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Will Racism Always Be an Elephant in the Room?

Our half-century commemorations of the courage and accomplishments of the civil rights struggle have appropriately reminded us of the valiant heroes, sung and unsung, of that historic era.

The reflections and discussions accompanying those remembrances have also reminded us that racism is still a volatile ingredient in our common life.

We take pride in having removed many structural expressions of racial discrimination and in the ever-growing “post-racial” perspectives, even to the point of claims that we are “over” racism.

But there are too many reminders, overt and subtle, of the presence and power of racism for us to take comfort that it is “over.”

I’m not thinking here of the extremists who are easy to dismiss, but of the almost irrational presence of racial thinking in our public discourse on economics, justice systems, education, social issues and political processes.

I notice that Sigmund Freud is not cited much anymore, even in psychological discussions.

This “father of modern psychology” has several generations of offspring who have moved on to other frameworks.

Yet it seems that one of his insights might help us think about the presence and residual power of racism in our collective consciousness.

Freud discovered, in his treatment of persons with various disorders, the power of the unconscious in human experience.

The unconscious was the mental realm where memories, experiences, concepts and beliefs that were too painful or not acceptable to keep “in the open” were hidden (repressed) from view.

The problem, he found, was that these repressed thoughts and experiences exercised a powerful, non-rational and usually unacknowledged influence from their hiding place in the unconscious.

Healing from that influence would occur after bringing them to the surface through psychoanalysis.

There they would be acknowledged, named and deprived of their irrational power.

They would not be eliminated from one’s experience, but their control over one’s thoughts and behaviors would be significantly reduced.

We might wonder whether racism, which is rejected consciously by all but the few extremists who will probably always be present, has been repressed and hidden in our society’s unconscious and from which it exercises an influence that we might not consciously realize.

Those who have repressed it can deny (sincerely) that it exists anymore while those who still experience its effects can feel and affirm its power.

This might explain the two sides of the conversation that we hear in one form or another: (1) “Racism is gone – get over it” and (2) “Not so!”

If Freud had our society on his counseling couch, he might ask those questions that might reveal ideas that have been transcended on the personal level (“Some of my best friends are …”) but still have an irrational hold on our collective thinking, finding concrete expression in issues of justice, economics and social structures.

When some parents feel compelled to have “the talk” with their sons on how to behave in the presence of law enforcement, or when educational opportunity is shaped by racial demographics, or when policy issues are discussed with a racial subtext, we see the influence of what might be a largely unconscious racism.

Racism, whether conscious and overt or unconscious and subtle, is a form of alienation that keeps the human family from reflecting the community that is the plural expression of the imago dei that is creation’s legacy and hoped-for destiny.

Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday this week reminds us to think about these things, dreamed of a reconciliation beyond that alienation toward a community that was not defined by race but by our common humanity as siblings in God’s family.

That community does not require the denial of any pattern of experience, but a willingness to acknowledge its presence and move beyond its influence.

The more Freud’s patient denied the reality of what had been repressed, the less he or she could be helped by the therapeutic process. So how do you deal with an elephant in the room?

  1. Don’t feed it to the point that it grows to take up the whole space.
  2. Keep a shovel handy.
  3. Be careful where you let it sit.
  4. Remember that the elephant is not in charge of what goes on in the room.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.

Editor’s note: EthicsDaily.com’s award-winning documentary, “Beneath the Skin,” addressed the issue of Baptists and racism. More information is available here.