Civil rights expert John A. Powell explores the delicate yet enduring cord between our spiritual practice and social justice.
S&H: It’s been 50 years since the civil rights movement. We’ve elected an African American president. Yet you say we still have a long way to go to assure equality for all.
Powell: We know a lot more than we did in the 1960s and ’70s. We know about the unconscious, and we can measure racial anxiety. Racial anxiety in the country is actually increasing, and a lot of that is unconscious. So even if conscious attitudes are getting better, racial anxiety is actually getting worse. Think about the stop-and-frisk laws in New York. Even though it hasn’t produced what they might call “hits,” like guns or contraband, they stop hundreds of people, and they don’t find anything on them. But it creates a police state, one that is actually serving the anxiety and the interest of a largely white population.
Jim Crow laws regulated people’s behavior, saying who you could marry, where you could live, where you could be buried, where you could eat, who could vote. The assumption was that if you got rid of those restrictions, you’ve gotten rid of the problem. . . . The end of slavery didn’t produce the end of racialized systems. Neither did the end of Jim Crow.
Your work deals largely with institutionalized racism, yet you intertwine this with our understanding of self.
In many parts of Asia, where Buddhism comes from, the concept of self is relational. If you see everything in a relationship, and everything is part of one’s self, one’s identity, then it’s much harder to make people “other.”
Now, we may link Buddhist doctrine to a sense of “no self.” But really, there is no Buddhist doctrine. There is Buddhist practice. Some of us see that as an invitation to engage with what is, as opposed to engaging with what we want things to be and skipping what is. The American view often is to try to skip over a relational self in favor of some transcendental self that’s not touched by experience. So it actually ends up kind of flipping back into a kind of egoistic separation. I think there’s a danger in it, especially in the racial context. There’s tension, even within the Buddhist community, between white Buddhists and Buddhists of color or between any marginalized group and the insider group.
You say that civil rights marchers in the 1960s were beaten by state patrols until they started singing, then the beating stopped. Is this an illustration of “othering?”
When you “other-ize” someone in the extreme, the part of the brain that lights up when you study other beings doesn’t light up. We don’t experience the empathy that we would otherwise feel. So part of what happened in those marches is that the white state patrol was unconsciously denying the humanness of the black marchers. They were seen as loud, they were seen as a threat, they were seen as the Jungian shadow, if you will. When they started singing, the human connection [returned]. The bridge was Christianity. Most of the state patrols were Christians—not necessarily in the sense of going to church every Sunday but in a cultural, profound way.
Once you recognize that another person is a part of you, then the ability to inflict pain upon them goes away; you actually start feeling with the person, which is what compassion is. It’s the way we’re wired.
I call that empathetic space. So the circle of human concern is where empathetic space takes place, and what we want to do is have everyone in that circle and make sure there’s no one outside that circle.
Your father was a Christian minister. How did that impact your work?
I left the church early in life. While my father’s doctrine is Christianity and Christ, his life is profoundly spiritual. There would not be very much difference between the way he lived his life, the way he embraced Christianity, and the way I would consider a fairly enlightened Buddhist or someone coming from another tradition would live. My father is 93 years old, and he’s clearly one of the most spiritual people I know in these terms. And by that I mean one of the most relational people I know.
When Desmond Tutu talks [about his spirituality] he talks about the inability to judge. I see Tutu almost as a Christian mystic, not the way we think about Christians, again, in the U.S. context, in terms of being Evangelical or in terms of doctrine. Because people get stuck on doctrine. In some way the fundamentalism of doctrine drives people apart, whereas practice in very particular ways actually brings people together.
So practice is more important than doctrine or belief?
Yes, and the word “relational.” In some ways, it’s almost not as critical what you believe but what you do and what you practice and experience. You just breathe in and breathe out.
So do you have a spiritual discipline within a particular tradition? It sounds like Buddhism.
Life is spiritual. I think of spirituality as being connected. What a spiritual practice does is help us acknowledge and live that connectivity.
I’ll tell you a story. When I was a young man, I was doing some work, and I was getting frustrated. My dad saw my frustration and asked, “What’s wrong, John?” And I said, “You know, I’m trying to make the world a better place, and I can’t do it by myself. I just feel overwhelmed.” And he said, “You’re never alone. It’s not yours to do by yourself.” And what he was saying was that you’re doing it with God. You’re never doing it alone. Our connectivity is already there. We can do things to facilitate it, to celebrate it. But it’s already there.