What do you say to someone who has been told their whole essence is whiteness and power and domination, and when that no longer exists, then they feel as if they are dying? … I don’t hear anyone speaking to the 45-year-old person in Appalachia who is dying at a young age, who feels like they’ve been eradicated because whiteness is so much smaller today than it was yesterday. Where is the theology that redefines for them what it means to be fully human? There’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning. We talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology. … I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them, rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational.
Civil Rights activist
Supremacy. That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Charlottesville, Ferguson, the backlash against Black Lives Matter, the election of Donald Trump, the inability of so many white Southerners to finally and fully let go of the Civil War, the “state’s rights” smokescreen, Neo-Nazis, the KKK, Jim Crow, the New Jim Crow, Confederate monuments and flags.
Why didn’t I see this before? The term put me off. White privilege, yes, guilty as charged. But “white supremacy” was reserved for a fringe element, pathetic “losers,” armed and armored, grasping desperately for some twisted approximation of self-respect. A tiny fraction of the population, not to be taken seriously. The rest of us don’t have anything in common with those people, do we?
But supremacy is bigger and more pervasive. It explains a lot about who we are and how we got here.
We? I mean the white “we,” of course.
“We” still see the country as “ours.” We may tolerate, even accommodate, the presence of others — or not — but when all is said and done, or not done, it’s our country, our “system.” Whether we’re fully conscious and intentional about it, too many white Americans want to hold onto being the majority.
White Southerners have more experience with this. After the Civil War, following the abolition of slavery, they designed a system to assure dominance over black Southerners: Jim Crow laws, reinforced by the terrorism of the KKK. After Reconstruction, the North and the federal government turned a blind eye.
That led to the Great Migration, as black Southerners moved North in large numbers to the urban centers, looking for a better way of life. Northern whites developed their own system of segregation and subjugation, characterized by white flight and inner-city ghettos, keeping the black population separate, unequal, largely invisible. Discrimination in housing, education and employment was rampant.
With the Civil Rights Movement and the 1967 urban uprisings, African Americans asserted their rights and vented their justifiable anger. There has been progress, some upward mobility, some desegregation. But not enough integration. As Ferguson demonstrated, the subjugation simply became more subtle. White police departments, taking their lead from the wishes of the white upper classes — who demanded a reduction in black crime and didn’t want to be bothered by the black underclass — nickeled and dimed low-income blacks through an onerous system of fines and incarceration. And, as we now know, by killing an inordinate number of unarmed black men, using the higher crime rates of poor neighborhoods as an excuse for “cracking down.”
The Republican Party, meanwhile, champions of “law and order,” promoted a vision of an idyllic past when whites were dominant, which is at odds with the present reality for many white Americans, who feel they have lost their privileged socioeconomic status. They are struggling and looking for people to blame. So they blame blacks and Muslims and immigrants from south of our border and anyone else they can think of.
Thanks to gerrymandering, lax campaign finance laws, voter suppression efforts (not limited to the Russians), and the Electoral College overruling the popular vote, white Americans managed to “elect” Donald Trump, who exploited their fears of changing demographics and their resentment over the damage done to the middle class by economic inequality.
You could call this white supremacy’s last stand — because the demographic changes are irreversible. It’s only a matter of time and white supremacists know it, which explains our deep political polarization, the anti-globalization and anti-immigrant movements. One of our two main political parties is almost entirely white and mostly male. The other is too timid to be the empowered champion of diversity that we need in order to move forward as a nation.
Congress remains mostly white and male. State legislatures are dominated by Republicans. Police departments are still mostly white and male, even when they serve majority-minority communities.
Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, in the three years (this month) since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, we are more aware of how racism has taken new forms in a white-dominant system that white Americans support, if only by our passivity and silence.
Meanwhile, the 2016 election brought the intentional white supremacy movement into the open, making it visible, and forcing us to deal with the tough, necessary work of healing our nation’s racial divide.
What seems clear to me now is that we — the white “we” — are still trying to hang onto our privileged comfort zone, however well-intentioned we might think we are, even here in Oak Park, where for 50 years, we have “managed” diversity so that the community remains “stable” and doesn’t give in to “white flight” like so many communities in the Chicago metropolitan area and nationwide.
We have been successful, to a point. But what’s our next step? Is Oak Park’s experiment in integration only successful if we remain a white-dominant community? Will diversity remain stable if we ever become majority-minority? Those are important questions.
Nationwide, white America is indeed experiencing a spiritual crisis. The white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia and elsewhere are desperately afraid that someone else will dominate if they don’t. They see the world as a system of winners and losers and they want to stay on the side of the winners.
We need a new model. The goal is not to go from white dominance to some other dominance. The goal is to get rid of supremacy, period. The answer is not to invite “them” to “our” table. It’s their table too. They’re already at the table. White Americans have so much to learn from black Americans if we’re willing to listen.
If we need a model, look to Canada, which is a far more diverse country and has become stronger for it. We — the many-ethnic, multiracial we — need to promote a new vision: of a post-supremacy nation.
The first steps toward that future are happening. In Oak Park, the Community of Congregations is working to build bridges with Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. And nationally, the symbols of the old Confederacy are disappearing at long last. Strange as it sounds, we can thank Michael Brown and Donald Trump (as well as the Black Lives Matter and Trump Resistance movements) for helping us take this step.
Our Racist-in-Chief has failed miserably to make America great “again,” but he may yet inspire the rest of us — the all-inclusive “us” — to make America greater than it’s ever been.
But only if white Americans, partnering as equals with black Americans and all other Americans, do the hard work necessary to let go of our unhealthy attachment to supremacy.
And there’s no better place to start than here.
Whiteness is a kind of religion, and the sin of the white liberal is to believe that racism is somebody else’s problem. It keeps us from seeing how we, too, have been twisted by its lies. We can’t just put that on the “rednecks.” … It goes deeper than that. It’s the system in which we live. … This is not just about policy; it’s a problem that goes to the heart of who we are.
Durham, North Carolina