But as Black voices tell us, reconciliation comes with a price, a cost, a burden. A cross if you will. This cross, this burden, is one that Whites habitually refuse to pick up. And my argument in this post is that a part of that cost and burden will be sympathy for Black rage and violence. But that’s a price that many Whites simply will not pay. Sympathy for Black rage. And if you cannot suffer that–Black rage over the death of Michael Brown–how are we going to be able to make any progress?
Here’s what I know after having spent many years as a part of these conversations. White people are more than happy to talk about racial reconciliation until 1) the rage is directed at them or 2) the burden of reconciliation becomes too costly.
In short, Whites want atonement and reconciliation with no cross, no passion, no willingness to suffer for sin. Sins can mount and mount and mount, across generations, with no reckoning. And so the wound festers.
There are a few things on my mind right now that the Michael Brown tragedy, and recent blog post by Richard Beck (quoted above), have got me thinking about:
- Yes, all white people in the U.S. are guilty of benefiting from racism
- Yes, reconciliation comes with a cost
- No, black people cannot just “get over it”
Guilt by Association
In conversations that I’ve had with people like me (straight, white males), I’ve found that perhaps the biggest stumbling block for them is understanding how they’re complicit in racism and oppression. No one wants to be told they’re complicit in oppression or racism. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s one that is necessary, I think, if things are going to get better. Christina Cleveland says it succinctly here:
“all white people are guilty of benefiting from our racist system. Whites currently benefit from racism of the past (e.g., slavery) as well as racism of the present (e.g., discriminatory hiring practices that alienate blacks and accommodate whites). Whether whites consciously commit explicitly racists acts or simply implicitly benefit from the racist system, there are no innocents. Every white person has committed the sin of racism.”
And here is Peggy McIntosh on white privilege:
I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.
Bo Sanders wrote a great post on privilege a while back which really helped me learn about active and passive postures towards privilege, racism/sexism and marginalization/oppression. Beverly Daniels Tatum sums these concepts up well I think:
… All White people, intentionally or unintentionally, do benefit from racism. (A Klan member or the name calling Archie Bunker are) images (that) represent what might be called active racism, blatant, intentional acts of racial bigotry and discrimination. Passive racism is more subtle and can be seen in the collusion of laughing when a racist joke is told, of letting exclusionary hiring practices go unchallenged, of accepting as appropriate the omissions of people of color from the curriculum, and of avoiding difficult race-related issues. Because racism is so ingrained in the fabric of America institutions, it is easily self-perpetuating. All that is required to maintain it is business as usual.
Unfortunately, acknowledging ones privilege often leads to white people feeling guilt. And I guess this is natural, but hopefully that guilt then leads to sympathy and understanding, exactly what Beck is talking about above.
Reconciliation Comes With a Cost
Let’s take a couple real basic examples here. Legally speaking, reconciliation requires a few steps. First one must acknowledge that a wrong has been done (confession), then one must change their ways (repentance) and take steps to make things right (penance). Then, and only then, can one be forgiven.
Now, speaking in more covenantal terms, reconciling with a loved one after a fight, I would say, also has cost involved. Swallowing ones pride, for instance, getting over oneself and trying to see the other persons point of view is costly, and it kinda sucks because it usually means that one will feel vulnerable emotions like sadness, guilt, hurt and disappointment in oneself, and that’s hard to bear sometimes. It’s why we have automatic responses like defense and anger, because when our well being or sense of self is threatened, those things kick in to keep us from feeling pain.
It’s true, no one wants to suffer. No one wants to feel pain.
So, when Beck says above that white folks need to have sympathy for black rage, I think what he’s saying is that white people have to try to understand this rage and this pain, and develop a sense for where it’s coming from. Sympathy, as I understand it, means to identify with. Once we can do this, once we can see someone elses point of view, feel someone elses pain, then we can endure it better and sympathize/identify with it and even suffer with those who suffer. In a way, make it our own.
This is not the same as condoning the violent actions or making excuses for negative behavior. It’s realizing that on a grand level, your story is actually my story too.
Actions have consequences. Unfortunately, we must deal with the sins of our fathers.
Just Get Over It
Perhaps the thing that bugs me the most, when it comes to conversations about racism and reconciliation in the United States, is when I hear white people say things like, “why don’t black people just get over it already?” to which I say, when have they ever had a chance to “get over it?”
Michelle Alexander makes this point abundantly clear in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-blindness.
I mean, the history of African people in the United States is really f’d up, in case you don’t know. Slavery ended “officially” in 1865 (which is only 148 years ago for crying out loud!! That’s not a long time.), then in 1876 jim crow laws were enacted at state and local levels, which lasted until 1965.
Seriously! Only 50 years ago black people had to go to separate schools in the south, and eat in separate restaurants. (Oh, and de facto segregation also happened in the North, no one’s off the hook here.)
Then, in 1981, according to Alexander’s damning evidence and analysis, the New Jim Crow kicks in. When Ronald Reagan was elected president the U.S. prison population was about 200,000. Soon after election, Reagan launched a mass conviction and imprisonment policy to calm a ruling class shaken by the tumultuous Civil Rights movement and following rebellions of the ’60s and ’70s. Reagan’s infamous “War on Drugs” has, for 30 years, mightily added to the prison population, now over two million.
Now many people I’m sure would debate Alexander’s claims, but when Black men represent 14 percent of the USA’s general population and 40 percent of its prison population, you have to at least wonder.
So again, I’m left with the question of when, exactly, were black people supposed to “get over it?”
It would be so nice to start over and be able to plant the garden equally and nourish each plant the same. Unfortunately that’s not the reality we’re faced with here. Indeed, some seeds have fallen on rocky places, where there is not much soil, while others have fallen on fertile soil.