Note: I am taking some risks here, so I ask for your patience and compassion as I continue to sort out in my own mind, albeit publicly, these thoughts on race, racism, and my faith. At the same time, I invite your comments, ponderments, and wonderments. I have written about issues of race several times before on this blog (you can see them here.. During this Advent season, I am wrestling a lot with issues of justice and what it means to be community in the context of celebrating the indwelling and incarnation of God’s Holy Spirit in Jesus and in Jesus’ followers. I have been preaching a sermon series on what it means to be “a called people” as followers of Jesus. It has led me back to many of the same issues I have been sharing in my sermons for the past several years, which includes issues of race and race-relations. I invite people to wrestle with me, especially my sisters and brothers of races other than my own. I thank you, in advance, for your patience with me.
Almost fifty years ago the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., asked the same question in his third and final book, published the year before he was shot on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis: Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?. In that book, he writes honestly and truthfully:
Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe thye have so little to learn.”1
The inculturation of the false notion of white superiority has resulted in a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) sense of white “normalcy” in American culture. We often talk of “race” (itself a false notion according to many scholars) in relation to whiteness: e.g., white and non-white. When describing a person, we rarely describe a white person as “white,” yet we regularly describe a black or hispanic or Asian person by their race. The assumption in most stories is white—thus, white is “normal” or implied unless otherwise noted. Is this a mere refection of white people (non-Hispanic) being a majority in the U.S. (though not for long)? Or is there something more going on? This is a justice issue, for white people as well for white people seem to be operating in a constant defensive posture.
We need to ask ourselves, especially those of us who are white, what is the price we are assuming for justice? What is the price for justice for our black, Hispanic, Latino/a, African, Middle Eastern, LGBTQ and Asian sisters and brothers? We may even ask ourselves if certain regions of our country are deemed “normal” to the exclusion or differentiation of others. I fear the truth because it calls into question my own motivations as a white heterosexual male, born and raised in Southern California, though I’ve lived in northern California (which is quite different from southern), Dayton, Ohio, and in Western New York.
The cost for me, and those who look or live like me, is the long-standing hierarchy of birth rite privilege, in order: white, male, heterosexual. This privilege puts me at the top of the unearned and often assumed hierarchy of privilege. If we add “wealth” or “access to resources” to the equation I fall far below the top, but I still land in the upper portions of that hierarchy of privilege due to my upbringing. We must remember, there are strata even in the top half of any strata. Privilege means, first, power, and second, voice, with access and social influence resulting (the ability to effect change, either speeding it up or slowing down as it suits my purposes of maintaining my social power and influence).
However, the tide is changing, much to the consternation of those who are desperate to maintain their privilege, even if it means finding creative ways to keep others below them. It will not be long before the white male is no longer in the majority and is taken off his pedestal of privilege. Those beneath us on the social strata are climbing (or, more aptly, our pedestal is slowly getting cut away). People have had enough—blacks, Hispanics, Latinos/as, Asians, Middle Easterners, and even other whites! The war against poverty, the war against racism, is becoming violent again as some of the wealthy white males entrench themselves in some warped replay of the western front of World War I. Except, now, we find the white males (and some females who have fought their way to the top) are fighting an old war in a new era.
The speed of social media is outsmarting and outrunning the old weapons of wealth and power. The battle field is leveling. It is a new fight, a new kind of war. And this time, I’m thinking, the devastation to the status quo will hardly compare to the significant strides made during the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. Sadly, my fear is that his tenacious faithfulness to nonviolence is not shared among many of the post-modern change makers (even some of his contemporaries felt nonviolent resistance did not move things fast enough and resorted to violent protest). I fear this is going to get bloodier than it already is and has been. Add the Islamophobic element to the mix, and the motivation of white fear will, if not already, be acted upon even by the most liberal and progressive among us.
My prayers have become more fervent in this latest wave of fear-mongering, resulting in presidential candidates calling for the uncompassionate and inhumane closing of U.S. borders to all Muslims (though no equal call for closing the borders to radical and violent Christian elements has come forth). May God help us and heal us of our fears of one another. May God heal us of our prejudice, our systematic and often subtle subjugation of one another based on false indicators of “friend” or “enemy”. May God heal us of our wounds inflicted and received, and our past and future violence against one another. I pray change does not have to happen through bloodshed, but history does not give me much hope—I fear it is the only way we know how to effect significant change, for we are a stubborn species, slow to change until our fearful tendencies force us to do so for survival (then again, even survival may not be enough to pierce the armor of our pride, if climate change is an indicator).
The great majority of Americans are … uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it. … Cries of Black Power and riots are not the causes of white resistance, they are consequences of it.2
Though King wrote this nearly fifty years ago, couldn’t it be said today? Rather than “Black Power,” might we replace it with #BlackLivesMatter? While the tendency, especially among white people, is to say “All Lives Matter,” I recently heard people say, and I repeated in my sermons of late, that we cannot say “All Lives Matter” until we start living and behaving like black lives really do matter. I, for one, am trying to seriously consider what this means in my life and the lives of my family.
1. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, The King Legacy, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2010), Kindle Edition, loc. 321, a reprint of the original printed in 1967.
2.Ibid., loc. 350, 355.