By Will O’Brien
The Wednesday following the violence in Charlottesville, I joined with thousands of people in Philadelphia, mostly persons of faith, to march in the streets and rally. The energy was high, the anger was rife, and the sense of energy to change palpable. As distressing as the events were that precipitated this march, it felt good to be there.
But it also stirred some long-standing concerns and questions of mine. This was partly the result of recently picking up off the shelf my old copy of Will D. Campbell’s memoir Brother to a Dragonfly, a book that had a powerful impact on me when I first read it over thirty years ago. Campbell was a Southern Baptist preacher from rural Tennessee who became an important leader in the civil rights movement. As a white southern man, he was part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His radical understanding of the gospel and his own discernment of the racial crisis in his home region led him to the conviction that “Jesus died for the bigots as well,” and he took to a very controversial ministry among Ku Klux Klan members. Ornery and wickedly funny, Campbell often cut through the pretensions and hypocrisies of many white liberal activists.
The militant white supremacist movement is hardly new (though clearly it is in a period of scary growth and empowerment). Acts of blatant racist violence occur regularly in this country. And they always evoke a strong response of protest and outrage, a call for peace and for justice. Yet for years, I have been troubled by an aspect of the white liberal response to these kinds of events. I have long feared that when white liberals and progressives denounce overt expressions of racist violence (which is utterly appropriate), it can be a very subtle way of letting ourselves off the hook. In our outrage, we are sending a message: “Look at those terrible white supremacists. We are certainly not like that. We are committed to racial justice. We are the good guys.”
It is true that many white Americans of conscience have struggled hard for real conversion in self-understanding and social engagement around racism. But the fact remains that white Americans are all beneficiaries of a long-standing racist, white supremacist system. And for all the legal progress we have made, the basic structures of that system are still in place. And the benefits are still flowing – as are the oppressive repercussions on our non-white sisters and brothers.
The neo-Nazis, Klan, and other “white nationalists” are still a fringe movement (though clearly their numbers are growing in the age of Czar Donald). Obviously, they are capable of damage and violence, and we should oppose them. But frankly, the real power of white supremacy is the covert racism embedded in our political and economic systems. The high drama and media spectacle of events like the Charlottesville gathering absorb our attention and much of our organizing energy – but they can also divert us from the harder work of confronting systemic white supremacy. And, a harsh truth: Ignorant or superficial white liberalism is a greater danger, a more ominous obstacle to racial justice.
White Americans who identify as liberal, progressive, or radical (and I challenge myself here) must engage in a life-long process of repentance, which in its true biblical truth is not a simple apology, but active and persistent work of “turning around,” radically changing our lives. Further, I am convinced that if we are serious about combatting racism, it is important that we work on some of the harsher systemic injustices – for instance, the criminal justice system and the education system. These are the true lynchpins of oppression of people of color. They have direct impact on Black and Hispanic communities and families, while functioning to effectively maintain the status quo of white supremacy. These issues, and the many grassroots efforts to challenge them, are local, out of the limelight. They are also more complicated, the structures more entrenched, the villains more subtle; and they may require more of us than we realize.
When white supremacy shows it ugly face in public, with its invariably violence consequences, we white Americans must join our sisters and brothers of color, our Jewish and Muslim community, in the streets. But again, I challenge myself: In my activism, am I drawn to the drama and grandeur of taking on big-picture evils and injustices while giving lip service to some of the more gritty local realities? When I “put my body on the line,” do I do so in a spirit of self-righteousness and feel satisfied that I am free of the shackles of white supremacy? Or am I willing, the day after the rally, to roll up my sleeves and join with grassroots communities to engage in the slow and daunting work of transforming those systems where the ideology of white supremacy becomes manifestly and concretely real in the lives of Americans of color?