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TITLERacial Unity: An Imperative for Social Progress, by Richard Thomas: Review
AUTHOR 1Graham Hassall
TITLE_PARENTJournal of Bahá'í Studies
PUB_THISAssociation for Bahá'í Studies North America
NOTES Originally published in Australian Bahá'í Bulletin, May 1993, 10. See also original scan.
CONTENT Title: 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: Graham Hassall

In 1990 the Association for Bahá'í Studies published Richard Thomas’ work Racial Unity: An Imperative For Social Progress. This work was evidently well received, as the Association published this revised edition in 1993. Although race prejudice has afflicted most societies in some form, and across the generations, its perpetuation in the United States throughout the twentieth century has become a major source of community and institutional concern. In addition to causing twangs of regret within American religious and political communities at their roles in the enculturation of slavery during the years of the continent’s settlement, the problem of race now threatens the fabric of American society. Legal, political, religious and philosophic justifications for the separate existence of black and white communities have all been attempted, and discarded. It now remains for American society to embrace diversity, or experience prolonged insurgency and the virtual disintegration of any notion of ‘civil society’.

The problem of racism has been addressed in Bahá'í literature throughout the twentieth century. Firstly, Bahá'í Writings are in a sense premised on the theme of ‘oneness of humanity and hence on the elimination of discrimination and prejudice on grounds of race. The universal Writings of Bahá'u'lláh on this theme are examined and contextualised in those of Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, both of whom spoke and wrote at length of America’s specific challenges. These warnings, whether in Abdu'l-Bahá’s discourses in North America, or in Shoghi Effendi’s 1938 essay Advent of Divine Justice, are fully reviewed in Racial Unity. But Thomas’ analysis performs a far greater service than rehearsing Bahá'í viewpoints. His thesis is that racial unity is an ‘imperative for social progress in the modern world’. To persuade the reader that this is so, he explores the foundations of race relations at the time of America’s founding, and the evidence suggesting extensive inter-racial cooperation in the ancient world. A steady decline in relations between black and white through the articulation of philosophically and religiously-suspect, self-serving, Eurocentric worldviews, has cost civilization dearly, through overt conflict, and through missed opportunities to benefit from the development of human capacities.

Thomas’ argument is that, despite the damage inflicted on American society by the white supremacist views of such founding fathers as Thomas Jefferson, there has existed throughout American history an ‘other tradition’ in race relations, one which persistently advocated multiracialism, and one which is presently being articulated with considerable effect and event greater potential, by the Bahá'í Community.

Race Unity contributes to the Bahá'í literature on race from a number of standpoints. Building on the approach taken by Gail Morrison in her biography of Louis Gregory, Thomas explores the struggles experienced within the Bahá'í Community, as its diverse membership sought to align their beliefs and actions with the Divine principle of racial equality. Early essays by Louis Gregory had reported on inter-racial amity activities undertaken by the North American Bahá'í Community in the 1920s and 1930s, but other essays on race from this time settled for more general expressions of ideals rather than with identification of actual progress, and challenges.

Nathan Rustein gains wide support for describing the ‘spiritual disease’ of racism in North America.

An earlier essay by Thomas combined elements of personal experience with a desire to present the problem of racism - whether inside the Bahá'í Community or beyond it - in historical perspective, and Race Unity similarly includes passages that acknowledge the author’s personal involvement in the events being described. The period commencing in the 1960s in which young Black activist Bahá'ís were ultimately able to control their anger and to channel their energies into the progress of the Bahá'í community appears to have been critical to the Community’s capacity in the 1990s to implement a social program called ‘Models of Racial Unity’ (as no more than an aside: this reviewer awaits with enthusiasm a study of Alain Locke’s relationship with the Bahá'í Community, particularly with his status as an early black philosopher increasing rapidly).

In 1992 the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States published a statement on "The Vision of Race Unity: America's Most Challenging Issue", and in the years since race unity activities undertaken by the North American Bahá'í Community have attracted considerable media attention. Scholarship on Bahá'í responses to issues of race has expanded. Although Race Unity focuses on North America, the existence of similar problems in such other countries as South Africa is acknowledged (although events there, particularly the dismantling of the apartheid legal regime, have considerably overtaken the text). Racism is a global problem, not exclusively a North American one, and Bahá'í Institutions in other countries have conducted education campaigns of their own aimed at mitigating its influence. When Bahá'í Communities elsewhere decide to examine their own responses to this vital issue of race unity, they will of necessity turn to Thomas’ scholarship for inspiration and example.

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