To every story there is a backstory. Nothing happens out of thin air. Not divorces. Not disease. Not eviction. Not animosities. Not divisions. Not riots. Every story has a backstory and can be understood better when the backstory is known. Almost always, backstories are long but they are critical. Please, consider this backstory.
Think about how social, cultural, and familial systems work and form people. Then, think about how society and civic life in the U.S. was constructed while enslaving Black and Brown skinned people and did so for 246 years. Then, remember that of the first twelve US Presidents the only two who did not own slaves during their lifetime were John Adams and his son John Quincy. Then, think about how after chattel slavery was outlawed, for 89 additional years “freed” Black and Brown skinned citizens were welcomed into a segregated society that promised form of equality without equity to white citizens. Then, think about how cities, interstates, industry, politics, economics, justice, religious, and various other systems were built brick upon brick, layer upon layer, generation upon generation, on a system that dehumanized, devalued and demeaned Black and Brown citizens. Then, think about how significant legislation like FDR’s New Deal was passed at a time when Black and Brown skinned people lacked equity, and how housing policy, workforce development and educational enhancement programs, and the like, neglected Black and Brown skinned citizens.1
Think about how in 1954 the US began loosening the laws that segregated Black and Brown skinned citizens but lacked the power to loosen the sociological, psychological, and familial systems that kept them segregated in the hearts and minds of White citizens, along with the White-dominated institutions. Think about Redlining (click here too), Jim Crow, voting rights, education rights, and the like.
Think about how the passage of a single law or set of laws cannot effectively undo 335 years of political, economic, religious, justice, and familial systems, structures, and ideology. Societies do not work that way (for all the Christians think of Israel and Judah). Then, remember how laws were passed again and again, from the Thirteenth Amendment to Jim Crow, to criminalize Black and Brown skinned citizens for not being White like me.
Then, remember that the only demographic of human being living in these United States that’s never needed a law to pass in order to attain a new measure of freedom afforded by the U.S. Constitution is White, Anglo, heterosexual men. Even White Anglo women needed new laws for fuller freedom. Even indentured servants and immigrant slaves who were not categorized as Black needed new laws for freedoms (but when they were freed in accordance to Virginia law they were granted 50 acres of land by their plantation owners, but not African Americans, effectively establishing a permanent economic underclass).2 Then, think how the “We” and the “People” in the “We the People” functionally meant only White Anglo heterosexual men. Then, think about how every law and institution built upon that framework set the stage for the creation of all social, economic, and religious systems that were designed to uphold that specific demographic above all others.3
We are a country whose foundation was laid upon a protest that led to loss of people and property. “Give me liberty or give me death!” We are a country whose foundation was laid upon the political, economic, and religious systems that formed a racialized cultural system upholding White citizens and oppressing Black and Brown citizens. This tilled the soil upon which the roots of our nation’s laws, structures, and institutions grew deep. All of this organized the beliefs, values, and relational systems formed by every man, woman and child, regardless of race or ethnicity.
So what do people who have lived under the realities of this long dehumanizing narrative to do? What do they do when their everyday experience and the policies and leaders that govern them are long on promise but short on delivery? Whether you see what they see, which is a problem for sure, what are they to do when they kneel during the national anthem with hand over heart in peaceful protest but are called names and told it isn’t acceptable because they disrespect a national symbol? What are they to do when they develop a movement and hashtag of #BlackLivesMatter trying to highlight their vulnerability but are countered with “What about me or them? They matter too!” (No one finds it strange that the same people saying this are the ones protesting government buildings fully armed over wanting to get a haircut).
What are they to do when White people are fond of quoting their leaders like Dr. King but have no idea whatsoever what Dr. King would say about what we see now? More so, what are they to do when Christians call out for peace when the Scriptures tell us to beware of those who say “peace, peace” when there is no peace?
So please, ask me what I think we White Christians can do. But don’t ask if you want to argue. I’m beyond that. Let’s put our hands and feet to our words.
There needs to be organized efforts of anti-racism peacemaking movements–actions of change based upon embodied advocacy and witness. There needs to be solidarity and sharing in the suffering rather than qualifying or rationalizing the suffering. We need to look in our neighborhoods and cities and start doing work. We need to open up our imaginations with a bold and prophetic witness that builds priestly bridges where shared experiences can be found, and where the reign of Christ can be made tangible in the dismantling of the systems of injustice that still shape us. We can do it.
1 Following the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, liberated slaves began dispersing throughout the United States, yet residential integration—not segregation—declined quickly and steadily well into the mid-twentieth century thanks to localized racial zoning ordinances. Starting with the Great Depression of the 1930s and lasting into the 1950s, the country experienced a critical housing shortage, leaving only affluent Americans able to afford housing. During the shortage, working-class and middle-class white and black families suffered, with multiple family units often forced to cram into a single small apartment. In response to the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the New Deal, a series of relief programs, job programs, labor rights bills and housing programs aimed at providing aid to struggling Americans. Unfortunately, many of the programs facilitated by New Deal agencies followed racialized practices. For example, job training camps for jobless youth often excluded black applicants in favor of white applicants, while “segregationists made sure that farmers and domestics—Blacks’ primary vocations—were excluded from the [New Deal’s] new job benefits, like minimum wage, social security, unemployment insurance, and unionizing rights.” The New Deal created the nation’s first public housing for civilian citizens. Given the cultural reality of segregation, race determined the program’s design, including the construction of separate housing for African Americans. This included separate buildings in some mixed-race developments and the total exclusion of African Americans from many other developments across the U.S. During FDR’s time in office, the appointed head of the Public Works Administration (PWA), the agency tasked with alleviating the housing shortage and creating new housing construction jobs, created the “neighborhood composition rule.” This rule mandated that new housing projects must reflect the existing racial composition of the neighborhood in which they were located. New projects in predominately white communities could only house white tenants, those in African American communities could house only African American tenants, and projects in existing integrated communities could house either. See Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: a Forgotten History of how our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017), 18-20, 39-40. See also Kendi, 337.
2 Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning (New York: Nation Books, 2016): 54, 68. Kendi records, “By the early eighteenth century, every Virginian county had a militia of landless Whites ‘ready in case of any sudden eruption of Indians or insurrection of Negroes.’ Poor Whites had risen into their lowly place in slave society—the armed defenders of planters.” (54)
3 Culture can be understood as “a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols” or “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” See Clifford Gertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1973), 89. Culture is an always changing, always moving stream of interaction of beliefs and practices between people. It is a way of life that precedes us, exists long after us, and while we are living, involves and shapes us through its embedded narratives, language, rituals and conventional norms—a cultural system. Sociologists Peter Berger suggest that the formation of cultural systems can be understood in three-step process: externalization, institutionalization and internalization. The cultural system formation process starts with externalization, which begins when individuals come together to form a community. Each individual contributes a set of implicit and explicit values, life experiences, and expectations to the larger group. Over time, a collective group identity forms, whether subconsciously or consciously. Institutionalization, the next step in the cultural formation process, occurs once group identity develops into a mutually shared set of values and expectations that create an interplay between discourse, habitualization, and boundaried social practices. As part of the institutionalization process, the group builds collective memories upon shared experiences, stories, definitions, languages, and expectations, and it constructs plausibility structures to produce a communal narrative based upon conscious norms, rituals, and explicit behaviors. The group also begins to forge trusting interpersonal relationships, resulting in social capital. At this point, the cultural system takes on a life of its own, having the potential to evolve beyond the original set of values and expectations and multiply into new movements and mechanisms. Finally, the last step in the process – internalization – happens when the institution has the capacity to influence those who are a part of the community. The plausibility structures that establish ways of being and doing life within the community get habitualized into a politic—a governed way of life. At this point, a communal narrative is formed that possesses a certain amount of power and authority over the life of each member. The created system is now the basis for the orientation of each individual member’s identity, producing a script by which the members live and understand reality, including the ongoing formation of ideas and beliefs. Ideas and beliefs relate to reality in two ways: either as the facts of reality or as a reaction to reality. When ideas and beliefs take on more of the characteristics of the latter, emotions like hate, anxiety, fear or desire can easily influence the ideas and beliefs to generate a distorted psychology of ideological thought. Therefore, ideology can be understood as being socially determined and primarily influenced by perceived antagonisms that arise from civic life. When a preferred way of life is threatened, ideological thought is formed in response to serve as a “mask or weapon” in the struggle for advantage and power or as a “symptom and remedy” to correct and stabilize an unstable cultural system. See Robert C. Linthicum states, “It is widely suggested that the systems that order the life of a city are economic, political, and religious.” City of God: City of Satan: A Biblical Theology of the Urban Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), p 47. See also Peter Berger, The Scared Canopy: Elements of A Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Random House, 1967), 4-19. For a more detailed examination of Berger’s proposal, see Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (New York: Random House, 1966) and James S. Coleman, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 94, Supplement: Organizations and Institutions: Sociological and Economic Approaches to the Analysis of Social Structure (1988), pp. S95-S120.
UPDATED May 31 to add what this Timeline of Protests from The Root.