Sunday, September 25, 2016

You Probably Wouldn't Have Supported the Civil Rights Movement

White Americans desperately want to be innocent of any racial wrongdoing. You notice this pretty quickly when you begin to talk about race. Once you look for it, you'll see how often White people are approaching the whole conversation with one goal: establishing their innocence. "My family didn't own slaves. My grandparents immigrated here in the twentieth century. I worked hard for everything I have. Black people have had the same opportunities." Etc.

These kinds of statements tend to be beside the point, and often plainly false. But truth in a literal sense is not the goal of this kind of rhetoric. We use it to claim that we are good, and that we bear no responsibility for racial injustice. We use it to avoid negative feelings. We want to claim innocence not by doing something, but by creating our own reality with our words.

Let's focus on one common trope in the construction of White innocence. It comes in a variety of forms, but the gist of it is this:

I don't support Black Lives Matter, but I would have supported the civil rights movement. 

People believe this with sincerity. But they're almost certainly wrong. Maybe you're one of these people. You praise the civil rights movement but find yourself opposed to the current movement. Let's treat your claim not as something that needs to be true for your emotional well-being, but as something that can be investigated historically. It might be uncomfortable at first. But the truth can set you free.

First, if you're around 70 years of age or above, there isn't anything theoretical about this. You were an adult at the height of the civil rights movement. What did you do?

But most of us are younger. So let's use our imaginations informed by what we know about the historical context of the time.
A normal headlines from the 1960s. Would you have joined the "law and order" chorus?
Most White Americans opposed the civil rights movement. Why do you think you would have been willing to go against the grain and possibly lose relationships with friends or family members?

Even more than they do today, White and Black Americans lived in separate worlds. What about your White small town, rural area, or segregated urban neighborhood would have given you a connection to African Americans or sympathy for their goals? Why do you think you would have been concerned about this issue at all?

Dr. King was a radical traveling protestor. Violence ensued nearly everywhere he launched a campaign. Why would you have believed his statements instead of the statements of the police and other authorities?
Cleveland Sellers, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael
Most White Americans thought African Americans had all the opportunities they needed. Why would you have thought any differently? Why would you have thought protests were necessary?

The riots of the 1960s were on a vast and deadly scale far beyond anything we've seen in this century. Why wouldn't you have blamed the riots on the movement? 

Dr. King laid the ultimate blame for the rioting at the feet of White America. Would you have agreed with him?
Looting in Philadelphia, 1964.
Wouldn't you have been concerned about the anti-White and anti-police rhetoric of the Nation of Islam?

What about the Black Power movement would have appealed to you?

Wouldn't you have been concerned about Dr. King's communist associations?

The FBI said Dr. King was a dangerous agitator. Wouldn't you have considered the FBI a reliable source of information?

Would you have been bothered by Dr. King's radical critique of capitalism?

The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act dramatically expanded federal power and reduced the rights of the states. Would you have supported the expansion of federal government power the civil rights movement demanded?

You might think that you would have been stirred to action by the videos of protestors being attacked with dogs and firehoses, or by the death of the four little girls in the church bombing. Perhaps. But I suppose it's fair to ask, how did Tamir's murder move you? You saw that on video too. How did the Charleston church shooting move you?

We could go on for a long time. I think you get the point. There have always been reasons to stand on the side of White supremacy. What most White Americans saw and understood of the civil rights movement was disorder, violence, and unreasonable demands. It was not as simple or clear as you imagine it. The measure of our goodwill is not what we might have done in a movement that is safely in the past. The question is what we will do now in a society that is segregated and unequal.

If you don't agree with the proposition that racial oppression in 2016 is real, you can continue on with your innocence-making project. But you won't be free. You'll be forced to believe lies. For your own protection you'll make up fantasies about your own country. You won't understand the world you live in. That's a miserable way to live.

The truth shall set you free.

See, Christians don't go looking for racial innocence. We believe that there is "none righteous, not one." So our connection to evil doesn't surprise us. We're not surprised that we've passively benefited from unjust systems, or that we have racist ideas. We don't need to approach racial controversies solving for our innocence; Jesus has taken care of that. We are freed to look for truth and stand with the oppressed. We are free to support Black Lives Matter, as everyone should.

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