The Whiteness Problem

The Whiteness Problem

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday arrives.  Another year.  Another invitation to dream, to conceive a different world.  Memories cascade:

  • Dr. King’s funeral, standing with other seminarians outside Ebenezer Church, then, marching/weeping along the route;
  • Harlem, a year later, discovering my profound ignorance of the white problem in our nation;
  • Two years later, substitute teaching in Atlanta and realizing that the young shy boy named Marty, who seemed so lonely, had the last name of “King;”
  • Graduate research on Racism and Suburban Congregations opened new vistas on the complexity of white racism.
  • Then, I was honored to pastor a predominantly Black church.

These memories and many more remind me of the Whiteness Problem our nation faces.  I am white; and have been shaped by hidden and obvious advantages of being placed in this racial category.  Even though there is more than a hint of Native American ancestry, my whiteness still shapes how I navigate the world and the social structures in which I live.  In the end I believe that all of our racial categories are only social constructs, they are none-the-less real and filled with the potential to do continuing harm to persons and groups.

White racism is the most negative of the templates shaping our nation’s core identity.  There is slavery, reconstruction, lynchings, Jim Crow, federal policies restricting loans for African Americans leading to widespread housing segregation, the practices of red lining that continue, the courage of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement.   The Whiteness Problem is embedded in the warp and woof of our core.  Years ago Toni Morrison said that “Every American novel is about race.”  Her novel “Beloved,” for me captures a way of seeing who we are and seeing a more hope-filled future.

Sixty-five years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation was illegal.  Desegregation of public schools was to be undertaken with “all deliberate speed.”  In a majority of our cities little has changed since then.

Sixty-two years ago, as I was preparing to enter the seventh grade, there were nine young African American persons in Little Rock, Arkansas who would risk personal safety to enroll in Little Rock Central High School.  President Eisenhower faced with the threats of violence responded by sending troops to protect those young persons.

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[Elizabeth Eckford on her way to class at Little Rock Central High School.  Photo by Will Counts.]
Fifty-two years ago, February 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Rights, otherwise known as The Kerner Commission released their extensive and clear analysis of the White Problem: “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

At the time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said of the report that it was a “physicians warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”   Two months later, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis.  Even so, President Johnson and Congress ignored the recommendations from The Kerner Commission Report.  Johnson was leaving office as his Vietnam War policies were an evident failure.  Richard Nixon would assume office in January of the next year.

In 1975, forty-five years ago, I completed my graduate work.  My dissertation title was simple, “Racism and Suburban Congregations: Strategies for Change.”  The research was part of a national effort entitled Project Understanding.  We measured changes brought about through a variety of interventions.  More than 1,100 persons were surveyed from more than seventy congregations in six cities.  We learned much; at the core of our learning was that the extent and pervasiveness of the Whiteness Problem waited to be addressed. 

Any enduring change would require more than sermons, teaching, pulpit exchanges or even legislation.  Change required relationship.  It required those of us who are categorized as “White” to see with new eyes.  It would require people lumped in each and all racial categories working together to uncover and end discrimination and prejudice.

Being “non-racist” is not sufficient. This myth of neutrality in vogue at the highest levels of our government seeks to paper over the deep wounds and sins that beset us.  It is the notion of “good people on all sides.”  Astonishingly, the racism that fueled the murders in El Paso is dismissed.  Defenders of the current administration say, “It’s not us, the White Nationalist are the true racists!”

This is the challenge — how to name the evil, the oppression and remain clear.  Amazingly, many leaders dismiss, confuse and obfuscate even as racist language, behaviors and institutional practices are on the ascendancy.  Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell stood before T.V. cameras and said “President Trump is not a racist.”  Really, Senator McConnell?  You say this with a straight face.

There are few who write about race and racism today as astutely as Tressie McMillan Cottom.  Her collection of essays “Thick” is a tour-de-force as it looks at the challenges and opportunities we face as a people seeking to live together with honesty and care.  One of the sharp essays in this collection is entitled, “(Black is Over) Or, Special Black.”  She writes of the way some seek to dismiss our deeply embedded racism by suggesting that the acceptance of academics like herself proves that we have entered a new era where the gifted, special Blacks prove we have moved on. 

She writes: “Black is not over… There is no post-black race theory or race work or racial justice or activism that can thrive by avoiding this truth.  Whether at the dinner table or in grand theories, the false choice between black-black and worthy black is a trap.  It poses that ending blackness was the goal of anti-racist work when the real goal has always been and should always be ending whiteness.”  [Thick, p. 152]

Filibustered by Congress

Filibustered by Congress

“Write your congressman” — advice I have heard — and given — all of my adult life. Often, I wrote. I have written scores of letters to senators and congresspersons. Acknowledging that it would likely make only a slight difference, if any, I wrote. Past experience was that the congressperson, or her staff, replied. Often there was disagreement. Still, I wrote and they replied. Occasionally, in the process, our positions and concerns were clarified. Sometimes there were acknowledgments of gratitude beyond ‘thank you for writing.’ There was, implicitly at least, a search for common understanding — perhaps some shared awareness might be found, even if only a tiny patch of it — light (insight) that is.

Today it seems that the Republicans in Congress are filibustering the American people as we search for light. Instead of filibustering in Congress we now are in a time of filibustering by Congress. What is the truth regarding the actions of Donald Trump and his enablers regarding aid withheld and encouragement needed for a more democratic governance in the Ukraine?

An impeachment has resulted and now a Senate trial. Efforts to hear from witnesses, to see public documents or interview government officials involved are avoided or denied altogether. We deserve answers — instead we receive what can only be understood as ideological fog and attempts by persons like Rudy Giuliani to tell us “up is down” and “left is right.” There is an embargo on needed information — a filibuster is set up against information for the citizens of the United States.

In the past, I wrote my representatives and they replied. That was then. Now? Not so much. I continue to write. My experience with Trey Hollingsworth, Congressman from Indiana’s Ninth Congressional District, exemplifies the problem. No more honest exchange. (I also write Senators Young and Braun and find a similar sad pattern of avoiding and filibustering in their responses.) Responses to my letters are delayed or not received at all. Worse yet, when a response comes, there is an avoidance of answers to specific questions. Instead there is a blaming of others, a sense of victimization, an avoidance of seeking after any truth other than what little can fit in a narrow ideological corner. Below are my questions for Representative Hollingsworth first sent on November 8, 2019; then, sent again, December 19, 2019.

  1. Do you believe the testimony of Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman that efforts were made to demand of Ukrainian President Zelensky a public statement against a private citizen of the United States in exchange for the release of much needed military aid?
  2. Do you observe this as a way Mr. Trump continues to act in support of the global agenda of Mr. Putin and Russia?
  3. Was Russia engaged in trying to influence elections in 2016 and is Russia already at work on interfering in the 2020 elections?
  4. What are you, as a congressman, doing to protect us from any such attacks?
  5. Was the National Rifle Association a conduit for Russian influence in our elections?
  6. Did former Congressman Rohrabacher and Pete Sessions receive direct support from Russia or were they indirectly assisted by the use of Russian directed bots on social media?
  7. Have you received, or are you open to receiving, aid from any foreign country, especially Russia for your political campaigns?
  8. What will you say to your grandchildren when they ask in twenty years, “What did you do to protect representative democracy, grandpa?”  [This is not a rhetorical question.  I sincerely want your answer.]

A response, of sorts, from Representative Hollingsworth came on January 3rd. Remembering my questions, here is what I received:

I realize my questions were direct, troubling for those who would seek to protect Donald Trump and his administration. However, they were more. Most could be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Each question was a sincere effort to get at the truth. Of course, question number eight challenges the Congressman to think about his legacy — what indeed will he say to his grandchildren?

I am wondering if others in my congressional district and state might try… perhaps if there are three of us, or ten of us, or one hundred of us, we might get more than responses that seek to avoid honest and direct answers to these questions.

And in recent days, many other disturbing questions have emerged. Was Ambassador Yovanovitch under surveillance while in the Ukraine? What was the role played by our Secretary of State? Our Vice President? Our Attorney General? The Secretary of Energy? The Ranking House Republican on the Intelligence Committee?

It seems each week is filled with new information that Senator McConnell, his allies and President Trump would like to sweep under a carpet of avoidance and obfuscation. I believe we, the American People, deserve more than a filibuster against us. I wish to know the truth that might be uncovered in answering my first set of questions.  If answered, they would offer a place to begin to understand what is at play.

Our future as a Constitutional Democracy requires more than a filibuster of information directed against us, the Citizens. As Timothy Snyder puts it so well, “post-truth is pre-fascism.” 

Hacked Christianity — UMC

Below are my comments responding to Jeremy Smith’s fine post in Hacking Christianity regarding the plan for United Methodism to move beyond the brokenness and harm of recent decades. (http://hackingchristianity.net/2020/01/the-art-of-the-deal-understanding-the-plan-of-separation-for-the-united-methodist-church.html) Yes, this is a schism… however, as many others have pointed out, this is a separation, a brokenness, an ideological chasm that has been going on for years.

My experience is that much of our current United Methodist situation has been brought about by persistent and well-financed outside groups bent on reshaping Methodism away from our natural theological sensibilities and core understanding into a force field of division more to their liking (e.g., Institution for Religion and Democracy). What has happened to the Republican Party in the past two decades is an interesting parallel image. I encourage you to read Smith’s overview — it is a helpful analysis of where we currently stand and what might be possible.

Excellent overview, Jeremy. Excellent, thanks. The proposal has many flaws and potential cautions; however, it does seem to offer a direction if not a precise map to a way ahead. All of our categories and desires for perfection will be tested. That can be a good thing; if we are able to act and think in imaginative ways where the perfect is no longer the enemy of the good. Over the years I have been in three previous attempts at finding a space of compromise — of offering options beyond our ideological/theological entanglements. None made it this far… although a few came close.

Sadly a deep distrust will continue among many who carry decades-long wounds. Distrust will continue to percolate. Others more deeply tied to institutionalist roles will say silly things like bishops “have never stopped the pursuit for a more excellent way for the diversity of United Methodism to be freed from internal theological conflict so that love and respect can triumph over legislative votes that leave a divided church more wounded and less focused.” Poppycock. We need a more humble and repentant stance just now in my view.

What has happened is a tragedy… lost opportunity, broken promises, lost legacies, a tearing out at the root of centuries of witness, analysis that is shallow in anthropology and devoid of theological rigor.

Going forward we all could benefit from a larger dose of generosity, humility and repentance.