A Bahá’í perspective on reckoning with racism By Randolph Dobbs
Public outrage following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to global demonstrations in the name of justice. Now as we all struggle to find our way toward a more equitable and compassionate society, government agencies and institutions have issued statements on the subject of racism. This is the story of one such statement, written on behalf of the governing religious institution for the Bahá’í Faith in Los Angeles, for which I serve as secretary.
Los Angeles has a special relationship with racism, so let’s start there. A sleepy pueblo in the late 18th century, LA’s legacy of Hispanic culture was later marginalized by the oil exploration and land development of the late 19th century followed by the 20th century moving-pictures entertainment revolution. The city grew by from 100,000 in 1900 to 1.2 million by 1930.
By the Second World War, prejudice had divided Los Angeles along racial and ethnic differences. In June of 1943, the city was stunned by the Zoot Suit Riots. American service men on leave during World War II were joined by white Americans in attacking Latinos and, later, pretty much anyone else wearing the over-sized, flamboyant zoot suits, then fashionable among minorities but originating in the black community as a statement of self-expression. No one is really sure how the riots of 1943 started but, like today’s protests, they seem to be related to the wrongful death of an individual, in this case a young Latino killed in a Los Angeles suburb the year before.
As Mark Twain allegedly observed, “History may not repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Since the Zoot Suit Riots, every generation since has witnessed a serial episode of civil unrest. The Watts Riots of 1965, then the Uprising of 1992 that followed the acquittal of police officers on trial for excessive force in the arrest of Rodney King. Today, yet another generation later, our city is witness to the largely peaceful demonstrations following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
There have been any number of reflex responses to the George Floyd tragedy from government agencies, interfaith organizations and universities. These are all well-intended and most welcome. But the reality is racism is an uncomfortable civic conversation. Even grammar can be discriminatory. We don’t agree on capitalization, for example. We might write Black, signifying a segment of society that identifies itself by color, but one rarely sees white capitalized in the same way unless it’s in reference to white supremacy.
The statement our religious institution wanted to share with others needed to be more than an inventory of LA’s riots. We wanted to outline the problem, express our concern but also identify a basis for working toward a resolution; something that might address the pain of others but also empathize with the outrage. Rage is no substitute for discourse but, then again, protests are entirely appropriate in the face of systemic injustice.
“There is only one race, the human race.” You may have seen this sentiment expressed elsewhere or maybe even as a bumper-sticker, but the phrase originates with the Bahá’í Faith. Bahá’ís believe that with a deeper understanding of humanity’s oneness, we can all begin to view our diverse interests as really being complementary. Without this understanding of unity, people become mired in conflict and view success only in the most limited way. Of course, noble thoughts by themselves are not enough—they must be translated into action. The truth that humanity is one needs to be consistently promoted and universally accepted. Ultimately, we are all companions on a shared path towards justice.
With over 3,000 congregants, LA has the largest Bahá’í community on the North American continent. The governing Bahá’í institution on which I serve is called a Spiritual Assembly. Like every other city or township, there are nine members of the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Los Angeles. They are elected by the general membership, by secret ballot, without a process of nomination. Its statement on racism can be accessed here.
Randolph Dobbs was born in Oakland, California, and raised in Salinas near Monterey where he attended Hartnell College. Dobbs is a member of the Regional Bahá’í Council of the State of California. He was elected to the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Los Angeles in the mid-90’s and serves as its secretary. He is a past-president of the Inter-Religious Council of Southern California and serves on its Executive Committee as well as the Advisory Board of the Guibord Center – Religion Inside Out. In addition to serving as a religious director in the Office of Religious Life at USC, he is also a member of the Board of Directors of the University Religious Conference at UCLA and part of the Interfaith Collective in the Mayor’s Office for the City of Los Angeles. His articles on religious matters appear on various websites including Examiner.com, Beliefnet.com, Iranian.com and Iranshahr.com, Iranpresswatch.org and Bahais.us.