Racism is ingrained in US culture and, despite substantial progress, Americans must remain vigilant about their tendencies to exclude those they define as “the other”.
This is what was agreed by participants in the 15 November 2013 opening session of “Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America,” a two-day gathering sponsored by the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Mississippi in the United States.
Human history has seen a “lurching expansion” of the categories that previous generations used to define and then exclude, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in her keynote address.
“There is good news in the increased crossing of old boundaries; there is hope in the shrinking ability of younger generations to recognise those boundaries,” she said. “Yet continued vigilance is required, beginning with our own interior lives.”
How, she asked, does one encounter a stranger and make assumptions that influence how one decides to interact with the person?
Saying “the human heart is larger than the fences we build between us,” Jefferts Schori defined vigilance as “an essential spiritual discipline linked to the examination of conscience and repentance.”
“Learn vigilance,” she concluded. “Teach and work for justice that we might become the beloved community of God’s rainbow people. Every family, language, people and nation gathered before the lamb, himself one of the lowly and rejected. Dream that world into being here on the earth, and drive out hell to bring it to birth.”
Earlier in the week, the Episcopal Church released the results of a poll on perceptions of racial discrimination that it commissioned from Harris Interactive. The poll found that nearly all Americans (98 per cent) feel that there is at least some discrimination in the United States today. Yet it also found that more than eight in 10 agree that in the future, Americans will be more accepting of all races.
The gathering in Jackson is taking place as the US has marked, or will soon mark, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers, a WWII veteran and civil rights activist who was killed in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi, home on 12 June 1963.
It is hard for Americans to talk about racism, said moderator Ray Suarez, former PBS chief national correspondent who recently joined Al-Jazeera America.
“Attempts to speak simply and directly about why and when race matters and when it does not are dismissed as playing the race card, and the speaker dismissed as a race hustler,” he told the gathering.
Suarez added that Americans also “have a hard time talking about progress – even striking, substantial, undeniable progress – because the weight of so much remaining to be done is with us all the time.”
The 90-minute programme was webcast live from the Diocese of Mississippi’s St Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Jackson, where 350 people registered to attend. Another 300 locations connected to the webcast as members of many dioceses, congregations, seminaries and other groups gathered across the United States to watch.
With acknowledgements to Episcopal News Service.