I am writing this to my fellow white friends, and especially my fellow white Christians. We need to start listening and we need to start acting.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is now a household name in our country. In the last week, this church has gone from being known by its local community to being known by many across America. We recount with shock the terroristic act that left nine people dead inside of a church where they had gathered to study the Bible and pray. We remember the 9 who were murdered: Cynthia Hurd, Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons Sr, and Myra Thompson. We wonder with horror how a 21 year old man could sit for nearly an hour in a church with people he was planning to kill. The act would be terrible enough if it were the isolated incident of a mentally unstable person, but it is not. Again, our history is marred by a white person asserting dominance over brown and black bodies. Again, we are reminded that we live in a culture that continues to feed the festering disease of racism.
We like to imagine that these days are a distant memory. After all, slavery is no longer an institution in this country (at least not in the sense that it once was, though now we have a huge issue with sex trafficking), and citizens of every ethnicity now have the same legal rights. And yet, racism and prejudice are not gone. They are not anywhere close to gone, and black bodies should no longer have to bear the burden of seeking justice, as quite literally they have for hundreds of years in beatings and rapes and killings. They never should have had to bear the burden at all.
I’ve written before on how hard it is sometimes to see these things from the perspective of white privilege, and in West Virginia in particular, I have heard many white people resist this concept of “white privilege”. Many say, “I don’t believe in white privilege. I have come from a poor family, and often don’t have the same advantages that others might. In fact, because I’m white, I am way less likely to get a scholarship to a good school because of affirmative action.” While I can certainly understand this sentiment and that West Virginia in particular has a history of poor white people being exploited by corporations and coal companies, the concept of “privilege” is a spectrum. Perhaps you have been judged or held back in life because of where you are from or how you were educated. I do not in any way want to diminish your own experience of injustice. Injustice is injustice, period. However, each of us needs to stop and consider injustices that are inflicted upon others as well, and recognize that we may be contributing to or participating in systems that allow racism to persist.
Racism is not simply about personal attitudes that we have towards people with different skin tones. Racism is greater than a feeling of dislike. We are tempted to reduce racism to individual feelings one might have towards another. This is not what racism is. Racism is systemic. Our good intentions are irrelevant if there are written and unwritten rules and practices in our society that give advantages to one group of people over another. Here are just a few charts to help demonstrate that we are far from a post-racial society:
Disparity between wealth of white and non-white Americans
A widening wealth-gap in the post-Civil Rights era
Black and Latino students are more likely to attend poorly funded schools
School segregation is still widespread
White Americans use drugs more than black Americans, but black Americans are arrested more than 3 times as often as white Americans
Black men receive prison sentences 19.5 percent longer than those of white men who commit similar crimes
These charts and more can be found here.
These graphs indicate a huge problem of which some of us (white people) have been able to remain ignorant. I myself remained ignorant for much of my life. I grew up believing that the Civil Rights era had brought an end to the institution of racism and that it was a thing of the past or a thing only reserved for the infrequent lone crazie or fringe extremist group. I grew up in a high school that was not racially segregated, with black, and Asian and Indian friends. I cannot recall witnessing any incident or encounter that was overtly racist. Likely, that was due to my ignorance and my belief in the myth that racism was a thing of the past. It wasn’t something that I thought about on a regular basis. I truly believed that racist actions or words were the outliers of our culture.
It wasn’t until I was in seminary in Durham, NC that I began to see that racism very clearly did still exist. I started to hear about experiences of my black friends. I started to hear about words that were spoken to them, or opportunities denied to them or to their family members, about the way that racial jokes or stereotypes hurt them, and even about violence inflicted upon them. I started to recognize that their grievances were not occasional or infrequent occurrences, but that they were weekly or daily. It was in seminary where I first began to understand the relationship between race and poverty as I lived on the edge of a gentrified neighborhood near Duke’s East Campus. The area where I lived was a “reclaimed” and “rejuvenated” area where mostly wealthy white people lived who were associated with the university. I rented an apartment from a Duke professor. Just a block or two away from where I lived was a much more run-down part of Durham, which was a predominantly black neighborhood. Occasionally I could hear gun shots from my apartment. There was such a sharp divide in population and standard of living just a couple of blocks from my apartment. Witnessing this divide continued to open up my eyes. At Duke, I took classes looking at race through the lens of theology. I grew to understand racism as not simply a human rights problem, but as a theological problem. I started to learn the ways in which the Bible has been historically used to subject black bodies, Jewish bodies, and other non-white bodies to injustice, to torture, and to death.
I am still discovering the reality of racism in our country, but because I am a white, middle-class woman with 3 degrees, job security and I have never had to experience the damage of racism, I have the option to turn a blind eye and to ignore the plight of some of our fellow Americans. I can feel anger and write these words, but then I have the option of continuing my day without having to think about what is happening to my brothers and sisters of a different color if I don’t want to. Friends, that is fundamentally screwed up, and yet it is true. I imagine that is true for many of us. Our willful blindness only leads to destruction.
I certainly don’t have concrete answers to what we need to do, but white friends, we need to hear the black community. They are our sisters and brothers. We need to listen to the anger. We need to recognize that there is anger for a reason. We need to listen to their cries for justice where there is no justice. We need to seek to understand their experiences. Their experiences are not our own and we cannot dismiss them or try to critique them as if they are our own. We need to recognize the need for reparations, rather than coating our words with the language of reconciliation. When such injustice exists, true reconciliation can only come when justice is sought and found. Otherwise, the language of reconciliation only becomes another tool of the privileged to maintain and to force those suffering injustice to simply accept their plight.
Perhaps, you, like me, have gone through much of your life truly ignorant to the reality of racism in our country. if, however, you have read this far, you can no longer claim true ignorance. So now the next step is to seek to educate yourself through reading, through conversation, through prayer, and through Scripture.
To start reading, check out this pretty comprehensive reading list (and start with the op-ed recommendations).
Here are three more helpful articles: “White Fragility: Why it’s so hard to talk to white people about racism”, “11 Ways White America Avoids Taking Responsibility for its Racism”, and “4 Terrible Reasons not to Talk about Racism”
I will end this piece with these words from a post I made back in August after the murder of Michael Brown that are just as true today as they were then:
In our baptismal liturgy, when a person is baptized, confirmed, or joins the church, the vows that they make, ones that I made, are to:
“renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin”,
“accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,”
“confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, to put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.”
If you are a member of this congregation or of a United Methodist Church, you have made these vows. Let these promises you have made take root in your heart. As I confront the seeds of injustice and racism within my own heart, I ask God to give me the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression. I repent of and renounce my internalized and hidden bigotry. I ask for forgiveness from my black brothers and sisters (but especially my black brothers) for letting those seeds of injustice exist in my heart. I ask God to help me be a witness for Jesus, the anointed one, who works to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight to the blind, and for the liberation of the oppressed.
In my life, I have always come from a place of white privilege. I have been able to go through life with a blind eye to injustice around me. It has never been an intentional blind eye, but rather, because I haven’t experienced injustice due to my skin color, economic status, sexuality, or anything else, it is easy for me to just move through life in my own comfortable bubble. But church, we have brothers and sisters out there who don’t get to do that. We have brothers and sisters who, every day, have to fear being arrested, beaten, or killed because of what they look like or how they live. That is messed up. That is injustice. That is sin. And we, as the Body of Christ, cannot stand for that. When one part of the Body suffers, the whole Body suffers.
I do not know what it is like to face racial prejudice at the systemic level. I do not know what it is like for Michael Brown’s family, or Trayvon Martin’s family, or any of the families of other men and women whose lives were not valued enough to not kill. I do know that something needs to change, and that you and I, as the Body of Christ, need to be a part of that change. I do know that we need to not only repent of the sin within our own hearts, but we need to work to demolish the systems of injustice that hurt our brothers and sisters. Church, we have work to do: work within ourselves, and work in the world around us. Please take time over the coming weeks to pray with me for God’s justice to be known in our own hearts and in our world.
The days of willful ignorance must end. May we open ourselves up to the redeeming work of seeking God’s justice.