Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Myth of a Post-Racial America

When I visited the Smithsonian Museum of American History over the summer, there was one transition between exhibits that disturbed me deeply. It was not the content of either of the exhibits, but rather that one led directly into the other. As I was coming out of the exhibit on slavery in America before the Civil War, I stopped in the hallway, shocked at the audacity of the statement the museum had chosen to make by what the next exhibit in the hallway was…

It was an exhibit of photos from the inauguration of President Barrack Obama.

To me, the message this transition of exhibits screamed was obvious… “yes, slavery was bad… yes, racism and racial tension were bad… but it is all better now because we elected a black man to be President”. I stood in that hallway, dumbfounded, unable to move for long enough that people began to look at me to see if I was okay. I think at least one African American woman who passed me thought I was a white male racist who could not accept a black man had been elected President. It struck me that the message that my conscious mind had rebelled at had been subtly accepted by the subconscious minds of the tens of thousands who had crossed that threshold between exhibits as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

There is a myth that is taking root in this country, specifically among white Americans, that we are now a “Post-Racial” country. That myth is taking root in the political right as well as in the political generic brand of imitrex left… if for very different reasons. On the political left, the myth of a post-racial America is an excuse to throw transformative energy and passion into the many other crisis and problems our world faces today… from war to global warming to the colonial oppression of the IMF. On the left is it the myth of “problem solved, what’s next?”

On the political right, the myth is just as insidious, if a bit more obvious. It manifests as the belief that white Americans have compromised all they need to compromise, and perhaps need to “push-back” against how much power they have “given up” already. We see this in the current prevalence among these communities of the concept of “reverse racism”, and of the racism masked in political terms that is being directed by the radical end of the political right against the most prominent black man in America.

In my essay to the UUA Ministerial Fellowship Committee on Anti-racism/ Anti-oppression, I made a claim that is at the center of my understanding of human nature and issues of race… that each and every one of us, throughout all of our lives, carries racial pre-conceptions with us every day. These pre-conceptions are operative in our subconscious mind as well as our conscious mind, and they affect the decisions we make, the attitudes we hold, and the patterns and institutions we build every moment of every day of our lives.

There is an ironic twist to one of the ways I hear the myth of a post-racial America expressed often, and that is when someone (on the right or the left) claims that they are “color-blind” when it comes to race. The ironic twist is that they are right… they are blind to the way that the color of those around them affects their attitudes and behaviors. To be color-blind in our culture is simply to be blind. This is true not just of white Americans, or black Americans, or Americans on the political right or the political left. Each and every one of us carries with us racial pre-conceptions every moment of every day of our lives. When we either ignore those pre-conceptions (pretend to be color-blind) or worship those pre-conceptions as an idol (become actively racist) those pre-conceptions operate then as prejudices.

The way out of these two trapping-patterns is to accept that each of us carries racial pre-conceptions every day, and to actively explore how that fact affects the decisions we make, the attitudes we hold, the patterns we create, and the institutions we build. I am a little different than some of my colleagues in that I believe that the primary work of anti-racism begins with the individual person deeply coming to know themselves. Everything else must build upon the foundation of individuals becoming self-aware of the racial pre-conceptions they carry, and how that affects who we are and how we are with each other and in the world.

I know this myth that America has become post-racial because I once believed it myself. It is an easy myth to believe for white Americans, because it feeds into so much wishful thinking. It becomes an excuse to wipe away countless generations of institutional and cultural sin, without having to really do much for our atonement. I have also begun to believe that there is a connection between this desire to believe in the myth of a post-racial America and the theological stance of many Christians that forgiveness is by Grace alone… the belief that having God’s forgiveness precludes the need for any human atonement… and that God’s forgiveness is available for the asking (or granted just by being “saved”).

The practical affect of this theology is that one can excuse one’s self from responsibility for one’s worldly actions, because one has been granted divine forgiveness through prayer. When Brit Hume suggested that Tiger Woods convert to Christianity from Buddhism to gain forgiveness for his extra-marital affairs, he was illustrating this theological point that divine forgiveness trumps human atonement… and that it is easier to receive divine forgiveness than to make human amends.

I believe that this theological stance, which runs through both conservative and mainline Christian thought, rests at the core of the growing myth of a post-racial America. I know it rested at the core of my own desire to believe that my country had moved beyond race… that I was “forgiven” for my own countess subtle and not so subtle racism over the years. For myself, the reality of racial segregation that I encountered living on the South Side of Chicago proved to me the falsity of this myth. We are still a segregated country… just now that segregation is enforced not by laws, but by economics. We have created a different structure to support our institutional racism.

As a Universalist, I believe that while our salvation beyond this life is assured… that each of us experiences the afterlife equally… our salvation in this world is in our hands. Divine forgiveness never precludes the need for human atonement and human amends. On racism, the only way we can truly atone and make amends, each of us for all of us, no matter our racial heritage, is to become profoundly aware of ourselves and our own racial pre-conceptions, and to see how our years of blindness has build a culture based upon those unconscious pre-conceptions and prejudices. That work will never end… and it is only by that work that we could begin to make a reality of this myth so many are desperately wanting to believe today.

Yours in faith,


9 Thoughts on “The Myth of a Post-Racial America

  1. Before I became a UU, and started conversing with UUs via the internet, I would have presumed from what I had read of the theology of both religious movements that UUs would reject the concepts of Original Sin, collective guilt, inherent depravity, etc.

  2. Joel!

    I love it when colleagues find the buried subtext in one of my articles. Almost every article has one, and you nailed this one in one try. In our UU movement our take on racism does function as a doctrine of original sin, even if that is a little different take on it that I personally function from.

    For me personally, human beings are messy. The “original sin” aspect of it implies an inhernet personal judgement that I tend not to attach in my own theology and ministry… I tend to come more from the space I learned in studying the Zen precepts… notice that about ourselves which is less than appealing, and then come back to the breath… come back to the practice of living an authentic human life, just a little more aware of my/your/our messyness.

    And you are absolutely correct that in the current functional life of our religious movement, issues of race function as a “Doctrine of Original Sin”…

    You made my day!

    Yours in faith,


  3. As a Universalist, I believe that this statement is untrue and false:

    “each and every one of us, throughout all of our lives, carries racial pre-conceptions with us every day. These pre-conceptions are operative in our subconscious mind as well as our conscious mind, and they affect the decisions we make, the attitudes we hold, and the patterns and institutions we build every moment of every day of our lives.”

    But what specific evidence do you offer to prove your argument? As Joel says, you are accusing all of humanity of original sin. I reject that doctrine in its conservative Christian guise, and I reject that doctrine in its politically correct liberal guise. Can you justify this theological stance that you take?

  4. Jeff,

    The doctrine of Universal Savlation is not a doctrine of perfection. The exact opposite infact. The doctrine of Universal Salvation is the doctrine that, no matter our flaws, we are still “saved”… whatever that “saved” might mean for you.

    To me, the doctrine of Universal Salvation implies at its core that humans are imperfect beings. What I am arguing is that part of that imperfection that we all carry with us is that we each bear racial pre-conceptions as a part of being human. We bear pre-conceptions of all types, because that is the only way that limited beings can make sense of a limitless universe. I can not know all that is, and so I make catagories of things in my mind. These pre-conceptions are in themselves neither positive or negative, neither good nor evil. They are simply the way that my limited self copes with the reality of limitless knowledge.

    Recognizing human limitation has been taken for a doctrine of Original Sin by many religious traditions, and that was the subtext that Joel highlighted. Your negative reaction to is shows how that doctrine is live for you, if in its negative.

    For me, the acceptance of human limitation is not framed in that doctrine of original sin… because my theology does not requrie or aspire to human perfection. I rather find truth in the Buddhist understanding framed by the committment to “come back to the breath” or come back to practice.

    Even the greatest Zen Roshi of all time (whoever that was) could not practice perfect meditation. Monkey mind would intrude, the thoughts would wander. Rather than demand the perfection (in its negative) that an original sin understanding would require, the practice of Zen is to come back to the meditation… come back to the practice that is at the center of Zen tradition.

    What I am suggesting is the same thing… only here the practice is not focusing on the breath, but continually developing the awareness of our self and all that we carry with us. I framed it on the issue of race, but it is a much larger concept than this. In the largest sense I have yet developed it, what I am suggesting is that the central practice of this aspect of liberal faith is a spiritual practice of self-awareness.

    I undestand that you disagree with my understanding of human nature. I am identifying the same part of humanity that has been identified as our “fallen” nature… but without that same level of condemnation. Human beings are imperfect… and we do not have to strive for perfection.

    What I am proposing we do need to strive for is awareness of all that we are… even the parts we dont like very much.

    The only proof I can offer is my own experience of life… having seen more of the dark rescesses of humanity and of the human soul than most people encounter. Even having borne witness to mass graves and to genocide in the name of race and culture… I can still believe in the inherent worth of all persons… no matter how imperfect they might be.

    Probably not enough to satisfy you… but that’s okay… I’m imperfect. Thank you for the engagement!

    Yours in faith,


  5. You’re right, that doesn’t even come close to satisfying me, though I appreciate the effort. You are imputing a very specific universal characteristic (all people are at all times operating with racial preconceptions) to the entire species–regardless of their age, culture, personal experiences, historical era, current situation, or other factors–with little evidence other than having seen some bad things in your life. I in no way dispute that you’ve seen human evil, or that some people sometimes operate under racial preconceptions, or that human beings are imperfect. You and me both, brother.

    What I dispute is your blanket statement that somehow human limitedness, genocidal atrocities, or your own dark places (mine too) constitute proof that racial presumptions are operative at all times in all situations for all people.

    We Unitarian-Universalists are a reason-loving people (among other things, to be sure), and if you are going to advance so comprehensive a worldview, it would be best if you were able to argue it with actual evidence that speaks to the demonstrable strength of your chosen position. For example, if you were my minister and made such a statement during your sermons, I would stand up during the talk-back portion and point out the extreme flimsiness of the evidence that you back it up with. How would you respond to this? Saying “Well, that’s just my opinion” is not going to convince anyone who disagrees with you. You’re just going to come off as someone committed to an unproven, non-falsifiable belief pattern. I don’t think that is your intention at all, and I don’t think it helps your cause. If humans are so fundamentally racially presumptuous in their thinking, surely that is a matter of great urgency that you need to convince the rest of us of. And surely the evidence of so completely universal a fact must be absolutely everywhere. But so far, you haven’t brought much of it to the table. My own experiences suggest that you’re wrong, but if you’re right, then by golly demonstrate it–after all, I don’t come to church (or read UU blogs) just to hear my own prejudices confirmed, but to be open to other opinions and to allow myself to be swayed when they prove convincing.

    Don’t mistake this as an aggressive conversation, please. I’m trying to point out what seems like very weak logic to me in your argument, not impugning your motives (or, for that matter, suggesting that you don’t have every right to hold such views for yourself). I’m only saying that you’re not going to get very far toward helping the world for the better if you aren’t able to concretely show others why your positions are accurate and they should work to further them. Simply stating your ideological commitments is a far cry from demonstrating that they accord with reality. I have no doubt you know this, but if you look back, I think you’ll see that this is about all you’ve done so far. I tend to let UU laypeople off the hook but generally ask more of ministers, and I suspect you are indeed capable of more.

    Now, let me say something a little more about Universalism and Zen, since I happen to disagree with your takes on them. Two centuries ago, our Universalist ancestors gave up the idea of Satan, of eternal hell, and of original sin. No one in the Universalist Church of America ever held that human beings were perfect (some, though, did hold that human beings were perfectible, a position that was not universally shared and that I personally happen not to share). But they also never held that human beings are by their nature universally operating under racial preconceptions, a doctrine they would not have recognized as their own. Human imperfection is one thing, the specific doctrine of universal racial conceptions is something else. One can be limited, indeed broken, in a great many ways without that necessarily meaning that they operate at all times under racial preconceptions. There was a lot more to Universalism than just universal salvation–there was, for instance, the rejection of original sin in various guises. I think you’re just importing it back where it doesn’t belong.

    As for Zen, it posits a Great Mind that is in fact free of any preconceptions. The goal in traditional Zen is precisely to bring forward this universally-shared mind of total freedom, which is already present in every person. I can think of no historic Zen master who ever taught either that a) all human beings–including Buddhas and Zen masters–share specific subconscious preconceptions toward other human beings based on their socially-constructed racial designations, or that b) human beings who do have such preconceptions are unable to fully eradicate them via Zen practice. In fact, Chan during its formative stage was explicitly based on the concept of sudden illumination of the karmic seeds in the alaya-vijnana, producing an instantaneous turning of the mind that fully dissolved human limitations and produced the complete purity of the Buddha-mind.

    Now, as an individual Zen practitioner there is nothing to keep you from coming to other conclusions on your own, but as a historian of Zen, I do not see the ideas you are espousing present in the tradition itself. Likewise, the historical canon of Zen does not offer much support for your opinion that even the greatest Zen master couldn’t practice perfect meditation. That is not the way that mainstream Zen has understand the situation whatsoever. The patriarchs have always been venerated as nearly super-human beings who did in fact perform perfect meditation, free of any false preconceptions, prejudices, or defilements. That doesn’t mean you have to swallow that dogma, but it nonetheless has been the primary point of view of Zen practitioners, historically speaking. That said, I’ll admit that I find approaches like your own refreshing, which admit the humanness of Zen practitioners, no matter how exalted a title they hold. A lot of the scandals that we’ve experienced in Western Zen come directly from holding unreasonable opinions of Zen leaders, and a perspective that acknowledges their feet of clay, (while possibly undermining the entire justification of Zen in the first place) is surely more likely to produce a healthy sangha.

    Um, I think I’m beginning to drift in my topics. I better cut this off before I completely lose my point. Sorry!

  6. “What I dispute is your blanket statement that somehow human limitedness, genocidal atrocities, or your own dark places (mine too) constitute proof that racial presumptions are operative at all times in all situations for all people. “


    Thank you for the wonderful long post… it will take me a little time to digest it and respond in full… but on the piece above I believe you have over-stated my position. My appologies if I was not clear, and let me try to be clear.

    I believe that racial pre-conceptions are a part of human nature. We can get into later why I think this is so. Now, I do not believe that racial pre-conceptions are “operative at all times in all situations for all people”. I do believe that the pre-conceptions we carry with us are operative more often than most of us realize, but I would never frame it in such a totalitarian way. I make all kinds of decisions each and every day that the racial pre-conceptions I hold do not factor into the decision. Now, there may be other forms of pre-conceptions that might factor into those decisions (because I believe the entire human view of reality is based upon individual pre-conceptions of a limitless reality.)

    I will get to the rest of your post in time… but I just wanted to point out that, in my opinion, the totalitarian way that you framed it was not my intent, is not my belief, and might well be projection on your part.

    Yours in Faith,


  7. Ha, no need to worry about taking a long time to answer, you\’re right that that thing is a whopper. Glad that it was accepted in good humor.

    Thank you for clarifying your position. I think my reading of your words is not too much of a distortion of them as written, but I\’m glad that I did misjudge your intent–many times I have written things online I thought were clear, but other folks read them differently than I had intended.

    The more totalitarian vision is one that is common in UU AR/AO circles, and has been since the 1990s (I was there). Believe me, there are lots of people who will tell you with a straight face that indeed all people (or, sometimes, all white people, at least) are operating under pernicious racist assumptions at all times in all situations.

    I\’ll check in here again later in the week if I get a chance. If you don\’t get around to a more substantive response, don\’t sweat it, we\’ve all got lives in the real world too. Take care.

  8. Pingback: Celestial Lands » Blog Archive » Symbols, Pre-Conceptions, and the Construction of Reality

  9. OK, good stuff.

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: