Baha’i View of Racial Prejudice – by Yvor Stoakley

BAHA’I VIEW 1938

On Christmas Day 1938 the head of the Bahá’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi, wrote a very important letter to the Bahá’i communities residing in the United States and Canada. (The letter was later published as a book under the title The Advent of Divine Justice.) It was the eve of World War II. The Empire of Japan had already invaded China in July 1937. In March of 1938 Nazi Germany had absorbed Austria into the Third Reich. In September 1938 the Germans forced Czechoslovakia to cede part of its territory to Germany. On November 9, 1938 many German Nazis attacked and destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues in the pogrom later known as Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). Against this background of world events, Shoghi Effendi wrote this letter.

One of its central themes was the seriousness of racial prejudice which he identified as “the most vital and challenging issue confronting the [North American] Bahá’i community” at that time. He laid out his call to confront this issue head-on.

Among other things, Shoghi Effendi explained that to discriminate against any race, on the ground of its being socially backward, politically immature, and numerically in a minority is a flagrant violation of the spirit that animates the Bahá’i Faith. He stated that if any discrimination is to be tolerated at all, it is discrimination IN FAVOR of the minority. He counseled that freedom from racial prejudice must be adopted as the watchword of the entire American Bahá’i community.

He counseled whites to abandon once and for all their usually inherent sense of superiority, to correct their tendency toward a patronizing attitude toward blacks, to master their lack of impatience with any lack of responsiveness from a long-oppressed people, and to extend intimate, spontaneous, and informal association toward blacks to convince them of their genuine friendship and sincerity. He counseled blacks to use every means in their power to show the warmth of their response, to be ready to forget the past, and to wipe out every trace of suspicion that might linger in their hearts and minds.

CURRENT BAHA’I VIEW

Seventy-five years have passed since Shoghi Effendi penned that exposition, but there is ample evidence that in spite of our progress within the Bahá’i community and in the larger American and Canadian societies within which Bahá’is live and work (and there has been progress), the corrosive effects of racial prejudice continue to bite into the fiber and attack the social structure of American society. Racial prejudice persists as one of the major barriers to world peace.

An eloquent testimony to this fact and critical examination of this issue is published (online and in print) in a 2014 issue of The Atlantic Magazine. It is an article provocatively titled “The Case for Reparations” by The Atlantic’s national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates. Renowned journalist and public broadcasting commentator Bill Moyers interviewed Coates in 2014 and described the article as “must reading for every American.”

It’s a long article, but well written, thoroughly researched and well worth the time it may take you to work through it. The online version includes two embedded videos and an interactive census map of Chicago showing the socially engineered segregation of the windy city from 1950 to 2010. Coates uses Chicago and the personal story of 91-year-old Clyde Ross to explain the way in which racial prejudice and its institutional and government-supported cousin, racism, have continued to undermine the social structure of American society. Ross was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the seventh of 13 children.

He came to Chicago in 1947 as part of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the Jim Crow southern United States. Coates’ article is divided into 10 parts. It primarily focuses on the issue of housing discrimination to explain the ways in which Americans have systematically segregated and economically undermined their fellow citizens of African descent over 250 years of slavery, ninety years of Jim Crow discrimination, and sixty years of separate but supposedly equal treatment. [Warning: No matter what your personal ethnic heritage, this is an emotionally painful article to read and is best absorbed with an opportunity to talk about the issues and emotions it will evoke.]

As you spend a few hours reading and thinking about this article or discussing it with others consider it a short non-credit course that will profoundly affect the way in which you view America today and the nature of the challenges and opportunities that still face us throughout the United States and Canada.

One more thing. This encouragement to read, ponder and discuss “The Case for Reparations”, the cover story of a  2014 issue of The Atlantic magazine, is already several paragraphs longer than I intended it to be. But at the risk of a few more lines, I will call your attention to one more resource that may inspire you and fill you with courage. It is a 15-minute TED talk by DreamWorks Animation Chairman Mellody Hobson (also a Chicago Native) challenging each of us to be “color-brave” instead of color-blind.

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