Growing up black in America, Aidsand Wright-Riggins says he is used to hearing the “n-word.” What bothers him is as a midweek air traveler he seldom sees more than one or two fellow African-American passengers, even though the United States is more than 12 percent black.
“This says to me that African-Americans do not have the kinds of jobs that put them on those planes,” Wright-Riggins said at a breakout session on race at the recent New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta.
The executive director of National Ministries of American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. said the United State’s two-tiered social system means that dealing with racial issues must go beyond Rodney King’s simple question, “Why can’t we all get along?”
“I think the real challenge for us is to deal with that insidious cancer that is within the very fabric of our society, that I would term racism,” Wright-Riggins said.
Despite gains in civil rights and improved race relations, Wright-Riggins said, America still is “very much a racialized society.”
About 10 percent of white children live in poverty, he said. That compares to 27 percent of Native American children, 28 percent of Latino children and 33 percent of African-American youth who live in poverty.
“There seems to be a correlation between social policies and race in this country,” he said.
Looking at the plight of African-American men with regard to issues of criminal and racial injustice, Wright-Riggins noted that there are more African-American young men in prisons than on college and university campuses.
“How does the church engage in profound realities of a racialized society that bestows privilege on some and invokes penalties upon others?” he asked. “This is something that should not be relegated to how society deals with these issues, but something with which the church must deal as well.”
“When I talk about racism I am talking about racial injustice and racial inequality that is in fact in the very air that we breathe,” he said. “I’m talking about racial violence.”
“We’re talking about racial disparities in our healthcare delivery and access systems. We’re talking about the demise and disappearance of things like affirmative action in our society ¦.
“We’re talking about the rise of the popularity of English-only initiatives. We’re talking about the rise of development of gated communities in our residential neighborhoods. And we’re talking about fierce debates over immigration policies.”
Wright-Riggins said there is “a profound difference between prejudice and racism.”
“I am talking about power plus prejudice,” he said. “That’s racism–legitimized privilege for the few at the expense of the many.”
What does all that have to do with the church?
“This is an important issue for us in the church because first and foremost, race, racialization and racism is a theological issue,” Wright-Riggins said. “It flies right in the face of one of our fundamental beliefs, and that is that one God is the common creator of us all, and because God created us all, that makes us all brothers and sisters.”
“The first fundamental fact we learn in Genesis is it is of one blood that God created us all,” he said. “We must dedicate and focus our energies upon breaking down any racialized barriers, barriers that are created through housing discrimination, barriers that are created through not providing opportunities to the least of these.”
Wright-Riggins said God “believes in diversity,” because God “lives in community as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
“It is incumbent on us to do all we can to live as diverse as we can,” he said. “And because God has created us as brothers and sisters in God, it also requires of us that as family we need to learn to turn toward each other rather than on each other.”
Because of God’s “preferential option for the most marginalized,” Wright-Riggins continued, “it is incumbent upon us as a church, God’s people, to minister to the least of these.”
Wright-Riggins said it is important to work not only on the symptoms of racism more importantly address “barriers that lock us out of places that determine our futures and whole lives.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.