By Rev. Margaret Ernst
Waking up on the day after Election Day, 2021 I searched for news from Buffalo, Virginia, New Jersey, Minneapolis and other places where municipal and gubernatorial elections became litmus tests for the realities of our present political landscape. I braced myself when a Buffalo-based friend who has been organizing for India Walton, told me that it looked as if Byron Brown was winning his write-in campaign for mayor after losing the primary. Ms. Walton is a Black woman progressive fighting for the working class, and Brown was a former mayor for 16 years, and his campaign this time around was financed by white supremacists alongside business and developers. This strategy by the Right, to play on local white anxieties while playing a complex game of identity politics by fielding their own Black candidate, worked: Brown won.
Meanwhile, in Virginia, Democrats across the country reeled as Republican Glenn Youngkin beat incumbent Terry McAulliffe, and New Jersey voters kept Democrat Phil Murphy in office by just a hair over Republican Jack Ciattarelli.
Unsurprisingly, I am seeing glum posts from progressive friends and people invested in the Democratic party across the country, and valid concerns about what yesterday’s results mean for the 2022 primaries, especially while the fossil fuel industry and other monied interests keep stalling desperately needed action for climate and care in the Democrat-controlled Congress.
I am writing this from my office as a pastor of a small-town church in mostly-rural Berks County, Pennsylvania, a county which is always a swing in Presidential elections highly sought after by both parties, and where the fall leaves are turning ever more golden every time I make my commute in from where I presently live in Philadelphia.
I chose this ministry because I believe that as a white person who cares about racial and economic justice, I want to spend my time in places that the Left has not been investing in. Places like here, where the local economy used to center on the iron furnace that is just blocks away from my church. The furnace closed in 1988, and those jobs did not come back. The town today is still largely blue-collar, with people who live here commuting for handy jobs, construction and contracting east of here, in more prosperous areas outside of Philadelphia.
My number one job as a new pastor is to get to know my community. That means the church community, but also the people who call this place home. There was something that captured my heart and attention as soon as I met the church members here when I was interviewing, and as soon as I drove into the area for the first time. This is a small town that is truly still a small town community, where even though many of the jobs left with the furnace along with the downtown commercial life, there are still many families and a close knit community life.
A few weeks ago, I participated in the annual Crop Walk along with other local pastors and church members, to raise money for the local community aid organization. As I gathered with folks in the Lutheran church up the hill, I enjoyed meeting people, eating hot dogs, and getting to know the feel of the community here. Teenagers and kids and older folks walked together, laughing, teasing each other playfully, and demonstrating a spirit of mutual care that was tangible. As I walked up and down the hilly streets while it was drizzling, I felt my heart forming bonds with the people around me, and with this place.
As I drove home, I thought about how it is very likely that many of the people who joined the walk that day supported Trump for president and have very different politics than me. This is statistically likely, given the voting profile of the area and also how many “Blue Lives Matter” and Trump signs I see around town, even a Confederate flag even though we are 45 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line. This community is very different than the progressive, predominantly white part of Northwest Philadelphia where my former church was, where wealthy liberals proudly display Black Lives Matter signs and signs declaring that “In This House, We Believe” every progressive marker of social goodness.
And yet, the kinship I felt on the walk was in many ways, even stronger than I have felt in many progressive white communities I have been a part of. I want to know people’s lives here. I want to serve them. I want to know their hopes and struggles. And here’s the thing: I like them.
Embracing my love for the people in the conservative community where I minister is not about excusing their political choices. It’s about claiming people as mine, as a part of me and my heart, not outside of me, which I fear many white progressives make the mistake of doing. Our political landscape right now is increasingly shaped by white progressives with money who move into cities, ushered in by the policies of pro-business electeds sponsoring gentrification, displacing communities of color from their homes and divesting resources from small towns and rural areas where white working class and poor people are left and disowned as disposable and deplorable, and fundamentally “other.” Moving into cities to places where there are brew pubs and other white liberals to talk to, who you can agree with and not feel uncomfortable around, is a temptation for many young white people of my generation. We vote the way progressives say we should, we say the right things, read the right books, and yet I think are far more guilty of contributing to current rise in white nationalism than the people who white nationalists target to recruit. In disowning our family members or places we have left as racist and backwards, pedestaling ourselves and our degrees and our higher-brow tastes, we retain our sense of personal goodness and sleep well at night.
But personal goodness is not the key to collective change. It makes no difference whatsoever if I have read How To Be an Anti-Racist if I am not contributing towards building grassroots power among white people for an economically just, multi-racial democracy. Such work is not glamorous. It is also, thankfully, not rocket science. It just takes doing it. And doing it doesn’t feel as fun or righteous as hanging out with people who believe the same things as us and are hip with the program. Building this kind of power means being down to hang and love people whose beliefs might seem abhorrent to us, and who are the people who the liberal media constantly analyzes, rarely humanizes, and never understands. It means not treating people as a target demographic or a voting bloc, or a political strategy. It means treating people as people, whom we should be asking the exact same questions of as in any other community organizing: Who do you love? What keeps you up at night? What do you dream of for your community?
Investing in these kinds of relationships and questions will go a long way. But it also will take all of us. I am inspired by the work of organizing projects such as the Bedford County Listening Project, a project of Showing Up for Racial Justice and Southern Crossroads, in Shelbyville, Tennessee, where organizers and volunteers knocked on doors throughout Shelbyville asking what concerns people had for their lives. Shelbyville is a predominantly working class, white community, though with a growing immigrant and refugee community. A few years ago, when I was living in Nashville, Shelbyville was the choice location of white supremacist groups who organized a White Lives Matter rally there, just months after they led Unite the Right in Charlottesville. The groups thought that Shelbyville would be the perfect audience for their white supremacist message, exploiting anxieties about its increasingly diverse community. As it turns out, Shelbyville residents united against hate, and the white supremacists who came were outnumbered 3 to 1.
The Bedford County Listening project wisely grew, partly, out of response to this rally. What matters in Shelbyville is not just the one-time anti-racist counterprotest but long-term engagement and love for the community. The organizers learned from their listening campaign that affordable housing was among the top concerns of residents, an issue which cut across race and ethnic group. Through community-led research, they developed a strong local platform, which won them a seat on City Council, which is now pushing forward just housing initiatives.
See what I mean? This is not rocket science. It does not take targeted algorithms or fancy formulas. It takes bread-and-butter community work. It take patience and presence, humility, and willingness to learn. And most importantly, it takes being with people with whom we would otherwise rather not be associated. This is not a plea for moderation. It is a plea for brave and scandalous border-crossing across our political boundaries to make invitations into radical visions for collective care.
As white folks, whether we are city folk or suburban yuppies or country people, white supremacy is fundamentally a part of us. Disowning this, and disowning those we would like to project racism on to, to pretend the problem is not us, is dangerous to the project of anti-racism. We are not morally superior, to anyone. Looking towards 2022, and the next century of climate crisis and threats of fascism, it would behoove white progressives, liberals, radicals and leftists to embrace that we are racists and the people we love are racists rather than investing so much energy in propping up our anti-racist image. We must shed our laborious, energy-sapping commitment to only associate with people who say things we agree with, or concerning ourselves with convincing our BIPOC friends of our righteousness, ie, engage in anti-racist narcissism. When we spend less headspace distancing ourselves from people we think are racist and more time investing in organizing in white communities, we can spend our energy actually doing meaningful work against white supremacy.
What do I mean by “We are racists, and the people we love are racists?”
I mean that, as I wrote in a letter to a future white child, speaking to the mundane-ness of white supremacy in our lives as white people in our society: “This is the hardest thing you’ll ever contend with: not the police, not the tyrants, but the slow ways in which you can learn to just go about life while living with demons unnamed, while living with the devil at your bedside as cozy as hot chocolate and a nighttime prayer.”
I wrote of intimate memories of my family and what I know of my ancestors, and how the things I love about them are not separate from the ugly heirloom of racism past down to me through them. We are not people who can have our racist parts surgically removed like our appendix. Think of us instead as an alloy: racism is part of the admixture of who we are, part of our substance. We can recognize it, and make different choices, and reduce the harm of its effects, and, I believe, with great and hard work, shift our collective nature. But it is no use pretending that it is not inextricably a part of who we are. This is also what political scientist Hannah Arendt described as the banality of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Evil and the makings of genocide, is in fact, quite boring and every-day, Arendt found based on her observation of the trials of Nazis at Nuremberg. It is not fantastical or “other.” It is us.
The same guy who loves the Eagles who I pass the peace with at church and who makes me laugh, or the loving aunt who is planning their niece’s 13th birthday party, might be the same people who would tell me they are terrified that socialists are taking over America and that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group. This is a part of life and reality here, and these are the narratives in the news, on the radio, and in the local grocery store and beauty salons, and we should recognize this is true for huge swaths of the country. And, at the same time, people are full of values and visions for their lives and communities which are in many ways, deeply shared with people of color and white progressives, when it comes down to it. At the same time, the progressives and liberals in my life I know and love are also equally invested in white supremacy, quietly choosing neighborhoods where there are more white children in the public schools, benefitting from gentrification, or functioning in institutions to maintain whiteness as the norm. We are not so different, after all.
So how do we organize accordingly?
I think admitting the mundanenss of racism means likewise embracing the mundaness of grassroots anti-racist organizing.
Let’s learn from projects like the Bedford County Listening Project, or the legacy of the Rural Organizing Project in Oregon. Let us visibilize the lineage of working class organizing in predominantly white communities, like the history of the labor movement in Appalachia, or just around the corner from me in Reading, PA, the history of women textile workers who in the early 20th century organized an impressive local infrastructure for economic justice, winning local elections.
I strongly believe we should spend much more of our time in small town diners than in brew pubs. This does not mean taking an attitude of saviorism towards small towns or working class people. No, it means checking our assumptions and elitism at the door. We should never bring to organizing an attitude of converting people to be like us as if we are more enlightened. That’s some bullshit.
No. We do what organizers do. We share our story, and invite people to share theirs. We listen. We learn. We connect dots. We invite people to meetings. We do community led research and popular education. We build. We grow. We build power. We keep going.
This is how we’ll win. Not just elections, but a shared future and a culture based in love and mutual aid, not scarcity and exclusion. And we have to keep doing it, even when it looks like we’re losing.
Will you join me?
Rev Margaret Anne Ernst is a writer, community builder, and minister ordained in the United Church of Christ. She currently serves as pastor of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ-Birdsboro in Berks County, Pennsylvania and is a program manager for Faith Matters Network, a womanist-led organization focused on personal and social transformation. You can hear her exegetical work on The Word is Resistance, a podcast of SURJ-Faith. She loves to sing and laugh, and commits to keep doing so at all costs.