“Riot is the language of the unheard” Martin Luther King, in a speech titled “The Other America,” at Gross Pointe High School, Detroit, Michigan, March 14, 1968.
We all have “where we were when” memories that anchor us into momentous historical events: December 7, 1941 (“a day that shall live in infamy”); November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated; September 11, 2001. However, few of us who are White have markers that track our blindness to our own racism. The story of the 19th century hymn “Amazing Grace,” by John Newton, is perhaps illustrative. He was an adventurer who ran afoul of a slave trader, and wrote the song in gratitude for narrowly escaping shipwreck with his life. The song had little to do with his much later embrace of abolition. He did not repudiate the slave trade immediately, but continued to make money on it for some 20 years after the song became popular. Like most of us caught up in the matrix of White Privilege, he was indeed blind.
I am one who “came of age” in the 1960s. Folk songs accompanying the struggle for Black civil rights and protesting the Viet Nam War were layered into the air we breathed. Yet for some of us, the political debate that raged between the social democratic left and the reactionary right made little sense. I, like Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, campaigned for Barry Goldwater. I was naively impressed with the boys in the back of my Political Science class who were so certain that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” I was unable to hear the dogwhistle in the second part of that slogan: “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” Like Republican candidate Donald Trump, Goldwater had his own definition of justice. To paraphrase President Bill Clinton, who avoided responsibility with the definition of “is,” how Goldwater and the Right defined “justice” was bound up in the accompanying slogan, “impeach Earl Warren” – for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. To the reactionary Right that decision along with the Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unjustly propelled Black people out of “separate but equal” schools, fraternities, and neighborhoods. “Justice” as “fairness” to Whites meant and still means compensation for losing the White privilege built into the very fabric of the nation.
None of that was apparent to me. We had no television in our home until I was 15. I paid little attention to current events; Viet Nam was an alien planet. My Black room-mate at college was personally fire-hosed and set-upon by dogs in Louisville, Kentucky in the summer of 1963. I told her, “That never happened. This is America. We don’t do that here.” Yet the television set in our co-op dorm carried the evidence. When the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed and four little girls died, I took my first baby steps in arm-in-arm protest march through the streets of Albion, Michigan. Several Black women, including my room-mate Mary Helen Hogue, did not come back for the second semester of our Freshman year.
Guilt, it is said, is a useless emotion, which accomplishes nothing because we are allowed to feel terrible without changing. Guilt goes hand-in-hand with cheap grace:
Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?…
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.)
Guilt seems to be the fair enough price to pay. What is required is repentance: turning around and away from the mistaken idea that resulted in whatever behavior or attitude gave rise to the regret.
For me, and most White people, the attitude is our own privilege, and the behavior is to blame Black and Brown people for their own oppression: poverty, poor inner-city schools, no jobs. It’s easy to feel guilty, and to try to step in with money, feeding programs, homeless shelters, and the “forced” integration of schools by bussing White kids in and Black kids out. When these turn out to be band-aids, when inner-city schools still fail, when unelected White overseers take over the local government and the City still comes to a grinding halt, instead of realizing that the very systems we have set up constitute a matrix of inequality, we cut the money for Head Start, housing, food stamps, Medicaid – even water treatment – and charge the police with maintaining order.
What do we expect will happen? Blogger Rad Fag echoes Rev. Martin Luther King: “When Black people speak, and you do not listen, you are creating the conditions of a riot. And when you tell us we are exaggerating, playing the martyr, making it all up, then you cannot be surprised when we elect militancy to make you comprehend what you refused to understand when we were peaceful.”
Jewish and Christian theology proposes that humans are made in the image and likeness of God. For those uncomfortable with “God, ” think of the natural world where the sun shines and the rain falls on the just and the unjust without discrimination. If we are the image and likeness of God then our destiny, our purpose, our reason for being is to behave like God. “Let justice roll down like the waters,” preaches the prophet Amos. The waters – the rains – roll down as distributive, restorative justice, which demands a radical equality; not the retributive, law-and-order, shoot first and ask questions later “justice” masquerade – as the political right would define it. To withhold the profound fairness of the sun and the rain because of family, tribe, or nation constitutes a deep separation between God’s distributive justice and humanity; which leads to crimes against not only humanity, but divinity itself.
John Newton’s hymn says, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” The blindness and the restoration or discovery of sight are the missing link for White people between immobilizing guilt and active repentance. Leaders in the Movement for Black Lives remind us that “action” does not mean the take-over of the movement by Whites. Black folks have been there, done that for hundreds of years and they don’t need us to explain how to mount a protest (violent or non-violent). Even more surprising, White folks are not even expected to fully understand the nature of the oppression that Black people suffer on a daily, if not moment-by-moment basis. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, “Solidarity is standing in unity with people even when you have not personally experienced their particular oppression” (From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, Chicago, Hay Market Books, 2016 p. 215).
Part of the course work for my Doctor of Ministry in Creation Spirituality from Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox’s University of Creation Spirituality included a two-week intensive on Black religious and political history. One of the presenters was a Black artist who got up in our faces and confronted us with our White privilege. It was not a comfortable encounter. Letting go of the assumptions I made (and still make) regarding the very matrix of my life is unnerving, disorienting. Just because I am a White woman, I live in a world of personal security. I know where my next meal is coming from. I have a safe place to sleep. I have access to information and access to power as those are defined and taken for granted in my dominant White world. I not only expect my vote to count, I expect to vote; I expect what I read in the newspapers or watch on television to be true. When I learn that much of what I read or see is a small part of what is really happening to Black and Brown and Native and original people world-wide, I am overwhelmed.
But not with guilt. I see that I cannot be other than a recovering racist. So, I do the only thing that I can do in the situation. I stand in solidarity with what I cannot possibly know from experience, and I challenge my White peers to see our own complicity in systemic racism, and dismantle the structures that keep racist White supremacy in place.