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Racial Unity: An Imperative for Social Progress, by Richard Thomas:
Review

by Nassim Berdjis

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 6
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1996
Racial Unity: An Imperative for Social Progress
Author: Richard W. Thomas
Publisher: Association for Bahá'í Studies, Ottawa, 1993. rev. ed., 224 pages
Review by: Nassim Berdjis

Richard Thomas traces the quality of black-white relations from the ancient Mediterranean world to contemporary America. He shows how perspectives on race have shaped societies. Thomas paints a complex picture of the evolving application of the Bahá'í teachings on racial unity in the American Bahá'í community. He closes his book by opening vistas of interracial harmony with the help of a transformational model that needs to affect as many people as possible.

In the first part of his book, Thomas describes the rather harmonious interaction between Egyptians and African Kushites and among the Greeks, Romans, and African peoples such as the Ethiopians. The Africans were appreciated as traders and warriors. Classical writers portray, for example, the Ethiopians as pious and just people. In early Christian communities, the inclusion of black believers served as proof for the all-embracing mission of the new religion, and only later was Christ's image transformed into that of an increasingly white-skinned Messiah. The depiction of colonialism is convincing in that Thomas shows that conquests and colonisation efforts went hand in hand with enslaving the African peoples in order to strengthen the economies of European empires. When slavery proved to be profitable in the New World, racist ideologies emerged which attempted to conceal the conflicts with Christian and Enlightenment ideas. The discussion of Thomas Jefferson--who described black people as mentally inferior to whites while he granted Native Americans a slightly higher status--sheds light on the complexity of the issue.

In "Barriers to Racial Unity and Multiracial Progress," Thomas continues to use his effective approach of dealing with history on a global scale when he discusses both American history and European colonialism in Africa. The idea of manifest destiny ascribed the right of discovery to European-Americans, thus sanctioning the taking of land from native peoples whose concept of land ownership did not include private claims. Additionally, slavery fostered the view that slaves were better suited for hard labour than their masters. Between 1815 and 1855, ideas about liberty and the progress of human beings (derived from the Enlightenment and the American Revolution) were replaced by the concept of white supremacy which resulted in the removal of Indians from their native lands and in the perpetuation of slavery. Black men were seen either as sex-hungry savages or as affectionate imbeciles who were grateful for being held as slaves. This image of subhuman slaves served the purpose of avoiding moral issues in favour of preserving the economic status quo. Both religion and science cooperated in this ideological effort. People closed their eyes to the paradox of scientific "proof" for the existence of distinct races and of the Christian belief that humankind derived from Adam and Eve.

In twentieth-century America, racial segregation in the South went even so far as to force people of different races to use particular telephone booths. When World War I created a need for labourers in the northern states, the migration of vast numbers of black people led to race riots and to the ghettoisation of black workers. Between the late 1940s and mid-1960s, several Supreme Court and other court rulings gradually led to crucial changes. For instance, the 1954 Supreme Court Decision Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka signalled the end of segregated public schools. Nonetheless, the bussing of children in order to enforce that ruling still caused much conflict in the 1970s. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr, was a champion of the civil rights movement that promoted non-violent change; other groups demanded more radical measures. Thomas concludes that the last ten years have been characterised by a diversification of race issues, as Middle Eastern and Asian immigrant groups have been added to the factions that compete for equality. It has become clear that this problem affects the whole of society.

Readers dissatisfied with books that focus on the horrible reality of racism rather than on movements against racist attitudes will appreciate Part III of this book. Here, Thomas describes non-racist trends in America and introduces Bahá'í teachings on the issue. Already in the seventeenth century, the majority of the Quakers openly opposed slavery and racism, and several Quakers were involved in the Underground Railroad two centuries later. During the Civil War, black and white soldiers fought together for the North, and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 emphasised the determination of the North to end slavery. In the early twentieth century, biracial organisations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and the National Urban League (NUC) worked for the abolition of racism. The First Universal Races Congress of 1911 (held in London) was attended by NAACP leader W. E. B. DuBois who already then connected the struggle against racism with efforts towards achieving world peace. 'Abdu'l-Bahá sent a message to that conference and encouraged the participants to let their efforts be shown in deeds rather than only through words.

'Abdu'l-Bahá also spoke at the African-American Howard University during his visit to the United States in 1912 and encouraged the interaction between black and white people outside and inside the Bahá'í community. He encouraged interracial marriage, and as a result of his vision, the American Bahá'í community hosted its first racial amity conference in Washington DC in 1921. 'Abdu'l-Bahá demanded that segregation and any form of prejudice be abolished in the community, and an increasing number of believers took the risks involved in living their beliefs without heeding their society's mores. Shoghi Effendi continued to encourage the American community in its efforts. In 1939, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Canada and the United States appointed a Race Unity Committee; among its five members were Louis Gregory, a leading African-American Bahá'í, and Dorothy Beecher Baker, the great-granddaughter of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The committee stressed the role of education and culture, thereby giving parents recommendations for educating their children in the spirit of racial equality and encouraging all to acquaint themselves with African-American culture. At a racial amity meeting in New York in 1924, James Weldon Johnson, a writer, addressed the Bahá'ís and their guests and also appealed to cross-cultural understanding. In 1940, the National Spiritual Assembly held a meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, in order to admonish the community with regard to following the Bahá'í teaching concerning racial unity. Thomas refers to this event as "a watershed in American Bahá'í history" (143). He describes numerous instances of the community's increasing activities promoting racial unity which included working with a growing number of immigrant groups as well as involvement in assisting Native American peoples. Since 1957, the American Bahá'í community has celebrated Race Amity Day on the second Sunday of June. During the turbulent 1960s, the Bahá'ís publicly supported the non-violent civil rights movement by, for example, sending telegrams to President Lyndon B. Johnson and to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and by participating in the 1965 march on Montgomery, Alabama. Similar activities have continued to this day, and Thomas concludes his book by offering the American Bahá'í community as a model of study in the same way that the Universal House of Justice encouraged the world to scrutinise the Bahá'í teachings, its community and administration as offering solutions to a struggling humanity.

Thomas unabashedly portrays racist problems in American Bahá'í history. This approach makes the book all the more suitable for readers who expect a balanced discussion of religious beliefs and community practice. Repeated references to teaching plans and efforts may, however, strike non-Bahá'í readers as bothersome, because those details veer attention away from racism as a global phenomenon towards the expansion of the Bahá'í community. Similarly, the discussion of the relationship between the Bahá'í community and Native Americans could be misunderstood. References to the growing number of Native American believers might give the impression that conversion in the Bahá'í community takes precedence over other concerns.

In the epilogue, Thomas describes "a transformational agenda for racial unity and social progress" which is based on changing each individual's "perceptions and values about people and communities." Although the path towards racial harmony is a stormy one, Thomas describes the tools of healing that are available today: the concept of the unity of humankind, a history of cooperation among diverse people, and interracial friendship. Thomas's book does not only show how racist concepts have been twisted and manipulated by economic and other forces, but he also makes clear that trends towards unity and harmony have long existed. He argues that the Bahá'í community needs unflinchingly to pursue the goal of living up to its teachings so that--with the cooperation of like-minded people--Bahá'u'lláh's vision may be realised before long.

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