I haven't seen Tony Campolo for years, but judging from his press pictures, he's the least changed of my Eastern Baptist College professors from the sixties.
Those of us who attended Eastern (now University) in the sixties and early seventies knew Tony before he was a media star, but even then he was a charismatic young prof with a distinctive lecture style. "The Mafia," he'd bellow to incredulous sociology classes, sometimes sprinkling the front row with his spittle, "is an essential institution in society because it provides needed services government can't provide -- sex, gambling, drugs." We could never be sure if he was serious, but he did force students to wake up and form an opinion.
Tony was known for making startling claims with ex cathedra authority, which was challenging in the day when you couldn't vet his claims through Google, and he tried out some of his more famous lines on us: "Last night when you were sleeping, 30,000 kids died of malnutrition and you don't give a shit about it. Worse, you're more upset that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids starved to death."
Once Tony said something, it was hard to forget it.
One of his ex cathedra declarations came back to me when Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested in his home by a Cambridge, Mass., cop who professed to be an exemplar of racial harmony.
Now President Obama, who opined the police had acted "stupidly," is inviting Professor Gates and Sgt. James Crowley to the White House for a beer and a chat. When the three sit down at the picnic bench to talk, it will simplify matters if they keep this Campolo axiom in mind:
"If you grew up in the United States, you are a racist."
I first heard Tony say that in Soc 200 in 1968, and the notion surprised me. But as the years pass, I find fewer reasons to doubt it. I'm a racist, you're a racist, all God's children who grew up in the race-obsessed cauldron of American culture are racist.
Now, that's not necessarily a peculiar aberration. Racism is a sin, and we all know we are sinners who fall short of the glory of God. To deny our racism is to deny we are sinners.
The next time you hear someone say, "I'm color-blind," or, "I don't have a racist bone in my body," smile ironically and walk away. The most dangerous people in America are those who don't think they are racists. That may include Obama, Gates and Crowley, all of whom have claimed a dispensation from the sin of racism. But if that was true, they wouldn't have to sit down this week to forgive one another.
The fact is, racism persists in our culture like an infection and many who have the most virulent strain don't even know they are sick. Today in a million offices and schools, white folks will make stupidly racist remarks based on stupidly racist assumptions about persons of color. They will react to persons of color differently and treat persons of color differently -- and, when challenged about it, they will be stunned and hurt because -- as they will tell you -- "I don't have a racist bone in my body."
But even in the age of Obama, racism flourishes in the land and each day the majority finds a new way to make the minority feel marginalized. My daughter, who is racially mixed (as are my five other children), summed it up today in her Facebook update: "Elita wishes she could have a beer with the president every time she gets racially profiled."
It goes without saying -- or should -- that racism is not the sole bailiwick of whites. It's endemic in the human condition. My wife, who was born in Havana, looked sufficiently different from the locals when she worked in Americus, Ga., in the early 1980s and was pointedly asked, "What are you?" Martha has often commented on the surprise many of us American Baptist white folks expressed when members of the Hispanic American Baptist Caucus complained about the domination of the Black American Baptist Caucus in denominational life -- as did the Asian Caucus and Native American Caucus. "How can people who live under discrimination and injustice despise one another?" white folks would ask, genuinely shocked.
Occasionally Martha suggests that Cubans -- residents of an island that projects a carefully calculated image of edenic racial harmony -- are among the most racist people on earth. "Black members of my family make a distinction between themselves and 'negros americanos,' who obviously don't benefit from the same redemptive mestizaje of the islands," she says.
But I doubt Cubans have cornered the market on racism. The people I grew up with in Central New York State were too good at it to cede the honor to anyone else. There were only a handful of African Americans in Madison County, some of whom may have been descended from slaves who settled in Peterboro, an outpost of the Underground Railroad operated by the abolitionist Gerrit Smith. Looking back, I am appalled by memories of how they were treated by us, the white majority. Black children were taunted with the N word on the playground, or slapped by white teachers and -- in one memorable incident -- subjected to an incredibly obtuse but well meaning teacher who used the N word in a rhyme to select the next person to read from a text book: "eeney, meeney, miney mo ..." I can't begin to imagine how uncomfortable we made them. And most of us oppressors would have insisted that we didn't have a racist bone in our bodies.
Today my friend Ava Odom Martin updated her Facebook by posting an insightful essay in American Chronicle (http://www.americanchronicle.com/) by Elliott Francis, the Emmy Award winning news reporter and anchor for CNN, Fox News, PBS and ABC-7 in Washington, D.C. Francis noted that the kind of "hateful racism practiced by monstrous ideologues" has receded. "These days," he wrote, "we suffer mostly from a brand of racism spawned by a gross lack of sensitivity to the conditions and realities of others ... When Gates and Crowley first glanced at each other through that glass door on the professor's front porch, all this kicked in."
I responded in Ava's Facebook chain by quoting Tony's observation that "one cannot grow up in America without being infected by racism -- including and sometimes especially those who think we aren't."
Elliott responded, "The infection ... got to find a cure."
Amen, Elliott. The cure may be elusive because racism is a sin and we are all thoroughly infected.
But we can take a step toward the cure if we stop denying we are sick.