First posted in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
In his little book about race, The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry grapples with his history as a member of a southern land-owning family and how his racial whiteness impacts him in ways he’d previously been oblivious to. He’s willing himself to wake up. “What I had done caused my mind to be thrown back forcibly upon its sources: my home countryside, my own people and history. And for the first time I felt my nakedness.“
This frightening vulnerability – nakedness – is an inevitable part of opening our eyes to the terrifying landscape in which we’ve blissfully made our homes. Those whose racial power has concealed reality from us are shocked by what we had missed. After all, the extent of the damage and the depth of the pain are profound. How is it that we had been so blind?
The racial terror that is is generally a strong current below the surface, powerfully felt if not seen by those of us with the privilege of remaining on the surface, is boiling over. Families grieve loved ones killed on video. Cities convulse and burn. The pandemic continues to ravage communities of color. And those of us, like Berry, who’d previously found the current to be a benign aid to our way of life are having a harder time sleeping. We are waking up, by choice or by force.
This is how we discover our nakedness. Our previously held assumptions slip through our hands. How we’d imagined the world, all evidence to the contrary, is revealed for the dumb fog it always was. Interpretations and ideologies crumble. Our eyes open to the horrors with which we’ve been complicit, the lies we’ve told with full-throated conviction, and we have to ask: What is left?
We’ll want to cover ourselves now. To be so exposed is a disorienting experience and too many white people choose, after glimpsing reality, to step back into the fog. There is another option.
In 1961 James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.” For those of us who are not black, the righteous anger felt by black Americans is a guide. Yes, we will feel angry but there is something else for us too: lament.
I’ve come to think of lament as a sort of limp. It does not keep us from moving forward, from joining the struggle for freedom. But neither does it absolve or sooth us. Lament is always there. It serves not as a moment or a season but an ongoing posture for the previously deceived, the still complicit, the too-slowly waking up.
Baldwin asks about how to feel the rage without being consumed by it. The answer, according to some friends who have known this life-long anger, is to not forget it. Remember the rage even when this country pretends to have changed. By staying in touch with the anger, these friends are not shocked, though still wrecked, by the racist barrage at times like these.
This is what the limp of lament can offer us. We are steeled against false promises of comfort and invitations to old delusions. We clothe ourselves with grief, anger, prayer. We join the chorus of those singing on the edge of despair, teetering but not falling, held by that newly discovered tether: the truth.
I first wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
My family moved to southern California the summer before my freshmen year of high school. That was the summer the Lakers lost to the Bulls in the NBA Finals. I think that loss was totally incidental to my decision to become an LA Clippers fan because the Clippers were so much worse than the Lakers. Sure, the Lakers may have lost to the Bulls but at least they got to the finals. Or made the playoffs. Or had a winning season. Oh man, the Clippers were horrible.
(Why did I choose the Clippers when most of my new friends were Lakers fans. I’ve no idea, though it probably reveals something about a contrarian personality that persists to this day.)
We all knew the Clippers were bad – it was so gratifying, and surprising any time they won – but most of us casual fans didn’t know about the particular badness of their owner, Donald Sterling. I had pretty much forgotten about my days as a Clippers fan until Sterling fell into the news a couple of years ago, his racism on public display thanks to recorded voicemails courtesy of his mistress. “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with – walking with black people.”
Apparently Sterling’s racism was an open secret and eventually he was forced to sell the team. (The Clippers are now consistently decent. I was a couple of decades early.) All of this came back in vivid detail as I listened to ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast about the Sterling saga. It’s a really interesting look at the backstory that led to Sterling and his wife owning the team, the shady ways they build their fortune, and the racism that shaped how Sterling thought about his players, the black players particularly.
One of the things that caught my ear was how the host described the racist things Sterling was recorded saying. I’m not sure it was quite hyperbole – it was, after all, terrible stuff – but I got this sense that she wanted all of us to understand that she understood just how terrible it was. In a later episode one of the players who was on the team when Sterling’s racism broke into the open talks about his confusion about everyone’s reaction. He says something to the effect of: Everybody knew this guy. Why are you acting shocked now? Just because it’s public? It was an interesting contrast with the host’s disdain.
I thought about the collective reaction to Sterling back when the story broke. Here’s part of what I wrote then:
Sterling has been known for years to be prejudiced in his real estate dealings. He didn’t want to rent to Hispanics because they “smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He opined that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The Department of Justice sued Sterling in 2006, accusing him of housing discrimination. Where was the anger then? Perhaps it’s just easier to direct outrage toward those who make their racism explicit. Prejudiced systems and policies are more complicated, a fuzzier point to rally around. Maybe that’s why Sterling’s implicit racism didn’t elicit calls for his ouster. Or maybe it’s because acknowledging radicalized systems and policies implicates a whole lot of people and not just one, unlikable individual.
Those of us in positions of cultural privilege and power lose nothing when we call for Sterling to step down. It costs us nothing to distance ourselves from his racist language and perspectives on the world. But the same wouldn’t be true were we to call out the underlying racist structures that have made Sterling a very rich man while marginalizing his tenants, employees, and players. Shining a light into these shadows may well mean shining the light on ourselves. Much better, don’t you think, to direct our attention at one pitiful man?
All of this is a long way of getting at a tendency those of us who pursue racial justice should aim to avoid, especially those of us who are white and Christian. Scapegoating the obvious racist feels good for how I’m distanced from racism, but it does very little beyond feed my self-righteousness. The good work comes when I wonder about the similarities between Sterling and myself. Where is the propensity toward (racist) sin shared between us? Where might his public shame provoke personal repentance and confession?
Self-righteous scapegoating feels really nice for a few minutes, but it does nothing to address the racial injustices that persist long after Sterling was forced to sell his team. For that, we need a bit more honesty and humility.
I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
A few weeks ago a friend retweeted a well-known bishop who is vocal in his opposition to racism who had declared something along the lines of: I’d rather not go to heaven if I’ve got to be there with white evangelicals. To this my friend added, “I hope to have a good conversation with the bishop about this a few thousand years from now.” To his witty response, I commented,
Reminds me of a large group conversation I was in yesterday…
Person: “Will there be racists in heaven?”
Me under my breath: “I sure as heck hope so or I’m in a world of hurt.”
I’m still thinking about this short exchange. I think my friend’s response was right: I expect many of us will be surprised about who we’re spending eternity with. And I think mine was too: If sin of any kind – including racist ones – is going to keep someone from heaven than I’m out.
And yet. I think there’s more to wonder about here.
During the same meeting I mentioned in my Twitter comment we found ourselves discussing which Christian doctrines are worth going to the mat for and which fall into an agree-to-disagree category. Or, to use the language of the bishop’s provocative tweet, which Christian beliefs can be considered central-enough to salvation that they might impact a person’s salvation? In our meeting the example of racism was brought up. Might one’s posture toward racism be an example of something that, however odious and deadly, might be considered a non-essential to Christian orthodoxy?
You can imagine that there were some differing opinions on this question. Those of us for whom racism remains largely in the abstract – a sin to resist and repent of – were willing to consider it a matter of great importance, but perhaps not raised to the level of orthodoxy. (I don’t know for sure, but I imagine for some of us white Christians this open-heartedness has to do with those family members we love who remain happily ensconced in their racism. It’s tough for us to talk about the theological significance of one’s beliefs about race when the people we’re talking about are grandma and grandpa.)
And then there were those whose experience with race and racism is absolutely real. They experience in their bodies the desecration of the imago Dei and there is nothing secondary or peripheral about it.
Racism is an interlocking system of oppresion that is designed to promote and maintain White supremacy, the notion that White people – including their bodies, aesthetics, beliefs, values, customs, and culture – are inherently superior to all other races and therefore should wield dominion over the rest of creation, including other people groups, the animal kingdom, and the earth itself.
Racism, Walk-Barnes points out repeatedly, is not a matter of private prejudice or relational separateness; it is a matrix of beliefs and behaviors which systematically elevate some at the expense of another person’s suffering. Viewed – experienced – thusly, it’s hard to make a case that racism is anything other than a central concern of Jesus’ gospel. And so it must be for all of his followers too.
I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
Yesterday morning I walked three quarters of a mile from my in-law’s home in Brownsville, TN to this roadside marker beside a small family cemetery.
James Bond, a quick internet search will reveal, was once one of Tennessee’s largest slaveholders.
By the eve of the Civil War, Bond had amassed property holdings in Haywood County alone of more than seventeen thousand acres and approximately 220 slaves. In 1859 his five plantations yielded more than one thousand bales of cotton and nearly twenty-two thousand bushels of corn. The federal manuscript census for 1860 estimated his total wealth at just under $800,000. (By comparison, the total value of all farmland, buildings, and other improvements in the entire county of Johnson–situated in the mountainous region in the northeastern part of the state–was just under $790,000.)
The average passerby will intuit none of this from the marker standing watch over the great pioneer’s grave even though almost nothing on that marker would have been accomplished or amassed without those women and men he enslaved.
It’s not exactly a secret that James Bond owned people; people in this town know it, or at least some of them do. But seeing a sanitized version of his legacy etched in steel does reveal something about our shared memory. After all, the choice – and it must have been a conscious decision – to gloss over the source of the man’s wealth and generosity was an act of deliberate forgetfulness.
I’m sure this sort of thing is not unique to this country. It’s one of the privileges exerted by the powerful in any society to remember history in a manner wherein our forefathers and mothers retain their heroic status. But still, there is a particular way in which we forget things in the U.S.A.
In 1962 James Baldwin published a letter to his nephew. In it, he warns his young namesake about the dangers he will face from forgetful white Americans.
I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
Baldwin was surely thinking about more than deceptive roadside memorials to slaveholders, but it does illustrate his point in concrete and metal.
The gravity of Christian worship is the Lord’s Supper when bread is broken and wine poured out. “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me… This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11:24-25) In remembrance. There are echoes here of the many times God commanded his people to remember their former captivity and God’s saving intervention.
Forgetfulness, in other words, is not normal for Christians, at least not the willful variety. Remembering is one of the choices we can make which draws us toward our Savior and into the presence of sisters and brothers. And yes, this is a remembering that centers on Christ, but at table we also remember precisely why we come so hungry and thirsty. We remember our sins, even the ones previous generations worked so hard to forget.
This week, using this helpful site, some of us posted to social media which Native American people’s land we were celebrating Thanksgiving from. It’s true that this could easily slide into a kind of meaningless virtue signaling. But, for some, it represents a decision to remember what has been forgotten for so long that many of us hadn’t even known that it could be remembered. It’s a small decision which can remind us that forgetting isn’t inevitable.
After visiting James Bond’s grave, I walked to the small town square which is dominated by a monument dedicated to “the Confederate dead of Haywood County.” There, a block away, is a recently placed monument to Elbert Williams, a man known as the NAACP’s first martyr. For his efforts to register black voters, Williams was kidnapped by the police and drowned in the Hatchie River.
I’m not sure why the Tennessee Historical Commission decided to erect this marker so many decades after Williams was lynched, but its presence is notable. Standing in the shadow of the county courthouse is this honest testimony to an ugly past and proof that, if we want to badly enough, we can remember what was previously and purposefully forgotten.
I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
This week I learned that there’s something called the World Socialist Website and that they published an interesting interview with James McPherson who’s book about the Civil War is exceptionally good. Anyway, the interview is ostensibly about The New York Times’ recently published 1619 Project and it quickly becomes clear that neither McPherson or his interviewer are all that impressed with it. I’ve not read all of the 1619 articles but what I’ve read – and the podcast episodes I’ve listened to – have been well done and informative, so I was interested in McPherson’s critique.
Some of you might be interested in the whole thing, but here’s the portion of the interview that jumped out to me.
Q. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer and leader of the 1619 Project, includes a statement in her essay—and I would say that this is the thesis of the project—that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”
A. Yes, I saw that too. It does not make very much sense to me. I suppose she’s using DNA metaphorically. She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.
But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.
Q. Could you speak on this a little bit more? Because elsewhere in her essay, Hannah-Jones writes that “black Americans have fought back alone” to make America a democracy.
A. From the Quakers in the 18th century, on through the abolitionists in the antebellum, to the radical Republicans in the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the NAACP which was an interracial organization founded in 1909, down through the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there have been a lot of whites who have fought against slavery and racial discrimination, and against racism. Almost from the beginning of American history that’s been true. And that’s what’s missing from this perspective.
McPherson, if I’m reading him correctly, takes issue with Hannah-Jones for a few reasons. First, he sees similar themes of racism in the histories of other societies. Second, he doesn’t think that anti-black racism is the DNA of this country. And third, he sees certain white people like the Quakers as revealing that it’s not only black people who’ve fought to make America truly a democracy.
I don’t think his first concern deserves much of a response; I’m not sure anyone would disagree, including the contributors to the 1619 Project. (Having said that, it’s interesting how often those who want to downplay the power of race and the persistence of racism bring up this sort of thing, as though the fact that there is racism in other countries somehow makes it less important. There’s plenty to explore about what is distinct about American racism – the unique ways whiteness gets legally codified in the U.S.A., the tortured logic of the founders who had to square visions of liberty with their own enslaving tendencies – but we’ll leave that for another day.) The second two, though, are worth exploring for what they reveal about the assumptions under-girding how we think about race.
Is racism a central theme to this nation’s founding? McPherson thinks it is but also seems to believe that Hannah-Jones sees it as too central of a theme. This might seem like a quibble, but I actually think it’s an important distinction. Over the years I’ve interacted with white people who are quick to acknowledge that racism is a part of the nation’s history, but one that can be quantified and contained to certain moments and individuals. Once the claim is made, as the 1619 Project does repeatedly, that racism taints everything about the U.S.A.’s founding mythology, well, that’s where the trouble starts.
In part, I think, this has to do with one’s understanding of what racism is. For many it can be located in explicit actions or policies and, when it is, they have no trouble denouncing it. But the argument that people like Hannah-Jones are advancing is that racism functions more like a lens through which the world is viewed. This means that more of our shared history than just the obviously racist stuff has to be reckoned with through this lens.
This leads to McPherson’s third concern which has to do with the exceptional white people who bravely stood against slavery. He’s right about this, thankfully, though I’m not sure I’d characterize this as optimistically as he does: “there have been a lot of whites who have fought against slavery and racial discrimination, and against racism.” Later in the interview he raises Abraham Lincoln up as an example. Yes, he admits, Lincolns views on race were complicated but he evolved over time.
Q. Is it correct to say that by the end of his life Lincoln had drawn to a position proximate to that of the Radical Republicans?
A. He was moving in that direction. In his last speech—it turned out to be his last speech—he came out in favor of qualified suffrage for freed slaves, those who could pass a literacy test and those who were veterans of the Union army.
But the important historical fact that Lincoln’s views about African American people changed over time – during the war he lectured a delegation of black leaders about why it was the presence of black people which caused the war and why they’d need to emigrate to Africa after the war – doesn’t mean that he shed his racist lens. One of the insights of David Blight’s really good biography about Frederick Douglass is that it was very possible to be an earnest white abolitionist and still hold paternalistic and prejudiced assumptions about the very people you worked so hard to free.
So, to say that African American people, as those who’ve seen clearly the hypocrisies of the democracy, are the ones who’ve alone fought to hold the country to its promises is simply to notice how race has functioned. As Hannah-Jones writes, “More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.” This isn’t to say that some white people haven’t opposed racism and its many expressions – slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, mass incarceration, etc. – only that such righteous opposition does not free us completely from our captivity to, as Bryan Stevenson says, the narrative of racial difference. Lincoln could free the slaves and remain captive to this devious narrative.
This is all a long way of saying that how we think about racism – what we think it is – impacts significantly what we think an adequate response to racism is. Hannah-Jones and others are right, in my opinion, to think about race as a smog or an operating system or a strand of DNA. It’s not our only story, but we cannot understand any of our shared story without reckoning with racism. And, for those of us who are white, there’s actually quite a bit of freedom that comes from admitting our inability to keep this country’s promises for liberty and justice on our own.
I have a hunch that Hannah-Jones would agree with McPherson’s conviction that racism is not a permanent condition, or at least that it doesn’t have to be. The really important question has to do with how we get there. It seems to me that confessing precisely the extent of the problem is the place to begin.