Review

Some "impolite" conversation about racism

The Last War: Racism, Spirituality, and the Future of Civilization
By M. L. Perry
George Ronald
Oxford

In the minds of some, racism may seem a bygone issue. Most countries now have extensive antisegregation laws. Apartheid in southern Africa has collapsed. And human rights groups around the world remain on guard, ready to call attention to any ugly appearance.

But then along comes a book like Mark L. Perry's The Last War: Racism, Spirituality and the Future of Civilization with a powerful challenge to any such complacency.

In a work that is at once thoroughly researched, profoundly philosophical, and at times almost painful in its piercing observations, Dr. Perry asserts that although racism has outwardly been legislated away, it has in many cases simply gone underground, where it remains hidden (often unconsciously) in the minds of many people.

“Racism is not in our vocabulary,” Dr. Perry writes, laying out his case for a deeper examination of the issue. “It is not brought up in polite conversation because, like UFOs, it causes embarrassment among mature, well-educated realists and rational thinkers. Racism is a myth.”

Yet, he observes, there are nevertheless numerous signs that a “covert” form of racism remains in many places around the world. He sees such hidden prejudice in coded comments that connect race and crime, in corporate decisions that market certain clothes, cars, and foods to certain racial groups, and in housing policies that subtly include or exclude certain groups.

The subconscious bias against people with dark skin remains strong enough that, he writes, “[e]ven today skin bleaching has become the rage in parts of Africa itself, causing people to scrub themselves with special soap and shampoo and apply several powerful creams. The results lighten the color of the skin quite dramatically but also weaken the skin to the point where it cuts easily and cannot hold stitches.”

The Last War, however, is much more than a polemic about lingering discrimination. Rather, it is an examination of how deeply racism, and more specifically, the institution of slavery, has cut across the face of Western civilization — leaving scars that must be fully examined if they are to be completely erased.

In the process of such an examination, Dr. Perry thinks deeply and explores widely, covering ground from the importance of Calvinism in “enabling” slavery in the colonial United States to the far more universalist thinking that existed in early Christianity; from the failure of secularism in the social sciences to “cure” racism to the possibilities for a new kind of urban design that would help banish prejudice.

Above all else, Dr. Perry brings to the fore a new tool for analysis in social science: spirituality and religion as a means for understanding the historical and current realities of a phenomenon like racism.

Dr. Perry also brings a distinctive background to his investigation. Although born in America, he teaches social science and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University in Beirut . He is a member of the Bahá'í Faith. Further, as he notes in his introduction, Dr. Perry comes from a multi-racial family, with one parent an African American and the other a “European American.”

“My family was illegal in 16 states of the United States until 1967,” he writes, noting that laws forbidding marriage between blacks and whites were common throughout US history. “These laws characterized people of mixed racial background as social and legal abominations. Yet we, as children of African American and European American parents, were very fortunate, for we knew the unity of the human race as a reality, not as an abstract concept or ideal.”

Dr. Perry focuses mainly on the United States — because “as the leader of democratic nations...there is no better place to begin.” But he delves far back into world history in an effort to understand racism's roots.

He undertakes his exploration using a somewhat unusual rhetorical device: he compares his exploration to archeology, digging ever more deeply through the layers of culture, religion, politics, and history as he tries to understand what could possibly have allowed one group of human beings to treat another with such inhumanity for such a long period of time.

He ultimately lays blame for racism, in America at least, to a mercantilist, Protestant culture that allowed early American colonists to rationalize that Africans were somehow subhuman and therefore exempt from a Christian application of the Golden Rule.

He describes a process of “despiritualization,” whereby “whiteness itself, like material success, became a sign of spiritual election and God's favor. Possession of white skin absolved the individual and the community of the duty to practice Jesus' teachings to love the other without regard for material qualities of body or social status.”

To succeed at maintaining this deception, he writes, slavery required the segregation of churches (so that slaves could not become free by converting to Christianity), laws against intermarriage, and laws allowing the violent restraint of slaves.

In peeling away such layers of rationalization and history, Dr. Perry offers some keen-sighted observations. He notes, for example, that although slavery was brought to America by Europeans, in Europe itself it was outlawed — something he attributes to a greater sense of spiritual law in Europe at the time. And, seeking to understand the relationship of slavery to racism, he observes that although Islam allowed trade in slaves, this was not so much connected to race as it was to conquest.

“In Islam, as in the Greco-Roman world, slaves were of all skin colors, races and ethnicities and were able to rise to the highest levels of society,” writes Dr. Perry, adding that “a significant number of black African slaves rose to the highest ranks in the Islamic world.”

In the end, he concludes, racism is essentially a spiritual disease, fueled by a materialistic view of the world that is largely a Western, Protestant Christian construct.

“By focusing so obsessively on humanity's physical traits — by not only speaking and writing of these traits but by creating for them laws, philosophies, sciences, elaborate institutions and complex cultural traditions — we have created another heaven, another ‘spiritual' world, contrary to the heaven described by the religions,” Dr. Perry writes.

Accordingly, he believes, the lingering effects of racism can only be eradicated through a process of “respiritualization.”

“The problem of racism does not lie in the intellect or the mind but rather in this soul world wherein one's true beliefs are created and maintained,” he writes.

The antidotes Dr. Perry offers to such ingrained beliefs include a process of widespread education in which “schools, organizations, companies and communities must declare themselves strictly in favor of the concept of the oneness of humankind and vigorously uphold that principle.”

Ultimately, he writes, eliminating racism will require action on a global level, necessitating a “new leap of consciousness” in which our “traditional, materialistic concept of humanity disappears and in its stead we find ourselves to be a reality of transcendent power.”

To the Bahá'í reader, many of the proposals put forward by Dr. Perry will be familiar. The Bahá'í Faith emphasizes racial equality and stresses especially the oneness of humanity. However, Dr. Perry's arguments do not hinge on Bahá'í theology or scripture. Rather, he carefully supports his points with extensive citations from various philosophers, theologians, and social scientists, not to mention his own analysis and observations.

The Last War is an important book, one that is dense with ideas and replete with insights into a subject about which humanity must remain vigilant.

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