White Supremacy and the Importance of the Accuracy of Meaning.
THE CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM
We went to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum yesterday. An institution and monument of statewide lament. My family, on my father’s side, is from Mississippi. It is 400 years since black people were brought here to America as slaves. One of the things the museum helps you to realize is that white supremacy was (and is) nasty, violent, and murderous. It was an intentional attitude, with policies and vicious activities to hold black people in slavery and subjection, even into the time of Jim Crow and share cropping, primarily to protect cheap labor for planters.
There is a record of slave rebellions, and many counties in the south had as many or more black people in them than white. There was fear in the white south of such rebellion. There was fear of a loss of political power in the time of “Reconstruction“ and all that fear led to violence.
White people overwhelmingly and undeniably thought they were superior to black people. They used the benighted condition [lack of English, lack of education, poverty, and being in chains] of black folks and even their subtle strategies to please white masters as evidence of their lack of intelligence. White people saw this as reason for People of Color to be denied full citizenship or to mix with white folks in anything but a subservient posture. The combination of despising a group of people, with disgust and fear, led to hate.
THE PHRASE “WHITE SUPREMACY”
I am positing the question in the context of the struggle against racism; are the past battles the same as the present? When the phrase “white supremacy” is used today, does it mean the same thing as was meant in the heyday of slavery, of the KKK, in the days of lynching? Has there been a devaluation, or conversely an inflation, in the use of language and if so, why, and where does it come from?
Do those who use the term ‘white supremacy,” and include within it personal racist bias, systemic racist policies and white privilege (arising from being the dominant culture) have the ability to differentiate planned and calculated political violence from ignorance or culturally ingrained prejudice in their rhetoric?
Is the more aggressive language to summarize present American culture as “white supremacist culture” helpful in pursuing justice and peace, or simply antagonistic and conversation ending? Is it indeed accurate, true, historical, or belligerently inflated?
The choice of phrases in the struggle against racism may be dependent on what one thinks the goal might be. In the struggle against racism what is the end game? Is there an end goal, or only a dialectic of struggle? If one dedicates him or herself to that cause how do they know when victory is achieved, when is the battle ended?
If there is only a dialectic and no realistic prospect of victory what can protect anti-racist warriors from despair and pessimism? In the battle how does one protect oneself from isolation, from being consumed with anger and bitterness while continuing to be vigilant and assertive in telling the truth and calling out evil?
If one is not a Christian then there may be little reason to hold oneself back from hatred, even from revenge, or to a protective self-segregation; all of which are symptoms of despair in a seemingly endless fight.
CONCERN OVER THE SHIFT IN THE MEANING OF WORDS.
There is a reason to be concerned with the cultural shift in language, and it is a shift that is not simply based on the passing of time. It is a politically conscious shift, attempting to be more radical and more aggressive against the stubborn reality of racial wickedness. It is the imposition of a dialectical analysis of struggle rather than a biblical one, which is the very foundation of good versus evil and the promise that good triumphs. I believe it is also the fountain of truth from which our understanding of the struggle of good versus evil must be derived.
While being sympathetic with the desire to be more aggressive against a very stubborn racial ignorance and its derived injustice, it is important to realize this shift can be dangerous when losing sight of the purposefully violent. It is damaging for all of us when being unable to speak, hear, and listen to each other. This is important especially for those who use the kind of rhetoric that grips our attention in the fight against racism.
My internal conservatism makes me want to hold onto the phrase of “white supremacy” as a concept of particularly dangerous evil. To make it mean everything I am afraid it winds up meaning nothing, and that in my mind gives the enemy too much of a chance to excuse itself, to hide, to morph into the general confluence of events and attitudes.
ALL SENSE OF RACIAL SUPERIORITY IS STUPID
All racial sense of superiority is stupid and wrong, no matter who or of what race holds it. Yet, not everyone who thinks their people group is better than another takes up arms and goes out and kills people. Not every racist lynches people, even if their attitude maintains a horrible status quo. Not every bigot runs a death camp, or builds gas chambers.
All bigotry is something we should resist and speak against, but “white supremacy” has a specific and historic meaning. To be able to put groups and leaders into that category is helpful because it proclaims, yes, this is domestic terrorism, this is murder and killing, this is what the Nazi’s were and are, and there is nothing justifiable in it!
I am not seeking to give any kind of racism a break in my comments. Rather I am arguing that to combine all the aspects and issues of race and racism in this country into the phrase “white supremacy” is to give people an easy out. White people take it as name calling thus they avoid the guilt and the conviction they should have about their thinking, and in their behaviors. It doesn’t lead them to an understanding of their sin or compassion or justice. It gives them an excuse to condemn the messenger.
One can dismiss this as “white fragility” which I think is a phrase constructed to be dismissive. Yet that concept doesn’t change anything except to give some a feeling of triumph as they dismiss other people’s ignorance and insecurity as unimportant. People’s feelings are important if we seek to see change in them. Paying attention to the fragility and sensitivity of people when in racial discussions always calls for patience and wisdom. It is sometimes so frustrating and maddening to have to slow down the discussion to allow people to catch up, but what have we accomplished if we don’t bring them with us?
There is an agenda, one that I believe God has, to build his church. It is a reconciling vision, not a separated one. It is a positive and victorious agenda because it is inevitable. The victory is promised in the book of Revelation, and it is won and determined by the blood of Christ as his blood pays for people from every language, tribe, and nation who all derive from one blood in the first place. It seems (almost) an impossible vision to accomplish upon the earth, to produce models of the heavenly kingdom.
If it was easy Jesus would not have bothered to pray for it as recorded in John 17. Yet, I am convinced the “beloved community” is possible on the earth and refuse to surrender to the pessimism that either the political left or right seeks to impose upon us. “His kingdom come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
POINTS OF LIGHT
When one goes through the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and sees the heartbreaking saga of slavery, racism, and bigotry – white folks acting like vicious dogs as they attack, belittle, lynch, and dehumanize black folk- there are also notices in each exhibit. They are called “points of light.” Different kinds of folks who did righteous things and made a difference. Some suffered terribly, some gave generously, some are little known yet they made a difference. My heart yearns for more of them, to be one of them myself, for the church of Jesus Christ to be full of such folks who love like Jesus, who are humble like Jesus, who bring good news to the oppressed.