Editor’s Note: With all the work there is to be done to dismantle racism, one post is never enough. Therefore, this is the beginning of a series. Please note, while “racism” is multifaceted, these article speak primarily to the relationship between African Americans and whites. We recognize that other forms of racial prejudice exist.
The altar of white supremacy — a lie upon which millions of black lives have been sacrificed throughout history, continually stained with new blood — is a blight on the soul of our nation. The pillars on which it stands – fear, denial, mythology and pathetic narcissism — must be knocked out from under it. It must come tumbling down.
The terrorizing effects of white supremacist ideology were on horrific display for all to see last Wednesday night, when Dylann Roof stood in front of an African American congregation after spending an hour with them in prayer, declared “You’re raping our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” He opened fire and brutally murdered nine congregants, sending a message that echoed and amplified the violent racism we have seen taking the lives of African Americans every month in this country since its founding. “You are not safe anywhere,” the message says. The media is showing all of us what African Americans have already known – that even places of refuge may not be safe in a country founded upon the lie of racial difference.
Yet there are many who want to isolate this tragedy and deny that it is representative of a much deeper, much broader, much more insidious culture of racism. In an interview with the Today show the day after the shooting, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, was quick to suggest that Dylann Roof was a single, hate-filled individual, an aberration in “the holy city,” “the friendliest state in the country.” While the Confederate flag still flies in front of the capital building, while cars with Confederate plates still drive on streets named for Confederate generals, Governor Haley spoke for millions still under the spell of white denial (the fact that she is Indian-American only speaks to the pervasiveness of white mythology infecting every race). “This doesn’t happen here,” she said.
It happens here far too often. “Here” could be Anywhere, USA. The demon of racism sleeps comfortably in the institutions and policies that underlie the foundation of our country. Its permanent footprints are all over neighborhoods designed to contain black mobility and keep African Americans in poverty. It laughs maliciously as African Americans are disproportionately arrested and given far higher sentences for petty, nonviolent offences committed in equal or greater number by their white counterparts. It steals into the hearts of white police officers and vigilantes and guides their fingers upon the trigger of guns. And it rears its ugly head in countless micro and macro aggressions.
Tamir Rice’s appalling murder is particularly revealing in the ways it highlights irrational white fear, fear that was made explicitly clear in the racist screed of Dylann Roof. Officer Timothy Loehmann, who shot Rice less than two seconds after getting out of his squad car, while the vehicle was still running, mistook this 12-year-old boy with a toy for an adult and believed “He gave me no choice.” Tamir was reaching for his own toy gun when shot, possibly to show that it was a toy. Reaching implies that he was not holding it, certainly not pointing it, at the time he died. The officer, filled with a culturally-conditioned fear (among other possible fears), couldn’t even take the time to notice the face of his victim and realize that it was a child.
Trayvon Martin was deemed threatening for wearing a hoodie and walking while black. Michael Brown, according to Darren Wilson, “hulked up like a demon” and charged after being hit with a bullet. The dehumanizing fear that refuses to see people, refuses to see children, is something that, like white privilege, must be called out. But like white privilege, it will be denied.
White denial is bewildering. Do we really imagine that after centuries of brutal, humiliating dehumanization, after laws that kept races separate and unequal in treatment lasting through more than half of the twentieth century, after the pernicious lie of white superiority that has been passed through generations, the sins of our past will just fall away with no devastating consequences?
My racial ancestors brought Africans in chains – packed into ships like animals and treated less humanely – to be property. My race is one that demonized fellow human beings for profit. Darker-skinned people were dehumanized, humiliated, flogged, tortured, and killed, and their labor built this nation. Brutality and discrimination followed emancipation, with Jim Crow segregation and lynchings that lasted late into the twentieth century. Black people were sectioned off like lepers, whites refusing to share neighborhoods, schools, bathrooms, or even drinking fountains with them. Sunday after-church picnics that included the hanging, burning and dismemberment of black men regularly drew crowds from in and out of town.
All of this is universal knowledge. And yet far too many white people refuse to acknowledge the vast racial disparities and injustices that continually spring from this brutal, not-too-distant history.
Less is known about the ways in which racism is built into the very structure and economy of modern American life. Less is known about strategic decisions that are made that keep black lives devalued. Black lives matter “as a source of economic exploitation,” as Paul Street writes for Counterpunch.org. Citing the vast disparities in arrests and sentences for African Americans versus whites, despite similar rates of “crime” (mostly nonviolent drug use), Paul goes on to explain how African Americans, by and large, are the “raw materials” of an over $200 billion prison industry. This is how black lives matter to an impersonal economic system built by real attitudes of white fear and prejudice. Little is also known about the ways in which black lives are purposefully pushed aside for “development.” As Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report declares:
The dynamics of racism in a capitalist society demand that people of color – and especially black people – be largely removed from an area as a condition for investment in that area. … White does not just convey privilege; it also conveys value in US society. The added value of whiteness is embedded in things that are bought and sold in US society. … Racism is so embedded in American society… it’s like a part of the furniture. It’s just there, like it’s hot or it’s humid… no, it’s racist.
By virtue of white skin passed along to me through many generations, I have experienced comforts deliberately cut off from many African Americans. The net monetary value of my household has been larger than that of the average black household not because my ancestors have worked harder, but because they were allowed education, jobs, wages, housing opportunities, etc., denied to black people for generations. All of these advantages are still out of reach for many African Americans despite change in the letter of the law, because change in laws does not constitute proper reparations and “white value” remains a determining factor in investment.
And I haven’t even begun to talk about the lack of fear I experience in general when I interact with police officers. I may worry for my children, but I don’t worry that the very people whose job it is to protect them will arrest, humiliate, or kill them. As I strive to find the right ways to tell my daughters about the evils of racism in this country, I haven’t been forced into a conversation before they, or I, am ready, as far too many African American families are.
White privilege is real. I have benefited from it, while some of my friends have suffered because of it. As my colleague Adam Ericksen says to all of his white readers, “I am racist and so are you,” not because we are bigots – not because we have individual animosity – but because we have been born into privilege in a nation built on racial inequality. We are as vulnerable to racism as we are to original sin; it is an inexorable fact. I acknowledge racism and white privilege not to wallow in guilt but to move forward along a path of reparation and reconciliation. Yet to give up white privilege is impossible for an individual; it must necessarily be a communal process of people of all shades working together to dismantle our current societal structure and rebuild on a foundation of equity our nation has not yet seen.
How do we go about this process together? As a white person, I know my job is to listen more than it is to speak, to form more relationships across racial divides and become ever more aware, through the stories of my African American brothers and sisters, of the terrible evils racism continues to foster. Yet I also have ideas to share in my next few articles, both theological and political. I want to explore the harmful Christian theological ideas that have contributed to the infamous legacy of slavery and white ideology in order to expose any toxic remnants and replace them with a healthier, more healing hermeneutic. I want to shed light on the lie of “heritage not hate,” and explore how our national narratives undermine the suffering of African Americans. I want to look at practical methods of social and economic healing. But first, I want to more deeply examine the phenomenon of white fear, which I think is seriously undermining any progress. Your ideas, dear readers, may well contribute to some articles in this series. Please join the dialogue; these conversations are long overdue.