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.
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]