Dismantling the Awful Machine

I got into a conversation on Facebook on one of my pastor’s pages about some of the backlash from Jesse Williams’s speech at the BET Awards (transcript). The conversation was tense but mostly constructive, as people coming from different perspectives struggled to process how they felt about his call to action (and in some cases, inaction from people who he felt were not helpful to the process of achieving justice). For American evangelical audiences in particular, it’s hard for them to reconcile an individualistic view on worship and atonement with a notion of a corporate or collective sin that they do not view themselves as having participated in.

Someone in the thread asked a deceptively simple question:

“Can anyone answer the following question with real, applicable, easily understood solutions? How do we stop/fix racism? As a country/world?”

I made the questionable call to try to answer it. Here is my response, with a couple of edits for clarity.

I can only speak to America, as racial dynamics are pretty different in other parts of the world. I will also try to make this easily understood, but it’s not an easy problem.

I think we have to look at racism as both an individual possibility and a systemic reality. Every one of us carries bias. And yes, it is possible for nonwhites to be racist, it’s just less likely that that will matter to large groups of white people due to the relative lack of power. To work on that bias, as Christians, we have to turn that over to God along with all our other sins, and then act on that repentance with intentional action, by actually getting to know people who are not like us, racially or economically, and fighting our preconceptions every step of the way. This one is everyone’s responsibility.

I’m going to talk next about some things I think white Americans should do, but that’s not to absolve other groups of responsibility. Consideration of and remedies for black or Latino underperformance are valid, but there are two assumptions made. First, it is assumed black and Latino people are not actively working on those issues because they’re busy blaming white people. Second, these issues are somehow made into a precondition for fixing racial injustice (as in, “if you had your stuff together, we could talk, but get your house in order first, buddy”). For the first, it’s untrue at best and insulting at worst to assume that black and Latino people on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder aren’t fighting like hell to improve their lives. For the second, Christianity teaches us that cleaning up is not a precondition for grace or movement toward reconciliation with God, so why should we treat each other any differently?

It’s my opinion that white Americans in particular have to let go of the individual racial binary that plays out so often where you are either a) not racist or b) a Klansman. If a lot of well-meaning white people can get past the fact that having racism called out doesn’t mean someone thinks you personally are an evil idiot, that would make it a lot easier to listen and chew on the meat of what people like Williams are saying.

The other thing that well-meaning “post-racial” Americans have to consider is that a machine that has been continually built, improved, and tweaked until about 30-50 years ago to crush black bodies and souls and elevate white ones, even if it is turned off, leaves destruction in its wake that must be addressed. I would argue that the machine is not even turned off; it’s merely no longer manned with workers tasked to keep it running smoothly. We blithely ignore housing, social, and legal policies that actively destroyed black ability to acquire wealth up to 50 years ago (and in a few cases into the present decade, like redlining and disparate interest rates) and then shrug when a bad neighborhood continues to be bad. We chalk it up to a lack of moral fiber. No. This is what was intended by the creators of the machine, more or less.

An example of the headless machine in action is how white men have a disproportionate share of leadership positions at this point for no other reason than until recently, no one else was allowed to. There’s not a committee of white men actively holding the entire nation back. But there are committees that look at hardworking women and black people and other groups, and promote them more slowly or not at all. (My father saw this firsthand in the 2000s as an executive promoted much too late in his career when he was finally allowed in the room where evaluations were given and had to fight on behalf of others for fair treatment.) And there are people that follow their natural impulse to mentor younger versions of themselves, not realizing they’re ignoring bright young women or nonwhites who might be even better proteges.

So the problem, in summary comes down to, are you non-racist or anti-racist? Non-racist means you don’t go calling people names or discriminating. Anti-racist means you speak up when someone else does, and you try to actively dismantle the machine where possible by looking at places where passive bias or historical bias has led to present inequity. Non-racist is relatively easy, and many white people during the civil rights movement were non-racist. But they greeted their friends’ nasty remarks with nervous chuckles instead of disdain, or worse, inadvertently encouraged it. And when the lynching or riots came, they shook their heads and wondered why that happened, when these were such good people that didn’t act like that.

I know how hard it is to go from non-racist to anti-racist; I’m working on it in myself regarding gender. But that movement to anti-racism, to actively dismantle our biases and the machine, is the only way to full reconciliation in my opinion. It doesn’t mean you have to grovel and beg forgiveness at a black person’s feet. It just means you have to consider the possibility that if you’re not paying attention closely, you might look down and find a crank in your hand, turning the gears in an awful machine.

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