By Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, Senior Minister, Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ and Director and Chief Visionary, Faith Strategies, LLC
In my ministry in the 1980s in Roxbury, Massachusetts with the recovering community from drug addiction, I encountered one of our struggling addicts and his spouse. He had been using though he was supposed to be in recovery. I shall never forget his explanation of his struggle to remain clean. He said when questioned by me, that I did not understand, his “relapses were getting shorter and his recoveries were getting longer!” His spouse agreed with that reasoned explanation, though I realized his con, but unfortunately his spouse enabled his addictive behavior until he died of an overdose. This was a poignant lesson for me. I see in this lesson how we may enable destructive behavior seeking and hoping that the reasoning and rationalization is true. The rationalization deters us from confronting the real issues where the so-called recovering addict was not recovering, but the avoidance of the issue and the realities would offer some comfort even while eventually leading to death.
As I see it, the United States is in the same boat as the recovering addict. The nation claims to be dealing with its problem of racism, white supremacy, and white idolatry, or claims at times that it has dealt with its problem, rationalizing the progress, when the progress is strained if at all existent. Our behavior as a nation has not changed, and we rationalize our race problems, and pretend that what exists does not exist, and that before long we will be cured. This is how racism and white supremacy remain a persistent disease in the country, and after more than 400 years have not been dealt with, and we continue to claim that our “recoveries are getting longer” and our “relapses are getting shorter,” but the problems of racism and white supremacy remain a fixed reality as most of America delude itself believing that we as a nation is getting better.
Collectively the country has been the enablers to the disease of racism and white supremacy just as that spouse enabled her addicted partner. We are so apt to justify things as other than racism, and when the incidents are glaring and challenges our denial, we eradicate them from the historical narrative of the nation. This allows us to hold onto the claim that our “relapses are shorter,” but our “recoveries are getting longer.” I listen to the news channels, the anchors, the talk show hosts, and the political pundits engaged in a collective denial of the existence of racism defining things in every kind of way other than the ways that most black people and people of-color see it. Police violence is seen as police doing a difficult job, unless there is video that challenges the difficulty of the job with the blatant hostility and racism of law enforcement, and yet there is still status-quo whiteness that justifies the action as something other than racism. It has been hard pressed to hold law enforcement accountable to police misconduct and extra-judicial killings against Blacks and people of-color. There is always reason and rationale to justify the actions of law enforcement perpetuated against Blacks and persons of-color. The commentators package things as right versus left, or liberal versus conservative rather than dissecting and exposing the racism that exist through conservative and right-wing political ideology.
When Barack Obama was elected president, Black people were elated and astonished that a Black person could be elected president of the United States. I preached numerous funerals in the Black church where the family instructed me to mention that their loved one lived long enough to see a Black person elected president. White America breathed a collective sigh of satisfaction because it proved to them that America had gotten better and had entered a post-racial era. But the “whitewash” begun almost immediately with the succeeding president carving out ideological territory by claiming that Obama was not born in the United States, claiming that something more sinister was afoot, because after all a Black person with a Harvard law degree could not be just that but must be a foreign agent backed by dark forces orchestrating a great hoax on the country. Our “relapses had gotten shorter” and our “recoveries had gotten longer.” It was after eight years of this Black president that a TV reality show host, a failed real estate magnate, and white hustler presented a campaign slogan to “Make America Great Again.” I explained to my congregation that MAGA was simply code language for making America White again! Our “recoveries have gotten longer and” our “relapses have gotten shorter.”
When Donald J. Trump won the presidency there was general disbelief and fear that gripped some of the country and particularly the Black faith community, and I found myself trying to put into perspective what had occurred. I shared when I graduated The Chicago Theological Seminary a so-called liberal white woman who was two classes behind me knocked on my door. She said that she might want to rent my seminary apartment next school year and wanted to see if she could look around. I agreed and she walked through the apartment. When she had finished, she met be back at the front door, thought for a moment, and then said, “I think I will rent it, because, after all I can fumigate it!” She really did not know what she had said, and the words just rolled from her tongue because this is the way that she had been conditioned to think and view things from a white status-quo perspective. The connection being, that after eight years of Obama as president, and a Black family in the White House, it was easy to sell to white America that the country needed to be fumigated! Our collective “relapses have gotten shorter and” our “recoveries have gotten longer.” America continues to rationalize the thing that the nation is addicted to – racism! Yet our refusal to confront the evils of racism, white supremacy and idolatry makes the nation a collective enabler of the sin.
One of the rallying calls of the Trumpetes (those who support Donald Trump), is the call for patriotic education in the schools. This means that the only thing they want to present to young minds is American exceptionalism and triumphalism. They want presented a “whitewashed” history that affirms white idolatry and supremacy. This historical perspective allows the enablement of racism, hatred and racial violence and disregard. The nation is compelled to omit from its historical narrative the things that would negate its racial benevolence. We affirm that our “relapses are getting shorter and” our “recoveries are getting longer”, meaning that the nation is collectively getting better and racism is becoming something of the past because we can name a few Black men and women who are in perceived positions of importance and power. But we enable the racist future of the country by omitting from the historical process the evils of the past. Think about what we do not know as a country: the coup d’état of 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina where an elected town council was assassinated and Blacks as well as whites were forcefully removed from the State of North Carolina and the federal government did not respond; the race riots of 1918-1919, known as Red Summer where white mobs attacked the Black community all across the country and the numbers murdered will never be known; the Tulsa, Oklahoma insurrection of 1921, where the Black community was attacked and even bombed by the National Guard and there is still not a public accounting; the Zoot Suit uprisings of 1943 against the Mexican, Black and Filipino communities in Los Angeles, California but also spreading across the country involving local police and the military in the murderous spree; or the deportation of thousands of US citizens of Mexican ancestry sent to Mexico in the 1940s. More recently the killings of Black women and men by law enforcement and white civilians and the resulting demonstrations by Black Lives Matter and its allies, yet the right-wing white community seeks to equate Black murders with the white feeling of disenfranchisement and the displacement of white power. Not hardly the same thing! America sanitizes, whitewashes and erases history to claim with a straight face how our “relapses are getting shorter and” our “recoveries are getting longer.” Meaning we convince ourselves that we are on our way to the cure, and our history is not all that bad. The nation re-label things, giving them alternative meaning, like the alternative facts of the Trump presidency where things like the Civil War was not a war over slavery but state’s rights, and the Confederate Battle flag represents Southern heritage and culture and not the enslavement of Black people or the strange fruit of Black bodies hanging from a lynching tree! Things are re-labeled, re-categorized, and definitions are played in such a way that America can continue to be the enablers of racism and white supremacy by finding excuses and ways not to confront this sin.
“My relapses are getting shorter and my recoveries are getting longer,” and this collective denial and enablement has allowed the nation to think that it is better than it is, and that racism is something to be worked on but really is a relic of the past. Therefore, so many were shocked by the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. We either do not know or have the malaise of amnesia and therefore cannot confront our history and our addiction. Instead, we maintain American exceptionalism and triumphalism, thinking that we are special and can overcome anything, and we can overcome anything particularly when we deny that problems exist. I am convinced that the masses of Trump supporters do not believe that Trump won the election or that there was fraud in the voting. I do believe that as people watched the votes come in that there were strong blocks of Black and persons of-color that determined the outcome of the election and this frightened the white supremacists and racists. It was the determinate refusal of Black people to surrender to the centuries of voting and political suppression. It was Black and persons of-color responding to decades of being denied and lied to, and four years of overt hatred and racism that brought out Blacks and persons of-color with passion, purpose, and power to make a statement and to bring change. Blacks, particularly, do not believe that the nation’s “relapses are getting shorter” or its “recoveries getting longer,” instead we see a nation that does not want to deal with its sins of racism, white supremacy, and white idolatry or its historical reliance upon racial violence when it feels that it is threatened or feels that it does not get its way. Like the addict in Roxbury, Massachusetts the nation is claiming that people do not understand, it is better than it was in terms of racism, white violence, white insurrections, and white uprisings. Our “relapses are getting shorter,” and our “recoveries are getting longer,” and we comfort ourselves with denials even as the nation comes apart at the seams.
Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. Rev. Hagler currently serves as the Senior Minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, Washington, DC since 1992. He has led the church to embrace liberation theology and a radical and relevant view of Jesus. Rev. Hagler was instrumental in ridding Washington, DC of Payday Lenders, was a co-founder of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA), and is Director and Chief Visionary of Faith Strategies, LLC, a collective of clergy manifesting progressive perspectives on human and civil rights in the public arena.