As tensions grow amid police shootings of young black men and a presidential campaign rife with allegations of racism, many people are calling for a more honest conversation about race in America.

One pastor in Sunnyvale, Calif. is offering a venue to get people talking: Racists Anonymous.

With the familiar backdrop of a 12-step program — folding chairs, burned coffee, the Serenity Prayer — people can explore the often uncharted terrain of their own feelings about race, said Ron Buford, pastor of the Congregational Community Church in Sunnyvale.

“The first step is that you have to acknowledge that you have a problem,” he said. “That is something that we as Americans don’t want to do.”

Most conversations about race involve people talking about who is the most racist, he said. In reality, racism is everywhere. “We all swim in this culture of racism. It’s impossible to not be racist to some degree.”

With a 12-step program, he said people can become more aware of their own racist thinking or behavior and start to change it.

The Sunnyvale program started in 2015, following headlines of police shootings and Dylann Roof’s shooting rampage at a historically black church in Charleston. About a dozen people began meeting every Thursday. Since then, as tensions have intensified along with increasingly racially charged campaign rhetoric, more than 30 other churches have requested materials to start their own groups — from Baltimore to Coral Gables, Fla.

Buford, who is African American, said a person of any race could benefit from the 12-step format for self-reflection. The Sunnyvale group includes members who are white, black and Asian. Most participants so far have been white. 

They go through the 12 steps, starting with the first one: “I have come to admit that I am powerless over my addiction to racism in ways I am unable to recognize fully, let alone manage.”

Other steps include making a list of people that you have harmed and making amends, as well as taking personal inventory on when you have behaved wrongly, and admitting it.

During a confidential hour, people share their thoughts and experiences with race, including racist feelings or thoughts they have in the course of their daily lives. White group members have talked about watching a person of color being mistreated at a dog park or grocery store and doing nothing to help, or exploring whether they would be comfortable selling their house to a black person.

Eventually, Buford imagines a network stretching across the country, so that, like Alcoholics Anonymous, people can drop into an RA meeting wherever they go.

The barrier to growth is steep, though. Not too many people are willing to sit down in front of a group, and say “Hi, My name is Ron, and I’m a racist,” he said. “A lot are not convinced, but they become convinced over time.”

The introduction is optional at a group that began meeting this summer in Concord, North Carolina. “People are in different places,” said Rev. Nathan King at the Trinity United Church of Christ, a church with a mostly-white congregation and a social justice orientation.  “Some say, ‘I’m a racist. Or they say, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m not sure.'”

Stephen Mosier, a 74-year old retired college administrator, felt okay donning the label.

“We have all got some residual racism in us no matter how good we think we are at it,” he said.

Mosier grew up during segregation in rural Virginia, then became involved in the civil rights movement as a college student.

“Most people thought racism was fading away with the generational distance, but you read the news now, and it’s getting worse,” he said. 

Attending the 12-step meetings has made him think about the way race plays into his thinking.

For example, he found himself driving up behind an expensive car recently, and then looking to see if the driver was black or white. “That should not be the first thing that popped into my mind,” he said.

He also began thinking about his friendships and wondering whether his relationships with black friends are “color-blind:” “Do I act the same with my black and white friends? Do I share with them the same way?”

This kind of questioning could make a lasting difference, Buford said.

“AA says you are an alcoholic forever. I actually think it’s probably true with racism,” he said.

But if people can become more aware of their own racist thoughts, they will be less likely to model them and pass them down to their children and grandchildren, he said.

“The hope is for future generations,” he said.

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