Charlottesville, Racism, and Politics (Part 2): Institution, Privilege, and Supremacy

In my previous post, I focused on what I felt was the biggest obstacle we face in this country when it comes to addressing our current racial divisions (not to mention other contentious social issues): we’ve made partisan politics our religion, and we are so intent on defending out ideological turf, that we absolutely refuse to seek what is actually true. The result often is that, when something like Charlottesville happens, after the proverbial, “We all need to come together” talk, along with some sort of symbolic gesture (i.e. Congress standing together on the Capital steps, a candlelight vigil, a charity softball game), we retreat to our respective political fortresses, take to social media, and proceed to lob politically-charged bombs at people we deem our political enemies in our attempt to defend our pre-determined narrative, and to convince everyone that the real fault lies at the feet of “the other guys”: Republicans, Democrats, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Blue Lives Matter response. We are not part of the problem; we know what needs to be done; the other side are the racists or race-peddlers; we all would be better off if they would just listen to us, and do what we want.

Sadly, we end up using the tragedy as more ammunition in our own political/ideological war.

That gets to be quite frustrating and disheartening. The fact is, we will never be able to even get to the point of solving the issue of racial divisions in this country until we first realize that the way we are currently addressing that issue isn’t working. You can’t heal societal divisions by purposely being divisive. At the same time, you can’t heal those divisions by sticking your head in the sand and ignoring them. Ignoring them breeds further ignorance; being divisive deepens the division. So what should we do?

Yes, Pick a Side, but Don’t Accept the False Choice Our Current Politics Offers
One of the things I’ve seen a number of times over the past few days on social media are quotes stemming from the Holocaust about the importance of “choosing a side,” and how “being neutral” is akin to evil, because you’re not taking an active stand against evil. Now, in the context of WWII and the Holocaust, that is a strong and challenging sentiment. Looking the other way while the Nazis are hauling off Jews to the death camps, and not even trying to do anything to stop it is certainly shameful and evil.

The problem I have with those quotes being applied to our current climate in 21st century America is two-fold: (A) even given our current problems, it is simply irresponsible and wrong to equate modern America with Nazi Germany—the fact that virtually the entire country, and probably every elected official in both parties, resolutely condemned the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville should make that abundantly clear.

And that leads to (B) it appears (at least to me), that implied in those quotes as they are being applied to today is the notion that the “choosing of sides” is really about choosing a particular party, because one party is “good” and the other party is “evil.” I don’t want to sound harsh, but it seems to me that taking a tragedy like Charlottesville, one in which people across the country and across political parties came together to resolutely condemn the evil of white supremacy, then using that tragedy as a way to imply that “the other party” is racist and evil—that is really dangerous.

I think if we are truly going to fight against the evils of racism that still exist in our society, we certainly do need to choose to oppose hatred and physical violence—but not just the obvious examples of Neo-Nazis. Let’s face it, we already do that. Rather, we need to choose to oppose the hatred, verbal violence, and distrust we ourselves are tempted to engage in a variety of ways.

I believe we need to choose a third way—not because the proposed answers that the two parties give as to how to combat racism are necessarily “evil,” but because they have proven to be inadequate. They only potentially become evil when we turn our politics into our religion, and our ideologies into idolatries. When that happens, we can’t admit our answers are anything less than infallible, and we’ll fight tooth and nail against anyone who suggests otherwise. And when that happens, we show ourselves unable or unwilling to acknowledge the great truth that Alexander Solzhenitsyn so perfectly stated: “The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.”

Therefore, I refuse the notion that when it comes to opposing hatred, violence, and racism, the choice is between the political Left and the political Right. Rather, the choice is between truth and falsehood, love and hate—and I’m going to acknowledge truth no matter who says it; and I’m going to call out hate no matter who says it.

What “Way” Am I Talking About?
As I wrote the words, “a third way” in the above paragraph, I have to admit, I wasn’t consciously thinking of anything specific. But as I took a few minutes to reflect on it, I found myself drawn to a number of New Testament passages: the early Church, before believers were even known as “Christians,” was known as The Way. And what were they known for? Caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the oppressed, and reaching out across any kind of racial or societal barrier because Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, and through the Church, was about breaking down every wall of hostility that divided people. They didn’t go around, telling people that they sucked because they weren’t like them; they just went out and engaged in the act of reconciliation and healing.

And then there’s this: after speaking to the Corinthians about the variety of gifts and roles Christians may have within the Church, Paul says in I Corinthians 12:31, “But I will show you a still more excellent way,” and then proceeds to talk about the way of love in chapter 13, and essentially says, “No matter how much you know, or how much you understand, no matter how much you might technically be right, if you don’t speak and act in love, you gain nothing.”

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (13:4-7).

And then there’s this: in Romans 12:2, as Paul is encouraging the Jewish and Gentile Christians to come together in unity, and to stop accusing and condemning one another over a variety secondary issues, he says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Gordon Fee

I remember Gordon Fee, a professor at Regent College, commenting on this verse and telling us that Paul was emphasizing the importance of discerning what is good. God wants us to discern what is good, not necessarily “what is right,” because sometimes trying to prove you are right is not always good. Sometimes, when you are so set on proving you are right, you end up failing to do what is good for other people, and therefore in your zeal to prove you are right, you end up doing something harmful and evil.

So what does that look like in real life? If I can put a little bit of the Apostle Paul and Soren Kierkegaard together: You try to speak the truth in love…with a lot of fear and trembling. So, here goes…I’m going to do something probably really stupid. As someone who is “moderate-right” on the political spectrum, I’m going to address a few controversial terms used primarily by people on “the left” that, like it or not, have made it really hard for conservatives and progressives to work together to address racism. I bring these up, not necessarily to “prove I’m right,” but rather to try to clear a path to get to “what is good.”

The fact is, we often never get past arguing over terms and slogans. We don’t tease anything out beyond what can fit in a tweet. So what I’m going to attempt to do is take these three terms and say, “When these terms are used, this is what I hear and how I interpret them. This is why I find them problematic, not necessarily because I think what you are trying to get at is wrong, but because somehow lines are getting crossed when these terms are thrown out there.”

Why I Don’t Like the Term Institutional Racism
A few years ago (in a Facebook discussion), someone brought up institutional racism, and I commented that I didn’t think that institutional racism existed anymore. Needless to say, the responses were quite intense. People thought that I was saying I didn’t believe there was racism at all in this country, that everything was great, everyone was equal, and Martin Luther King Jr’s dream had been realized. But that’s not what I meant at all.

When I hear the term “institutional racism,” I take that to mean actual laws and government policies put in place specifically for racist purposes (i.e. the Jim Crow laws, or apartheid in South Africa). In other words, the “institution” is purposely and consciously enforcing racist policies. Therefore, I would say that although in America’s past there certainly was institutional racism, those laws and policies and institutions have since been done away with in this country. That doesn’t mean that racism no longer exists, or that people have not manipulated today’s laws and policies for racist purposes (that is absolutely undeniable), or even that some laws and policies have ended up disproportionately affecting certain minority groups—but what I meant was that the laws themselves are not intentionally racist.

So, when I hear, “There is institutional racism in America,” I hear, “There is no difference between Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa, and the United States.” And obviously, I don’t think that is true.

Why I Don’t Like the Term White Privilege
What about white privilege? What does that really mean? Does it mean that, generally-speaking, white people have historically have had more opportunity and less obstacles in trying to get ahead in life? If so, then sure, generally-speaking, that is certainly true. But let’s be honest, that simply is not true for everyone. And to say that’s not true for everyone is not a cop-out or a denial of very real plight many minorities find themselves in.

The problem with the term “white privilege,” it seems to me, is that it is sometimes used as a way to shame “white people” who don’t happen to agree with the Democratic party platform or the demands of groups like the Black Lives Matter movement. “Check your privilege” ends up being code for, “Hey you white person, you suck; you’re not allowed to say anything that upsets our liberal political views on race relations. You can be one of us if you get on Facebook and publicly repent of your ‘whiteness.’”

I absolutely do not agree with that. Let me give just one example: one of BLM’s demands on their stated platform is: “We demand full and independent Black political power and Black self-determination in all areas of society.” I’m sorry, but that is flat-out advocating for segregation, and that is not only the antithesis of our American ideals, it is the antithesis of the Gospel. It is the view that Malcom X and the Nation of Islam advocated; it is the view that Martin Luther King Jr. rejected; and it is the view that Malcom X came to reject when he left the Nation of Islam and embraced global Islam (and that is the reason he was assassinated by the Nation of Islam).

So no, I’m not going to accept calls for segregation, be it from Neo-Nazis or BLM. That doesn’t mean I don’t think many of the issues BLM are raising (i.e. police brutality, mass incarceration) aren’t valid. And that certainly doesn’t mean I’m equating BLM with Neo-Nazis. The Neo-Nazis are a hate group; BLM isn’t. In fact, BLM has done a service to the country by shining a bright light on many societal injustices have been swept under the rug. But BLM is not right about everything, and they are absolutely wrong here. You can accuse me of “not checking my privilege” all day long, segregation is wrong and anti-Christian.

Why I Don’t Like How White Supremacy is Now Being Used
And what about white supremacy? When most people hear “white supremacy,” they think of groups like the Neo-Nazis and the KKK. The problem, in my opinion, is that these days “white supremacy” is used in a way that besmirches the entirety of American history. I’ve heard it said by many people, very sincerely, that the United States was founded on white supremacy. Well, yes, I agree that white supremacy has played a hugely shameful role within America’s history, and we are still feeling the effects of such evil. But no, I do not think it is accurate or true to say the United States was founded on white supremacy. Here’s why…

The founders of this country did not say, “Let’s start our own country, and base it on white supremacy.” They inherited the inhumane institution of slavery from the British Empire. Slavery was a divisive and contentious issue from the very birth of the founding of the United States. Yes, the entire economic and social systems of the southern states was founded on white supremacy. I think that is undeniable. But the northern states, the Puritans, the Quakers, the abolitionists, had always been opposed to slavery and white supremacy.

Furthermore, the famous “3/5 compromise” in the Constitutional convention of 1787 was not a racist attempt to say black people were less than human. The fact was that the racist southern states didn’t want to give black people the rights of citizens (because if they did, they couldn’t own slaves), but they did want to have them counted in the census that would determine delegates in the House of Representatives, so they could have more power in the federal government. If they had been allowed to count every slave in the census, the southern states would have gained enough power in the federal government to probably make slavery legal in every state throughout the country.

The northern states knew this, and therefore didn’t want slaves counted at all. That way, they would have had more power, and then they could eventually outlaw slavery altogether. But the southern states knew this as well—the fledging country of barely 10 years was on the verge of collapse. So what did they do? They came to a compromise: slaves would be counted as 3/5 of a person for the census. The result was that the “balance of power” between the northern states and southern states would stay balanced for the time being, to give their new country time to get established. It was obvious from the very beginning that dealing with slavery was unfinished business, and we eventually fought a war over it.

To use an analogy, it was like the United States allying with the USSR in order to first defeat Hitler. That temporary alliance was needed in order to address the current threat of the Third Reich. It didn’t mean the United States agreed or endorsed Stalin’s purges and the mass murder of millions of innocent people in the USSR.

My simple point is that to say that white supremacy was the foundation of the United States is just historically and factually wrong. That doesn’t mean anyone is denying it was there from the beginning (indeed, it was there before the beginning), or that it is a horrible blight in our country’s history that still has yet to be completely eradicated. It simply means that, just as we cannot whitewash our history and pretend like slavery and white supremacy never happened, neither can we blackball our history and give the impression that “everybody back then” was a white supremacist and racist who wanted slavery. That simply isn’t true, and to present our history in that way ends up presenting a false view of our history, and actually makes it harder for us to address the problems we face today.

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Black Lives Matter

Now, I realized I just said a whole lot there. And sure, I might not be right on every point; indeed, I confess I am probably ignorant about a few things. But I think it is so important that people take the time to explain what they mean when they use a term that easily becomes a slogan, because when they are just thrown out there, they often are misinterpreted.

Blue Lives Matter

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Instead of uniting to address the actual current problems, one groups ends up turning those terms into political slogans, then the other group comes up with their own opposing slogans, and all we get are slogans being chanted and thrown at each other. And the only ones who benefit are the people that sell the signs.

As inadequate (and long) as this post is, I hope, if nothing else, that it sparks further reflection on what we can do to change how we address an issue like racism with people who don’t share our political views, so that we as a society can actually get around to doing something about it. You might be right on this point or that issue. But are you more concerned with proving you’re right, or discerning what is good, and then having the courage to act according to what is good?

FINAL NOTE: I realize that much of this post might make some on “the Left” angry, whereas some on “the Right” will effectively be cheering. So let me be clear to anyone on “the Right”—just because I don’t like the term “institutional racism,” doesn’t mean I don’t agree that there still is plenty of racism in our institutions that needs to be rooted out; and just because I don’t like the way “white privilege” and “white supremacy” are sometimes used, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think minorities have a much tougher time of it in our society because of the racism that still exists in our country. Not liking those terms cannot be an excuse to close your eyes and do nothing.

In my final post on this topic, I’m going to try to flesh out my thoughts on a few of the racial events that have happened in our country over the past few years.

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