Misunderstanding My Black Friendships

Misunderstanding My Black Friendships

My first encounter with a black person was at the age of 14 when I entered high school.  Up until then – while it probably occurred – I have no memory of meeting a black person.  In 1974, when I was a freshman in high school, our town – like many in rural America then and now – was nearly 100% white.  Our high school had a single black student – Michael Johnson – whose name I remember precisely because he was unique.

This is what I remember about Michael.  He was a good basketball player, one of the stars of our team.  He was quiet, polite, neatly dressed and always smiling.  If I ever said anything other than “hello” to Michael, I don’t recall.  Indeed, I don’t remember anyone at our school ever saying much to Michael other than “hello” and “good game.”  When we graduated, I have no idea what became of Michael.  Indeed, I haven’t thought much about him until recently.

This week, I was trying to determine when I first had a black friend.  I was acquainted with a few black students at college, but with no one I would call friend.  I interacted more closely with a couple of black peers in grad school, but mostly in the classroom.  I eventually made a couple of closer friendships in my early 30’s through our church, where a few black folk attended.  I would have called Rick my first close black friend.  He and I had lunch periodically, attended movies and worked on church projects together. His family had dinner at our home.

Looking back, Rick and I never spoke about racism.  I never asked him about his experiences as a black man in America.  I treated him as if he wasn’t black, as if the color of skin was irrelevant to our relationship, even while thinking our friendship proof of my enlightenment.  I was proud of having such a close black friend.  Rick was humble, generous, funny and always smiling.

Always smiling.

Over the last few years, I have finally developed a few genuine relationships with black men and women.  These are relationships in which we talk about race.  Sometimes they allow me to see and hear their rage, sadness, frustration and even their suspicion of me.  They challenge me about my words, attitudes and actions.  They have helped me understand something I never understood – I never really knew Rick.

Michael and Rick were black people operating in largely white environments where it wasn’t wise or safe for them to reveal their true personality.  Michael may have been quiet, polite and happy, but I suspect that behavior was more expediency than transparency.  I wonder what he was like when he attended his family reunion.  Rick may have been humble, generous, and funny, but I suspect he’d also learned how to make white people like me comfortable.

Eventually, Rick and I drifted apart.  Looking back, I worry much of that growing distance was about my discomfort.  I remember thinking and saying that Rick had changed.  Did he really change or did I finally see the more authentic Rick and find that less palatable?

When we talk about the racial divide in America, we need to understand how few genuine relationships between black and white people actually exist.  A recent study found 80% of white Americans do not have a significant relationship with a person of color.  In the rural towns where I grew up, the figure was 100%.  But, even in urban settings, our neighborhoods, schools, parks, churches and social institutions are largely segregated.  There are few genuinely organic opportunities for black and white people to become friends.

This leaves many white people open to a gross misunderstanding.  Most of our encounters with black people are on “white turf” where black people present not as they are, but as they know we wish them to be – quiet, polite, humble, generous and always smiling.  Paradoxically, most of our encounters with black people from a distance – through media or external observation – are of black people who are loud, assertive, self-possessed, proud and sometimes angry.  What we don’t understand is many of those black people are the same people.  It never occurs to us that black people are as emotionally complex as white people.

We misunderstand because – when it comes to race – we’ve never had to present two versions of ourselves to the world.  We are free to be our white selves in each and every situation and encounter.  This white privilege means I can present my true self to the police officer, to the judge, to my teacher, to my employer and to my friends without fear of consequence.  I can be my white self when I encounter black people, aware that if anyone is going to have to adjust their behavior, it will not be me.  They must make me comfortable.

This reality is central to our present racial divides.  Those black people who bravely present as themselves often face censure, threat and attack.  Therefore, most black people continue to operate in two worlds, of which only one allows them to be genuine.  Many black people allow us to think we’re friends, presenting whatever they think we need to be comfortable.  In the present racial climate, though sad, that is a time tested strategy for survival.

While I am convinced cross-racial friendships are essential to changing our society, I am aware of who bears the most risk in that work. I deeply appreciate the black men and women who have befriended me in recent years.  I no longer see them as evidence of my enlightenment.  I see them as courageous in their trust of me.  I am also thankful for their willingness to make me uncomfortable.

They don’t always smile at me.

 

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Potholes and Privilege

Potholes and Privilege

I’m tired of white, suburban people complaining about the potholes in Indianapolis.

Not because potholes aren’t a problem.  After two months of freeze and thaw, many Indianapolis streets are rutted with bone jolting potholes that can destroy a tire and ruin a car’s alignment.  I, too, wish that the city would repair these streets, but my frustration is with the inability of many white people to see the obvious – potholes are evidence of white privilege.

Indeed, the people complaining about potholes are almost always white commuters.  They drive in each day from suburban, white enclaves to work or play in Indianapolis.  They use roads they do not pay taxes to maintain.  They speed through neighborhoods of color where many cannot afford to own vehicles.  They drive big SUVs that damage the very roads they complain about.  Each night, they return to their communities of privilege.

They often say, “I’m always relieved when I finally drive out of the city and onto good roads.” They never acknowledge that “good” roads along with “good” schools, “good” neighborhoods and “good” parks are almost always roads, schools, neighborhoods and parks for white people.  Indeed, we live in a society where “good” is too often synonymous with white.  Sadly, the number of potholes on a given street is a fairly accurate indication of how many people of color live on that street.

Recently, I had to drive from the center of Indianapolis into the suburbs.  My journey began on West 10th Street in a largely black neighborhood and ended on W. 86th Street in an upper middle class white enclave.  As I drove north, I noticed the streets becoming less and less broken.  Indeed, on 86th Street, I no longer worried about potholes.  I was driving on smooth, privileged roads.  As I drove back into the city that night, I had to become more and more vigilant for potholes.

Vigilance is the opposite of white privilege.  The privileged person can navigate both streets and life without much concern.  They can expect their path to be smooth and obstacles to be removed.  When they complain, their complaints will be taken seriously and quickly addressed.  In contrast, the person of color must navigate both streets and life with careful vigilance, never certain where the potholes will be.  They can expect the way to be difficult and sometimes impassible.  They know their complaints will be ignored.  Indeed, they will be blamed for the injustices they encounter.

One of my white friends asked, “Why can’t Indianapolis maintain its streets?”  He asked his question as if the deficiency was with the city and its people, as if he played no role in the condition of the very streets he uses every day.  There was no acknowledgment that these streets were built over a hundred years ago, that the maintenance of these streets is much more expensive than those in his neighborhood, that the streets in his community aren’t used daily by people who don’t live in that community, that he never contributes to the costs of repairing these streets, and that “Indianapolis” is really code for “people of color” in his complaint.

One of the privileges of being white is the privilege of critiquing your victims. The main reason the streets of Indianapolis are so potholed is because sixty years ago racist white people fled in mass to the suburban counties to build new homes, streets, businesses and parks in white enclaves.  They left economically struggling families of color with their old houses, old streets, old businesses and old parks.  The potholed streets are the streets they discarded.

For this reason, their complaints ring hollow and their pride in their streets is unjust. They act as if their good suburban streets were built the same year, deal with the same traffic and have the same resources for maintenance as those potholed city streets.  They pretend their privileged streets are indicators of their moral superiority.  They brag that they take care of their streets.

That, of course, is not community pride.  It is racist bullshit.

This is problem with white privilege.  It allows us to justify inequity, to ignore injustice, to blame our victims and to sustain the pretense of moral superiority.  If we can to that with potholes, can you imagine what we do on more important issues?

As with most things in our society, we who are white have a choice.  The next time we hit a pothole we can complain of that street and its inhabitants or we can examine our role and responsibility in the condition of those streets.  Maybe if we can learn to do that with potholes, we can eventually graduate to examining the privilege in our schools, neighborhoods, businesses and parks.

At the very least, maybe we can use hitting potholes as a moment to reflect on our white privilege.

The Faces of White Supremacy

The Faces of White Supremacy

Once a year, the Indianapolis Monthly publishes a magazine supplement on racism in our city.  Each year, it graphically exposes white power and privilege in central Indiana.  Though this may sound admirable and courageous, it is not.  Indeed, I doubt the magazine has any idea that their “Faces of Indy” supplement is a compelling argument for white supremacy.

According to its introduction, the Faces of Indy supplement is forty pages of head shots and group photos of “our neighbors and community.”  Unfortunately, if you used the Faces of Indy as a snapshot of our city, you’d come to some racially inaccurate conclusions about our demographics.  Of the 311 faces in the supplement, only eighteen are black and eight of those are on a single page celebrating a social service organization.  In other words, in a city where 28% of the population is black, less than 6% of the pictures are of black men and women.

Sadly, while the Faces of Indy supplement is demographically false, it is sociologically accurate.  White people do control the levers of wealth and power in the city of Indianapolis.  For example, page seven celebrates the faces of wealth management with thirteen faces of white men and women.  The faces of financial services on page thirty-two are all white.  There are forty-one faces of neurosurgery in Indianapolis, of which only one is black.

Some might argue these disparities represent social, economic and educational differences rather than racial discrimination. Unfortunately, the photos demonstrate a much bleaker racial landscape.  For example, page ten celebrates the faces of stone cutting – hardly a high status profession – with forty-two faces, of which only two are black.  The faces of catering are eleven white men and women.

In fairness to the magazine, this supplement is basically an advertising piece in which people “earn” their notoriety by purchasing a page.  However, by presenting it as the faces of Indy, the editorial staff is perpetuating what the supplement implies – white people are “our neighbors and community” and black people are invisible and inconsequential.  Whether this is intentional or not is irrelevant, such journalism is indefensible, though some will try.  Indeed, whites often argue the absence of black faces is the fault of black people.

Consider the single black neurosurgeon.  While exact statistics are difficult to find, the number of black neurosurgeons in the US is estimated at less than 2%, of which only 9 are black females.  Why is this the case?  Many whites would argue neurosurgeons are carefully vetted and screened based and aptitude and intelligence, that we want only “the best and brightest” working in this highly skilled and honored occupation.  According to this racist trope, the absence of black neurosurgeons is evidence of black inferiority – blacks are simply not intelligent enough for this prestigious occupation.

However, our present system of recruiting, training and elevating neurosurgeons does not give us the “best and the brightest.”  If we assume – which I do – that the same percentage of black men and women have the intelligence necessary to excel in neurosurgery as in the white population, we should expect 12% percent of all neurosurgeons to be black.  Since they are not proportionally represented, we should also assume the over representation of white neurosurgeons means our present neurosurgeons are not the best and the brightest.  They are the whitest.   The criteria for who we allow to operate on our brains is partially skin color.

Ironically, white supremacy creates an inferior society, one in which many white people gain undeserved positions of power and influence at the expense of black people who, if the given equal opportunity, could contribute more to our society.  While white people often wax poetic about American meritocracy, in actuality, we’ve created a system where the merits of a black person are often ignored, consciously and unconsciously.  Indeed, those occupations where black faces abound are as damning as those where they are absent.

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the following list represents where blacks are significantly over represented – 30% or more – in an occupation:

  • Bus drivers (30%)
  • Barbers (31%)
  • Postal workers (34%)
  • Home health care providers (35%)
  • NBA and NFL players (71%)
  • Bestselling musical artists (81%)

In other words, in a white supremacist society, black people are allowed to entertain us, drive us, cut our hair, deliver our mail and wipe our butts.  The abundance of black faces in these occupations represents our continued desire for black people to serve white people, even if this is to the detriment of our society.  After all, a few of these bus drivers, barbers, postal workers and entertainers may be the neurosurgeons we’re missing.

In contrast, the following list represents where blacks are significantly underrepresented – 5% or less – in an occupation:

  • Farm owners (1%)
  • Aircraft pilots (3%)
  • Construction managers (3%)
  • Architects (4%)
  • Lawyers (5%)
  • Millwrights (5%)

In other words, white people dominate our land, our skies, what our society builds and designs, our legal systems and even the most prestigious positions – millwrighting – on our factory floors.  The absence of black faces in these occupations is not accidental.  It is how we maintain white supremacy.

When I handed the Faces of Indy supplement to my daughter and asked her to leaf through it and tell me what she thought, it took her all of ten seconds to reply, “There are no people like me.”  For that reason alone, the Faces of Indy – regardless of the editor’s intent – is a white supremacist propaganda piece.  That is does so in such a subtle manner makes it even more inexcusable.  When a KKK publication demonizes black faces, both black and white people join in condemnation.  When a respected magazine ignores black faces, white people are oblivious and black people are reminded once again of their powerlessness, invisibility, and insignificance in our community.

Next year, I am going to purchase a page in the Faces of Indy.  I am going to find a company or organization with all black faces.  I’m going ask the Indianapolis Monthly to list them as the Faces of Racial Equity.  I do not expect the magazine to take my money or publish that page.

Unfortunately, magazine and newspaper editors – 98% white – are another of the occupations that white supremacy controls.

Can Trump Supporters and Progressives Be Friends?

Can Trump Supporters and Progressives Be Friends?

One of my friends is an avowed political moderate.  He didn’t vote for Trump, but couldn’t stomach Hilary.  He finds the rhetoric and vitriol on both the right and the left troubling.  From this middle ground, he often criticizes my writings as “drifting too far to the left.”  Over the holidays, he complained, “You tolerate the lifestyles and opinions of everyone but white conservatives.  You paint them in the worst possible terms.  Isn’t it possible someone could support less government intrusion, lower taxes, gun rights and border security and not be a racist xenophobe?  I don’t think you could be friends with a Trump supporter.  You’re even suspicious of me for having some.”

I’ve thought a lot about his questions over the past month.  Have I shifted too far left?  Am I intolerant of and hostile toward white conservatives?  Have I done what I disdain in them and demonized an entire group of people unfairly?  Could I be friends with a Trump supporter?  When he asked me that question directly, I said, “Probably not.”  Since our conversation, I’ve wondered if friendship between Trump supporters and progressives is possible, or even desirable.

Prior to the election of Trump, I certainly knew and interacted with many white conservatives, some within my own family.  While I didn’t lose any close friends after the election, I’ve probably alienated many casual acquaintances and a couple of my cousins.  A few people have unfriended me on Facebook.  At the time, I thought good riddance.  Indeed, I’ve seen people on both sides of this divide post memes with the introduction, “If you disagree with this, unfriend me now.”

My friend worries, “You want to change people’s mind about racism and white privilege, but you’ve run off everyone but those who already agree with you.”  There is some truth to that accusation.  I could blame the Facebook algorithms, but I don’t see as many conservative responses to my blog and posts.  If I am interested in dialogue and changing minds, do I need to moderate my tone and soften my positions?  Years ago, I would have defended the middle ground.  What changed?  What moved me away from my friend?

I know the answer to those last two questions.

Adopting a child of color altered my universe.  It forced me to question and examine everything I thought I understood.  It exposed racist attitudes and assumptions within me.  It spurred reading and research about the history of racial oppression and discrimination in America.  What had once been an abstract philosophical debate became personal.  For me – and I know this isn’t true for everyone with a close relationship with a person of color – that relationship created an empathy that radicalized me.

Middle ground, when it comes to racism and xenophobia, is no longer possible for me.  My friend says, “You see racism in nearly everything.”  He’s right.  I not only see it everywhere; I think it is everywhere.  He thinks much of what I see is a mirage.  I think what he doesn’t see is deeply embedded and camouflaged, nearly invisible to those who benefit from it.  For this reason, he can hear his white conservative friends talk of “Making America Great Again” as a political slogan where I hear it as a racist rant.  He gives them the benefit of the doubt.  I look at them with suspicion.  He calls some of them his friends.  I do not.

One of the factors in my growing intolerance has been my readings from American history.  In the book, “The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle For America’s Soul,”  Andrew Delbanco argues persuasively that the imposition of Fugitive Slave Laws, which required northern whites participate in the return of black men, women and children to slavery, was pivotal in the radicalization of the Abolition movement.  What the Southern states demanded from the Northern states, ironically, led to the demise of slavery.

As with the adoption of my daughter, personal interaction with people of color can change attitudes and assumptions.  As long as the cruelty of human bondage was a distant and distasteful abstraction, many white people comfortably inhabited middle ground on the issue of slavery.  When the government forced them to send someone back to certain abuse and torture, middle ground became an immoral swamp.  In the end, the divide between whites who found racism justifiable and those who found it abhorrent became a chasm that friendship and family could not bridge.  It led to a conflict where brother fought brother.

Understanding this history, my friend’s questions become more complicated.  I am certain there were people having our arguments in 1859.  I can hear one saying to another, “You’re drifting too far left.  You paint Southerners in the worst possible terms.  Isn’t it possible someone could support the institution of slavery for its economic and social benefits and still be a fine person?  You want to change the mind of the Southerner, but you’ve alienated them with your moral judgments and slander.  Can’t we all find middle ground?”

My friend won’t like this analogy.  He’ll argue my comparison of our present situation and the pre-Civil War society is a false equivalency, that this very argument is evidence of my radicalization.  I can hear him say, “You’re making it sound like we haven’t made any progress on the issues of racism in America. We freed the slaves.”  Until we elected Trump, I probably would have agreed with him.  Now, I am not so sure.  I worry we’ve simply hidden the chains of racial oppression.  How different is sending an asylum seeker back to their country from sending a fugitive slave back to the South?

Am I willing to interact with Trump supporters, to leave myself open to the possibility of friendship?  I suppose I am with this caveat – if you post memes defending Confederate memorials or wear a red MAGA hat, we are not going to be friends.  The division is too stark.  You are my enemy and my days of “loving my enemy” ended when I left religion.  I am at war with those who look back fondly on America’s racist past. You will not send my daughter back to that time.

If you are an enthusiastic supporter of such ugliness, I have no illusions about changing your mind.  You represent a generational malaise that has plagued our country for 400 years.  Tolerating its existence is why it continues to exist.

If, on the other hand, you truly believe your support of Trump is driven by a commitment to less government intrusion, lower taxes, gun rights and border security, let’s be friends.  I can and have disagreed with conservatives in the past on these issues and still been cordial.  I’d like to believe that many conservative people have had their politics hijacked and marginalized by populist racism.  If you are one of those people, I miss you.  Indeed, we need you.  You are not the problem.

You might even be part of the solution.

When Rape Was Legal

When Rape Was Legal

I’ve spent the last five years studying the history of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States.  There was much I didn’t know.  I read of the brutality of industrial slavery, something far different than the “Gone With the Wind” portrayals of slavery from my childhood.  I discovered – that when it comes to freeing black people – the Civil War was a splendid failure, that the plight of blacks in America was even uglier after the Emancipation Proclamation.  I learned one black man or woman was lynched every week during the one hundred years after the Civil War.  I uncovered countless stories of white violence and oppression.  After five years, I thought I could no longer be surprised by the moral depravity of white America.

I was wrong.

This past month, I’ve been researching the role of rape in sustaining slavery and racial oppression.  It’s a dimension of slavery seldom discussed – today or in the past.  In 1861, Southern diarist Mary Chestnut wrote, “Every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think.” Chestnut called this reality “the thing we cannot name.”

Unfortunately, one hundred and fifty years later, the rape culture of white America still remains largely unnamed.  If white women report high incidents of racial assault and harassment TODAY, what do we imagine was happening during a period of time when white men had absolutely no checks upon their ability to sexually assault and harass women of color?  If Thomas Jefferson, one of the most enlightened men of his generation, repeatedly raped his slave, Sally Hemming, at the age of 14, we can safely assume the less enlightened were doing the same or worse. This unbridled ability to meet every sexual whim may better explain the resistance of white men to ending slavery than the often-offered economic incentive.  For most of American history, it has been legal for a white man to rape women of color.

While rape has been a common experience for many women, the plight of enslaved women was especially horrifying.  In her book – At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – Danielle McGuire chronicles this often-ignored aspect of the black experience.  She argues persuasively that ALL enslaved black women could expect to be raped and sexually assaulted from an early age, that their parents and husbands could do nothing to protect them and that in those instances where women resisted that the punishment was swift and harsh.  She exposes rape as a common strategy of white men for increasing their wealth – creating children they could eventually sell or monetize.  She documents growing evidence that some enslaved mothers would kill newly born daughters, unwilling to bring them into a rape culture they found so horrible.

Of course, we don’t have to speculate about what was happening to enslaved black women.  We have the accounts of escaped slaves about their mistreatment and sexual abuse.  As Mary Chestnut noted, everyone knew this was happening.  Indeed, Frederick Douglas made it one of the centerpieces of his speeches, reminding his northern listeners that his own birth was a product of rape.  Douglas made it clear that the immorality of slavery was not some philosophical abstraction, but a state that justified a multitude of immoral acts.  The slave that was seen as an economic tool was also seen as an object of sexual gratification.

The 1850 criminal trial of a black girl named Celia graphically illustrates how the rape of women and children of color was understood.  Bought by Robert Newsom at the age of 14, Celia was routinely raped by Newsom over the next five years, resulting in the birth of a child.  At the age of 19, Celia finally defended herself and killed Newsom.  For this act, she was charged with murder.  At her trial, though no one disputed the brutality of Newsom’s behavior, she was found guilty and hung by the State of Missouri.  The message from this nationally renowned case was clear.  Raping an enslaved person was legal.

Unfortunately, what was deeply ingrained in the American white male psyche – the sexual objectification of black women – did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation.  Indeed, like lynching, rape was a commonly used weapon to enforce white supremacy and power throughout the one hundred years of Jim Crow.  In 1944, Rosa Parks – a decade before refusing to give up her seat on the bus – led an effort to arrest and convict six white men – Dillard York, Billy Howerton, Herbert Lovett, Luther Lee, Joe Culpepper and Robert Gamble – for gang raping a black woman by the name of Recy Taylor.  Parks and others gathered irrefutable evidence of the crime, including testimony by the rapists.  However, two Alabama grand juries refused to indict the men. Recy Taylor, who died in 2017, never saw justice.

Yet when I speak of being surprised by my recent research, it is not the rape of enslaved women or the injustice of Jim Crow courts that shocked me.  Though it probably shouldn’t have, what I found most difficult to believe was that the first conviction of a white man for raping a woman of color was not until 1959 – one year before my birth.  In what is considered a landmark court case, four white men – William Collinsworth, Ollie Stoutamire, Patrick Scarborough, and David Beagles – were convicted of raping Betty Jean Owens in the state of Florida.

I name these men intentionally.  “The thing that cannot be named” must be.  These men represent millions of white men who raped black women and children.  Indeed, it is likely that most white American families have rapists in their genealogy.  That they did so in a time when this behavior was ignored or excused is irrelevant.  That the behavior was taboo to discuss is evidence enough of its immorality.

When white people blithely suggest that black people need to get over the past, we do so because it allows us to ignore the shocking and the horrible.  Many black women today have been victims of a culture that defined their rape as a white privilege.  Many white men today, whether they realize it or not, were enculturated to see black women as sexual objects.  Acknowledging both of these realities is a necessary starting point in racial reconciliation.

Slavery As America’s Original Sin

Slavery As America’s Original Sin

I remember the first time I heard slavery identified as America’s original sin.  I was sitting in Rufus Burrow’s Christianity and Social Justice class in seminary.  The person listening to those words in 1988 was a much different person than I am today.  I was a conservative evangelical Christian raised in a rural white community in Southern Illinois.  As such, I remember my shock at both that assertion and its use of a theological concept I still thought sacred.  I wish I could say it jolted me out of my apathy toward racial injustice and into an exploration of racial history, but that would take an encounter with a three year old black girl in 2010.

This week, I stumbled upon an article about the recent death of James Cone, the most famous black liberation theologian in American history.  Honestly, until I read the article, I’d completely forgotten Cone and his once shocking accusations.  Cone wrote, “White supremacy is America’s original sin and liberation is the Bible’s central message.  Any theology in America that fails to engage white supremacy and God’s liberation of black people from that evil is not Christian theology, but a theology of Antichrist.” Rereading those words thirty years after first hearing them, all I could say was, “Amen.”

Though I’m no longer religious and long ago concluded the Biblical idea of original sin was rather ridiculous, I think Cone’s use of the analogy is powerfully provocative.  Indeed, the idea of slavery as an original sin whose fruits and consequences have been passed on from generation to generation – in both white and black communities – seems more reasonable and defensible than the idea of evil originating in a man and woman disobeying God and eating an apple.

Ironically, in my discussions with my white peers about our racial history, I often hear the same language and arguments that eventually led me to abandon the idea of original sin.  Where is the justice in holding people guilty for the sins of their ancestors?  Shouldn’t each person be judged solely on their own behavior?  Isn’t it obvious that children are not born sinful, but are rather socialized into evil?  Shouldn’t our focus be in working for goodness and justice now, rather than on some mythological explanation of past evil?

There are two ironies here.  First, many of those arguing against any white culpability for racial injustice and inequity are also firm believers in the idea of original sin.  They, rather than I, should be arguing that white people can’t escape the taint of past sin, that we pass those sins and their consequences on from parent to child and that redemption and liberation can only come with repentance and reparation.  James Cone is correct.  When it comes to racial issues in America, if you are a theologically consistent white Christian, you should be a champion for white responsibility and reparations.

The second irony is more personal.  Though I long ago abandoned the idea of original sin as a good explanation for human evil, I find the idea of slavery as America’s original sin far more compelling.  I do so not from a theological perspective, but from a sociological one.  While children have to be taught to be racist, this indoctrination is passed on from generation to generation in systemic and unconscious ways.  These rationalizations originated in the need for white Americans to justify the obvious horrors of slavery.  In this sense, white people pass on the taint of defending slavery.  We also pass on the economic and social benefits – money and power – that originated in slavery.

I know how much white people want – when it comes to slavery – for the past be the past, to focus on working for goodness and justice now, rather than on acknowledgments of past racial injustice.  We want all that happened to black people to be forgiven and forgotten. We want to be freed from the burden of past transgressions.  To use another religious concept, we want redemption.

James Cone suggested such redemption cannot come easily.  He wrote, “I believe that until Americans, especially Christians and theologians, can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with ‘recrucified’ black bodies hanging from lynching trees, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”

According to Cone, the lynching tree offers us a singular opportunity for both black and white people to understand their past.   In those trees, white people are forced to confront their past and present accommodations with racist evil and black people are reminded of their courage in the face of that racist oppression.  Like with the Christian cross, something horrible becomes a symbol of responsibility, reconciliation and redemption.  I suspect Cone was pleased with the recently opened National Memorial to those who were lynched.

However, having said all of this, I’m conflicted.  In my opinion, white American Christianity is unlikely to play a significant role in bringing racial reconciliation.  As an institution, it has been far more complicit in perpetuating and defending racism than challenging it.  If I had thought most Christians were serious about the liberation of the oppressed, I might still be one.  Like the prophets of old, I think James Cone was largely preaching to the wind, only remembered and honored after his death.

On the other hand, Cone’s reclaiming of commonly accepted Christian imagery reminds me of what the famous philosopher, Joseph Campbell, concluded.  He wrote, “Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words.”  Our myths, religious and otherwise, tell far more about our societal psyche than our history.  They are the ways in which we communicate and interpret our lives together.

Something evil happened on the day the first black person was brought to America in chains.  That moment forever altered American history.  We cannot change that history, but we can choose the mythology we use to understand our shared past.  Will it be Confederate flags or memorials to those who were lynched?  Will it be “Gone With The Wind” or “Twelve Years A Slave?”  Will it be the Puritan work ethic or recognition of the labor of millions of enslaved black men and women?  Will it be the colorblind society or the multicultural nation?  Obviously, I think one set of myths more helpful than the other.

Understanding slavery as America’s original sin could help both whites and blacks put into words something we have so much trouble talking about.  It uses images and ideas we all understand.  It acknowledges a terrible past and explains our present difficulties. It reminds us that racial oppression twists both the oppressor and the oppressed, damaging all of our children.  It offers us a culturally honored solution – acknowledgment of injury, repentance and even forgiveness.

Since 1865, seven generations of white Americans have failed to adequately address the evils of racial subjection and discrimination, adding insult to injury, perpetuating rather than repairing damage, increasing the debt owed to people of color. We’ve passed this legacy on to our children and grandchildren, postponing the day of reckoning, hoping all will be forgotten.  If Cone is right, until we see racial hostility and indifference as an ugly inheritance, we will pass it onto the next generation. If America’s original sin was slavery, it is long past time to liberate both white and black people from our shared curse.

We need to be free, free at last.

What Saying “There Were Blacks Who Fought For The South” Says About A White Person

What Saying “There Were Blacks Who Fought For The South” Says About A White Person

Recently, while participating in a conference on cross-racial dialogue, I suggested white people need to stop talking about how Lincoln or the North freed the slaves. Since an estimated 500,000 blacks either fought in or supported the Union army, the assertion white people freed the slaves is racist rhetoric.  Nearly as many white people fought to maintain slavery as to dismantle it.  The infusion of black regiments and logistical support were pivotal to the Union victory when war fatigue had led many Northern whites to call for the end of the war and the permanent separation of the nation.  It may be more historically accurate to say black people saved the Union.

In response to my statement, a white woman in the audience, said, “We need to remember blacks fought on the side of the Confederacy as well.” I disputed her claim, pointing out that Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy had resisted such proposals as contradicting the purposes of the rebellion and its defense of slavery.  While I was correct about Davis, she was also correct in her assertion. Upon returning home and further research, I learned that a limited number of blacks did fight for the Confederacy, though there is considerable debate over whether they were compelled or volunteered.

Reflecting on my exchange with that woman, I wish I’d responded differently.  Instead of disputing the facts, I wish I’d asked, “Why do we need to remember that?  How does remembering that some blacks fought for the Confederacy advance racial reconciliation and equity today?” I had highlighted the participation of blacks in the Civil War in order to shift conversations that too often portray blacks as lazy and apathetic about injustice, in need of rescue by well-intentioned white people.  Her response, whether she realized it or not, suggested the opposite, that blacks actually found their oppression acceptable. Of course, if I’d asked my question, I doubt that would have been her response. I imagine she would have argued for a fair presentation of history and the acknowledgment of the exception to the rule.

White people love the exception to the rule.  Over the past few years, I’ve had countless white people inform me that there were…

  • Black slave traders
  • Black slave owners
  • Blacks who wouldn’t leave their owners and plantations after the Civil War
  • Blacks who wanted to leave the US and return to Africa
  • Blacks who supported segregation
  • Blacks who opposed affirmative action.
  • Blacks who disagreed on the need for reparations
  • Blacks who voted for Trump.

These exceptions to the rule are always offered as a counter to my descriptions of the brutality and de-humanization of black people through slavery, Jim Crow and systemic racism.  They infer I’m exaggerating the seriousness of the problem.  After all, if some blacks were and are content in such systems, they can’t be nearly as bad as I suggest. More disturbing, the exception to the rule implies that – since a few black people were or are active participants in oppression – any critique of white behavior is unjust.  Black people did it too!  Having established this false equivalency, white people can shut down any further discussion of slavery or racism.

Of course, any parent of a teenager knows that arguing an exception to the rule always has one intent – to deflect attention from the rule. The answer to my question – “How does remembering that some blacks fought in the Confederacy advance racial reconciliation and equity today? – is easy.  It doesn’t.

Such exceptions only distract us from honestly addressing larger truths, such as the fact that the industrial slavery of the United States was some of the most brutal and dehumanizing in human history.  Does anyone really want to argue that a few blacks fighting in the Confederacy meant black people actually supported and approved of their subjection?  In truth, many of the stories of the blacks employed to assist the Confederacy end with those same blacks fleeing across Union lines at the first opportunity.

Additionally, such arguments fail to acknowledge one of the most damaging aspects of racism – it is often internalized by its victims. Throughout history, there have been blacks who preferred a quiet accommodation with white supremacy than the real risks and dangers of confronting a force that had repeatedly killed those who opposed it.  While blacks should rightly be proud of their ancestors who fought for their freedom, pitting “those who fought” against “those who didn’t” serves one purpose – sustaining white supremacy.

This defense of whiteness is especially obvious in the common white retort that some blacks owned slaves.  While this is true, it is largely irrelevant.  Offering black slave owners as character witnesses for white culture is as ridiculous as believing the marital accolades of a woman with two black eyes. Those blacks who tolerated or participated in oppression were never white allies. They were tragic accomplices in their own victimization.

I’m tired of white people who – when it comes to slavery and racial discrimination – know every exception to the rule, but hardly anything about the rule.  For example, a vast majority of white people do not know one of the most basic pieces of information about slavery – how many black men and women were abducted or born into slavery in the United States?  That most white people know how many Jews were killed in the German Holocaust, but not the number of lives destroyed by the American Holocaust is damning, especially since conservative estimates place the carnage at about 12 million people.  Those who focus on the exceptions are attempting to distract attention from the rule.

Here is the rule.  White people were responsible for the creation of slavery in America. White people de-humanized, tortured, raped, and murdered millions of these enslaved people over the course of 400 years.  Upon their emancipation, white people were responsible for the creation of Jim Crow and systems of racial discrimination that continued to abuse, mistreat and murder black people.  White people are responsible for the continuation of system racism in America today.  The exceptions to this rule are irrelevant.

Ironically, while emphasizing the exceptions is often presented as an attempt at a more complete and balanced historical perspective, it is not. There were nearly 500,000 blacks who actively fought against the Confederacy and a few thousand, at most, who cooperated with it.  That this is the only time white people seem to value the minority viewpoint should end any doubt – our true motivation is to diminish responsibility for a horrific history and sustain white supremacy.