Rev. Joseph Barndt is a longtime soldier on the front lines of civil rights and a published author since the early '70s. Brought in town by the local nonprofit Interracial Interfaith Community, he will be on hand all weekend for a booksigning at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church (where he'll give the sermon this Sunday as well), and an anti-racism workshop at Armstrong Atlantic on Saturday afternoon.
Brought in town by the local nonprofit Interracial Interfaith Community, he’ll be on hand for a signing at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church (where he’ll give the sermon this Sunday as well) of his new book Understanding and Dismantling Racism and an anti–racism workshop at Armstrong Atlantic on Saturday afternoon.
We'll start with the most obvious question: Have you tweaked your theories in the wake of the election of the first African American president?
Joseph Barndt: There are lots of ways of answering that. One of the ways that got answered just last week was when Attorney General Eric Holder announced the redefining or the turning back of the Civil Rights Commission to its original purpose, to do systemic change. What that affirms is despite all the good and excellent changes in the last 50 years, including the possibility of individual elections and achievement as high as the presidency and the Supreme Court, that the systems that run this nation -- everything from law enforcement to retail and wholesale and health care -- are still basically run by white people, mostly white men, and function to serve white people better than people of color.And that's not a matter of accusing white people of being bigots, because as you know from perusing the book the definition of racism I use is not individuals being bigoted, but rather systems that are weighting the structure of their service and power in favor of white people.
You say your goal is an "anti-racist" sociey. Yet you also say that all white people are inherently racist, not necessarily personally but because the system is designed to benefit them. So in effect aren't you really calling for an "anti-white" society?
Joseph Barndt: Not in the sense of being against white people. It's against the racialization of society and against the concept of a society being structured around race. So that means anti-white, anti-black, anti-Latino, anti-everything that says you're identified by your race and served on the basis of your race. An anti-racist is not against white people -- it's against racism's captivity of white people. White people are as captive to racism as people of color.
That's an interesting part of your writing. Explain that further, the idea that racism imprisons everyone.
Joseph Barndt: To begin with, it's really interesting to note how many times Dr. King talked about that, that the warden is also a prisoner and that white people won't be free until black people are free. I've tweaked that a bit in talking about that -- from the moment I was born I was a part of the system that benefits me and uses me to hurt others. It's like the old question about war: If they drop a bomb in Vietnam or Iraq, and I'm against that, and I say I didn't do it. That's why "anti-racist" or "anti-war" is so important, because I'm part of the "we" that dropped the bombs, and I'm against it. But being against it doesn't make me a non-bomb-dropper. It imprisons me in the role of dropping bombs.
You're coming to a majority black city with a majority black government. Does white people being in a minority both in terms of number and power make it less of a racist system locally, or can that even reverse the paradigm to make it a racist environment against white people?
Joseph Barndt: Just as you can attack the welfare system by finding two welfare cheats, you can also attack what they call reverse racism by finding somebody who has a powerful position as a black person in the government. But the systems still haven't changed. Remember Dick Gregory? He used to say if you take an all-white, racist institution, and take all the white people who run it, and put them aside and put black people in their place, and if they run the institution the way it's always been run, it will be black people running a white racist institution. That's the primary issue -- not whether you can find a few blacks who misuse their power against white people, but if the systems they're running are still designed to favor white people.
I've been writing a lot about the issue of composition of boards of directors. You say the whole notion of "diversity" is something of a crock.
Joseph Barndt: Again it comes back to how you change systems, design and structure. How do you change the decision-making process so that a board of 20 people might have seven people of color, but the white people can still outvote them all the time? Honestly we haven't answered that question. To me it's the front line question: How does power get defined differently than who can outvote who? How do you be democratic without letting democracy maintain racism?
His work is somewhat controversial, in that his central premise -- Barndt is white, by the way -- is that all white people are inherently racist in the abstract sense -- if not personally so -- because whether they like it or not they benefit from an inherently racist system.
Understanding and Dismantling Racism, sponsored by the Interracial Interfaith Community
Joseph Barndt will speak and sign books Sept. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at the Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, 622 37th St. He holds a workshop Sept. 12, 3-6 p.m. at University Hall at AASU. He will give the sermon Sunday Sept. 13 at Holy Spirit Lutheran, with services beginning at 11 a.m.