Thursday, March 19, 2015

Black Lives Matter

On St. Patrick's Day, Martese Johnson, a student at the University of Virginia, was arrested for public intoxication. This is what he looked like after the police took him to the ground:

martese johnson
 Last night, hundreds of UVA students rallied and marched in protest.








Embedded image permalink



















Embedded image permalink














They're just not going to take it any more. This is the kind of thing that gives me hope. I don't believe any of that "millenials are less racist" hype. But there is something more substantial going on. My generation does not remember the civil rights movement. We don't even remember Black Power and the controversies of the 1970s. We honor the achievements of the civil rights generation. They transformed the country for the better. But a critical mass of this generation is done living in their shadow. We're done comparing America to the White supremacist state it was and saying that because it's not that anymore everything is ok. We're ready to compare America to basic standards of justice, decency, and humanity. And when we do that, we find it wanting. We're not going to take it anymore.

It's still a small number of people who feel this way. But (people don't realize this) it was a relatively small number of people who made the civil rights movement happen. Most people did not march. Most people did not protest. We don't need most people. We just need a motivated and mobilized minority to achieve the change we seek.

There was a time not long ago when what happened to Martese Johnson would have gone unnoticed. Not anymore. Many people have woken up, and many people have been radicalized by what they have seen. It matters little that Michael Brown has been a less than perfect exemplar for the movement, any more than the deliberate misrepresentations of Rosa Parks in the 1950s delegitimized the civil rights movement. The movement, and the righteousness of its demands, was bigger than any one individual and story.

Last week, someone shot two police officers in Ferguson. Within four days, officials made an arrest and brought charges (amid allegations that they beat the individual). There are still questions about whether he event meant to shoot at the police. Meanwhile, we have killers on video, whose identities have been known for months, and no arrests have been made.

Tamir Rice's killer has not been arrested or charged.
Jason Harrison's killers have not been arrested or charged, and they are back on duty.
Eric Garner's killers are likewise free.
Antonio Zambrano-Montes' killers are free. 

In contrast to the Michael Brown case, these instances are on video. They show inexcusable and reckless violence. We're not going to take it anymore. The police have felt unfairly accused and criticized of late. That's understandable. But it could hardly be otherwise when the state tasks police with the job of enforcing an unjust status quo. From education to housing to employment, the racist structures of our society wrongfully harm millions of people. Sometimes, when police pull the trigger, they are only the final actors in a long process of the state denying the equal humanity of certain classes of its citizens. We had become accustomed to a situation in which the state exercised its monopoly on violence with relative impunity. But we're not going to take it any more. Now we demand accountability. Now we say that manslaughter and murder should be prosecuted regardless of who commits it.

Those who oppose the rule of law for all citizens don't seem to understand this: our view of the police has become more negative not so much because of specific incidents of bad behavior, but because those behaviors have been defended by police officials. In a country of 320 million people, you can find people abusing authority every day. What has been shocking is that police at the highest levels have publicly defended the indefensible all over the country. By doing so in cases like Tamir's and Eric's, they fail in their responsibility to exercise the state's power with restraint and fairness. By defending their own no matter what, they approach the issue with all the moral sophistication of a common street gang. We refuse to accept that this heavily armed group that has been given the power of violence should not be held to a higher standard.

I shouldn't let this go without saying that surely most police officers are good and decent people. But I can't emphasize enough that this misses the point entirely. Most educators are good and decent people. Yet our education system is racially segregated. Most homeowners are good and decent people. Yet our communities are segregated. Most Christians are good and decent people. Yet our churches are racially segregated. We are not attacking individual police officers. We are attacking a system of racism.

Here's another thing, the biggest thing, that gives me hope. Even though the majority of the White evangelical church still slumbers in its sin, a minority has woken up. Christians all over the country are quietly living and working in the neighborhoods that most Americans shun. People of color are taking leadership roles. And a growing number of evangelicals are discovering that passionate concern for things like Black Lives Matter is not less than orthodoxy; it is orthodoxy. A growing number are rejecting the syncretisms of our age: the materialist, feel-good faith, the nationalist faith, and most of all, the attempted union between Whiteness and Christianity. Growing numbers recognize that while the Gospel is more than the Old Testament prophetic tradition, it is certainly not less than that. Growing numbers are willing to reclaim biblical language of shalom, peace,  and mishpat, justice, and insist on their relevance today.

I mentioned to an elder from whom I am receiving spiritual instruction that I did not even recognize the Old Testament prophetic tradition of God's care for the weak and wrath toward oppressors until I was an adult. He, an utterly orthodox, conservative, elderly White man, simply said, "Well that's because oppression is our pet sin. Oppressors don't talk about oppression. And White folks have done a lot of evil things in this country." There was no trace of guilt or angst in his response, just simple Christian honesty and humility. A growing number of evangelicals are embracing this honesty.

At my alma mater, Moody Bible Institute, a bastion of historic fundamentalism, the president has unequivocally spoken about the unjust advantages White people have in the United States. For those who know a little of the history of Moody and of White fundamentalism more broadly, this is an astonishing change. The Gospel Coalition, an influential network of evangelical leaders, hosts honest discussion of racism on its website and is holding a big conference on the subject later this year.

It's too early to say that any of this is yet mainstream in White evangelicalism. But the ground is shifting beneath our feet. As a historian, I admit that I am not at all sure the Black Lives Matter Movement will amount to much. As a Christian, however, I have great hope. We need to pray more fervently, act more diligently, and call the church to rise up. What group or organization is better positioned to act locally in thousands of communities across the country? What group is better positioned to know its community's needs and the reforms that are needed? What group is better able to encourage spiritual depth and responsibility, and bring good news to the poor that is more than the empty, soulless materialism of the American Dream?

In the last movement, the White evangelical church reluctantly accepted the changes that had taken place. It followed. Now it is time to lead.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Sometime History Echoes. This Time It's Screaming At Us.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the Ferguson city government being caught with its white supremacist pants down is how precisely familiar all of this is to anyone who has studied the civil rights movement. I expect history to rhyme. But I'm still surprised when we get rote repetition.

The repetition is this: the leaders of the Ferguson city government are genuinely confused by the storm that has descended around them, just as White citizens in hundreds of local communities across the nation from the 1950s to the 1970s were baffled when "their Negroes" began to protest. I can't emphasize enough that White Americans of that era were not monstrous people who lied about what they knew to be true. They were utterly ordinary. The lies they told, they told first and most vigorously to themselves.  As most White Americans looked frowningly at the activism and protest in their communities, they pointed out that Blacks committed more crimes. They noted the soaring rate of illegitimacy. They demanded personal responsibility, a little more bootstrappin' and a little less complaining. Lies have a way of working on you until you come to need them, until they distort your ability to understand the world you live in. In 1963, living in an apartheid nation, large majorities of Whites told Gallup that Blacks were treated "the same as whites" in their community. We will never be able to quantify the psychological and spiritual carnage White Americans produced by their contortions. The devastation gathers slowly and invisibly, while the lie settles in so comfortably.

One way to look at it, even if not exactly quantify it, is to see the same incapacity for truth in their descendents. It would be a mistake to think that the current leaders of Ferguson (and many of their White constituents) are surprised because there is objective cause for confusion, as if the moral lines have become unclear. No, the surprise stems, as it did in the civil rights movement era, from a set of assumptions that has nothing to do with actual conditions in the real world. Chief Jackson of the Ferguson Police Department literally said, "There is not a racial problem in the police department." You might reasonably thereby conclude that Chief Jackson is a monster. That would make it easier on all of us, but it's not so easy. No, I'm quite sure that Chief Jackson is normal. He's probably even a devoted public servant.

Can you see how banal human evil is? We all go looking for Hitlers to condemn so that we don't have to admit that we need no introduction to the evil that has been documented in Ferguson. We need no introduction. People caught up in oppressive systems do not self-identify as oppressors. Defenders of White supremacy do not see themselves as such. One person's oppression is just another person's "the way things are." If we never wake up to the heartbreaking process of discovering our own lies, how can we be sure we won't participate in the kind of wrongs we've witnessed in Ferguson?

We're wrestling with a dubious inheritance. Whites of past generations grudgingly acquiesced to certain changes, but the lies, it has become all too clear, live on in mutated forms. Recent polling has shown that a majority of White Americans believe they face more discrimination than Black Americans. How can we possibly know ourselves, how can we possibly live at peace in the world, in the face of such depraved thinking? How can we be Christian? Make no mistake, we couldn't get these polling numbers without many White Christians thinking this way. This is a theological scandal.

But listen: the Gospel covers that too. There is forgiveness ready and waiting. And I suspect God sees what is less easy for us to see: that our thinking is not ours alone, that we are swept up in a current that we waded into before we knew better, that our group allegiances will not be undone lightly. There is grace for us, thank God. Yet some of us, by now, should know better. We must work against White supremacy and all forms of oppression of the poor with all the strength and wisdom we can muster. Sometimes, when I think about all the ways God has shown me mercy, and the experiences I've had, and then what I've done with them--well, I sometimes think I'm courting judgment.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Why We Must Call White Supremacy By Its Name

For too long, we've discussed American history in grossly irresponsible terms. We hear about America's "race problem" and the need for better "race relations." What we have been slow to grasp is that these terms are euphemisms for White supremacy. In recent decades historians have become increasingly precise, but there remains much work to do within the profession, and it will be a herculean task to get a more accurate and moral presentation to the public at large. To speak of America's "race problem"--as a recent popular documentary on the history channel did--is a little bit like defining World War Two as a "violence problem." A language of the Second World War without Nazis and concentration camps does not equip us to make sense of our past or present.

Such vagueness applied to World War Two is so obviously inadequate that it is absurd on its face. Yet we have indulged similar levels of absurdity in our perception of the American past, and thus, our present. As I look back over my archives, I know I have indulged this absurdity. We have avoided and found ways to talk around the elemental fact of White supremacy in this country. We continue to do so. When we speak of a "race problem," White supremacy is not necessarily implied. Indeed, because of the peculiar dynamics of racial identity and perception in this country, the culpability can flow in precisely the opposite direction. Because many White Americans have little awareness of their own racial identity, and thus of their own particularity, to speak of race is to automatically call Blackness to mind. African Americans are "raced" in a way that Whites simply are not (I argue this subtly distorts academic histories too). As a result, America's "problem with race" is little more than the colorblind racial order's more polite framing of the prior order's "Negro problem." It diverts attention from the core problem and places it on the population that has borne the brunt of that problem. I don't see how we can talk around White supremacy without falling into an ugly tradition of scapegoating and distortion.

To talk through White supremacy, to name it, to watch it grow and change, to study its defenders and opponents, is to value understanding more than fables. It is not about assigning blame. If you're simply an empiricist, it is about being accurate and precise. If you're a Christian, as I am, it is an integral part of following Jesus. How can I die to myself without calling into question the greatest idol this country has ever produced? If I cannot surrender my investment in Whiteness, I am like the rich young ruler who left in despair when he heard the demands Jesus placed on him.

Our ability to discuss White supremacy cuts to the very heart of whether we are willing to know ourselves and our heritage. Yet the contemporary racial order of colorblindness has clouded our minds and made honest conversations in many circles extremely difficult. Colorblindness posits that a vast distance separates our racial past from our racial present. It takes in the centuries-long White supremacist project and seems to see only a sustained run of coincidences. This myopia is sustained, in part, by vague language that elides how power and oppression have operated in American history. We must think more about how our everyday language can unintentionally support colorblindness rather than challenging it.

My intent here is not to document the reality of White supremacy. That is an important discussion, but skeptics have to genuinely want to learn before that conversation can be useful. Rather, I simply want to emphasize that our racial language shapes our racial reality, and we need to be more attentive to it. Moreover, if more of us named White supremacy as a matter of course, perhaps fewer of us would be mired in myth and ignorance. Consistently naming White supremacy instead of talking in general terms about racial problems will be an important part of overthrowing our sinful contemporary racial order.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Police States and Terrorism in American History

The New York Times has a great article today on efforts to chronicle and memorialize the thousands of lynchings that occurred in the South in the 19th and 20th centuries. I only wish the project, and the accompanying map, was nationwide. Oklahoma isn't even included, where hundreds of African Americans were murdered in Tulsa in 1921 when the White section of the city invaded Greenwood and destroyed it. So this compilation is incomplete, but still drives home the scale of the terrorism in a way that many Americans are probably not familiar with.

It is only relatively recently that historians have begun to try to describe these and similar events with the kind of straightforward language that we would apply to them anywhere else in the world. As historians, it is our job to try to historicize just about everything, including nations. So we need not be bound by patriotic untruths. But I don't think this more straightforward accounting of the American past has filtered down to popular understanding. In contemporary reporting from around the world, we are accustomed to hearing phrases like "police state" and "state-sponsored terrorism" and "lawless regions." In fact, such terms usefully describe many times and places in American history.

In part because of the interests of patriotism and nationalism, we tend to have a softened vocabulary about these events that obscures what actually occurred. White Christian terrorists, for example, have killed far more Americans on American soil than Muslim terrorists have. This is viscerally upsetting for many Americans to hear, and understandably so, but that's no reason to lie about it.

The Tulsa massacre mentioned above is a good example. Whites launched an invasion of a whole town, destroying it and rendering thousands homeless, killing probably hundreds. The numbers are hard to pin down, precisely because there were no repercussions for their actions. No one was interested in investigating. No accounting was made. The federal government stood down. The president ignored it. In contemporary terms, if this took place in another country, the news would describe a massacre that occurred in "a lawless tribal region where the authority of the central government is tenuous." But because we have these blatant fictions about how the United States was a place where rule of law really did exist across the color line, we resort to half-truths and obfuscations.

It will be fascinating to see the resistance that emerges as the Equal Justice Initiative seeks to place historical markers in a lot of southern towns that have no physical memory of these events. People who think it's fine to remember the Alamo, Gettysburg, the Holocaust, suddenly opt for amnesia when Black people dare to remember their past. And in that way, the struggles over historical memory become another front in the ongoing battle against White supremacy.