Racism and Pluralism: Two Sides of an American Coin

It is an early Tuesday morning and the sun has just peeked from behind the mountains in the not-so-distant backdrop of my classroom. The course is Inter-Religious Dialogue and Leadership, and today’s topic is a panel on “pluralism in action.”

The panel includes an openly gay Christian white man, and a white Jewish rabbi. Both are directors of prominent non-profit organizations in the Los Angeles area, and both serve as vessels that bend the arch of equality toward justice. The class and both men begin to engage in a discourse about why pluralism in a social justice context is paramount for those seeking to engage in a multi-faith world.

As they both begin to further disclose their ideas on the issue my mind begins to ruminate on how racism and pluralism is essentially a intended byproduct of the great democratic experiment that is the United States of America. By this I mean that implicit in the first amendment is the dangers and benefits of both racism and pluralism. The dangers being twofold, in the first instance complete assimilation masked in the cover of hyper-liberalism. The danger of assimilation is the dissolving of difference and cultural identity in exchange for the dominant culture. In the second instance a complete rejection of the other based on their religious belief or race.

Pluralism is an extension of the global society in which we dwell, and is the capstone to forming the realization of a community based on love. More specifically, religious pluralism is the ability for diverse communities of faith to engage one another’s traditions, dogmas, and cultures without precondition.

Likewise, racism is the ability for someone to treat you differently due to phenotypical differences usually reinforced by media stereotypes. These definitions are based on my perceptions as an African-American man from Atlanta that has engaged in community organizing as well as religious pluralism as a Chapel assistant at Morehouse College.

Both pluralism and racism are relics of colonization of America and are used at least nominally to create a more inclusive American society. At its worst, pluralism and racism alienates the dominant culture from the minority culture and allows for one to demonize the other. For instance, today most Americans will assume that all Arabs are Muslims, all Hispanics are Catholic or Pentecostal, Asians are Buddhist, Native Americans do rain dances, African-Americans are Baptists, and Anglo-Americans are good upstanding Protestants. The problem lies in that race is somehow tied to religion and thus unknowingly determines how we interact with the other members of humanity.

In an effort to rid itself of racism, liberal Americans have undergone a pluralist religious engagement experiment, which seeks to be welcoming while bearing the banner of inclusivity that ultimately turns Americans and their religious belief into a lukewarm soup instead of a layered salad.

It is here that a brief recap of America’s relationship with its child racism can be used as a clarion call for complete assimilation in the engagement of religious pluralism. Racism in America takes the form of a school yard dispute. The dominant race, often associated with Anglo-Americans, dislikes another race because they look different and pose a threat to the established social order.

As a result, the dominant race, in school yard terms, becomes a bully, willingly or unwillingly making the other race existence harder by alienation and injunctions. This can be by internment camps, Jim Crow laws, harsher working conditions, or a trail filled with tears and ultimately, a rejection of the other’s culture all in the name of “I dislike you because you look different than me.” And like a bully, racism says, “If you wish for me to stop then dissolve your difference, conform to my norms and assimilate to my culture for my culture and way of doing things is the right way of doing them.”

We, Americans, must come to terms with this side of our democratic coin if we wish to stop the perpetuation of its ideals into other facets of American culture, specifically the pluralism experiment. We as individual Americans must be careful not to subjugate our fellow brothers and sisters of the red, white and blue due to their religious beliefs and faith traditions.

It is easy for the perceived dominant religion of Christianity to engage in the pluralistic experiment using the same ideology of racism. For as a good, liberal, Christian it is easy to assert that one engages in pluralism because we are all the same in the eyes of the divine.

This is only a partial truth because it lends itself to become reductionist and yields acceptance of the religious other as a tool of the dominant religious ideology to show that they are progressive and understanding. Pluralism then becomes a coping mechanism to deal with the years of demonization of the religious other by the Christian community rather than a substantive partnership.

And when this posture is taken, pluralism becomes analogous to affirmative action, in that you invite the religious other as part of a quota or to show that one is inclusive and not because their difference is valuable to fabric of the faith community and America.

Pluralism is America because engaging in pluralism means talking to one’s neighbor or engaging in society. Social justice is the best way that we can circumvent making pluralism reductionist. Social justice or charity is useful because it is encouraged in every religious tradition to uplift the least of these in society. It is a imperative by our respective religious traditions to not only serve the community in traditional ways but to engage with the people of the community.

Pluralism is conceived in the womb of faith, nurtured in love and birth through hope of a “beloved community” actualized. In America, one reaches this state of a “beloved community” by first healing the broken body of the sacred through cooperative dialogue and social justice, not by negating one’s difference, but by paying deference to it.

Photo by Rennet Stowe, via Flickr Creative Commons.

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One thought on “Racism and Pluralism: Two Sides of an American Coin

  1. Dear Edward,

    This is perhaps the most powerfully articulated article on the possibility and dangers of pluralism in the U.S. I have ever read. Thank you for it. I will be sharing this with people who I know will have a lot to ponder from it.

    I especially was strongly affected by your use of affirmative action as an analogy for how dominant social structures approach pluralism. This is something to greatly avoid. You are right to note the implicit realities of racism and pluralism in the liberal, democratic project. And, I think it is ever more important then for leaders of all segments of society to not be bamboozled into creating false realities of pluralism masked in a haze of racism and false pride. No, as you say this is a journey from birth to death, nurtured through love and sustained through the vision of the Beloved Community, we are striving towards.

    How might we move beyond an affirmative action pluralism towards an authentic approach to community building and justice making? Is it solely about conscious raising or are their prerequisites to make this shift more smooth and effective?

    Thanks for leaving me with great questions to think about! Would love any insights you may have or from other readers of this post.


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