Joseph Barndt is not your typical anti-racism advocate. He’s a 73-year-old white man who was raised in an overtly racist family in rural Pennsylvania. Nor does his message echo the anti-racism dialogue that many are used to hearing: He spurns the notion of uplifting minorities, focusing instead on the need for whites to dismantle their own dominant institutions that perpetuate racial inequities.
His views are divisive. Some consider his work enlightening. Others see it as being prejudicial against white people and blaming them for racial injustice. Barndt believes that all white people in the U.S. are racist and no minority could ever be. Yet with his unconventional profile and philosophies that reject norms, Barndt has put forth what some consider some of the most revolutionary anti-racism work of the day.
A Lutheran pastor, Barndt has been active in anti-racism work since the early days of the Civil Rights movement. His personal conversion against racism began during post-graduate work in Germany when he looked at his ancestral roots and gained an understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust. “I wasn’t even aware of racism in the United States in any sense of the word at that time, but I came home with new eyes to see,” Barndt said.
Barndt has lived in Chicago twice in his lifetime. In the mid-1960s, he helped found the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization on the city’s South Side. After periods in Oakland, Calif., and the South Bronx in New York working as a pastor and anti-racism trainer and organizer, Barndt returned to Chicago in the early 1990s when his wife, a fellow pastor, was linked with a parish in Humboldt Park.
For 18 years he directed Crossroads Ministries, a Chicagobased anti-racism training and organizing group that he founded with his wife in 1986. He now is working as a consultant with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond in New Orleans. Both organizations offer anti-racism training in the form of multi-day workshops for institutional leaders and community citizens. “It is extremely important [for] us to be rooted in the realities of the racist communities where we live and work,” Barndt says.
As a white man in the anti-racism community, Barndt says that, initially, he felt like an outsider. In the 1960s, the Black Power movement rejected white help. It was a time when he experienced feelings of disbelief and frustration. Their message to “go home and save your own people” soon brought clarity to Barndt about whites needing to change themselves rather than rescue or assimilate people of color.
Barndt has written several books on racism. In his most recent, “Understanding and Dismantling Racism: The Twenty-First Century Challenge to White America,” he puts forth definitions of racism and racists that have jarring implications. He emphasizes that racism is more than just racial prejudice, which is common to all people. Rather, it lays in the combination of prejudice and the misuse of power by systems and institutions.
Race, according to Barndt, is an arbitrary construct historically implemented by whites in order to legitimize and solidify white power and privilege. Since the colonial era, racism has become so deeply rooted and self-perpetuating–”evolving from official, explicit doctrine to more subtle current manifestations–” that people cannot escape it today. All whites–” who have systemic advantages whether wittingly or not–”are automatically racist, Barndt said. But he believes that no person of color can be racist since they cannot access the power and privilege afforded to whites by dominant institutions.
“We can see that just including people of color into our systems via assimilation is just putting them into a system designed to produce inequality whether they are inside it or outside it,” he said.
Barndt spoke with The Chicago Reporter to talk about his controversial book and the themes he portrays in it about racism and the need for unity.
How can white people be awakened to their inherent racism without making them defensive?
That’s the fundamental question of how you do anti-racism work; it’s what’s behind what we do in our seminars. You need to not just focus on whites as bad guys against people of color, but understand that whites are trapped, too, in the prison of racism. It’s not a matter of blaming whites but of seeing that the systems of racism that perpetuate are killing us, too. Racism makes pawns out of all of us. We need to focus the issue on white people and white systems, but without guilt-tripping white individuals.
Could people of color theoretically be racist in communities where they constitute the majority?
Well, I lived for years in inner-city communities that were more than [majority] African American or Latino or both. The first part of my answer to that question is that as I moved between that community and the white community, I am totally clear that I experienced my white power and privilege more explicitly in that community than amongst whites. The internalized racist oppression of people of color is not hatred and hostility towards the white man; it is expressed as favor and protection. Secondly, the part about all whites being racist is not based on individual power but rather on the institutionalization of power to favor or protect white people. So, if somebody did try and hurt me in the black community, every institution in that community would come down in my favor. Ironically, in a weird way, one could almost measure the progress in the struggle against racism by the degree to which people of color gained the capacity to be racist.
Do you support affirmative action?
When I’m really doing a thorough analysis, one of the most obvious things is that affirmative action is racist in the sense that it does not ultimately deal with the underlying problem of white power and privilege; it just deals with superficial compensation. The fundamental issue, I think, is that the current issue cannot be understood unless one understands that affirmative action already exists everywhere–”but for white people. The affirmative action for people of color as we have experienced it the last 40 years is just the attempt to lessen affirmative action for white people. Every institution favors white people, so as a corrective, affirmative action must be seen as an attack on white power and privilege.
What are some of the most troublesome racerelated problems in Chicago?
One of the first things that comes to mind is residential segregation and all the causes behind that. Alongside of that, probably the worst thing in Chicago that I’m aware of is gentrification. … But more important for me is that you can go to any aspect of any city’s race problems–”whether it be the police or the schools or the city government–”and all of those have to be seen as symptomatic of a deeper issue, which is the denial of the existence of racism.
Which institutions in the city do you see as most influential in combating systemic racism?
Well, I wish the answer would be the church, but I suppose what keeps them from it is the same thing that inhibits almost every other institution on every level. I’ve always been very discouraged by the inability of the people who do community organizing in Chicago to deal with race ideologically. Fundamentally, they kind of steer away from the topic on the principle that you can’t win an issue on race, therefore race is not an issue. They only touch on race in the context of other issues, but they don’t deal with racism as a topic in itself.
Is there a need for greater solidarity between different people of color?
Oh, I couldn’t think of anything more important. I’m not in touch with what’s happening in Chicago right now in that regard. But the importance of people of color joining together in the struggle–” in Chicago, particularly between blacks and Latinos–”and forming a united front for political organizing, that is the number one priority. Progressive whites should also be part of that.
Is there a relationship between capitalism and racism?
I’m a strong socialist and a strong opponent of the capitalist system. But I also think that an understanding of classism requires a historical understanding of the roots of that. A black friend of mine, an African-American studies professor, explains it well by saying, “We understand capitalism because we were the capital.” We need to understand that capitalism is a byproduct of colonialism. It is an economic system in support of colonialism, so that one shouldn’t draw a parallel between classism and racism in this diagram but rather between colonialism and racism. The structure of the capitalist domination of this world was born of the European domination of this world. Colonialism and racism were born as ugly twins, and it has been capitalism as the economic branch of support of them. You can’t understand one without the other.