My White Supremacy Problem
As with many in the United States, I rely heavily upon my religious tradition for moral guidance. That reliance is compounded for me. As clergy leader for the Ethical Culture Society of Westchester, I am expected to pursue avenues for social justice and living compassionately and encourage our congregation to do so as well. As Executive Director for the national federation of Ethical Societies, the American Ethical Union (AEU), I am also expected to call attention to the moral challenges we face and to press for reforms to meet those challenges.
Racial justice has long been a major concern that has grown with the public outcry over recent police violence and the outsized impact of the coronavirus infection upon Black, Latinx and Native American people. As our religious community pressed for reforms and for relief it became increasingly clear that our communities – which draw upon primarily older, white, college educated segments of the population – have also been party to the many systemic factors that have created, deepened, and sustained racism.
I acted to address this by calling for a reaffirmation of past racial justice resolutions that had been adopted. The statement acknowledges our organization’s shortcomings, reminds us of the promises we already made, and urges us to move forward with strength and determination in repair efforts. The statement was mostly acceptable to all – except for one phrase.
The questioned phrase was about encouraging our congregations to come to terms with “our own support of and/or collusion with white supremacist ideas, policies, and practices.” The statement was deemed too harsh by some and others noted that they did not want people who see the statement to imagine that our members are White Supremacists.
What do you think of when you hear the words “white supremacy?” For me, it immediately conjures images of hooded Klansmen and other angry, hate-spewing white men gathered around a burning cross. I see it in the police officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck, in the finger pulling the trigger that sent seven bullets into the back of Jacob Blake. But white supremacy has a different face, too – a kinder, gentler face that peers back at me when I look in the mirror.
Seeing my own image as a face of white supremacy is painful so it’s hard to not look away when I notice it. And it can be quite hard to notice: my white supremacy abhors violence and would like to see everyone have a happy and satisfying life. My white supremacy imagines itself as helpful and generous; eager to sow friendship and good will.
But my white supremacy has a superiority complex. It can’t honestly say that white people, like me, aren’t somehow a bit better than others who aren’t white. And it believes, deep down, that if more people would adopt behaviors like mine (and other white people) that their lives would be better – perhaps almost as good as mine.
My white supremacy has trouble seeing barriers that prevent others from thriving so it doesn’t notice that racial segregation is promoted by lending practices that favor white people, or zoning rules that drive up the costs of housing, or school systems that are funded through property taxes, or hiring practices that favor white people over others, or disparities in arrests and prosecutions of white people compared to Black people.
And as my white supremacy doesn’t see the barriers so clearly, it also doesn’t pay much notice to the causes of those barriers or to the forces that maintain those barriers and make them effective. My white supremacy doesn’t notice that it is shoring up those barriers and exacerbating inequity, that it is feeding an environment that lifts white people at the expense of Black people. Without that understanding there is little motivation to do anything about it.
But first, I need my religion to grapple with the damaging impact our white supremacy has had upon the lives of people not seen as white. I need my religion to help me counter the mentality that white people are deserving of what they have accumulated and that Black people just need to change how they live so they can catch up with white people. I need my religion to acknowledge that our congregations have benefited greatly – and continue to benefit – from institutional racism so bear responsibility for undoing it.
Perhaps you, too, look to your religion for moral guidance. Despite data showing it declining in influence, a majority of Americans, according to Pew Research Center, still feel that faith has the potential to be a force for good in society. How is your religion helping you come to terms with racial inequity? How is your religion helping you grapple with white supremacist ideas and attitudes? How is your religion working to undo support of those ideas?
There are concrete actions we can take and I am happy to see my religion supporting and coordinating anti-racism work of our members and friends. As efforts to suppress the vote continue from the highest office of our country, we are working to ensure that Black, Latinx, and Native American voting rights are supported. The AEU has partnered with Reclaim Our Vote (ROV) to notify eligible voters of color in states with a history of suppression that they may have been removed from voter rolls and alert voters to ways they can best ensure that their vote will be counted. We have sent over 40,000 postcards so far and are also reaching people by phone.
Support the Black voices in your community. In New York, where I live, there are numerous groups that have formed to pursue greater equity on the local level in law enforcement, housing, education, employment, and healthcare. Congregations can often send representatives to groups such as these and there are probably groups near you that your congregation can engage with. If not, perhaps your congregation can help such groups get started in your community.
Our congregational culture has, mostly unintentionally, discouraged engagement of people who are not seen as white. The AEU just certified its first Black Clergy Leader in 55 years and is actively working to address the policies and practices that will encourage more voices being heard and appreciated. We have a long way to go but we believe that change must come through new voices and new ideas and are committed to work toward that end. We would be happy for your company if you are looking to take a similar path forward.
For too long, we have been led to look the other way rather than see that we have feathered our own nests by plucking the feathers from others. Let’s work much harder to undo the damage. Despite its passage in December, the Senate has still not taken up The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. People of faith like Rep. Lewis and Dr. King were instrumental in getting the Voting Rights Act passed. They did not stand silent in the face of injustice. Neither should we.