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 Ends of Silence

Who can afford to be quiet when the white supremacists come to town?

I had a quick reaction when I first saw the photos of white nationalists gathering by torchlight in Charlottesville on Friday night: Please everyone, can we just ignore them? Any attention, I thought, would benefit the idiotic agenda of these racist young men. Look away, was my instinct; let them revel in their lunacy and absurdist version of reality. If a couple hundred nazis hold a white pride rally and no one else cares doesn’t that reveal how little they matter?

But my quick reaction was wrong. And though the events following the Friday night march might have been less violent had my reaction been widely shared, it still would have been wrong.

36483785766_2154aa7d17_h
Credit: Susan Melkisethian

To begin with, thinking that the best response would have been a non-response to a perspective which demands one’s persecution or annihilation can only seem reasonable to those who aren’t threatened by that hateful perspective. More to the point: Only a white person – me! – would think it rationale to be quiet in the face of such blatant white supremacy.  I saw those torch-wielding men and thought, What a bunch of cowards! Their insecurities seemed palpable; their willingness to be manipulated obvious to the point of easy ridicule. Any attention seemed like adding kindling to their pitiful, dim flame.

I was thinking about these young men as bullies. The bully wants you to react because he’s itching for a fight. The bully only knows confrontation and any other form of communication is wasted on his narrow vision of reality. Your mother’s advice about bullies, though not always practical, contained some wisdom: ignore a bully and he’ll often go away to find someone else who’ll agree to his rules of engagement.

But the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville are not like bullies at all, which leads to the second reason my reaction to them was wrong. According to news reports, many of the marchers wore those red Make America Great Again hats while carrying their signs and chanting their bigotry. The man who owns that slogan and that red hat, the president, still hasn’t directly confronted the marchers or their agenda, choosing instead to blandly condemn “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.”

Many sides. This is what my gut reaction missed. The white supremacists appear so fanatical in those photos that it’s tempting to laugh and then turn away. As Vann R. Newrick II wrote in The Atlantic, “It’s easier to joke about losers camping out in a park than to consider them capable of the kinds of paradigm-shifting horror that destroyed countless black families.” But this is a fatal mistake because, regardless of their appearance or the outrage of so many, these men understand that their assumptions are not those of an easily marginalized or ignored bully, but of much of the nation, including, it’s not a stretch to assume, the president. So when he, the most powerful man in the world, talks about the events in Charlottesville, he’s not talking about the overwhelming forces of good standing against the small vanguard of hate; he’s conjuring a strange sort of predetermined battle in which everyone is equally to blame. The problem, for the president and much of the nation, isn’t with the white nationalists’ premise but in how they advanced it this weekend.

We heard a lot about the silent majority this past election cycle, people who related profoundly to candidate Trump’s vision of a country returned to a mythical past. It’s that word silent that seems important now. The silence of the powerful is deadly. It’s what allows the president to recast the day’s events as an ideologically-neutral fight which should have been fought with more dignity. It’s what will allow so many of the president’s supporters to role their eyes at the news, claiming that the events have been blown out of proportion while admiring the marchers’ goal of defending the statue of Robert E. Lee. That silence creeps into the chests of even those who are disgusted by the hate on display in Charlottesville but who’d rather avoid the complicated conversation, the awkward moment.

But this silence only cuts one way and many of those who showed up to oppose the white supremacists must understand this innately. For while the silent majority has the luxury to watch its agenda advanced from the sidelines, those who’ve long suffered under that agenda have no such privilege. Ignoring the foul propaganda doesn’t delegitimize it because it’s already legitimate. Newrick again: “[E]ven the most feared white supremacists in the lore of Jim Crow were just regular white men, transformed from lives as politicians, mechanics, farmers, and layabouts by the sheer power of ideology. And often, their movements were considered “fringe” and marginal—until they weren’t.”

The events in Charlottesville today exist not as an anomaly that can safely be ignored but as a veil pulled back revealing the ends of silence. So silence, no matter the cost, cannot be an option.

“Please no don’t let him be gone Lord.”

A Lament for Philando Castile in the Words of Diamond Reynolds and her Four-Year-Old Daughter

On July 6, 2016 Philando Castile was killed by Jeronimo Yanez, a Minnesota police officer. Sitting next to him was his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds who, once Philando had been shot, began live-streaming the tragic scene while pleading to God for his life. Her four year-old daughter watched it all from the back seat. Today officer Yanez was acquitted.  After the verdict Philando’s mother said what so many know: “The system in this country continues to fail black people and will continue to fail us.”

The following is a lament for Philando Castile in the words of Diamond Reynolds and her daughter as recorded on her live-streamed video.


Oh my god please don’t tell me he’s dead. Please don’t tell me my boyfriend just went like that.

Please don’t tell me this. Lord please Jesus don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.

You made us retreat before the enemy, and our adversaries have plundered us. You gave us up to be devoured like sheep and have scattered us among the nations. (Psalm 44:10-11)

Where’s my daughter? You got my daughter?”

[Daughter crying in background]

Please don’t tell me he’s gone. Please Jesus no. Please no. Please no don’t let him be gone Lord.

Please don’t tell me my boyfriend’s gone. He don’t deserve this. Please. He’s a good man, he works for St. Paul Public school. He doesn’t have no records of anything. He’s never been in jail, anything. He’s not a gang member, anything.

All this came upon us, though we had not forgotten you; we had not been false to your covenant. Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path. (Psalm 44:17-18)

You cover him Lord. That you allow him to still be here with us Lord. Still with me… Lord. Please Lord wrap your arms around him. Please Lord make sure that he’s OK, that he’s breathing Lord. Please Lord you know our rights Lord, you know we are innocent people Lord. We are innocent people. We are innocent people. We are innocent. My four-year-old…

How long will the enemy mock you, God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them! (Psalm 74:10-11)

[Child] I’m scared.

Don’t be scared.

[Child] It’s OK mommy.

I can’t believe they just did this I’m fucking, fucking…fuck! [screams].

[Child] It’s OK, I’m right here with you.

Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Before our eyes, make known among the nations that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants. (Psalm 79:10)

Y’all please pray for us, Jesus, please y’all.

[Cries]

 

Photo: Lorie Shaull.

Cheering Creation’s Demise

The ambivalence about climate change by many white Christians isn’t only about money and scientific skepticism.

This afternoon the president announced that he is withdrawing the nation from the Paris Climate Accord. Many who oppose this move – like me – will see the motivation by the president and his supporters to walk away from the commitment to reduce climate change to be about two things: the economy and/or a disregard for science. Mostly what we hear from those who disregard climate change is that it is either a fiction or, slightly more benevolently, that we must prioritize our economy while, eventually, addressing environmental concerns. There’s another lens through which to view this decision, and its one made most visible by the support by so many white Christians of this president and his environmentally-destructive agenda.

2261324662_526eacbafb_z
Photo credit: pawpaw67

The Bible is full of imagery and metaphors taken from creation. The biblical narrative begins in a garden and ends with a return to Eden, this time within God’s Holy City. We’re told that the creation groans for redemption and humanity’s vocation from the beginning was to work with God to care for the earth and all of its inhabitants. So why the enthusiastic support by Christians for a presidential administration that so blatantly disregards basic Christian beliefs about creation?

Greed and scientific skepticism are not enough to explain this strange phenomenon. For this we need to recognize the power of white supremacy as a guiding, if generally invisible and unacknowledged, force when it comes to how many white Christians see the environment and their role in caring for it. The history of white supremacy as the beginning of the construct of race and racial hierarchies that we experience today is rooted in a moment that combined the colonialist enterprise with a supersessionist theology which detached Christianity from its Jewish roots.

In his important book, The Christian Imagination, tracing this historical development, Willie Jennings writes that the “earth itself was barred from being a constant signifier of identity. Europeans defined Africans and all others apart from the earth even as they separated them from their lands.” Rather than viewing the new cultures and peoples through the lens of creation, the colonialists began viewing people through a racial gaze. He goes on: “They saw themselves as those ordained to enact providential transition. In doing so they positioned themselves as those first conditioning their world rather than being conditioned by it.” [Emphasis mine.] In other words, as Europeans began understanding themselves as racially white, they no longer viewed themselves as being formed by God’s creation; now they were the ones with the racially-sanctioned ability to categorize, form, and exploit those with whom they came in contact, as well as the lands these cultures had long inhabited.

When white Christians forsake the clear biblical mandate to care for God’s creation and cheer for the president’s call to put our economy first while ignoring the obvious threats to this earth and its vulnerable inhabitants we are simply exhibiting the logic of white supremacy. In accepting our detachment from creation and claiming a god-like place of “conditioning” the world through our racialized gaze we have closed our eyes and stopped up our ears to the plight of this world.

When white Christians applaud policies that will further our planet’s destruction we might rightly feel many things, but surprise can’t be one of them.

“African-American wealth is about 5 percent of white wealth…”

The Color of LawToday African-American incomes on average are about 60 percent of average white incomes. But African-American wealth is about 5 percent of white wealth. Most middle-class families in this country gain their wealth from the equity they have in their homes. So this enormous difference between a 60 percent income ratio and a 5 percent wealth ratio is almost entirely attributable to federal housing policy implemented through the 20th century.

African-American families that were prohibited from buying homes in the suburbs in the 1940s and ’50s and even into the ’60s, by the Federal Housing Administration, gained none of the equity appreciation that whites gained. So … the Daly City development south of San Francisco or Levittown or any of the others in between across the country, those homes in the late 1940s and 1950s sold for about twice national median income. They were affordable to working-class families with an FHA or VA mortgage. African-Americans were equally able to afford those homes as whites but were prohibited from buying them. Today those homes sell for $300,000 [or] $400,000 at the minimum, six, eight times national median income. …

So in 1968 we passed the Fair Housing Act that said, in effect, “OK, African-Americans, you’re now free to buy homes in Daly City or Levittown” … but it’s an empty promise because those homes are no longer affordable to the families that could’ve afforded them when whites were buying into those suburbs and gaining the equity and the wealth that followed from that.

The white families sent their children to college with their home equities; they were able to take care of their parents in old age and not depend on their children. They’re able to bequeath wealth to their children. None of those advantages accrued to African-Americans, who for the most part were prohibited from buying homes in those suburbs.

–  Fresh Air interview with Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law about the very intentional federal government policies that are responsible for the racial segregation that continues today, as well as the ramifications of those policies such as the massive wealth gap mentioned above. The more I learn about racial segregation and the policies behind it the more I’m convinced that segregation is the key to understanding so much about the racial disparities in our country, disparities that seem to grow larger as time goes by.

Mourning in America

Lamenting our divided churches on the day before the presidential inauguration.

I woke up to a foreboding on the day before the presidential inauguration. It’s mostly not a sadness for the country I feel, though there’s much to mourn as we watch the decisions that will be made and the warped assumptions that will become normal. I care about these things but I’m not an expert. Also, history reminds us that the noisiest thing at the moment may not be the most important.

No, the weight of grief is tied to an unseen future in which the many Christians who support the new president continue to do so even as their fellow-citizens, many of them Christians, suffer under the president’s agenda. I cannot imagine a line that hasn’t already been crossed that will change their minds. Logically, then, we have to assume that their support will continue, that something about their experience of these days and their place within them will keep them from believing the pain of their neighbors.

The American churches have long been divided but we’ve often cooperated and this has given many of us us reason to hope. That hope, in me, is stretched thin today when one group of Christians prays for the success of the man who threatens the safety and flourishing of their family in Christ. I know this isn’t new. About a particularly horrific lynching in 1892 Ida B. Wells wrote, “American Christianity heard of this awful affair and read of its details and neither press nor pulpit gave the matter more than a passing comment.” The silence continues.

The divisions aren’t new but today their breadth seems endless. May God have mercy on our churches, on his church. May our compromised witness to the Gospel of Jesus be restored, even now, in our desperate weakness.

“If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?”

If you not already heard it, this Fresh Air interview with New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones about public school segregation is essential listening. A taste:

The original mission of public schools … is this understanding that no matter where you come from, you will go into the doors of a school and every child will receive the same education.

And no, my daughter is not going to get an education that she would get if I paid $40,000 a year in private-school tuition, but that’s kind of the whole point of public schools.

And I say this — and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent, because a lot of other parents look at you a little like you’re maybe not as good of a parent — I don’t think she’s deserving of more than other kids. I just don’t. I think that we can’t say “This school is not good enough for my child” and then sustain that system. I think that that’s just morally wrong. If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?

One more:

When I started what I kind of call the segregation beat about five years ago … I think we had stopped talking about this as a problem. If you look at No Child Left Behind, which comes out of the Bush administration, that was all about giving up on integration in schools and just saying, “We’re going to make these poor black and Latino schools equal to white schools by testing and accountability.”

So no one was discussing integration anymore. I think it’s because … we never really wanted this. … It’s always had to be forced, and as soon as … our elected officials and our courts lost the will to force it, most white Americans were just fine with that. …

One of the things that I really try to do with my work is show how racial segregation and racial inequality was intentionally created with a ton of resources. From the federal government, to the state, to city governments, to private citizens, we put so much effort into creating this segregation and inequality, and we’re willing to put almost no effort in fixing it, and that’s the problem.