As a white American who was for many years an organist at a predominantly African-American church in New Jersey, I am ashamed of the racism that persists both in the New York metropolitan area and throughout our country. It showed itself recently through the anonymous threats-including lynching-left in the lockers of three black employees at Newark's water plant in West Milford. It showed in a huge swastika which suddenly appeared, cut into a cornfield in Washington Township, New Jersey. It showed itself a year and a half ago in Union, NJ, in the death threats received by the actor Desi Arnaz Giles. His crime? The "temerity"-as an African-American-to act the role of Jesus in a passion play.
Most terrifying of all was the almost unspeakably brutal murder in Jasper, Texas, of James Byrd, Jr., dragged to his death. That shocked the nation, but it also-and this was scarcely reported-resulted in "copy-cat" crimes in Belleville, Illinois, and Slidell, Louisiana. These crimes, thank God, did not end in a person's death. But the terror and physical anguish of the victims of these echoes of Jasper were real-and should concern and alarm every American.
We need to ask: Why do people act in these horrific ways? And what do these terrible events have to do with the everyday racism that doesn't make it to the headlines-racism, for instance, that can show itself this very afternoon in a factory cafeteria as a man gets a table of friends to laugh at a "joke" that makes millions of people of a different skin color look ridiculous?
Eli Siegel, the great historian and educator who founded the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism, explained that the cause of racism, with all its particular evil, arises from the emotion of contempt: something we can see in ourselves and others every day. Contempt, he explained, is the "false importance or glory" a person gets by making less of the reality of other people. "There is," he said, "a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world."
Before a person can participate in a racist act-can make an unkind joke, use a demeaning word, refuse to hire someone or rent to him because of his skin color, or even attack him on the streets-that person, I learned, first has to have years of everyday contempt, moment after moment in which there is a lack of desire to see who other people are and what they deserve. No one begins life as a racist; but all of us can yield to the temptation of wanting to feel superior to other people, especially when we feel unsure of ourselves. This is one reason why racism can flourish at times of economic uncertainty-times like our own.
And it is this contempt, Aesthetic Realism explains-the desire to think other people's feelings are less important than our own, that we have a right to put aside, even annihilate their feelings any time we please-that quietly accumulates over years and leads eventually to terrible things that shock us.
In his book James and the Children, a consideration of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Eli Siegel writes:
According to Aesthetic Realism, the greatest sin that a person can have is the desire for contempt. Because as soon as you have contempt, as soon as you don't want to see another person as having the fullness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person.
Aesthetic Realism directly criticizes contempt. America needs this knowledge if we are to come to grips with racism, and put an end to it. The President's Commission on Racism headed by Dr. John Hope Franklin must study this reality to bring about new kindness and honesty in our country.
One of the clearest places where contempt can be studied as the cause of racism is in the terrible wave of church burnings these last two years. The media has largely "dropped" the story, but the truth is, the burnings continue.
I know from my work as a church musician that large emotions are bound up with a church building-the emotions of many people: what they feel as they see baptisms, weddings, funerals; as they sing hymns, hear sermons and have moments of deep spiritual feeling-of sweet and large gratitude to God. All this emotion matters, is real, runs very deep-and whoever burns a church scorns it all; feels he has a right to turn it into nothing.
Ellen Reiss, the Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism, writes about this with passionate clarity in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known:
A person who sets fire to a black church feels that black persons have no right to see themselves as related to the biggest thing there is: the cause of the world, or God. He feels he will make himself big and substantial and sure by putting such persons "in their place"-showing such a large thing as the worship of God should not be for them, because they are so much less valuable than oneself is.
A powerful instance in American history of what Ellen Reiss is saying-that contempt is a state of mind in which a person elevates his own value at the expense of another human being-was the notorious Tuskegee experiment, which began in the 1940s, and which President Clinton apologized for on behalf of the nation.
Year after brutal year, U.S. Public Health Service officials dealt with nearly 400 African-American men as if they were no more than laboratory animals. Keeping them in the dark about what they were doing, doctors denied these men medical treatment for a possibly fatal disease. The suffering was tremendous. And the logic of these white American officials was not so far off from the reasoning of the Nazi doctors of the concentration camps, who injected Jewish prisoners with terrible diseases in order to study the results. Why? To gain knowledge to help the health of real human beings: Germans!
Every one of the men of the Tuskegee experiment was a victim of contempt, the ugliest possibility of the human mind. And certainly every person who endured slavery in America was. And yet, as everyone knows, there has been no official national apology for the horrors of slavery, those centuries of raw evil.
In my opinion, there is contempt, not just for humanity but for truth itself, in our government's reluctance to say directly: "We, as a nation, regret what was done to our African-American citizens." America was right to apologize to its Japanese citizens for the internment camps of World War II. What is at stake here is honesty about an injustice of far greater duration.
Contempt has affected American history; and it is affecting us now. It largely has to do with economics. Contempt is present in the agony people feel about money and jobs. There is contempt, for example, in a factory owner as he gives himself the right to keep as profit money he didn't work for, money earned through the hard labor of other people. Some months back, the owners of U.P.S. tried to get away with that, and they were met with a strike that had support across the country.
Certainly, it is not just corporations who have contempt for human lives-as they "downsize" factories and lay off thousands of people to increase profits for distant stockholders. Our national government, too, showed terrific coldness and contempt when Congress passed and the president signed what was called a welfare "reform" law. That law will result-and they know it-in children suffering terrible hunger, and even becoming homeless because their parents, through no fault of their own, cannot find work in our failing economy. Rather than criticize the profit system itself, the poor-of all races-are being scapegoated.
Contempt-the feeling we have a right to be superior to other people-is a national danger. It is also a personal emergency. It is what causes the everyday pain between men and women, parents and children. It is at work in every conversation where we talk, not to understand another person, but to have our way with them.
At the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City, a not-for-profit educational foundation, where I am honored to be on the faculty, people are learning the alternative to contempt-the one honest, intelligent use of our minds-the hope for respect.
Respect is the feeling-the accurate feeling-that we grow bigger every time we try to be fair to what is not ourselves. Respect is what our minds were meant for-it is the sanest, the most beautiful emotion. And I learned that respect for people begins with asking, and honestly trying to answer, this greatly kind and urgently necessary question which Eli Siegel first presented: "What does a person deserve by being a person?"
It is impossible to think deeply about this question and hurt another person.