Meeting in Mississippi, one of the battleground states of the civil rights movement, speakers at the conference “Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America” agreed that, amid important progress, more work remains in fighting racism.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said that “continued vigilance is required,” even as boundaries are crossed at an accelerating pace, particularly among young people.
“Teach and work for justice that we might become the beloved community of God’s rainbow people,” she said in a plenary address at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Jackson on November 5. “Dream that world into being here on the Earth, and drive out hell to bring it to birth.”
The conference met three days after the release of a study commissioned by the Episcopal Church, which found that 98 percent of Americans believe at least some level of discrimination still exists in the nation, despite major progress in the past 50 years.
After the study’s release Jefferts Schori said that “our culture continues to perpetuate discrimination in various forms.” She said churches and communities remain “critical motivators” in promoting change “toward greater parity and acceptance.” She said younger and more highly educated respondents were more likely to embrace a culture of different races “and to be comfortable with diversity.”
Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, said the United States was founded on prejudice and racism. “It’s always been a part of America,” she said. “It flows in the veins of America.”
The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, Bishop of North Carolina, called racism an addiction that “harms the children of God.” It must be countered, he said, like Christians counter original sin: first by naming it and then by marshaling the “better angels of all of our natures” to overcome it.
But state Rep. Byron Rushing of Massachusetts, a civil rights activist and vice president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, said that racism is learned. It is not, he said, embedded in our “biological DNA” but should be seen as a form of “cultural DNA.” It can be “unlearned,” he said, adding that he is optimistic racism can be overcome, but only if institutions like the Episcopal Church “take it on.”
Former Mississippi Gov. William F. Winter said that, like most white southerners, he was raised a segregationist and did not question it. He said white friends ask him why he continues to talk about racism. He answers by saying that, along with poverty and ignorance, it is “still in evidence” throughout the United States — despite President Obama’s election in 2008, when “we thought we had broken the back of racism.”
“We know that’s not true,” said Winter, founder of the University of Mississippi’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.
Evers-Williams still has “anger in myself” over the state of racism in the United States. But she said anger may become transformative. “It’s what we do with that anger,” she said, advising conference participants not to be “caught up in the progress” that has been made and to focus on instilling character in young people. “Prejudice and racism still exist,” she said. “We have a long way to go.”
Gary G. Yerkey in Washington
Image: Moderator Ray Suarez and participants William F. Winter, Myrlie Evers-Williams, and Bishop Michael Curry. Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service