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Alison L. Boden

Dean of the Chapel, Princeton University, USA

I can only answer the question, “Is racism rising again?” from the perspective of the United States, where I live and work.  The painful fact in the US is that racism has never gone away – it never even has gotten smaller.  It was only masked for a while and now is unmasked.  Racism isn’t rising as much as its already large presence is becoming more obvious.  The candidacy and election of Donald Trump, with all of his hateful and racist rhetoric and policies, has made this clear.  He has, in a way, moved aside a big rock, and so all of the ugly things that were always in the hole under that rock are now free to fly through the air.  Trump didn’t create the hatefulness under that rock; it has always been there.  It is a part of our history.  He has simply exposed it, and given it permission to thrive out in the open.  It’s a Pandora’s Box; it has been opened, and all the toxic stuff that Americans have been avoiding are now freely swirling around.  We can’t get that box closed, and I’ve come to think that we shouldn’t be trying to.

Racism isn’t the only historic American sin that has been released from under the rock.  Hideous misogyny was under there too – the reduction of female human beings to mere bodies.  Our President is a serial sexual predator; he has effectively admitted to this.  More evidence of his behavior is revealed on a regular basis.  As the denigration of women in our country is being shared more publicly and brazenly, violence against women is becoming more common.  It is simply becoming more acceptable for people to act on their violent impulses against women.
The American President has excused the work of white supremacists in the US, people who hate not only black and brown Americans but also Jews, Muslims, and foreigners.  Anti-Semitism is dangerously more obvious, and so is Islamophobia.  The ban on visits to the US (including immigration) from people from majority Muslim countries is only the most glaring example of this.  The polite rock that Trump has moved has been covering a multitude of our sins.  I’m trying to say that the rising number of overtly anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents isn’t about rising hate but rather the acceptance of acting on the hate that already is in us.  So yes – public acts of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia (not to mention heterosexism) are on the rise, but these vices themselves are not.  Their ongoing presence in our midst is only being given more attention.
Most Americans are stunned by all that was under this rock, and that is now out in the open.  We are also stunned at our own ignorance.  We thought we were better than this.  We thought we had made tremendous progress on our racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and more.  We have had mass movements.  We have passed laws.  We have reformed the curriculum in our schools.  We have changed our thinking.  We are not like that anymore. 
Except when we are.  And we are.  The millions of us who want nothing to do with racism and hate now have to accept that we are part of a larger society that truly makes a warm home for it.  All of us have been harboring it all along.
And the “we” of whom I speak is white people.  The resurgence of public racism is not a surprise to black and brown Americans.  They’ve known it was as strong as ever, but temporarily under a rock of politeness and ignorance.  Those of us who are white are shocked and disgusted, and we are realizing that we cannot blame our President for our racism (amongst other ills).  We have been confronting the painful fact that our President isn’t creating hate, he’s simply exploiting the racism that is in us for his own political ends.  He is playing on the sentiments we already hold.  He’s tapping the opinions that are already in our minds.  We don’t like this person who shows us who we really are.  This has all been a helpful wakeup to all of us who’ve been resting on the laurels of progress.
Maybe it is better (I think that it is) to have our vicious racism exposed.  It’s better to live with it, to stop being polite about it, to stop thinking we’ve overcome it.  Out of the shadows and into the light – it may be painful to live with such an ugly mirror held up to ourselves but it is always better to live in the light of the truth rather than in the shadows of denial.  We need to see the white supremacists in our midst; they’ve always been there.  We need to see the discrimination and greed for privilege that hide in our own hearts.  We need to be honest about the oppression that we continue to permit to fester.  When we are honest about our racism we are better able to confront it.
I don’t want the white supremacists having rallies in our towns and university campuses, but when they do we respond to them.  We get organized.  We show them and everyone an alternative about how to live together as a multiracial and multi-religious society.  We get stronger when this is all out in the open.  
When those hate groups live in the shadows they get stronger.  They aren’t held accountable for their hate.  They add more and more people to their groups through their use of the internet.  The more they speak in public, the more people decide they are wrong.  Their hateful opinions are so hard to hear, but we need to keep them speaking out in the cold light of day so that they continue to earn the opponents who will work together to stop them.
The challenge before white Americans is dealing with our whiteness, analyzing whiteness, understanding whiteness.  We need to come to terms at last with the ways in which we truly do not understand the experiences of black and brown people, the ways in which we project our white reality on to all of society, the ways that we reap the many benefits of racist injustice while insisting that we are dismantling that.  It is painful to look at and so we look away.
But there are movements for repentance and for justice.  The issue of reparations is growing within the public discourse – the need to repair, to compensate particularly the black and Native American communities who have lost so many of their assets to white people’s accumulation of wealth and power.  The worst examples are in the past but their effects are very much in the present.  There is a growing understanding that the long-time injustices of racism require a long, forward-reaching plan that produces the structures that create health and opportunity for black and brown people.  It begins with pregnancy, and wonderful pre-natal care.  It is about excellent health care throughout life, excellent child care, education, housing, employment and opportunity.  It’s about living in an environment that doesn’t poison you but sustains you.  This is repentance and this is justice.  It is also hard work.  It’s about changing tax laws, governmental funding structures, and the way people understand merit, history, fairness and responsibility.  It is about sharing privilege and opportunity.  It is about admitting wrong.  It is hard.
I am happy to say that religious communities are real leaders in the American conversation about reparations.  This is a tremendous opportunity for us to be relevant, to share what we stand for, and to create positive change.  The interfaith movement plays a special role, I think, through the work of the Fellowship of Reconciliation USA, and their excellent Reparations Project.  This is a moment for faith communities both to embrace their calling and to exhibit to the public just what we stand for.
The rise of the public expression of our racism in the US is ugly, uncomfortable, and to those of us who strive to be anti-racist, very humbling.  We thought we had made so much more progress.  But it is our unfortunate opportunity to learn the truth about ourselves, and to commit to ending our discrimination.  Perhaps, in the end, we will thank our unfortunate President for having created the conditions in which we finally face our demons once and for all.