[Talk presented on 14 January 2001 to the Huntsville Chapter of the Muslim American Society; adapted from a talk originally presented on 20 July 1996 to the Leadership Awards Dinner for Alabama Imams of the Muslim American Society]

Finding the Root of the Problem of Racism

by Darren Hiebert

Introduction

We are living today in the midst of the greatest social upheaval ever experienced in the history of mankind. This period of great turbulence must have as its very source the hand of God, Himself. For who but the Almighty Lord is able to so dramatically affect every strata of society?

I, therefore, put forth the following question: In what direction is this current taking us, such that we suffer when we fight against that current? Or, to rephrase, what spiritual and social changes are we compelled to address due the challenges before us? I think that those who are here today will agree that one of the great challenges we are confronted with today is racial harmony. Where this is lacking, we are confronted with serious problems, leading us to realize that this is contrary to the Will of God.

I am a Bahá’í, a follower of the Teachings of God as they were revealed through Bahá’u’lláh, Whom Bahá’ís accept as God’s latest Messenger to mankind. The Bahá’í writings state that the principle of the oneness of mankind is the pivot round which all of the Bahá’í Teachings revolve. Back in 1938, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, wrote to the American believers that racial prejudice was the most vital and challenging issue confronting them [Advent of Divine Justice, p. 33]. He then elaborated upon these challenges.

The ceaseless exertions which this issue of paramount importance calls for, the sacrifices it must impose, the care and vigilance it demands, the moral courage and fortitude it requires, the tact and sympathy it necessitates, invest this problem...with an urgency and importance that cannot be overestimated.

Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice, p. 34

I want to address three points in my talk. Firstly, the origin of racism; secondly, the root of the problem as it presently exists; and thirdly, the solution to the problem as given by the Bahá’í writings. I present the first two points in order to build a case for the solution that I will present. Although the Bahá’í writings are replete with admonitions to free ourselves of racial prejudice, and warns us of the consequences if humanity fails to do so in a timely manner, they do not elaborate upon the origin of racialist views. Therefore, I wish to offer my own reflections on this theme in order to assist us in taking a somewhat more compassionate and understanding approach to its solution.

Origin

When we take an historical approach to looking at the origins of racism we must turn our eyes to the tribalistic heritage of mankind, when survival itself was a struggle. Both history and sociological observations of tribal societies still existing today demonstrate that tribes vied with one another for control over land, food, and water. The fear of attack from competing tribes was ever-present. In such an environment, fear of outsiders—those who were not part of your own tribe—was not only justified, but aided your survival and that of your tribe. However, as a result of social and technological progress of the past few centuries, such fears, have largely, though not entirely, been removed. As such, we have come increasingly during the past century to recognize that what may have aided and ensured our survival during humanity’s adolescence now threatens its very survival. Just as behaviors appropriate for a child must be abandoned at its maturity, so, too, must humanity abandon outgrown behaviors and views which are no longer suitable in this, the dawn of the maturation of the human race.

Allow me to share with you now a couple of passages from Bahá’í scripture on the significance of the twentieth century, from which we have just emerged. Note that these prophetic statements were made at the very outset of the twentieth century, between the years 1910 and 1920.

In every Dispensation, the light of Divine Guidance has been focussed upon one central theme.... In this wondrous Revelation, this glorious century, the foundation of the Faith of God and the distinguishing feature of His Law is the consciousness of the Oneness of Mankind.

—‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quoted in World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 36

In cycles gone by, though harmony was established, yet, owing to the absence of means, the unity of all mankind could not have been achieved. Continents remained widely divided, nay even among the peoples of one and the same continent association and interchange of thought were well nigh impossible. Consequently intercourse, understanding and unity amongst all the peoples and kindreds of the earth were unattainable. In this day, however, means of communication have multiplied, and the five continents of the earth have virtually merged into one.... In like manner all the members of the human family, whether peoples or governments, cities or villages, have become increasingly interdependent. For none is self-sufficiency any longer possible, inasmuch as political ties unite all peoples and nations, and the bonds of trade and industry, of agriculture and education, are being strengthened every day. Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. Verily this is none other but one of the wonders of this wondrous age, this glorious century. Of this past ages have been deprived, for this century—the century of light—has been endowed with unique and unprecedented glory, power and illumination. Hence the miraculous unfolding of a fresh marvel every day. Eventually it will be seen how bright its candles will burn in the assemblage of man.

Behold how its light is now dawning upon the world’s darkened horizon.... The fifth candle is the unity of nations—a unity which in this century will be securely established, causing all the peoples of the world to regard themselves as citizens of one common fatherland.

—‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quoted in World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, pp. 38-39

Bahá’u’lláh proclaimed that the central theme and goal of His Revelation was the unity of mankind. The Plan He revealed to effect this goal has been laid out in the equivalent of over one hundred volumes of His Writings, which constitute Bahá’í scripture. “The principle of the Oneness of Mankind [is] the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve.” It is this central theme that underlies all Bahá’í activity. For example, this passage from 1938 demonstrates the focus we must have:

Freedom from racial prejudice, in any of its forms, should, at such a time as this when an increasingly large section of the human race is falling a victim to its devastating ferocity, be adopted as the watchword of the entire body of the...believers, in whichever state they reside, in whatever circles they move, whatever their age, traditions, tastes, and habits.

—Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice, p. 36

The Qur’án alluded to this same theme:

And verily this Brotherhood of yours is a single Brotherhood, and I am your Lord and Cherisher: therefore fear Me.

—Qur’án 23:52 (Al Mu’minún)

Current Problem

Racism, the most obvious transgression against the Oneness of Mankind, is undoubtedly an insidious problem in our society and one which social developments are increasingly compelling us to address. Unfortunately, however, this word has too often come to be synonymous with the problem itself, rather than as the most extreme expression of the real problem. One of the most important points I wish to make today is that the real problem is this: failure to recognize and promote the spiritual principle of unity, thereby leading to discomfort with, and avoidance of, being around those who are different from us. Allow me to elaborate upon this.

When we look at the spectrum of the behavioral response of people with regards to those who are different from them, we find some people who welcome and value this diversity; we find other people who are ambivalent about it; we find people who are uncomfortable around those who are different; we find those who wouldn’t socialize with those who are different; we find people who wouldn’t allow their children to marry those who are different; we find those who don’t like those who are different; we find people who oppose diversity; and we find those who attack diversity.

Most natural phenomena fall into patterns that mathematicians call “normal distributions”, or, “bell curves”. You have all seen this over and over again. The important characteristics of a bell curve, when applied to human activity, is that most people fall relatively close to some “norm”, which is represented by the center of the bell curve. A few less people fall a little further from that norm and so on. The further you get from the norm, or center, the fewer people you find there.

Now, people fall along this behavior spectrum in a bell curve distribution. I think you will agree that the norm of our social distribution is centered somewhere around discomfort with, or avoidance of, being around those who are different (see Figure 1). In support of this assertion, let me share with you a little sociological observation made by a friend of mine. On his way to and from work each day, he rode an elevator. He had observed that people entering an elevator will tend to self-segregate. If a woman enters an elevator containing men and women, she will naturally tend to move to the side on which other women are standing. The men, as well, will tend to move to the side with other men. Curiously, however, if there is a racial mix in the elevator, people will move to the side on which members of their own race are standing, regardless of gender. I am doubtful that people do this consciously, but it does offer evidence as to our deep-seated tendency to be with others like ourselves, where we perceive greater comfort and safety, as explained from our earlier look at our historical heritage.

And what is the consequence of where the norm falls? I wish to demonstrate that it is an unavoidable consequence that when the norm of behavior is centered upon the avoidance of uncomfortable situations, where we seek comfort by being around others like ourself, that more people fall into the regions where they oppose, in various ways, the presence of those who are different, including falling into the violent regions.

Behavior distribution
Figure 1 - Responses to Diversity

What have we learned from this analysis? That the natural outcome of shifting the center of the distribution towards avoidance of discomfort is that more people fall under the more extreme forms of racism, and that this is an unavoidable consequence when the norm is shifted in that direction. By shifting the norm in the direction of welcoming diversity, you reduce the number who fall under the extremes. You cannot simply remove the tails of the bell curve; you can only shift its center.

What is the implication of this analysis? That all of our attitudes are the problem. If we are in the norm of discomfort with diversity, then we are personally responsible for the extremes, which are the natural result of where the center is. Therefore, it isn’t good enough to accept a position of discomfort and avoidance, because then we are personally responsible for shifting the center from where God would have it. Each of us must personally make conscious, deliberate and sustained efforts, and the necessary sacrifices to be where God would have the center.

And hold fast, all together, by the rope which Alláh (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Alláh’s favour on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His Grace, ye became brethren; and ye were on the brink of the pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus doth Alláh make His Signs clear to you: That ye may be guided.

Be not like those who are divided amongst themselves and fall into disputations after receiving Clear Signs: For them is a dreadful penalty...

—Qur’án 3:102,105 (Áli ‘Imrán)

The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established. This unity can never be achieved so long as the counsels which the Pen of the Most High hath revealed are suffered to pass unheeded.

—Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 286

You will note that this last verse indicates that unity is the solution to our problems, not that unity is the result of solving our problems. That is, first we must create unity, then we can solve our problems together. It also states that this unity can only be achieved with resort to the healing message of God brought to us by His chosen Messengers.

The Prophets of God should be regarded as physicians whose task is to foster the well-being of the world and its peoples, that, through the spirit of oneness, they may heal the sickness of a divided humanity.

—Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 80

Solution

But what are the practical steps that we may take in order that we adjust our own position along this spectrum? This is the crucial question, for without it, all we have talked about is merely theory. From what we have talked about, we have established first that fear of differences and seeking what we unconsciously perceive as safety is a natural tendency which we have inherited, much like many other traits which God has told us we must rise above. We also learned that each one of us must move ourselves away from this current behavioral norm if we are to solve the problem. This can only be accomplished by challenging ourselves to expect and to accept being in uncomfortable situations because we believe in a higher principle.

Now I offer this seemingly simple solution given in the Bahá’í writings.

[Freedom from racial prejudice] should be deliberately cultivated through the various and everyday opportunities, no matter how insignificant, that present themselves, whether in their homes, their business offices, their schools and colleges, their social parties and recreation grounds, their Bahá’í meetings, conferences, conventions, summer schools and Assemblies.
—Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice, p. 36

Simply put, this says that we must socialize together and we must spend time together if we are to build bridges of understanding, which will in turn eliminate the invisible walls which presently stand between us. Note, further, that the passage states that freedom from racial prejudice must be deliberately cultivated, because it is against our natural tendency.

Now I offer a strong challenge—or a hard saying, as the Bible calls it [John 6:60]: that we, as individuals, cannot make the claim that we have freed ourselves from racial prejudice until our living room floor is integrated—that is, do our intimate social circles reflect our values? By what measure can I make the claim that I do not hold prejudice if my social life does not reflect this? Note that the words prejudice and bias imply favoritism, the favoring of one over another, a tendency to choose one over another. We know that this is an inherited trait. Are we compensating by making deliberate choices to do change our nature?

The second aspect of the solution is that the primary responsibility for bringing about equality falls upon the whites. When whites take on responsibility for the equality of the races, “there will be no need for them to struggle for their own rights” [Paris Talks p. 163].

I conclude with the following passages:

O mankind, surely We have created you from a male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other. Surely the noblest of you with Alláh is the most dutiful of you. Surely Alláh is Knowing, Aware.

—Qur’án 49:13 (Al-Hujurát)

God grant that the light of unity may envelop the whole earth, and that the seal, “the Kingdom is God’s”, may be stamped upon the brow of all its peoples.

—Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 11