Exposing White Lies

We’re right to be appalled by the constant revelations of sexual abuse and assault. But what, exactly, are we shocked about?

Recently it seems hardly a day can pass without credible new allegations of sexual assault or abuse leveled against another powerful white man. It’s not that only white men abuse and assault women, but there is something important about women who are believed when standing against powerful white men. I think this moment – when a woman’s word is trusted over that of political or entertainment mogul –  is unique in the history of the United States. We are grappling with something new and I wonder whether it can be sustained.

lynch lawIn 1892, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the abandonment of reconstruction, and her own expulsion from Memphis under the threat of mob violence, journalist Ida B. Wells wrote Lynch Law, an investigation into the lynchings then rampant throughout the American South. She also looked into the purported causes of these murdered black citizens. She found one cause to be more common than any other: “[The Negro] is now charged with assaulting or attempting to assault white women. This charge, as false as it is foul, robs us of the sympathy of the world and is blasting the race’s good name.”

In this and later investigations Wells documented case after case of black men standing accused of sexual assault by white women and summarily executed (often after being tortured) by white men.  The public history of white men, particularly powerful white men, and sexual assault is one in which we are judge, jury, and executioner. This makes the recent tendency to believe the women who have come forward so surprising. We are used to the deceitful lore of the violent and sexualized black man and the equally fantastical legend of the universally virtuous white man. Seeing so many white men assumed guilty of their crimes is exceptional, utterly counter to the widely accepted narrative that Wells exposed so plainly.

But our surprise should run even deeper. I’m thinking about a horrifying passage in Edward E. Baptist’s masterful The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Here Baptist writes about two enslaved women, Rachel and Mary, as they stood before gazing eyes in New Orleans, their bodies offered to the highest bidder.

Rachel watched. She had been leered at, too – when she came through the door, all the way back to the point of her sale in Baltimore. It had been going on ever since she reached puberty, but sale time was when the forced sexualization of enslaved women’s bodies was most explicit. Before the 1830’s, and sometimes after, whites usually forced women to strip…

For white people, seeing Mary up on the bench was one of the rewards of membership in the fraternity of entrepreneurs. Men asked questions of a woman that they did not put to John or Willam, questions that attempted to force her to acknowledge everything that was being bought and sold. Women who refused to play along could expect white anger, as one observer noted: “When answers were demanded to the questions usually put by the bidders to slaves on the block, the tears rolled down her cheeks, and her refusal to answer those most disgusting questions met with blood-curling oaths.” Of course, not all white bidders minded resistance. Some relished overcoming it. It was all part of the game.

The American instinct to impute sexual violence to black men is, as Baptist points out, deeply at odds with our actual history. Rachel, Mary, and countless other enslaved women of African descent experienced this terrorizing history. They lived before the gaze of white men who believed it to be within their power to take land and bodies at will, their right to arrange plundering hierarchies built upon others’ blood and toil. What is today being exposed as sexual predation was for them a birthright so deeply assumed as to remain unquestioned.

The demonic genius of the white gaze was to deflect its own sexual violence, this one terrible representation of its pilfering nature, onto other, darker bodies. Wells saw through the lie. “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction.” It seems that more of us are finally beginning to see what was never obscure to Wells or to Rachel or to Mary. Have the powerful white men finally over-reached themselves?

Many of us have been astonished by how frequently these abusing men have been exposed. Our shock, though, shouldn’t begin with the revelation that many powerful white men are also sexual predators, but that it’s taken so long to reckon with this foundational aspect of our troubled history.

 

“You know you’ve entered a temple when disagreement is treated as sacrilege. “

You know you’ve entered a temple when disagreement is treated as sacrilege. The animosity directed toward NFL players kneeling at the anthem, protesting police brutality and structural racism, is the sort of acrimony we reserve for infidels.

Many professedly “religious” believers will be among those most incensed by resistance to this secular liturgy — a sign that even believers in God are not immune to being captivated by secular rituals, confusing what is holy.

This response to the kneeling controversy tells us something about the state of American civil religion and the way it accommodates — and then deforms — traditional religious communities.

– James K. A. Smith, “The NFL’s Thanksgiving games are a spectacular display of America’s ‘God and country’ obsession” in The Washington Post.

“Can My Children Be Friends With White People?”

This op-ed in the Times, “Can My Children Be Friends With White People?” is really something. I can’t remember the last time I read something that made me feel so strongly. It begins with these two paragraphs:

My oldest son, wrestling with a 4-year-old’s happy struggles, is trying to clarify how many people can be his best friend. “My best friends are you and Mama and my brother and …” But even a child’s joy is not immune to this ominous political period. This summer’s images of violence in Charlottesville, Va., prompted an array of questions. “Some people hate others because they are different,” I offer, lamely. A childish but distinct panic enters his voice. “But I’m not different.”

It is impossible to convey the mixture of heartbreak and fear I feel for him. Donald Trump’s election has made it clear that I will teach my boys the lesson generations old, one that I for the most part nearly escaped. I will teach them to be cautious, I will teach them suspicion, and I will teach them distrust. Much sooner than I thought I would, I will have to discuss with my boys whether they can truly be friends with white people.

I’ve not had the guts to put my anxiety since the election quite so bluntly, but the author’s question is mine too. I have no doubt that the white people I know and love who voted for our president and who continue to support his decisions and policies and who also say they love my sons – my brown and black sons – really mean it. They really love them. But the fact that they cannot see how their support for this administration threatens my sons makes the question of friendship – of safety – hard to answer. I waver.

As against our gauzy national hopes, I will teach my boys to have profound doubts that friendship with white people is possible. When they ask, I will teach my sons that their beautiful hue is a fault line. Spare me platitudes of how we are all the same on the inside. I first have to keep my boys safe, and so I will teach them before the world shows them this particular brand of rending, violent, often fatal betrayal.

Blunt facts require that we teach our sons similar lessons. And I thank God for the white friends who understand this and who, like me, are on the journey to understanding with more clarity why we must teach ugly things to beautiful children. There’s hope there, and friendship too.

A new white burden?

Does Ta-Nehisi Coates fetishize race? No, but Thomas Chatterton Williams thinks he does.

Thomas Chatterton Williams has written an alarming  piece in the Times about Ta-Nehesi Coates, specifically his leading role in pushing the idea that white supremacy “explains everything.” Because Coates has been an important guide for my own thinking about white supremacy, I want to consider his arguments seriously.

“We Were Eight Years in Power” can leave a reader with the distinct impression that its author is glad, relieved even, that Donald Trump was elected president. It is exhibits A through Z of Mr. Coates’s national indictment, proof that the foundations of the United States are anti-black and that the past is not dead — it’s not even past, to echo William Faulkner.

This one is puzzling. Eight Years can be read as one person’s slowly grasping that things aren’t what they seemed, that the election of the country’s first black president didn’t mean the kind of racial progress that so many of us had hoped for. Rather than seeming glad about Donald Trump confirming his existing theory, Coates is repeatedly self-reflective about how he was wrong, about what he missed.

Such logic extends a disturbing trend in left-of-center public thinking: identity epistemology, or knowing-through-being, somewhere along the line became identity ethics, or morality-through-being. Accordingly, whiteness and wrongness have become interchangeable — the high ground is now accessible only by way of “allyship,” which is to say silence and total repentance. The upside to this new white burden, of course, is that whichever way they may choose, those deemed white remain this nation’s primary actors.

Two things about this paragraph. First, the notion that the only thing white people can do productively is to sit in silence is one I’ve read about occasionally but have never – not a single time – experienced personally. It should be obvious that white people will choose repentant and humble postures in the work of racial justice, but the notion that everyone agrees that this requires complete silence from white people sounds like more like a Fox News scare tactic than a realistic description of reality.

The second point to note here is the notion that Coates’ perspective about whiteness (not his alone, it seems to be necessary to point out; would Williams have similar issues with James Baldwin who foreshadows so much of what Coates argues?) only solidifies that “those deemed white remain this nation’s primary actors.” How, I wonder, is this any different than the myriads of white people who refuse to talk or think about race? Williams seems to believe that it is in the talking about whiteness that white people derive our power, yet I’d suggest that is in our very reticence to speak our race which betrays the power it holds over us. Williams reads Coates to say that one’s morality is attached permanently to racial identity; I hear the exact opposite, that morality in America’s historical context requires speaking truthfully about what has so long been intentionally buried.

This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring.

This is a particularly serious charge. I think it’s wrong-headed for a bunch of reasons, but mostly because I think about these things as a Christian. What I mean is that rather than mystifying racial identity – something that was long-ago accomplished in this country – Coates works to define it, to help us to see the myriad of imminently tangible ways that race plays itself out among us. His “Case for Reparations” does this exceptionally well about housing segregation. Christians are interested in confession and repentance; we are not afraid of the specificity of our sins as the confession of them become the means of grace and embodied reconciliation. Engaging racial discourse in this manner does not preordain any of us to a special path – or any other kind of path. Rather, it allows for truth to be spoken and heard. Justice is not then inevitable, but the possibility for it is far more likely.

However far-fetched that may sound, what identitarians like Mr. Spencer [the white nationalist] have grasped, and what ostensibly anti-racist thinkers like Mr. Coates have lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes. We will all be doomed to stalk our separate paths.

I’m not sure what to say about this except that calling Coates an “identitarian” and summing up his work as fetishizing race seems to admit a significant misreading. I’m not sure that Williams is all that different from those who think that we can only talk so much about race before we grant it a power it does not deserve. Coates, I think, would argue that this nation has never even approached such a line. The obscene power we’ve granted race is betrayed not by how much a few people talk about it, but by how little it’s even acknowledged by most of the nation’s racially privileged. Maybe the academic and media worlds inhabited by Williams are different but for most of us, the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates (and Baldwin, Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, and so many more) remain voices in the wilderness.

The View From Here

This afternoon we drove through miles of cotton fields in Missouri, the state with the frightening distinction of being the subject of a travel advisory issued by the NAACP this summer to people of color traveling through the state.

The numerous racist incidents, and the statistics cited by the Missouri Attorney General in the advisory, namely the fact that African Americans in Missouri are 75 percent more likely to be stopped and searched by law enforcement officers than Caucasians, are unconscionable, and are simply unacceptable in a progressive society.

I think it was William Faulkner who said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Trading Optimism For Struggle

Ta-Nehisi Coates is more Christian about hope than are many American Christians.

I wrote the following for our church newsletter.

One of my favorite authors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has a new collection of essays out this week, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, about the years during the Obama Presidency and their connection to our current political tumult. On Monday Coates was a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the last two minutes of their conversation caught my attention. Click the video below and begin watching at 5:06 to see the exchange.

“Do you have any hope tonight?” is what Colbert wants to know and Coates is blunt: “No.” I’ve been reading him long enough to have heard Coates asked some variation of this question many different times. His writing is stark and his vision of the country and its history is bleak. He is one of our most truthful contemporary writers. His interviewers, generally white, want to know if this harsh view of our reality contains within it any space for hope.

In his previous book, Between the World and Me, the author warns his son about this country’s blindness towards the devastating truths about ourselves:

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work.

It’s not surprising, I suppose, that many Americans would read a passage like this and wonder if there is room for hope. We’ve been formed to think about this country more positively than this. On the political right we hear the voices calling us to return the U.S.A. to its mythic glory. On the left are those who believe the arc of justice to be long, but eventually inevitable. Coates’ vision is different. For him the evils we face are histories that cannot be easily overcome nor are they contemporary glitches to an otherwise functional society. The wickedness of the nation is endemic to it. To take but one horrifying example, about the enslavement of African people Coates recently wrote, “Enslavement provided not merely the foundation of white economic prosperity, but the foundation of white social equality, and thus the foundation of American democracy.” The evil of slavery, in other words, is not exceptional to what the country is but is a glimpse at its foundational logic.

You don’t have to share Coates’ perspective about this country – though I largely do – to understand why he refuses to offer his interviewers and readers assurances of hope. He is not a hopeful person and his writing provides more than enough rationale. He will not tell his readers that everything will be all right. It’s one of the things I most admire about Ta-Nehisi Coates and his bracing vision of this country.

This country and, if we’re honest, many of its expressions of Christianity, are addicted to optimism. We take our personal experiences of happiness, no matter how brief, as evidence that we are ok, that the direction our lives are heading will end well. For some of us this is especially true when it comes to race. It’s not a surprise to me that many of those interrogating Coates about hope are white. This country works to convince those of us who are – and those to whom whiteness extends its treacherous bargains – that the white supremacy, native genocide, and anti-black racism that lay at the nation’s roots can be transcended. We’re told that we shouldn’t remain bound to these ugly realities. With enough work – some reading, a few diverse friendships, a couple of hard-hitting documentaries, a church racial reconciliation workshop – we can move on to other concerns.

I say we are addicted to optimism because Christian hope is something else entirely, something more akin to the experience Coates describes in much of his writing. Hope, for the Christian is eschatological, which is simply to say that our hope is anchored in the God who will one day make final Christ’s victory on the cross. Such hope does not engender complacency, rather we “labor and strive.” (1 Timothy 4:10) This hope is not dependent on circumstances or the American pursuit of happiness, in fact such visible, transient hope is “no hope at all.” (Romans 8:24) I once heard Coates say something like, hope is struggle, a rather different perspective than the one which leads to our nation’s sanitized and deceptive story about manifest destiny and the like. This too hints at our Christian hope: “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4) To be hopeful in Christ is to dive headlong into the struggle with wickedness and injustice, a struggle which includes suffering but also perseverance, character, and genuine hope.

Optimism is not enough for this generation. We are are hard-pressed on every side: gun violence in our city and beyond; ecological disasters; the rise of blatant white supremacy; sex-selective abortions; nuclear threats and news of genocide from around the world. We could go on. There are also our countless private struggles. Optimism isn’t enough. We need hope.

Maybe the most well-known Christian language about hope is found in Hebrews 11:1. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” It’s not that we don’t want to see the expressions of our hope, the righteousness of the Kingdom of God in all of its fullness. It’s just that we don’t have to see it now to still struggle for it. We aren’t optimists because we don’t require experience or even evidence to throw ourselves into the struggle. Our faith is in the One who allowed evil to roll over his head, who allowed wickedness and oppression to crash upon his body, who was lynched for the sins of the world. Our faith in him is what anchors us now, eyes wide open to all that is wrong, and right. We don’t have to lie about ourselves, and we certainly don’t have to lie about this nation. Our hope is found elsewhere.

The saints who’ve gone before us testify to the trustworthiness of this sort of hope. Though all else is torn away, Christ remains- victorious in the past, glorious in the future. Christian hope will not always appear hopeful to people raised on optimism. But try it. Test it. Repent from the lies this nation has told about itself and about you. Repent from the empty promises of guaranteed happiness and easy optimism. Instead, let us “put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:10) More often than not our hope will appear to the world like nothing so much as struggle. But we who struggle – who hope – will come to find in this hopeful struggle the fullness of life, heaven reaching into earth as a sign pointing toward the day when all will be made new and we no longer need to hope.

“America is literally unimaginable without plundered labour shackled to plundered land…”

Any fair consideration of the depth and width of enslavement tempts insanity. First conjure the crime – the generational destruction of human bodies – and all of its related offense – domestic terrorism, poll taxes, mass incarceration. But then try to imagine being an individual born among the remnants of that crime, among the wronged, among the plundered, and feeling the gravity of that crime all around and seeing it in the sideways glances of the perpetrators of that crime and overhearing it in their whispers and watching these people, at best, denying their power to address the crime and, at worst, denying that any crime had occurred at all, even as their entire lives revolve around the fact of a robbery so large that it is written in our very names. This is not a thought experiment. America is literally unimaginable without plundered labour shackled to plundered land, without the organizing principle of whiteness as citizenship, without the culture crafted by the plundered, and without that culture itself being plundered.

White dependency on slavery extended from the economic to the social, and the rights of whites were largely seen as dependent on the degradation of blacks. “White men,” wrote Mississippi senator and eventual president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, “have an equality resulting from a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist were white men to fill the position here occupied by the servile race.”

Antebellum Georgia governor Joseph E Brown made the same point: “Among us the poor white laborer is respected as an equal. His family is treated with kindness, consideration and respect. He does not belong to the menial class. The negro is in no sense of the term his equal. He feels and knows this. He belongs to the only true aristocracy, the race of white men. He blacks no master’s boots, and bows the knee to no one save God alone. He receives higher wages for his labor than does the laborer of any other portion of the world, and he raises up his children, with the knowledge that they belong to no inferior caste; but that the highest members of the society in which he lives, will, if their conduct is good, respect and treat them as equals.”

Enslavement provided not merely the foundation of white economic prosperity, but the foundation of white social equality, and thus the foundation of American democracy. But that was 150 years ago. And the slave south lost the war, after all. Was it not the America of Frederick Douglass that had prevailed and the Confederacy of Jefferson Davis that had been banished? Were we not a new country exalting in Martin Luther King Jr’s dream?

I was never quite that far gone. But I had been wrong about the possibility of Barack Obama. And it seemed fair to consider that I might be wrong about a good deal more.

– Ta-Nehisi Coates, “We Should Have Seen Trump Coming” in The Guardian. This essay, an excerpt from his upcoming book, is about so much more than the current president.