What We Don't Understand About American Racism - Hope 103.2

What We Don’t Understand About American Racism

Australians find it hard to understand the depth of racism in America. Dr David Smith from the Us Studies Centre and the University of Sydney explained to Open House the deep significance of the arrest of two black men at a Starbucks just for being on the premises and the horrible true meaning of comparing people of colour to apes.

By Anne RinaudoThursday 7 Jun 2018Open House InterviewsSocial JusticeReading Time: 5 minutes

Listen: David Smith in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty about the depth of racial division in the US and how the church must be involved in the work of reconciliation. 

It is hard for Australians to fully understand the black white racial divide in America. It can often seem that not much has changed in the more than 50 years since Reverend Martin Luther King told the March on Washington “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” 

That iconic speech to over 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 was a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement. However, racism seems to be such a powerful force in contemporary America. Will Reverend King’s dreams ever be realised?

Rev Jim Wallis, Christian author and founder of the Sojourners movement, recently spoke passionately with told Open House about his concerns that the election of President Trump has emboldened the racists of America and Martin Luther King’s dreams of a colour blind nation seem further out of reach than ever.

Like Jim Wallis, Australian political scientist, David Smith says if there is to be reconciliation then it is the church that must lead the way.

Dr Smith has a deep knowledge of American politics and the US religious landscape – he spent seven years living and studying in the US and is the author of the book Religious Persecution and Political Order in the United States. His PhD was earned at the University of Michigan.

Some in Australia may question the extent of responses to recent incidents of racist behaviour in America, but Dr Smith cautions that their depth and significance can only be fully appreciated against the full sweep of US history.

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Two recent incidents highlight how close to the surface racism can still be.

People relax at Starbucks Coffee in Washington, DC. Starbucks is the largest coffeehouse company in the world, it has 20,891 stores in 62 countries.

Firstly, the international coffee chain, Starbucks, addressed a hugely embarrassing incident that happened earlier in the year at one of their stores in Philadelphia.  A white store manager called police on two black men who were waiting in the store for a colleague to join them. The men were not causing any disturbance, the manager was just uncomfortable about their presence in the store and they were subsequently arrested. There was public outrage and a profuse apology from Starbucks at a corporate level.

Starbucks is trying to change

In the wake of the arrests in Philadelphia Starbucks decided to do more than apologise. It took the unprecedented step of closing  8,000 stores for four hours so their 175,000 US employees could have ‘bias training’.


Americans Use Public Spaces differently

Dr David Smith explained to Open House the culture in America of meeting in public spaces like libraries and coffee shops.

“It is different to how we use those space here in Australia and it is not uncommon to stay for hours in a coffee shop without buying anything. People meet up, have business meetings and do their work in places like Starbucks. So there is a deep significance to arresting two black men at Starbucks – just for being on the premises.”

“It means you have no right to exist, that there is no place for you in the society if you are a person of colour” Dr Smith says.

The Starbucks incident is by no means isolated. The Washington Post reports on a number of incidents where people of colour were targeted or had police called on them. Those include a black woman and her five year old daughter who were harassed on vacation by a white man who wanted them to shower before entering a hotel swimming pool. He did not ask any white people to wash. Some of the incidents have become the anti-racism activist memes. ‘Permit Patty’ and ‘BBQ Betty’.

Roseanne’s hateful racist tweet

He also examined the decision by the American ABC television network to cancel the ‘Roseanne’ television series reboot after the star of the show, comedian Roseanne Barr, sent a racist tweet.

The tweet was about a black woman who is a former adviser to President Obama and compared her to an ape. You could well say that Roseanne is a comedian and we are just too sensitive and politically correct today.

However, what Australians probably don’t understand, says Dr Smith is “the history and sentiment attached to the idea of comparing people of colour to apes.  It is about saying that they are a different, lesser, species and can never be equal to whites.”

Dr Smith also reminded us that a similar slur was used against Sydney Swans footballer and former Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes.

The ‘Roseanne’ reboot had been a tremendous ratings success for the AmericaABC television network who had few high rating shows. The show picked up the story of the lives of the Conners, a white, working class family who featured during a successful nine season run from 1988 to 1997. The Conners are now living in present day America and Roseanne Conner,  the matriarch of the TV show is – just like Roseanne Barr in real life – an avowed supporter of President Trump.

Christians and Racism

The cancellation of ‘Roseanne’ and the Starbucks bias training occurred in the context of a the #Reclaim Jesus movement Open House recently reported on. That campaign kicked off with a candlelight rally opposite the White House in Washington, DC.

The #Reclaim Jesus message is that American politicians are misusing Jesus’ name for selfish, racist and divisive agendas.

Jim Wallis, who once served on a faith advisory group for President Barrack Obama’s administration, told Open House he believes evangelical Trump supporters have been blinded by a racist, white-centric worldview.

“I’ve never seen such racial division in the body of Christ in this country since maybe the civil rights movement,” he said.

To listen to our Open House podcast of this story click the red play button at the top of the page, or you can subscribe to Open House podcasts in iTunes and they will appear in your feed.