In their book Letters Across the Divide, Anderson and Zuercher (2001) observe, “There are three kinds of racism: individual, institutional, and indirect” (p. 10). The authors examine each type of racism and share their viewpoints through a series of letters written to each other. This earnest and affectionate correspondence illustrate the differences in perception between cultural groups about race relations and discrimination. The two authors, who befriended each other at a church-sponsored singles group, present their individual perspectives on racial discrimination. David Anderson, a senior pastor of a multi-cultural church, is African-American and Brent Zuercher, a certified public accountant, is Caucasian. Letters Across the Divide provides the reader with an insight into the issues faced by all races, the barriers to healing the racial divide, and prompts insight into ways to foster racial reconciliation and understanding.
Anderson and Zuercher (2001) define individual racism as “the views one holds” and institutional racism as “a systemic and sociological condition that creates an environment whereby particular kinds of people are excluded from the positive norms of that institution”, and indirect racism as “neglecting certain kinds of people from the positive norms of an institution or society as opposed to creating an environment of exclusion”. Interracial discrimination is, of course, not limited to African-Americans and Caucasians. The Muslim community also faces racial discrimination that fits the definitions provided, and an examination of its dynamics provides further understanding of the issues involved for all races and cultures.
One of the factors that drive racism is the obvious physical differences between people of different ethnicities. Muslims are often immediately recognizable because of the clothing that they wear in observance of their faith. This is, to no surprise, a source of discrimination. As Moore (2007) notes, institutional racism often targets this difference: “Stating that there is ‘something aggressive’ about children wearing the headscarf to school, French President Jacques Chirac called not only for a ban on religious symbols in schools but also…the right for private employers to ban visible religious garb from the workplace as well” (p. 237). Being denied the ability to follow their religious traditions at school or work is a prime example of institutional racism.
Similarly, Jindra describes the institutional attitude for Muslims that is displayed by multiple European governments: “Increased immigration in recent decades, however, has roiled these countries to the extent that the British, German, and Dutch governments have controversially declared “the failure of multiculturalism” as opinions have turned increasingly against the large, mainly Muslim minorities in their respective countries…” (2014)
These two examples show the ways in which the governments discriminate against cultural or ethnic groups systemically. Not being able to wear a headscarf that is a component of one’s religious belief at work or school is reminiscent of African-American institutional racism practices such as separate drinking fountains and Jim Crow laws. European governmental proclamations concerning the “failure of multiculturalism” could not be more disenfranchising to the Muslim population in those countries. So long as governmental institutions practice racism, reconciliation is impossible.
Anderson and Zuercher (2001) make an exchange that provides insight into each man’s view of racism. Zuercher begins “The ‘white perspective’ is that since blacks and all other races now have legal equality with whites, the issue of racism is really a dead issue…The ‘black perspective’ is that racism is still a major problem that deserves significant attention” (p. 17). Anderson replies, “…just because these laws have reduced the physical expression of racism, this does not mean that racism is an evil we have put behind us” (p. 18). He further continues by stating, “Do not be deceived, racism still exists in America, both individual and institutional” (p. 19). While Zuercher is cognizant of Anderson’s opinion and does not dismiss it, the two clearly view racism in contemporary America in very different ways.
The difference in perception between the two authors is a model of the larger societal understanding, divided primarily along racial lines. It defines the social impact of institutional discrimination and prevents a greater understanding between cultures, much less reconciliation. It is impossible to argue that racism is not still prevalent when official bodies deny an individual’s rights to religious expression in public. One must ask if preventing religious headscarves in school or at work is different from preventing African-American children from attending the same schools or drinking from the same water fountains as Caucasian children. Ostracizing laws and attitudes exist, and it is easy for those not subject to them to dismiss them or their impact upon the segments of the population affected by them.
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Chan-Serafin, Brief and George warn “The rise of openly faith-based organizations and discourse surrounding the role and importance of spirituality are just a couple of the indicators that religion, in its various guises, is playing a role in organizational life… religion has the potential to result in both adaptive and maladaptive outcomes for organizations and their members” (2013).
Recalling the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the open hostilities against Muslims exhibited by secular and faith-based sources, it is easy to understand how fervent believers of other faiths might disguise racism as an expression of that faith. This threat is more potent given the greater freedom from civil rights granted to religious organizations that are denied secular institutions like public universities or businesses. While the majority of religious institutions express their beliefs sincerely and inclusively, there are those that do not.
These examples speak of racism directed at Muslims, but as explored earlier, racism against one group is identical to racism against another group. The elimination of issues that prevent a culturally integrated society must take place before reconciliation can occur. As long as discrimination and hate are allowed, even tacitly, we are divided as a nation. The wounds of the past cannot heal until the sins of today cease to exist.
What, then, is the way to proceed with the racial healing and equality that morality demands? There is no single step or even process, of course. Eliminating racist beliefs and attitudes held and reinforced for generations is neither quick nor easy. What is certain is that the path to inclusion leads to changes in the way people think. If people think differently, they will behave differently. Morality cannot be legislated. Laws may prevent acts of racism, but no law can affect what takes place inside people’s minds. Racial reconciliation requires such a mental reset.
Anderson and Zuercher (2001) detail how such a journey must begin, and it is the most powerful and relevant message in Letters Across the Divide, “…you and I may or may not be racists. We can only know this through self-examination” (p. 39). One must first determine what has to be changed before being able to change it. We all have a duty to examine our belief structure and the behaviors of those around us. If we frequent a business that discriminates against African-Americans, we are indirectly racist. If we hold beliefs or attitudes that are racist, we have a duty to acknowledge and alter them. Reconciliation begins with personal responsibility, and we share this burden collectively.
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The minds of those who perpetrate and perpetuate racist beliefs and actions are not the only minds that must change. The victims of unjust treatment must also resist becoming disenfranchised and hostile to the society that harbors their tormentors. Wimmer explains, “…disadvantaged immigrants and their children may actively oppose the host society’s values and norms and develop a new, oppositional culture that selectively inverts the values held dear by the natives” (2014).
Allowing racism to exist perpetuates the problem twofold. The negative effects of racism injure everyone involved in discrimination, and it only makes the situation worse. It is imperative that society finds a way to remove this poison from its system in order to heal. Anderson and Zuercher (2001) deliver instruction in the best way to accomplish this “The most effective way of dealing with the many facets of racial reconciliation is through individual relationships among members of different races” (p.7).
Society has begun to process of righting the wrongs of the past, and it offers the best hope that we may be able to achieve reconciliation and true equality between different races and cultures. Blinder, Ford & Ivarsflaten (2013) details the beginning of the journey as such: “…we argue, individuals respond to, and often internalize, a widespread social norm against prejudice and discrimination” (p. 842). The authors describe a process by which people incorporate messages against racism into their belief patterns and actions, if only unconsciously. Here, perhaps, is the positive effect of the ubiquitous “political correctness” that we encounter in our daily lives.
As the message that we are all equal and that our differences should be accepted, if not celebrated, spreads to all members of society the society is truly on the path to healing. The challenge is to acknowledge this transformation through self-examination and to take it a step further. Anderson and Zuercher (2001) describe this step in what may be described as the theme of Letters Across the Divide, “The most effective way of dealing with the many facets of racial reconciliation is through individual relationships among members of different races” (p.7).
As David Anderson and Brent Zuercher have traveled to a greater personal understanding of their views on race and discrimination aided by their friendship, we must all seek to explore our inner selves through interpersonal relationships with members of other races and cultures. It is the most important message to understand, and a single greatest act people can undertake to end racism’s hate.
“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). The instructions given in Letters Across the Divide can be encapsulated in the gospel of Matthew. Through internal examination, prayer, and friendship with those different from ourselves, we will learn how to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. This is how to eliminate racism and hate and allow racial reconciliation to take place.
Jesus brought together a disparate group of followers who became his disciples. A nobleman, a tax collector, and anglers came together, despite their differences, and united in their belief in Jesus and spreading the gospel. It serves as an example of coming together as a society to spread the gospel of love and acceptance. People can accomplish this by ensuring the elimination of institutional barriers, seeking personal truth through self-examination and prayer, and forging relationships with other cultures and races. It is the message of Letters Across the Divide and of the Bible. We all share a duty to practice these principles in order to work toward the end of racism, hatred, and discrimination and promote racial reconciliation.
As David Anderson and Brent Zuercher increased their personal understanding of race, they also increased their understanding of each other. This personal growth should be the goal of everyone. If accomplished, it will provide exponentially more benefit than a thousand laws or public service announcements.