100 Years of Racism
What will it take to deconstruct white supremacy? Will a riot catalyze our hearts? Can a revolution transform our minds?
When we consider the history of our nation, we recognize that the ground beneath our feet tells a story of injustice. This land was first stolen from Native Americans through unfair treaties and forced removal. This colonization was then extended through the unpaid labor of enslaved peoples who built the American economy. When the formal system of slavery ended, the same oppression took other forms through segregation, inequality, and mass incarceration. The land beneath our feet tells a story of border crossers, but it is the colonizer who is crossing borders and moving border lines. As Miguel de la Torre once said at a gathering of the Society of Christian Ethics, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”
Racism and white supremacy have always been America’s original sin, passed down from white parents to white children, and internalized in some way by everyone who calls this country home. Racism is thick in the air we breathe. We cannot escape its impact. And whether you benefit from white supremacy or are marginalized by it, you are harmed by its presence. Before the end of Apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu proclaimed that both the oppressor and the oppressed were harmed by this unjust system. What the oppressor could not realize is that they were not able to be fully human until they repented of their oppression and began to work against injustice.
Before the advent of Black Lives Matter and before the election of 2016, many well-meaning white folks believed in a particular myth of progress. With Obama in the White House, some imagined our nation had turned a corner. Events like the “Red Summer” of 1919 and the “Holy Week Uprising” that followed King’s assassination in 1968 seemed like distant struggles to those who believed our world was changing for the better.
But Black and brown folks knew better. Neither Trump’s election nor events like the “Unite the Right rally” in Charlottesville were a surprise to communities of color who feel the impact of racism each day. The Movement for Black Lives emerged in 2014 as a new civil rights movement, reminding us both of our history of racial inequality and the current trauma that communities of color endure. As people took to the streets demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and so many others, some people called their work a riot while others saw it as “righteous resistance” (to borrow Will Coleman’s language).
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about movements that took to the streets in his speech, The Other America. King is worth quoting here at length. He said:
I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so, in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
Be it 1919, 1969, or 2019, riots “do not develop out of thin air.” King’s words still ring true as justice for all is still being postponed. As we reconsider King’s words, we would do well to ask ourselves, what are we failing to hear?
Will Coleman, in his lead article for this journal, has named two important things that we might be failing to hear. In his exegesis of Genesis 1:26a-27, Coleman reminds us that one of the first stories of our faith is one that names each person as being made in the image of God. Coleman rightly argues that privileging any ethnicity or gender (or any other aspect of social location, to extend the argument) is a perversion of God’s model for creation. Coleman then turns to Ephesians 5:20-21 where he argues that our model for familial and social relationships should be that of Pater Christi instead of Pater Familias.
Taking these two points together, it could be argued that it is only in knowing our role as an image-bearer of God – and seeing our neighbor in that same way – that we are able to rightly order families and societies to reflect this realignment of value that Christ imagined for us in his coming. In the New Testament we find a beautiful vision where family is reordered in order to reorder society. Julie Hanlon Rubio, in her book, A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family, notes that in some ways Jesus seems “anti-family” because he was redefining what family and society should be. In this re-defining, love becomes more important than kinship and justice more important than family loyalty. In speaking about Jesus’ followers, Rubio says: “They allowed his anti-family sayings to shake them up, and they took pains to cut themselves loose from those family ties that would keep them from being true servants of God.” This sounds like a wonderful riot, like a “righteous resistance” to me.
The vision for community that we find in scripture is in opposition to the community and nation that white supremacy has built. As we look at the ground beneath our feet, we realize we have never been in Eden, for the soil is saturated with our sin. Yet in the midst of this perilous state, we are constantly being called to do the work of deconstruction and reconstruction. And sometimes, particularly for those of use who experience privilege from the color or our skin, we are called to leave behind many—even family—to participate in the “righteous resistance” Christ requires.
Joining the “righteous resistance” is a beautiful calling. It requires more than just being “woke” or saying the right thing on social media. It is a work that will not be finished in our lifetimes, for even when one oppression ends, another will take its place. It is never-ending work to recognize injustice and work for a just society, but it is good work and it is work that we must do with all our heart.
For white folks, when we enter the work of “righteous resistance” there are a few rules of engagement we can follow if we want to avoid being known as people who “fail to hear.”
First, we should shift the epistemological privilege in a conversation. Epistemology means “ways of knowing.” When I come to a conversation as one who experiences privilege and am working to correct an injustice that does not directly impact me, I must abdicate my privilege and show up as a listener and as a learner. As a white person, I must acknowledge that the first and last word on the impact of racism comes from people of color. My job is to pass the mic, follow their lead, and work in solidarity. If I find myself not standing in solidarity, I must recognize that the problem is quite possibly my white privilege taking over.
Second, we need to get comfortable with a little feedback. As we engage in anti-racist work, we will not do it perfectly. We will sometimes fail to stay in our lane or listen well to people of color. When this comes to our attention, a good first step is to listen without being defensive.
Third, we can commit to doing our own work. For those of us who experience white privilege, our first work in joining the “righteous resistance” is to battle our own demons and melt down our own idols. As Dr. Coleman says, the “demonic force” of white supremacy is a “false deity.” Some of us were raised in churches where segregation was the norm and white supremacy was defended as gospel. If this is part of your story, you might find inspiration from the Jesus who challenged followers to abandon bad religion and family loyalty to follow his new way. Others of us were raised in progressive churches that showed up early to this conversation. If this is part of your story, know there is still work to do. White supremacy is never finished with us. We are constantly called to find where it has taken hold and work to dismantle it in our own lives.
Finally, the “righteous resistance” does not come with applause. White folks don’t get points just for showing up or not being racist. Working to dismantle systems of oppression is the most fundamental work of our salvation. It is work that is required of us all. But as we engage in this work we will find that Archbishop Tutu was right—we were incomplete, we were not fully human—until we started working for a justice that extends to everyone.
So, will you join the “righteous resistance?”
If you’re already there, will you engage more deeply?
It’s a beautiful, wonderful riot and there’s room at the table for us all.
QUESTIONS FOR READERS:
- As you enter this conversation, how do you map out your own journey? Have you been committed to anti-racism for some time? Or are you newly arriving to this work? In answering this question, what are your next steps as you commit to working toward the flourishing of all creation?
- How have you understood the word “resistance” or “riot” in the past? With this in mind, how might you redefine this word in theological language?
- Think specifically of the “ground beneath your feet” – what historic injustices impact your local community? What current injustices still oppress your neighbors? What one step can you take today to dismantle this injustice and work toward a just future?
 Desmond Tutu, The Rainbow People of God: The making of a peaceful revolution, (New York: Image, 1996).
 Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Other America” (speech delivered at Stanford University – April 14, 1967) https://www.crmvet.org/docs/otheram.htm
 Julie Hanlon Rubio, A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family, (New York: Paulist Press, 2003), 60.