Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thoughts For Sunday

 Isaiah Chapter 59

Justice is turned back,
    and righteousness stands far away;
for truth has stumbled in the public squares,
    and uprightness cannot enter.
Truth is lacking,
    and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
    that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no one,
    and wondered that there was no one to intercede;
then his own arm brought him salvation,
    and his righteousness upheld him.
He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
    and a helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
    and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.
 According to what they have done,
    so will he repay
wrath to his enemies
    and retribution to his foes...
For he will come like a pent-up flood
    that the breath of the Lord drives along.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The War Against Black Communities

This, from the grand jury transcript of Darren Wilson's testimony, says it all:
Wilson: “It is an antipolice area for sure.”
Prosecutor: “And when you say antipolice, tell me more?
Wilson: “There’s a lot of gangs that reside or associate with that area. There’s a lot of violence in that area, there’s a lot of gun activity, drug activity, it is just not a very well-liked community. That community doesn’t like the police.”
Prosecutor: “Were you pretty much on high alert being in that community by yourself, especially when Michael Brown said, ‘[expletive] what you say,’ I think he said?”
Wilson: “Yes.”
Prosecutor: “You were on pretty high alert at that point knowing the vicinity and the area that you’re in?”
Wilson: “Yes, that’s not an area where you can take anything really. Like I said, it is a hostile environment.” 
Black communities full of normal hardworking people are seen, from the outside, as "hostile environments" by most White Americans. The police roll into them with the mindset, as Wilson displayed here, that they are entering enemy territory. 

When liberal, highly educated Whites in my circles find out where Alicia and I live, they are often mystified. They say things like, "Isn't that a bad area?" Because, don't you know, it's a hostile environment. It's enemy territory.

What they don't know is that it is by far the nicest, friendliest place we've ever lived. What they don't know is that we live there for our own sake, to escape the spiritual impoverishment of this decadent society.

I wish Darren Wilson would have known a little something about the community he drove into that day. I wish America would know.

Friday, November 28, 2014

What is The Investment in Whiteness?

A few days ago I posted this on Facebook:
Where are the White Christians who will join me in confessing our investment in whiteness? Who will join me in repentance? Who will seek to learn more if these questions confuse you?
Well, some have kindly asked questions seeking to learn more.

What in the world do I mean by the phrase "investment in whiteness"?

For me, this phrase has become a useful shorthand to sum up the problem that White people face in American society. I think the phrase emerged for me from Cheryl Harris's 1993 Harvard Law Review article, "Whiteness as Property," and more directly from George Lipsitz's 1998 book, The Possessive Investment In Whiteness.

To have an investment in something means that we have a stake in it. If we make a business investment, we expect to get a monetary return. We "invest" in relationships, and hope to receive companionship and support as a result. We invest in our children, expecting them to grow up to be responsible adults. In a very similar way, most White Americans have an investment in Whiteness.

It is important to understand that this investment in Whiteness is almost always unconscious. That might sound strange at first, but when we think about it, we realize that unconscious investments are quite normal. I, for example, claim that my identity is rooted in my relation to Jesus Christ. Yet I have gradually begun to realize that I unconsciously use my daily work as a way to make myself feel like a worthwhile person. If I haven't performed a lot of tasks in a given day, I subconsciously feel less valuable as a human being. This is a deep and harmful "investment" in work that has only gradually begun to become conscious to me. As Christians we can all relate to the times we've been convicted of putting our faith and hope and identity in things that we should not. And at the moment of conviction we might say, "Wow, why couldn't I see it before?"

Our investment in Whiteness works a lot like that.

Ok, so we've gotten this far: people have all sorts of "investments," it is quite normal for some of these investments to be unconscious, and some of them are harmful. It remains to be seen what this investment in Whiteness consists of. The most basic thing about the investment in Whiteness is that Whiteness is seen as neutral and normative, and thereby protects the advantages White people have by making it appear that these advantages have nothing to do with being White. For example:

It often blinds us to the limitations and quirks of our own point of view. Instead of realizing that our views are just as biased, particular, and racial as those of other groups, we often subconsciously think that the White view is not White at all, but is actually just normal, neutral, or obvious.

It prevents us from seeing that our theology is not a neutral restatement of Christianity or a simple adherence to biblical teaching. It is shaped by our culture. It is White theology.This theology is extremely individualistic. We often think this is because the Bible is individualistic, but White theology goes far beyond the Bible's insistence that every individual needs the salvation of Jesus. White theology adds on a radical American individualism that insists individuals are basically innocent of the corporate and collective sins around them. White theology focuses on individual improvement, and changing the world "one heart at a time." The Old Testament vision of shalom and the New Testament vision of the Kingdom of God go against this radical individualism, but White theology consistently downplays or even ignores the communal and systemic aspects of sin and redemption that the Bible emphasizes.

Our investment in Whiteness causes us to insist on racial innocence and individualized racism. Because White theology downplays the biblical view of sin as both personal and corporate, individual and systemic, we tend to assume that racism is a personal sin, and therefore one that we have nothing to do with. The investment in Whiteness causes us to insist that we can't possibly be racist. We feel a deep need to not be racist. This need comes not from the humility of Christianity that would cause us to assume that we probably do share the sin of the society around us. It comes from the pride of our culture that doesn't really believe that human beings are depraved.

The investment in Whiteness causes us to evade personal responsibility for the systemic racial oppression that is constant in American society. Because we are protecting our own innocence, we feel compelled to blame other people or things for the suffering and oppression racial minorities experience. Some blame the "culture" of the disadvantaged group or emphasize family breakdown; others focus on the damage of government welfare programs. These views downplay or even ignore the severity and scale of racial oppression past and present, but they accomplish something important: they make the individual White person innocent. Often, when discussing racial controversies, Whites reveal their investment when they focus not on questions of how best to remove injustice against racial minorities, but rather on defending things such as political conservatism, small government, American patriotism, or radical individualism. Others focus on the importance of civil discussion and even-handedness, not realizing that their Whiteness makes it easy to focus on these comparatively trivial qualities since they don't have to bear the brunt of racial oppression.

Indeed, one of the most obvious aspects of investment in Whiteness that I should have mentioned by now is that most White Americans do not know basic facts about American history and American society. Many Whites don't know that the United States was founded as a White supremacist state, and that for much of our history being White was a qualification for being an American citizen. Many don't know that racial oppression was a vital part of the creation of the modern American middle class after World War Two. This basic ignorance of American history and of the reality of the present oppression by the United States is very important to those who are invested in Whiteness. (My purpose here is not to prove the racial oppression of the American past and present. The burden of proof is on those who deny it. They need to find some evidence to support their position. I'm happy to provide reading lists for anyone who'd like to learn more about the reality of American history).

Acknowledging the facts of American history is extremely threatening to those who are invested in Whiteness. Many of us have ancestors who have passed wealth down to us. When we realize that this wealth was produced from opportunities that the American state deliberately provided only to White people, we are disturbed. It doesn't reflect poorly on our ancestors. They were just normal human beings. They, like us, often had no idea they were benefiting from injustice. When we realize what has actually occurred, there is no getting around the fact that much of our success owes itself to our identity as White people. It is even more disturbing when we realize that in the present day the oppression is ongoing. We begin to realize that the White environments many of us are in (White neighborhoods, White schools, White churches) are not natural or accidental outcomes, but are the result of our deliberate choices--choices that have protected our investment in Whiteness. As Christians, we begin to realize that the simple acts of our daily lives as we go along with the flow of American society inevitably entrap us in the sinful systems of a broken world.

What, then, am I repenting for?

This is where people get especially confused. We can't grasp the repentance part without remembering that a radical, unbiblical individualism is a part of our investment in Whiteness. So let's do our best not to bring that individualism to our repentance. We're not wringing our hands with a sense of White liberal guilt. We're not pretending we're to blame for everything that's wrong with the world. We're not pretending that we ever wanted our society to be broken like this. We're not even repenting of being racists.

We're simply confessing our participation in systems of racial oppression. We're confessing our blindness. We're humbly acknowledging that one of the key reasons we live where we do, have the jobs we do, send our kids to the school we do, is because we are White. We're confessing that we hadn't realized it before. We're humbly admitting that the oppressed know more about their oppression and how best to respond to it than we do. We're repenting of going along with systems of racial oppression and accepting them as normal. From now on, we will begin to try to figure out what it will mean to be people that weaken those systems rather than being just another cog in them.

Hopefully some of this makes sense. In the end, it is impossible to know how strong the investment in Whiteness is until you've actually begun to go against it.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Coming Movement

Indictment or no indictment tonight (we'll know soon enough), we must pray that what is happening in Ferguson is the awakening of a movement that will change the entire country. We must pray that it will change not merely a set of policing practices. That is as good a place as any to start, and we must start somewhere, but what is needed goes much deeper. Movement activists understand it even if the great mass of morally slumbering White Americans do not. What is needed is what has always been needed: a society that is for Blacks and everyone else every bit as much as it is for Whites. What is needed is comprehensive reformation of laws and hearts so that America works for all of us. If you're not a believer, what is needed is some basic human decency. If you are a believer, repentance is needed in the hope that somehow we Christians will begin to pray and live "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" instead of throwing stones at "radicals" who dare to do what Jesus told us to do.

The United States is a dramatically better place for Black Americans than it used to be. The United States is also a White state that has yet to fully reckon with what it would require to do justice for all its citizens. In spite of everything that has changed, we can still quote the words of Black intellectuals over half a century ago, and their words ring true with a vital and terrible ferocity. Richard Wright believed that the exclusion of African Americans was so central to American life that if the United States ever attempted to eradicate White supremacy “it will find itself at war with itself, convulsed by a spasm of emotional and moral confusion.” James Baldwin agreed. Baldwin wrote, “there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure.” Yet such changes were so unsettling to white Americans that they were “unable even to envision them.” Wright and Baldwin offered a sense of America’s history and meaning in which the destruction of white supremacy might produce a national identity crisis rather than ushering in the inevitable culmination of American ideals. In an age of inequality and mass incarceration, in a time of protest and disillusionment, when thousands feel compelled to take to the streets and signs assert what should not need to be asserted, that “Black Lives Matter,” the promise and tragedy of American history haunts us still. And still, millions of Whites stand to the side, choosing whiteness over justice, whiteness over God, whiteness over their very souls.

Dr. King was right. If we're wrong now, then God almighty is wrong.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Ferguson Is The Civil Rights Movement

My son was up at 2:45 this morning and decided that going back to sleep was an unnecessary extravagance, so here we are.

I'm sick in my heart over Ferguson and all that it represents. There are a great many things I wish I could tell my fellow White Americans if I had them as a captive audience. For now, I'll just mention one:

Never use disorder as an excuse to avoid dealing with injustice. 

The fixation of so many people on the tiny amount of looting that occurred months ago is extremely revealing. What would it take for them to be on the side of the protestors? I bet they think the civil rights movement consisted of a bunch of middle class Black people in suits refusing to make a ruckus. I bet they don't know that there was lots of violence in and around civil rights movement demonstrations. Or they do know, but somehow they assume that back then it was all so clear and those mean southern sheriffs were obviously at fault. Don't they know that the civil rights movement seemed murky and confusing to White Americans and most of them eventually opposed it?

Ferguson is not so different. We must expose people and make them uncomfortable. If Ferguson comes up in conversation, go ahead and tell your White friends that the civil rights movement isn't over. Tell them to stop paying lip service to the gains of the past while refusing to get on the side of justice in the present. Consider the gross perversion of this world where truth and justice are constantly on the defensive. Find a perfect example of racial injustice, they tell us! One where it is so obvious that the victim is an angel and completely innocent and the perpetrator is a monster! Then we will join with you! Then we might be willing to support Black humanity!

People can't find any evidence that Black people are treated equally in this country, but we who point this out are deemed to be radical or unreasonable. Sure, there's racial discrimination and inequality in education, employment, housing, health care, and life in general, but it doesn't matter because looting. Because baggy pants. Because ebonics. Because scary Black male.

The sins of the powerful produce oppression. The sins of the powerless produce disorder. Which sins we're quickest to judge says a lot about the state of our hearts.