Racial Healing in the U.S. Today

March 1, 2009

In 1938, Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, sent a remarkable "letter" to the Bahá'ís of the United States and Canada, titled Advent of Divine Justice. Although he did not, to my knowledge, ever visit North America (1), his diagnosis of the spiritual and moral illnesses of this land were, and remain, uncanny.

Among the issues addressed, he directly challenged the racial status quo in America. In a time of Jim Crow and segregated meetings – even amongst many of the Bahá'ís (2) – the Guardian declared, "As to racial prejudice, the corrosion of which, for well-nigh a century, has bitten into the fiber, and attacked the whole social structure of American society, it should be regarded as constituting the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Bahá'í community at the present stage of its evolution." (3).

While it should be readily apparent to all followers of Bahá'u'lláh that racial prejudices must be abandoned (4), it seems that the transformation had been hard fought. In Advent, the Guardian outlined a plan of action that concluded with these words:

Let the white make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority, to correct their tendency towards revealing a patronizing attitude towards the members of the other race, to persuade them through their intimate, spontaneous and informal association with them of the genuineness of their friendship and the sincerity of their intentions, and to master their impatience of any lack of responsiveness on the part of a people who have received, for so long a period, such grievous and slow-healing wounds. Let the Negroes, through a corresponding effort on their part, show by every means in their power the warmth of their response, their readiness to forget the past, and their ability to wipe out every trace of suspicion that may still linger in their hearts and minds. Let neither think that the solution of so vast a problem is a matter that exclusively concerns the other. Let neither think that such a problem can either easily or immediately be resolved. Let neither think that they can wait confidently for the solution of this problem until the initiative has been taken, and the favorable circumstances created, by agencies that stand outside the orbit of their Faith. Let neither think that anything short of genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort, can succeed in blotting out the stain which this patent evil has left on the fair name of their common country. Let them rather believe, and be firmly convinced, that on their mutual understanding, their amity, and sustained cooperation, must depend, more than on any other force or organization operating outside the circle of their Faith, the deflection of that dangerous course so greatly feared by `Abdu'l-Bahá, and the materialization of the hopes He cherished for their joint contribution to the fulfillment of that country’s glorious destiny. (5)

In part 3 of Racial Unity: An Imperative for Social Progress, Dr. Richard W. Thomas discusses the continuing challenges to this standard, especially during the end of the Jim Crow era and throughout the civil rights movement that brought about its official demise. In 1991, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'is of the United States wrote a statement entitled The Vision of Race Unity: America's Most Challenging Issue. This was the year of the Rodney King beating, and was released even before the policemens' acquittal led to major race riots; other events in the 90s, such as the O.J. Simpson murder-trial and aftermath, went on to prove that, at the least, racism continued to plague the United States. What is not clear, to this author, is whether the National Spiritual Assembly's statement was directed more toward the Bahá'ís themselves or the general society.

Although great strides have been made in the realm of race relations, current studies, polling, and everyday experience suggest that there is much work remaining if we are to overcome the tendencies toward prejudice and the long-lasting ramifications of a history of racism in the United States (6). Our new President not-with-standing, this country is still in need of that "genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort" to which Shoghi Effendi exhorted the Bahá'ís, and those of us who call ourselves Bahá'ís must strive to lead the way toward true race unity.

poll results
"how big a problem is racism in our society today?"

  1. Glenford E. Mitchell implies this, and the reason why, in the 1996-97 edition of The Bahá'í World, pp. 165: "He was vigilant in avoiding an imposition of his personality that might in any way dim the pre-eminence of the Central Figures of the Faith. Although he met and talked with the many individuals who went to the world center of the Faith as pilgrims, he did not visit Bahá'í communities and did not allow photographs of himself to be circulated."
  2. Morrison, Gayle. To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Unity in America. Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá'i Publishing Trust, 1982. passim.
  3. Effendi, Shoghi. Advent of Divine Justice. Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá'i Publishing Trust, 1990. p33-34.
  4. Prominent statements exhorting or implying race unity include the 68th Hidden Word (Arabic) from Bahá'u'lláh; "Close your eyes to racial differences, and welcome all with the light of oneness." quoted in Advent, p38; and many writings and talks from 'Abdu'l-Bahá (i.e. 1, 2, 3 p103).
  5. Advent, p40.
  6. See for instance Charles Blow's commentary in the New York Times last weekend, A Nation of Cowards? and his more recent blog posting, Not Yet Human, which highlights findings about the "mental association between Blacks and apes".
  7. Poll data from The Washington Post, Jan 2009.

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