What do the words “white supremacist” evoke in you? It’s hard for me to see those words and not think of hate spewing, Ku Klux Klan hooded, Swastika wearing, angry white men gathered around a burning cross. My response is a visceral one—I immediately feel tense with a mix of fear and anger. More than anything I want to bury forever the words “white supremacist.” It’s a kneejerk reaction I’ve been trained to have, one that drives me to put distance between myself and those evil people and their contemptible ideas.
With that in mind, I imagine a good number of people were puzzled when Version 3 of the “Black Lives Matter to AEU” statement to reaffirm past resolutions on racial justice contained the phrase:
“Ethical Societies must come to terms with our own support of white supremacist ideas, policies, and practices…”
A number of people indicated that the phrase was “harsh.” After all, the statement goes on to report on efforts by people in the Ethical movement to combat racism. Multiple Assemblies were dedicated to racial justice and the five resolutions referred to in the statement were just the latest in string of resolutions dating back to the 1948 resolution in support of Harry S. Truman’s “President’s Committee on Civil Rights.”
People also reminded me that Ethical Culture Leaders helped found the NAACP and other civil rights organizations, and that many members were active with the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
None of those efforts nullified the more damaging and pervasive behaviors that have deepened and sustained the inequity that is so profound in the dominant culture of the United States and also, I strongly believe, also prevalent in the culture of the Ethical movement.
I wrote the following in response to the pushback on inserting the phrase that included the term “white supremacist”:
My statement: “Ethical Societies must come to terms with our own support of white supremacist ideas, policies, and practices, and with our lack of resolve to redress the damage to Black lives” is directed at our Ethical Humanist culture rather than at our values and principles. Our culture is most appealing to a rather particular slice of humanity: white, middle-to-upper-middle class, college educated individuals who are 50 and above and have mostly European ancestry.
That slice of the population has been benefiting greatly from race-based inequities whether in the form of segregated neighborhoods that protect white people from harm through race-based traffic stops and over-surveillance and arrests for petty infractions in neighborhoods where Black people live, segregated schools that are much better funded for white students than Black students, medical facilities that discriminate in the care they provide, inherited financial investments that significantly contribute to white people having, on average, nine times more wealth than Black people on average. The list could go on for quite a while.
Is it really too harsh to say that Ethical Humanists have benefited greatly from institutional racism and are therefore responsible for it? Is it wrong to say that the mentality that drives institutional racism against Black people is based on an idea that we have supported: that white people are deserving of what they have accumulated and that Black people just haven’t caught up with white people economically? Are we not obliged to recognize that the wealth we have secured has been gained and passed along through theft and oppression?
I have used the term “white supremacist” knowingly and consciously as a term that most accurately describes, in my opinion, the pro-white and anti-Black mentality that underlies our culture and inhibits our moving toward becoming an anti-racist movement.
“White supremacy” combines the notions of superiority of white people with the acceptance of that superiority as a justification for inequality. A white supremacist perspective on inequality in the United States, for example, might acknowledge the great disparities of wealth and prosperity and conclude that Black people are disadvantaged and wonder what it would take for them to improve their level of achievement. “If Black people would act more like successful white people—be well spoken, be thrifty, and work hard they might close the gap!”
Mostly unacknowledged are the many perks of being seen as white in this country. And we have been taught to look the other way rather than see that we have feathered our own nests by plucking the feathers from others.
Let’s at least acknowledge the thievery that is at the heart of the inequity. Let’s acknowledge that our nest feathering has real and brutal impact on the people who have had so much taken from them. Let’s work much harder to undo the damage.