THE POLITICIZATION OF RACIAL HISTORY AND SPEECH
Did anything ever really happen in history that all of us could agree on? Is there anything that has happened at which we could all say, “that was evil, that was bad, and that should never have happened?” Is everything up for interpretation? If we agree certain events did happen do we have the right to define and interpret it only from our ideological position? Do only the victors have the right, and the authority, to write history? Do the losers have the authority to rewrite it? Does the majority have the right in their privilege to assess, define, and articulate for everyone, or just themselves, or not even themselves if it offends the minority?
Is anything really true? How long are we allowed to keep words and phrases before someone tells us we can’t use them anymore, that they have become offensive and that the way they are used has taken on new meaning and we are no longer allowed to use them? I confess that sometimes I am a bit confused by the independent and self-authorizing claim to redefinition. I am thrown into asking, “who the hell made you Noah Webster?”
We have certain philosophical and political dynamics which put us into a veritable sea of a tidal lexicon. Post modernism has sought to empower people (groups) by allowing them to control their own narrative. This sounds democratic and just, until of course one realizes that controlling one’s own narrative is no guarantee of honesty, accuracy, or the absence of self-deception.
Political ideologues have realized that allowing the simple acknowledgment of historical tragedy forces people into owning shame. To accept guilt allows the other party power and leverage, especially relating to social issues arising from that guilt. Therefore it is politically expedient to deny certain parts of history, or to deny the ownership of the guilt of it, and in essence to rewrite it by not allowing it to be discussed in any open and engaging manner but only as vituperative demagoguery.
All the abuses of fallacious arguments are evident in political discourse today, and much of it centers on race. The issue of race and the history of race and racism in our country is a subject of much pain, anger, and guilt, or a tortured reactive denial. The election of President Obama heightened the discourse, and racial feelings were often disguised and concealed behind political sentiments, although not as well hidden as some supposed. Some political demagogues sought to silence any protest or complaint about racism as simple hucksterism. Much of the populace became immune to any racial sensitivity, tolerance, or desire for understanding let alone reconciliation. Certain politicians saw the issue of race as their Achilles’ heel and became hard hearted and steel faced about the subject, building a Teflon heart and a non-stick conscience, and their followers repeat the mantras of denial.
Where is the great moral center of the country that was shaken by the actions of civil rights heroes and disgusted by civil rights villains, such as Bull Conner, George Wallace, the KKK, and those who bombed Sunday Schools? That moral center allowed us to make national progress but the prominent political discourse of today is toward extremism and polarization, with an attendant deafness to anything said by the other side. If people are not deaf they have become deft at redirection, where the deflection of criticism is simply by way of assigning the critic to the camp of some other political party or political person’s worst previous political act or opinion or indiscretion. It seems to fail the comprehension of some that one could be opposed to certain policies of Trump and not have to be, at the same time, an advocate for the policies of a Clinton or Obama.
This is not new of course, such radical division helped to create the Civil War, and that conflict continues to simmer in a rather consistent fight to revise its causes and see its main participants as heroes. Certainly it was about land and States Rights, but more accurately and primarily about a State’s right to not only allow slavery but to encourage its spread. Certainly many of the men that fought for the South thought they were fighting against the tyranny of a Federal government and for “freedom,” while in actuality propping up those governments intent on continuing the chattel enslavement of others.
Such incongruity is part of the American dilemma. The Confederacy is full of tragic heroes who were fighting on the wrong side. No veneration of their personal faith or gentility can wash their hands clean of the blood of their victims, either that of the slaves or of the nation’s soldiers committed to preserving the Union whose majority voted against the wishes of the slave owners.
As one pursues the dialogue about race and racial history one sees the ebb and flow of vocabulary, redefinition of terms, and the attempt as it were to create new realities. There is a white majority, a dominating white culture, in America. As with all dominant cultures in any society or nation it has privilege. Some of it is intentional and intentionally protected by various individuals and groups, some of it is a de-facto reality that the majority assumes, accepts, and avoids confronting. I don’t believe cultural majorities can erase all privilege or normality, it comes with being a majority.
However, when one peels back, as it were, the onion of history it is simply jaw dropping amazing how many economic, land and real estate, and political decisions in our local, state, and national past have been made on the basis of race and for the protection of white privilege. Some of the benefactors of privilege are oblivious to it as a social reality and become offended, in a very American individualistic kind of way, to think that they are privileged at all.
What complicates the European-American experience is the historical social construct of race to create and perpetuate “white privilege.” If I am not inherently superior to you it is hard to justify my taking your land, and taking you to another land against your will, and making you work for me in perpetuity – which means not only do I own you but I own your future and the generations that will come from you. Such arrogant beliefs of inherent superiority make people bestial.
How does the minority, the descendants of former slaves, speak about these things? How can these things be spoken about and with members of the majority culture? White dominance at one time forced a black man to hold down his head and his eyes and his only allowed response was a “yessa masa.” Is the dialogue now only bitterness, is it hate, is it insult, is it condemnation? If we were not Christians this might be an unsurprising historical outcome.
Is the discussion in our current era only about white intransigence, ignorance, and the mockery of inept attempts for reconciliation? Is reconciliation despised both as a process and a goal? Is freedom become by definition a new segregation with a certain triumphalism and assumed moral superiority, but this time on the part of, and driven by, ethnic minorities?
So the dictionary changes where (supposedly) racism can only be exercised or practiced by a majority person or institution that holds power, but cannot and will not be owned by a person of color, since by definition of being a minority they cannot actually hold power. The dictionary changes whereby “racial reconciliation” is a white goal and is now considered a fiction since there was no “conciliation” in the first place. The dictionary changes where any sociological reflection on minority neighborhoods or demographics that delves into pathologies of such communities is off limits as it produces shame and seems to deny the person-hood of those who live there. So, the word “thug” cannot be used because it (supposedly) replaces the “n” word. The dictionary changes as cross-cultural or multi-ethnic cannot be defined as such if a white person is in charge in any meaningful way.
These are all current examples of problems within racial discussions, and some of it frankly is wrong, arbitrary, illogical, and fueled by an incipient racial agenda rather than a Christian one. The only way to peace is through truth and love. Redefining terms as a way of feeling powerful through provocation doesn’t always get us to peace. Every time I use the word black or white to assign problems, patterns, or pathologies to a certain group it is incumbent on me to be careful and precise about my explanation.
But not only that, because I am a follower of Jesus, because I am trying to be a peacemaker (which I believe one must be if they are to be faithful to Christ) then I must also be loving, because it is through loving each other that men know that we are His disciples. This means I must be fair, and kind, and gentle, and seeking always to speak the truth in love. If I am faithful to Jesus I must be humble, longsuffering, preferring others in honor, and intentionally seeking to be at peace with them.
Can I not be angry at injustice and sin? Not only can we, we must be, and this is part of telling the truth. Yet, the way I tell the truth says much about my intention. What is my agenda? Where is the commitment to peacemaking? Will I achieve it by humiliating or destroying you? Whether one wishes to use the term racial reconciliation or not, reconciliation is a message and ministry from God and through God’s people; peacekeeping is the way to blessing.
As a believer I am intentionally stuck with a commitment and a submission to the Word of God, the final arbitrator of what is actually true, and right, and good.
James 3:17-18 says, “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”