And Not a Moment Before

CvilleBy Tommy Airey, co-editor of RadicalDiscipleship.net

On Friday, in preparation for this past weekend’s neo-fascist march and rally in Charlottesville, Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia, cited “the right of every American to deny those ideas more attention than they deserve.” He strongly encouraged people to stay away from the counter-protest.  As if oppressors and abusers just go away if we don’t confront them with our humanity.  As if level-headedness and moderation have ever saved those catching hell.

However, this was far from the first time that McAuliffe has distanced himself from the militant nonviolent tradition of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, while in a Birmingham cell, rejected “the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea” of white moderate clergy.  Jyarland Daniels, the founder of the racial equity organization Harriet Speaks, reminded me recently that, in the lead-up to the 2016 Presidential election, McAuliffe, a huge Hillary Clinton supporter, worked tirelessly to ensure that (mostly black) ex-felons could get the right to vote. This is significant because McAuliffe’s support (with most of the Democratic Party establishment) for mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders and felon disenfranchisement laws have crippled black families and neighborhoods for decades.

“So here’s how this goes,” Jyarland explained, “We get rid of racist policies when white people see that their interests are impacted (or they are harmed) by racism—and not a moment before.” McAuliffe is not the exception, but the rule, calling us white folks to look in the mirror and engage issues of race with critical consciousness, compassion and confession.  It’s not just “out there.”  It’s “in here” too.

In my ongoing journey of decentering Whiteness (what Rev. Nick Peterson calls “de-godding whiteness”), I have slowly come to realize that our society has, in fact, been designed for white people, like me, to be protected, to be in control, to be catered to, to settle on other people’s land and then to settle for the status quo.  One of the dire effects: I remain oblivious to the racism soaked into what Michelle Alexander calls ““a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions.”  My tunnel vision allows me to only see “racist acts” or “racist people” (as I focused on in my last post, this is an intergenerational process).

The system is also designed for me to home in on Charlottesville and project my Whiteness-producing shame and self-hatred on the torch-wielding neo-nazis and klansmen. This gets me off the hook, leaving me irresponsible and unaccountable.  Don’t get me wrong: I believe it is vital for all of us with white skin to be in full solidarity with counter-protestors, with the many organizations like Black Lives Matter and the Deep Abiding Love Project doing compelling work confronting this alt-right brand of racism.

The problem comes when we white folks claim that the alt-right has a monopoly on white supremacy.  The principalities and powers, though, have been having their way with all of us.  Like the young boy in the Gospel of Mark, crying out and convulsing and foaming at the mouth, the demons of whiteness have possessed our psyches and the policies that destroy black and brown communities.  “This kind can come out only through prayer,” warns Jesus.

Rev. Peterson laments that the exorcism of these demons will take a lifetime.  He has helpfully named for me that our unjust and oppressive society is built not on hate, but on supremacy. The problem is that most good, law-abiding white citizens continue to passively stay on the sidelines, saying and doing nothing to challenge the systems that oppress black people.  I’m learning slowly that the way forward will not run through guilt or excuses, but through the long arc of unlearning the white supremacy I’ve been brainwashed by.

My friend and mentor Kim Redigan, reflecting on her own white working class roots, has deeply challenged me with her own process of de-godding whiteness. She explains:

I have come to believe that to be white in this country is to be either a racist in denial, a racist by choice, or a racist in recovery.

This leads us back to our own hearts, minds and souls. And backyards. In mine, the black majority populations of Flint and Detroit continue to endure water poisoning and shut-offs. Michigan’s Civil Rights Commission issued a scathing report that “systemic racism” was a major factor in Flint’s water contamination:

The 135-page report delves into the history of race and racism in the Flint area and argues that historical practices like redlining — or only renting and selling property to black residents in certain areas of the city — white flight to the suburbs, intergenerational poverty and “implicit bias” all helped lay the groundwork for an economic situation in the city in which an emergency manager was needed in the first place.

And yet. Despite the horrifying conditions, the road to recovery in Flint has moved at a snail’s pace. Congress refused to send one dime to help residents. Since the day Governor Snyder and President Obama awkwardly drank water from a Flint tap for assurance purposes, scores of residents have died from bacterial pneumonia, breathing in the steam from their showers. In Detroit, too, the coverage of water shut-offs came and went. The situation has only gotten worse, tens of thousands of residents denied running water in their homes indefinitely.

But we’ve been here before. Fifty years ago, in the wake of violent uprisings in Watts, Detroit, Newark and elsewhere, Congress created the National Commission on Civil Disorders. After three months of hearings calling one-hundred-thirty witnesses, the commission produced a five-inch thick, fourteen-hundred page report that proclaimed it loud and clear (verbatim from the report):

White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.

The eleven “Kerner Commission” members were moderate-to-conservative white men who shockingly proposed this solution:

From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and above all, new will. Hard choices must be made, and if necessary, new taxes enacted.

This was a confessional document, unveiling the widespread effects of American white supremacy. Unfortunately, the Democratic President (and his white supporters) ignored the recommendations. Funds were funneled to arm local police forces with high-tech arsenals of tanks, machine guns, nerve gas and more. The rest is history. Now, it’s up for us to change it. This will necessitate a Democratic Party (or third party) that advocates for policies that actually do something for those who stand with their backs against the wall.  And this will come not a moment too soon.

3 thoughts on “And Not a Moment Before

  1. Wow, Tommy. This is powerful and so well stated. The only thing is . . . you and Jyarland and Lindsay and so many others are my mentors. I have so much to learn from all of you. Thanks for this. White supremacy is not only “out there,” it’s closer than we know, embedded in the institutions and interactions of our daily lives. Saturday was the inevitable outcome of the willful ignorance, indifference, and moral tone deafness of us white folks who lap up the privileges that come from a million forms of silence in our quotidian lives.

  2. “The problem is that most good, law-abiding white citizens continue to passively stay on the sidelines, saying and doing nothing to challenge the systems that oppress black people.”

    This is such an important point. I think I am realizing that I have to continually challenge myself to move away from the sidelines. It is an ongoing process of “de-sidelining” ourselves as well as unlearning racism.

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