate was black, which I thought was kind of cool since I hadn't known many black guys before; the ones I did were nice enough. I asked around (this was 1985 at Univ. of Kansas) racism did play a part, but it didn't matter to me much since the culture clash w/ my old one was so huge how could this be bigger.

    He was bookish, a bit overweight, and a literature buff, which made him interesting to talk with (as I'd read a lot, too), but had some peculiar traits (upon which I won't elaborate). I'd met odd people before so that didn't worry me, and we got along fine.

    About 3 months later, I discovered (accidentally without him present) that he was gay. At that point, my 1985 self had to decide if I cared. I'd been naked in front of him; did it matter? Did he say anything? No. I had to think for a while, and confront my, "Do I care?" very closely. I decided I didn't. He was pretty closeted, so I didn't bring it up (I never have). He was/is a nice guy, and one of the few in my life with a vocabulary rivaling mine (I remember such things).

    It strikes me that confronting racism (and its sister, Homophobia), involves more than forging links between people who are already physically in proximity, who speak to each other regularly as my roommate and I did.

    I work in the Chicago Loop and many people there - on buses / trains, chatting in the street and lobby of my office - are Black and Hispanic.

    There is a difference in How People Talk. The speech patterns I hear from Blacks are very, very different, and to my ear, seriously incorrect. Those of Hispanics are either Spanish or mostly correct English.

    Sure, whites (including myself) should confront our racism, our inherent beliefs of superiority. But a HUGE part of that (for me) is because we speak correct, un-dialected un-accented grammatically-proper English.

    I recognize that southern-Chicago Black subculture has an accent/dialect of its own. But, to me, and I recognize my own failings in saying this, it's uneducated and stupid-sounding.

    If I was interviewing someone for a programming job (my profession), I would think twice about hiring someone who spoke that way because I might believe them to not be competent as a programmer, either. Would a person wearing sagging pants fit in? No. Talking "stupidly" ? No. Even if the person spoke correctly but had a strong accent? I'd have to decide if I could understand them, much like the other nationalities I interact with. Mostly I think I could, but I have to think about it.

    We as humans have to decide who FITS IN when hiring for our companies, and 'fitting in' involves dressing nicely and speaking somewhat near correctly and understandably. How do we confront this ourselves? By adjusting our expectations, or by making sure that everyone knows that it's really an issue - because I think it really is one, whether we accept that or not.

    "Fixing" the incorrect grammar is a school funding problem, plain and simple. But, making sure people of color know they must speak correctly and plainly in order to get jobs - I just don't think they know that it matters as much as it does. But, perhaps this is just a Chicago thing.

    So, I think I'm probably not a racist, but I probably am an intellectual elitist, so there is my challenge - to fix myself or to tilt at the windmill of bad educational opportunity. I could do both, but it's easier to blame other people. I guess this is where I apologize and promise to do better, but I'm not sure how to change myself, or even if I can.

    Thank you for your thoughts.

  2. Thank you, Kevin J. Rice, for writing this. I'm glad that the article inspired this from you.

    I told my wife, who is from Montreal, about it, and when I quoted "correct, un-dialected un-accented" to her, she literally broke out into laughter. You see, your English, with a Chicago accent, I quite strongly accented, for example, when it comes to the vowels. Your statement of "correct" implies that other forms of English that convey information through communication are somehow less important, for they may not follow quite the same rules that you do. After all, who ever said that Strunk and White were the absolute last authorities on what makes up good grammar in English?

    More importantly, though, is that you show some very significant things. First, a tremendous amount of courage in writing this. (Please note the lack of subject-predicate stuff in that last sentence, even though it conveys what I want.) My hat is off to you for this, sir.

    Second, you demonstrate quite clearly that prejudice arises from ignorance. And this is not an insult to you. You cannot know yourself in this regard except through an outside perspective. Your statement of "correct, un-dialected un-accented" demonstrates it in a most delightful way. Everyone hears themselves accent-free. It takes another, with a different accent, to point it out to them. And neither is "correct". They just are. When we label one over another, that is when an unhealthy prejudice begins.

    This leads to my next point, which is a story of what happened when Marielle and I were in the hardware store yesterday. We were asking some guys who worked there where something was. They all sent us to the same general area, but were not sure where in that area it would be.

    There was a woman working at the desk in that section, so we waited behind someone else to talk to her. The man in front of us asked her if there was someone who worked there who could help him with some information about the tools. We could see the insult in her face as she said to him, "Yes. Me."

    You see, in hardware stores, there is a prejudice that women don't know enough about tools to be of help. Of course, this is patently untrue. I know plenty of women who know a lot more about hardware than I do.

    Does this mean that those stores shouldn't hire women? Of course not. Instead, what they should do is hire them, which they do, and then proceed to educate their customers, which they often neglect. After all, how difficult would it be to remind the customers that their employees are hired for their expertise?

    You are in a similar position.

    Do you hire someone based on prejudice? Of course not. Instead, you should hire the best and most qualified person for the job. And then you should work to train your employees, both in standards of conduct if need be, without decrying someone's culture, and in relation to each other. Then you proceed to educate your clients, helping them know that they can trust you, for you have hired the best people available, based on their expertise, and not on their cultural background.