Silent Racism

by James Fawcett May 11, 2015 A

Jeremiah, based at Riverside Church on the edge of Harlem, is exploring what silent racism means, through the Theatre of the Oppressed program there. Inspired by Barbara Trepagnier’s book and work on ‘Silent Racism’, the group are voicing feelings and reflections on their own experiences and their own prejudices in encounters with those of a different race. Here it is not necessarily about what is said but what isn’t – the honesty of being able to admit the bigotries and biases that are in us, when we are honest enough to confront them – and from here to act in a way that tackles these.

In her book, Trepagnier argues that if we are not proactively finding ways like this to take a stand against racism in our own lives, we are part of the problem. She suggests that the slow and steady trickle of silent racism in our societies is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome racism as a whole.

One obvious example of this in New York are the obvious fewer opportunities that Latino and African Americans tend to have, living in poorer, ghettoized areas of city, often with poorer educational facilities. The odds are stacked against the young people who grow up in these communities – and so Fr. Steve Holton has referred to those who lead a way out of it as ‘warriors of the dream’. 50% of these young people will drop out of high school before they graduate. This is often due to a need for a young person to go out and earn money for the family, but with access to only low paid jobs, drugs seems to be the best way to gain a dependable income, and to have a close circle of support. Manhattan has the highest number of arrests and parolees of any county in America – these are predominately young men of colour. In being re-released these young men enter back into these situations of poverty, unemployment and unstable housing – leading to a much higher probability of re-offending. Today an article on CNN website states  “The fact that there are more black men imprisoned today than were enslaved in 1850 signals that the transformation from chattel to criminal is complete when it comes to the black male body. In this regard, the Prison Industrial Complex serves as the new slavocracy. It maintains the narrative of this country that the black body is not meant to be free. It returns the black body to its “proper” space, and the body perceived as most dangerous, that is the black male body, is now adequately contained and patrolled.” This reads as shocking, but it also speaks truth, the article goes on to identify this incarcerated and abused black body with the body of Christ. The truth is that in Harlem a third of the paroles will be re-incarcerated within a year and 42% within 3 years. One seven block stretch in Harlem is known an “re-entry corridor” where one in 20 men has been incarcerated. These issues seem at times too huge to tackle, but Trepagnier’s work encourages us that small actions each day that work to conquer our own prejudices and question the injustice around us make the journey towards change – indeed, this is one of the only ways in which this can happen. We are challenged to act radically to a radical phenomenon that faces us, to be where Christ is. As Kelly Brown Douglassuggests, Jesus would reply: “Running down a Baltimore street, On a Florida sidewalk. As you did it to one of these black male bodies you did it to me.”

Check out, a coalition of community organizations working to change the trend of cyclical incarceration in Harlem.