WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana (PNS) — The Rev. Denise Anderson noticed something about the infamous news footage of white nationalist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia in the Summer of 2017: Most of them were young.
While a lot of the talk about racism in the United States focuses on events decades and even centuries ago, events such as Charlottesville and the 21-year-old man who shot and killed nine black people in a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015 reminds us that racism is not dying out.
“People you see perpetuating racist ideas and forms of abuse are so often young,” said Anderson, coordinator for Racial and Intercultural Justice for the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “People are being recruited into white nationalist groups at young ages, so if the church does not offer a contradictory voice, we have no hope for the eradication of racism.”
Anderson was talking after a hopeful event: Her discussion “What is a Racist? Unlearning what we think we already know” at the 2019 Presbyterian Youth Triennium on the campus of Purdue University. The Wednesday evening session was one of the interest groups offered at the event and will be repeated at 3:45 p.m. Friday in the Class of 1950 Lecture Hall.
One of the major points Anderson wanted to make in her talk was that racism often does not announce itself with torches and chants or firearms, or even in racist tweets. While those events grab headlines and shock the nation, racism is perpetuated by far more subtle systems, structures and even disguises.
Nearing the end of the talk, she went back to an exercise at the beginning of the event where she and the audience defined classic traits of a racist. But, she noted, they never said “nice.” And that was an oversight, she said.
“There are lots of people who are thoroughly nice and thoroughly racist,” Anderson said.
“Niceness is the way we uphold comfort. You don’t want to rock the boat, but you really need to.”
Racism, Anderson said, is broadly supported at four levels: individual, institutional, systemic and structural. The latter levels are where the favoring of one race over the other become part of the fabric of society, from systems of financial rewards such as rules for loans and contracts to the people revered in society.
“What’s the name of your school?” Anderson asked. “Your church?”
Mackenzie C. from Georgia did not originally intend to go to Anderson’s talk. But she said she had seen a few things recently that prompted her to take a closer look at the issues of race and racism.
“I learned a lot,” she said. “My understanding of racism was kind of foggy, but this made it very clear. Conversations about racism should be much more widespread and open.”
Anderson was happy to see an intergenerational turnout of more than 50 people for her talk at the same time as other discussions and recreation activities were being offered.
“Folks were really engaged, and they were clearly people that wanted to be there and were curious about what I had to say,” Anderson said.
She wrapped up the talk asking people how they could combat racism going forward and heard ideas from not doing business with companies that perpetuate racism in their policies to being more aware of structural racism in their own organizations and groups and being willing to address racism when they see it, even if it doesn’t seem to be the “nice” thing to do.
As the crowd began to leave, Anderson exhorted the young people, “Change the world! Fix this! My generation didn’t do it. Maybe yours can.”