Critical Race Theory – A Primer For Bridge Builders

This document was originally written as a content post for the Be The Bridge Facebook Group in support of the Be The Bridge (BTB) racial reconciliation initiative. This unpacking of Dr. Uju Anya’s description of Critical Race Theory may be generally useful, so I’ve reposted it here.

Hey BTB friends, it’s time to talk about Critical Race Theory. Before you groan and grab your heads and roll your eyes, let’s establish a couple of baselines. 

First, Be The Bridge’s official statement on CRT can be found here: 

Executive Summary

Full Document

If you are concerned about how CRT impacts the organization, our full statement on it is articulated in that document.

Second, while we encourage dialogue about how CRT is or is not helpful for bridge building, we’ll ask that the conversation stay focused on the validity and applicability of the tenets to the work we have set before us, and that we don’t drift into arguing about their compatibility with the Gospel. There is no actual dialogue between CRT and the Gospel; CRT does not require the presence or absence of a religious framework for the model to hold. CRT’s accuracy or inaccuracy has no effect on what we at BTB would describe as your charge as Bridge Builders under the Gospel. 

Finally, yes, it’s called a theory, and we all learned in sixth grade science that a theory is by definition unproven, right? Not exactly. It’s more accurate to say that it’s a model that can be used to describe how things work. The fitness of a model is determined by how accurately it can predict outcomes in a system, not in whether it has found some objective truth. Newton’s theories weren’t “wrong”; they were an accurate enough model of how things work that we still use his equations to describe basic physics today, even though we know that they don’t accurately describe what happens on the quantum level.

Dr. Uju Anya lays out in clear language an overview of CRT in a Twitter thread that she posted, and which I’ve included images of at the bottom. I am using her definitions from said thread as a basis for this, and unpacking them a bit more in the context of bridge building. If your bridge building conversations are being derailed by accusations of CRT, this thread may be a useful place to begin dialogue.

Dr. Anya lays out six tenets of CRT, all of which are often misunderstood and used to discredit the theory. The primary misunderstanding about CRT comes from a radically individualistic view of society. Each tenet describes an aggregate set of societal trends and effects that are broadly demonstrably true, but may not apply to every individual in every situation. In what I like to call the “righteous man in Sodom” fallacy, the single cases where the theory does not hold as strongly are held up to discredit the larger societal effect. This is similar to stating that the lake is warm because you’re standing in a warm shallow in the sunlight, while the majority of the lake is being chilled by ambient temperatures, its own depth, and shade from trees prevents sunlight through. The lake is still cold, even if your spot is warm. Let’s look closer.

Observational Tenets

The first three tenets are what I would call “observational tenets”. They posit things about what’s happening in the world around us without passing judgment on them or making recommendations about what should be different. As we state in our position statement on CRT: “It is important to remember that these academic scholars are not inventing behaviors, but giving name to behaviors that are already in existence.”

ENDEMIC RACISM

Racism is deeply embedded in our thinking and institutions, such that we see any resulting unfair advantages as natural and unchangeable. 

It’s important to read this correctly. It is not saying that these advantages are natural or immutable, it’s saying that our society, in aggregate, treats them as if they are. We see years of unequal outcomes while operating in a culture of silence about racism, and we lose sight of the racist policy and thinking that produces those outcomes. This thinking produces books like The Bell Curve, written in the early 1990s, which asserts a correlation between natural intelligence and racial origin.

CRITIQUE OF LIBERAL MYTHS 

Equal treatment under the law is a myth, which means that meritocracy and colorblindness, the necessary ingredients, are as well.

This is frequently misunderstood as implying explicit and pervasive racist stances are being held at every level of the system, making it impossible for each individual Black person to catch a break. The evidence of fairness at any single point is used as a counterpoint, absolving the system of wrongdoing. In reality, this manifests in things like home appraisals being different based on whether the appraiser knows the race of the homeowner (still happening in 2021) or in people with names that correlate to a racial identity getting called for fewer job interviews despite qualifications.

WHITENESS AS PROPERTY

Whiteness is a commodity that provides benefits to those that possess it. 

This is frequently misunderstood as “everyone with white skin doesn’t have any problem and society treats them all like royalty.” It’s much more accurate to look at the fungibility of whiteness into protection, authority, and financial benefit, and the malleability of whiteness. Italians and Eastern Europeans were not always considered white. Anyone who is multiracial and is sometimes coded differently depending on the environment can also tell you about this difference and the things they have heard when people thought they were safe to discuss them. 

Positional Tenets

The second three tenets are what I would call “positional tenets”. These are arguments that I think the theory is making about how these power dynamics are affecting us and how the world around us can be changed.

INTEREST CONVERGENCE 

POC can only advance in US institutions or society when whatever benefits them also benefits white people. 

This is usually not addressed in the discourse because POC’s lack of advancement is written off as a series of personal failures rather than an inability to overcome a series of systemic barriers. An example of interest convergence in our society currently would be the expansive safety net measures COVID introduced around unemployment insurance. Decades of persistent Black unemployment, underemployment, and unequal pay did not inspire a desire for a better safety net, but when COVID put millions of white workers at risk, the country acted swiftly to put in measures that helped them and happened to help others in the process. The converse is also true: popular support for safety net programs on the whole has declined since the 60s in a direct correlation to the allowance of Black people into the workforce, and the anti-mask/return-to-normal sentiment spiked as the COVID numbers started to come in and POC seemed to be the most affected.

COUNTERNARRATIVE

We should listen to and center POC voices as legitimate alternatives to dominant voices that are usually white, male, and financially well off. 

This belief simply reflects the old maxim that the winners of history tell stories in their favor. Counternarrative asserts that we can only get a complete story by allowing multiple perspectives to weigh in and centering the ones that are not naturally amplified. However, this encouragement to find alternative voices is often weaponized, and dominant voices will find POC voices to lift and amplify that reinforce their narrative as a means of fighting the counternarrative of the majority. 

INTERSECTIONALITY

Multiple axes of power (race, gender, orientation, physical capability, neurotypicality, etc.) work together to produce different outcomes for different people from the same policies. 

As such, a policy to help women get more representation in management, for instance, doesn’t impact all women in the same way. White women who resemble the people who white men know and engage with may get unconscious support, while racial stereotyping may hold POC women back while being accused of not meeting supposedly objective criteria. This is often misunderstood as an “Oppression Olympics” scoreboard of privilege that is impossible to reconcile. 

However, we as bridge builders in particular should understand it as an opportunity to build empathy. For example, I can use my maleness and how it’s shaped my thinking to help me understand how whiteness could shape a white person’s thinking in our society. 


That’s it. That’s all the main parts of the theory. There’s one other thing I would like to cover, however, and that’s how white supremacy through the years has itself affirmed the observational tenets of CRT. Look at the things we’ve all learned about when studying race in America, from the language in the Declaration of Independence to the legal opinions that affirmed the non-humanity or non-citizenship of POC to redlining and deliberate thwarting of laws and treaties to favor white people or harm POC. Take this statement from Abraham Lincoln:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races.”

https://www.history.com/news/5-things-you-may-not-know-about-lincoln-slavery-and-emancipation

This reinforces endemic racism, asserts that there should be no meritocracy or equal treatment, and defines whiteness as a commodity that gives certain rights and privileges, all in one sentence. Prior to 1965, people were pretty clear in their belief in racial difference and white superiority. The language about individual or local cultural defects was only introduced once language of natural racial traits went out of fashion. The CRT model accurately predicts this behavior, though you’d have to go deeper to get into how racism evolved after 1965 to adapt to changing moral and ethical trends. So any time you see a trend happening that someone asserts has an intersection with a power issue like race or gender, you can look at how it plays out up against the tenets above and see whether the model would predict the given result.

You can ask anyone who is critical of CRT in your circles to define it. If they can’t, you can share Dr. Anya’s commentary with them and ask them which parts they disagree with. If you are not presented with vague claims of socialism or anti-Christian rhetoric, the most likely complaint will be around its lack of accommodation for the individual. The refusal to process systemic injustice is one of the barriers you may be familiar with in your work thus far anyway. But just like I don’t need to understand quantum effects of time dilation to predict how long it will take you to drive to my house, whatever model we use doesn’t need to explain what’s happening to every atomic individual of a society to identify trends that should be of concern that we can address as a society.

Whether you agree or disagree with CRT as a model, it’s undeniable that many in the church and on the current political right have held it up as an insurmountable barrier to bridge building. I hope this post and Dr. Anya’s commentary in particular helps you feel better informed about CRT and able to assess to what degree the model is useful both in navigating this society and building bridges.

Original Thread

The Epiphany The Lie, and The Feces

Image from Twitter user @walterdellinger

I keep thinking about the feces.

Last week, angry Trumpists stormed the United States Capitol building. The police were overwhelmed and were not given additional support. (It’s beyond the scope of this post to speculate about their heroism, complicity, or the reasons for the lack of support.) Once inside, the insurgents posed with statues, stole artifacts, and smeared feces on the walls of our chief legislative federal institution.

The smearing and throwing of feces is a symbol of defilement and disrespect that probably pre-dates humanity, as any scientist who studies ape social behavior can tell you. I cannot think of a more disrespectful thing to do that doesn’t involve violation of a body or destruction. But the feces was merely a footnote in this story.

I think of a man with a lucrative and promising career who lost it all for having the unmitigated gall to kneel before our flag instead of standing for it, as a protest against police brutality that still showed respect for soliders, as he was asked to by his military friend. I think of the off-duty police in the mob who showed their badges to the Capitol Police, saying “We’re doing this for you,” as they pushed past them to get their mayhem and defilement campaign going. I think of the bombings of 1921 and 1985, in Tulsa and Philadelphia, where domestic perceived threats in Black skin were bombed away. I am not aware of other domestic bombing initiated by government entities, though I am aware of ones initiated by domestic terrorists and insurgents.

All I can see is The Lie, naked and brazen, shameless and flamboyant.

When a Black person is harmed or is killed by a police officer or a self-appointed deputy, we are told that they should have behaved in an orderly and compliant way and they wouldn’t have gotten hurt. And it’s important to talk about harm, whether that’s actual physical injury or psychological terror. We center our language around those who have been killed and have no language to talk about the persistent humiliation and fear cultivated in boys and girls growing up in overpoliced and underresourced neighborhoods. We are tracking the spending of our dollars but not our cents, and the bills add up.

Before anything, Black Lives Matter is first a call for empathy. “Can’t you see that my life also has meaning? Can’t you see that I’m a full human, too? Can’t you see that your callous treatment of my life and well-being is hurtful?” We are somehow, as a society, always able to find this empathy for a rural white farmer or factory worker. We can even find this empathy for the disaffected Trumpists who masquerade as salt of the earth but are actually petit bourgeoisie with second homes and sport boats or pickup trucks. We ponder how we can help them be less sad about the election as they take leisure time from their small businesses, steady union jobs, or comfortable white collar jobs to storm the United States Capitol with weapons and hostage-taking materials. We’re even able to find this empathy for rioters who tear up their cities after sports victories, surely a matter of the least significance to the state of the nation.

Yet, here we are again, facing The Lie and the shards it produces as its fragile frame disintegrates all over the floor. 

We pretend that there is a logic to this. We pretend that the rules are evenly applied and that what we care about is compliance and order. We pretend that there is equal justice in this country despite reams of data to the contrary. We pretend that any differences in outcomes have nothing to do with compound interest dividends on injustice and everything to do with cultural or individual failings. And then, when Black bodies get unruly, we meet them with overwhelming force, and if necessary, smear them across the pavement.

White men are killing themselves at higher rates than any other group in the country, and researchers can’t seem to figure out why. We talk about our increasingly impersonal society and the decline of religion as possible causes. They can’t figure out why Black people, with the stressors they have and the discrimination they face, don’t have higher numbers. While causes are complex, I posit that one major contribution to this disparity is that the people of African descent who were enslaved and made into “Black people” always have known The Lie was The Lie, so while we have fought generation after generation for a better truth, we haven’t placed our hope in the lie that things were fine and that no significant introspection or reconstruction needed to be done. Because of the numbing and confusing influence of The Lie, the people of European descent that were made into “white people” have been left in the wake of The Lie’s demise with a truth that they cannot face.

This January 6, this Epiphany, there was no hiding from the awful, horrid truth. Blue Lives Matter, until they get in the way of white supremacy. All voices are welcome, until they get in the way of white supremacy. Compliance, law, and order matter, until they get in the way of white supremacy. Our institutions of power matter and should not be tampered with, until they get in the way of white supremacy.

The American flag matters, until it gets in the way of white supremacy. 

The only animating force or principle to this movement is the preservation of white dominance through the tools of white supremacy. This is why Pence can be a hero one day and Public Enemy Number One the next for choosing his Constitutional authority over the whims of the mob. This is why even their icon, Trump, can be seen as a betrayer for choosing to comply with the demands of the legislators and administrators that keep a check on his power. The political cults that have risen move the goalposts freely and change the rules at will, because whatever they say they care about is a lie. Dominance and control are their only desires. The spirit of the evil age when the truth was able to move freely and without shame fights to live, and it carries on in our unexamined hearts and in our unreformed institutions.

The truth remains silent, but it persists, smeared across the halls of justice of our country, smeared on our neighbors’ homes, in our banks, on our streets. The truth is smeared across our pulpits and pews, obscuring passages in our holy texts, sticking the pages together so that context becomes impossible to glean. The truth defiles the values we say we hold dear and ruins the complex interwoven fabric of the tapestry that is our nation at its best. 

The truth stinks.

Nobel Laureate Louise Glück and The Persistence of Memory

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

Louise Glück, the winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, identified the two pieces of writing that formed her as a child as William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” and Stephen Foster’s minstrel song “Old Folks At Home”, colloquially known as “Swanee River”. “The Little Black Boy” begins:

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child: 
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.

As for “Old Folks At Home”, I don’t need to explain why a minstrel song is problematic. But here are a few lines, shown in the original slave dialect as imagined by a white man, just so you get what’s happening:

All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation,
And for de old folks at home.

All de world am sad and dreary,
Eb-rywhere I roam;
Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home! 

Blake’s poem is a work of its time. Fine. Blake is an important author nonetheless. Fine. These are things that we have to learn to hold in tension. We still hold Aristotle as a model of thinking because of his contributions to logic and his general right direction on biology, though he believed some now-obviously-wrong things like heavy objects fall faster, or that women are a degenerate state of men, with men as the natural ideal.

However, when we teach Aristotle, we teach his wrong beliefs as primitive misunderstandings, at least, even if we don’t explore the implications on the people in the society as much as we should. But we at least acknowledge them. When we teach Blake, especially to high schoolers, we often present his work uncritically and don’t unpack the “primitive” beliefs he carries. And we generally try to pretend that things like Foster’s song simply didn’t happen, which is hard to do when you also make it the state song of Florida and don’t even change the words until 2008. 

I want to go back to that Blake poem. It’s very clear that the subject of the poem aspires to nothing more than to first, have God make him as white in spirit as the English child he speaks of, and then on a great future day, to protect the white child and have his unrequited admiration and love finally returned. This imagined English child did not work or pray for this purity and beauty, it was his birthright, an inherent whiteness. And this American woman, born in 1943, who was only 22 years old when the Civil Rights Act was passed, was shaped and set on her course as a girl by those words.

I have not read Glück before today, and while I do write poetry, I am not a poetry critic. I have little to say about her work. The few pieces I’ve seen are familiarly modern; laconic free verse with line breaks and metaphors that conjure images of spirits moving across hazy wild scenes, diffuse colors and light. Like anyone who has received much recognition, she’s loved and hated. 

I keep wondering, though, how a woman who at 5 or 6 years old was shaped by minstrel songs and images, and was so unaware of the implications that she shared that fact uncritically at her Nobel Lecture, performed as a professor. What poems did she lift up from her students? What challenges did she swat down? Did she even have ears to hear poetry that rubbed against those comfortable narratives that are so pervasive in the American consciousness?

This is the danger of teaching “the greats” without the correct tension. We watch shows like “The Man In The High Castle” and are completely unaware of the parallels in our actual life. At one point in the series, the Nazis that control the Eastern United States start a Jahr Null (German for Year Zero) campaign, where they plan to completely erase American history and replace it with propaganda that suited their aims of control and indoctrination. 

We shudder at that idea, while living in the results of a successful Jahr Null campaign right here — the Lost Cause. I won’t recap the full details of how it came to be, but the wives and daughters of Confederate veterans built a retelling of the Civil War that cast their husbands and fathers as noble but doomed warriors of legend, fighting for a beautiful way of life. There’s no mention of the mass enslavement or the unimaginable brutality, or how many white people were living only slightly better than slaves themselves, yet could take comfort in their caste position. Worst of all, this narrative actually won, which we can see when a sitting President in 2020, regardless of who they are, is willing to threaten to withhold military funding if we do not keep Confederate names on our military bases. Can you imagine if we insisted on having General Cornwallis or Benedict Arnold’s name on our military bases? 

I am not advocating for the “cancellation” that the Christian right perfected and of which the left is now so often accused (and sometimes guilty). I am advocating instead for contextualization. We can’t pull at every thread, but we can provide some interdisciplinary context. What era was Blake writing in? What social stratum as he in? How would that shape how he viewed people? Which of his views are outdated? Which outdated views do we still hold on to? I know the best professors are already doing this already. But learning to simultaneously admire great talent and refuse to accept the worldview through which it was filtered is the skill we must acquire as students.

I talk about “living history” a lot. The past reaches constantly into our present, grabs the edges, pulls the frame into a shape that it recognizes, unless we actively work to reframe for our time. And here, in a far future age, Blake’s hands still are shaping white imaginations, thrilling them with the fantasy that the highest aspiration in a Black life is to shelter and protect a luminous white soul, and in return receive a beatific smile of appreciation. 

Racism Is Not Just A Heart Issue

Lecrae(l), Louie Giglio, and Dan Cathy discuss systemic racism and the Beloved Community

There’s a lot to unpack in the conversation on racism among Louie Giglio, Lecrae, and Dan Cathy. I’m going to skip the obvious ridiculousness of “white blessings” and get to the heart of a Christian issue that is deeply problematic.

For those who don’t know, Giglio is a megachurch pastor of Passion City Church here in Atlanta. Dan Cathy is son of the founder of Chick-Fil-A and the current CEO, who is a devout Southern Baptist and acts accordingly. Lecrae is a Christian rapper known for actually having bars (no shade) and enjoyed great fame and accolades in the Christian music community until he took a stand against White evangelicalism and was “canceled” by much of the community.

I know Passion City because I went to a church that had similar base theology for many years. Both my old church and Passion, along with North Point and several other churches in the area, are non-denominational churches. Not all would describe themselves as “reformed”, which is basically a theologically conservative modern take on Calvinism, but all share a heavy belief in the primacy of a traditional and literal-ish interpretation of Scripture, historical male-female roles, and most of the other things you’d expect from a conservative church, albeit with a renewed emphasis on love and relationship over judgment. I have friends from my old church that rotated between mine, Passion, and a couple of others based on location and personal preference.

Many churches in this system are specifically trying to tackle racial reconciliation, excited by the vision in Revelations of people of all nations bowing before the throne of God and worshipping together, and trying to bring that into the present. You’ve heard the take on diversity vs. inclusion vs. equity. Diversity means you’re invited to the party. Inclusion means you’re asked to dance. Equity means you picked the music.

Well, from my experience, the churches tend to be strong on diversity, marginal on inclusion, and missing the mark on equity. You will see faces of all races on stage and in the congregation, and genuine love and friendships form. But do they get to participate if they are not conforming to the standard culture? Ehh, maybe, a little. And do they get to set the tone and direction? Almost never.

The local White Baptist-Pentecostal cultural understanding of Christianity tends to dominate, even though the language and the hearts may be softened quite a bit. The policy prescriptions may be more progressive than your average conservative church due to people actually entering into other people’s stories, but the culture still comes from that understanding. (For the unfamiliar, we’re not talking Jesus Camp, but we are talking about standards on language, modesty, belief, and behavior that are subtly culturally enforced).

Now that you understand what we’re talking about, let’s look at the problem. In minute 35 of the conversation, Giglio says, “Injustice is about the system, and the system needs help. But racism is about the heart, and only God can change the heart.” Here’s why he, and the many Christians I’ve heard say this type of thing, are wrong.

Prejudice and tribalism are natural human behaviors. We identify in-group and out-group for our safety, and we socially bond with our in-group for our mutual good. A notion of superiority is also to be expected — my group is good, your group is bad is a logical outworking of the fear-based relationship to the “other”.

Racism, however, is not a natural human behavior. The notion that specific phenotype traits indicate intelligence or capability or evil in scientifically measurable ways is only about 500 years old, created by Johann Blumenbach and used to assuage the cognitive dissonance being created by the brutality of European colonialism. His theory stated that Adam and Eve came from the Caucasus region of Central Asia and produced the European race, while other races are basically degenerate versions. With this binding of bad science to the cross of Jesus Christ, Europeans had all they needed to comfortably subjugate most of the world and call it, well, a blessing.

Racism is not prejudice or tribalism. Prejudice and tribalism give way to relationship, every time. Tribes can form alliances when proof of safety is assured. Individual prejudices melt away when one actually gets to know the “other”.

This “scientific” racism that Blumenbach created calcifies in laws and customs. It creates false tribes where there is no common ground. Even when the beliefs of individuals go away, if there is no reckoning, it can go on and on, continuing to grind bodies under its wheels. Racism isn’t a bad idea or an individual selfish notion like a typical sin. It’s a cancer of the soul and of the society, and it must be cut out and diligently monitored to ensure no regrowth, like a cancer.

Along with patriarchy, it’s what I would call a second-order sin, a malignancy born out of a natural trait. Men and women are different, but the notion of a natural inferiority, while much older than the pseudoscience of race, is something we made up to assuage the sins of our cruelty and abuse of relative physical strength. For me, it was transformative for me when my old pastor preached that the term for Eve in the ancient Hebrew, עֵזֶר (ezer, but I don’t read Hebrew so those that do forgive me if I copied something crazy), which is commonly translated as “helper”, does not mean “sidekick” or “assistant”. It means something closer to “the one who strengthens and protects”, she who guards your soft and vulnerable places. My wife is definitely that for me, so that resonated. And that is a distinctly different dynamic than what is commonly preached in conservative churches.

(I’ll briefly acknowledge the heteronormativity of this whole thing, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion, so please bear with me.)

In the same way, it is natural to distrust the other, and common to view the unknown other as inferior. Both behaviors may be sinful, but it’s part of our wiring. It is the making of sin into science that is the injustice that Giglio generously says “needs help”, but that I say needs to be completely broken. And any theology that has it woven into it needs to be broken down to the studs and rebuilt.

We must name racism not as a malignant prejudice of the heart, but as a pseudoscientific lie enmeshed in our systems of power and designed to divide, kill, steal, and destroy (does that sound familiar, Christians?). And as a lie enmeshed in our systems of power, we must relentlessly excise those parts that uphold it. If that means tearing the police force apart and rebuilding it from scratch, so be it. If that means honoring our broken treaties to Native Americans at great expense to the country, or calculating the cost of Black reparations to restore some portion of the stolen wealth even since slavery, let alone before its abolition, so be it. Until we do, individual hearts will be mended and individual relationships will continue to form, but we won’t see true justice done at scale. We’ll all be standing on the wall at the party, but the music will not change, and not nearly enough of us will dance.

Revelation 21 – An Open Letter To A White Friend

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Revelation 21:5

Things are not getting worse.
They are getting uncovered.
We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

Adrienne Marie Brown

Dear White Friend,

It’s been an exhausting three weeks.

You’ve done a lot of introspecting. You’ve talked with your Black friends and your friends of all races. You’re hearing the same things that some of them have been saying for years, but in a new way. You’ve cried. You’ve lost sleep. You’ve looked in the mirror and not always liked who you’ve seen. How could you not know? How could you not see?

And you’re tired. You’re tired of talking about race. Tired of talking about other people’s pain when you know there’s already so much pain in the world to go around. You’re tired of trying to figure out the right language, and who should be blamed for what, and what a society with no police could possibly look like other than a hellscape.

You feel like a child that used to go into an old relative’s closet to snuggle in their clothes and wrap yourself in their smell, but then one day discover that the smell is fetid and wrong, and the closet is full of spiders. And it’s been that way the whole time.

America’s fragrant smell of liberty and freedom is fetid and wrong. America is full of spiders. And it’s been the whole time. And you’re frantically dusting yourself off and desperate to run from the closet to go somewhere and cry and get that horrible creeping feeling off of you.

I know how you feel. I was educated in the same school system you were. I was told the same stories about the triangular trade and mercantilism that brought knowledge but no understanding. Slaves. Raw Goods. Finished Goods. Slaves. Raw Goods. Finished Goods. Around and around and around, a cool, soulless equation, as if the slaves were merely additional variables rather than human bodies and souls with dreams for their children and animosity against an annoying neighbor and a weakness for pepper soup and a funny laugh and an uncle with the best stories and an aunt with the best hugs.

Despite my family’s best efforts to educate me on the true history as they knew it of my people, I once believed much of what you believed. I was aware of much of the history that is not emphasized, but I did not have language for or understanding of the headless formal and informal systems that would persist after the unseating of overtly racist laws and customs. As a Christian, I thought that if one man could pay for the sins of the entire world, it was easy to imagine one man paying for one great sin of one nation, and so I left Martin Luther King on his own cross and went forward to imagine the New Nation he had so graciously died to create for us.

And let me tell you a secret, White Friend. I am still learning too, and sometimes, I still want to hide, too. When I received the EJI Calendar of Injustice, I couldn’t hang it up, because every day I would be forced to learn about a new indignity my people or others endured in the name of white supremacy. I still carry with me the images from the memorial, where I found out far more Black people were lynched for their wealth than for real or imagined relationships with white women. And because of our greater demon of sexism that hides in the shadows while racism takes all the credit, I do not even have language for the degree of horror Black women have endured as unchecked power begat untold sexual violence.

It makes me want to hide, too. My closet is full of spiders, and I just want to run away and never go back there. I feel as helpless as a child, and so tired.

But we are only 21 days into this walk together, White Friend. Your Black friends have been walking this stony road for their entire lives, as their ancestors did before them. Some of you have intertwined stories that know hardship, that know injustice. Instead of using those stories as proof that your work is complete, use them as a place to begin, to grow your empathy. Find the strength of those stories and use them to give you the strength to keep going, to keep cleaning, to keep deconstructing the comfortable lies that we built our lives around.

You will want this to be about you for two reasons. First, you’re human. Every parent knows that a child’s favorite story is one that centers them. What’s worse, our strange, panopticon future increasingly involves algorithms ensuring we have exactly what we want in front of us at all times, or within easy reach. Our technology is building a world of lotus eaters, blissfully unaware of anything outside of their immediate view.

Second, it’s been about you for quite some time. If your family was wealthy, the rules were written for you. If your family was poor, you at least had the psychological benefit of believing that you were better than Black people, which had the convenient effect of leaving you disinclined to make common cause with people you had more in common with than your feudal lords. And, like parents do for children to keep them engaged, our media and storytelling apparatuses target you and keep you the center of the story.

So you’ll want to give up, because you’re tired and this story isn’t about you. Worse yet, maybe the story is about you. Maybe someone in your family is, or, horror of horrors, you are, one of the villains. This realization can cause you to completely reject everything you’re seeing and retreat back into the lies. These are someone else’s problems, right?

No, they’re your problem when you don’t confront your bias and underpay or don’t promote your Black employees. They’re your problem when you pastor your church or counsel people from a race-blind perspective and render yourself unable to enter into the pain of others or advocate for justice on their behalf. They’re your problem when you see the output of systemic injustice in the legal system as an attorney or judge but have no language or tools to process what’s happening, and so you assume there must be a social or cultural problem and prosecute, defend, or rule accordingly.

They’re your problem when you have a social media page and a yard full of Black Lives Matter signs in a city full of Black people but you and your children have no Black friends. Those children will grow up with only the stories that the existing machinery and patterns tell, without personal experience of an alternative. And as the older parts rust out and wear down, they will find themselves taking their place in the machinery of systemic injustice.

And know this, White Friend. Though I get tired, though I want to give up just like you, I do not have the choice. If I forget, I will be reminded at the most inopportune time. Perhaps when I am pulled over. Perhaps when a neighbor mistakes me for a possible criminal. Perhaps at a job that always manages to find me just a bit wanting, even though they can’t quite put their finger on it, when it comes time to promote me or give me the compensation that my peers get. Even if I manage to insulate myself in enough education, money, and luck to be able to forget, I’m only one person. I have too many people that look like me, in my family and beyond, that are in a vulnerable position after literal centuries of looting of their and their ancestors’ wealth and dignity who will not be able to forget.

I am of the firm belief that this is a season of revelation. We must face the subjugation and generational abuse of Black people. We must face the genocide and erasure of and the broken covenants with Native Americans. We must deal with the othering and erasure of Asian and Latinx immigrants. And we must do these things in an intersectionally sound way that breaks the oldest wheel of all: the myth of male supremacy.

If we are brave enough, if we can face the spiders and clean that horrid smell from the closet once and for all, we will have a new nation, with liberty and justice for all. For every one of us, regardless of sex, gender identity, orientation, race, creed, or color. The Book of Revelation (Apokalupsis in Greek, from which we get the word Apocalypse) concludes with the time of trouble yielding way to a “new heaven” and “new earth”. I do not propose that these are the end times predicted in those books. But even in times like these, God can make something new.

Dear White Friend, are you prepared to enter into tribulation with me? Will you engage in the difficult work of imagining a new nation? Make no mistake, there’s no more water, there will be a fire this time. But the question of whether it will leave ash or clear away death to leave something new is up to you.

Keep going.

Love,
Corregan

On The Assault of Jussie Smollett

Because of his fame, the assault of Jussie Smollett is gaining the media attention that women being murdered by gunmen, LGBTQ+ people being harmed daily, and women and girls being abused rampantly have failed to. The assailants called him racial and orientational slurs, used bleach, and put a noose around his neck, while telling him “This is MAGA country.”

The sandhills are soft, warm, and waiting for heads to be stuck into them again. People are accusing him of lying, or saying that the assailants didn’t say those things, or if they did they couldn’t be that bad, or if it was that bad it was still an individual and not the “MAGA Movement’s” fault.

What we must understand is that individual hatred without power is morally abhorrent, but impotent. Only when connected to the permission and the protection of power does hatred become a weapon that can be used to punish the marginalized, those with less power, with impunity.

MAGA, even in its most benign form, harkens to a fictional past where America was better and simpler than it is today. MAGA is a tightly zoomed in lens, focused on a living room in a Levittown home, where a white suburban 1950s family lives a comfortable, worry-free life. It does not zoom out to the real estate office down the street that steered the black family away, to the unmarked Native burial ground, to the urban ghettos for new immigrants from Latinx and Asian countries that would forever be seen as other, to the son sent away from that home for his desire to be with another man and living on the street.

MAGA is a lie. It is a lie based on the greater lie of white supremacy and on the heroic myths that we choose to tell ourselves instead of the brutal facts of history that tend to leave few hands clean.

We must also understand the intersectionality of power. Smollett’s fame and to a lesser extent his maleness and cis-ness will cause this to have more attention. Our society says “sure he’s gay and black, but he is entertaining, so he is valuable.” As we express outrage at this assault, we must also place it into its context.We are witnessing a rebellion of systems of power against an increase in love, compassion, and justice. Men, angry that they no longer have the right to treat women as they please, take up arms and kill them. Racists, angry that they are facing a meritocracy for the first time, attack black colleagues and bystanders. Bigots who believe gay and trans people shouldn’t be suffered to live express their violent sentiments in back alleys and subway stations. And we, too often the complicit masses, look for balance where there is none. We cry ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace.

Let us lament a country that threatens to replace its motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (Out Of Many, One) with “Make America Great Again”, and then let us lift ourselves from the threshing floor and commit to banishing the lies of false history and denied humanity back into the pit of hell.

The Talk

What you’ll learn here is important.
Sit quietly, now, and let me explain.
I will show you how this works.

First, be perfect. No errors in diction,
in posture, attire, stride, or movement.
What you’ll learn here is important.

Second, be patient. Watch your grandfather,
mother, brother, daughter, push the rock uphill.
I will show you how this works.

The rock will slip at the top of the hill,
but see! This time it falls not quite so far.
What you’ll learn here is important.

The secret is blood and bone, piled so high,
the rock can slide no further. Progress!
I will show you how this works.

Your ankles’ skin will serve for bootstraps,
and one day, your flesh will shorten the day’s work.
What you’ll learn here is important.
I will show you how this works.

-C. G. Brown
9 April 2018

Y.N.D.

“Your nigger dead.”
Checkmate. A King just got shot.
“Your nigger dead.”
I had to shoot. He was smoked out on that pot.
“Your nigger dead.”
He had a gun, crowbar, toy, a cell phone.
“Your nigger dead.”
He shouldn’t have carried that in front of his home.
“Your nigger dead.”
He was twelve, but he looked like a grown man.
“Your nigger dead.”
He left me no choice. It wasn’t my plan.
“Your nigger dead.”
She shouldn’t have mouthed off at that cop.
“Your nigger dead.”
If you weren’t a criminal, the violence would stop.
“Your nigger dead.”
He shouldn’t have tried to run away.
“Your nigger dead.”
He was a threat, even still as he lay.
“Your nigger dead.”
Selling loosies is a crime.
“Your nigger dead.”
It’s better that we skipped the judge this time.
“Your nigger dead.”
Stop saying you didn’t do nothing, you lie.
“Your nigger dead.”
You come for me, it’s gonna be “Die, Nigger! Die!”
“Your nigger dead.”
You can’t treat Samaritans with respect.
“Your nigger dead.”
She’s a slut. We stone. What else did you expect?
“Your nigger dead.”
Talking about some, “I am”! Who are you?
“Your nigger dead.”
He should spend some time with real Jews.
“Your nigger dead.”
Enemies of the state get crucified.
“Your nigger dead.”
“Your nigger dead.”
“Your nigger dead.”

Naw, death’s gon’ die. We still alive.

-C. G. Brown
4-5 April 2018

Fifty

Fifty years.
Fifty years since one of the greatest theologians and social activists of the 20th Century was shot down.
 
Who is Rev. Dr. King to you?
 
To too many Americans, he is a messiah of cheap grace, who finished the work of racial reconciliation in his blood, because it was too hard for us. In this false good news story, we are now clean, blameless, and above reproach. For this group of us, challenging systems and behaviors that persist is insulting, unreasonable, and unfair.
 
To many more of us, he’s a Great Figure of History, like Frederick Douglass, George Washington, and so on. For this group of us work is important, formative, but vague and disconnected from our daily lives.
 
As I meditate on his life and death today, I think about how far we can progress in fifty years. When I went to my college Reunions parade for the first time in the 90s, the fiftieth anniversary alumni had their first black members. My class wasn’t at the proportion of the country as a whole, but there were hundreds of us. When my father registered people in the Alabama countryside to vote fifty years ago, the experience seemed more like one of the countries we cluck at today, with citizens afraid to vote because what might follow was state-sanctioned murder by the white members of the community. Today, it’s a short and easy trip to Memorial Drive to vote early, or across to a nearby church to vote on the day. I’m far more worried about being late for work or late for dinner as a result of voting than I am about making it back home.
 
Despite this, we still have problems. Racial animus wasn’t erased, it was buried. Individuals who actually got to experience life with people from other racial groups were better for it, as we found none of us neatly fit into the stereotypes and tropes created to keep things as they were, or created to protect the vulnerable. (As an aside, something you must understand is that while white stereotypes can be hurtful and unfair, they were created to protect vulnerable people of color in a system designed to keep them oppressed and to eliminate those who got out of line, while stereotypes about people of color were designed to dehumanize and justify the continuance of same system. So while we should let go of all stereotyping, the hand-wringing and false equivalence should be released as well.) But as black people moved in, white people moved out. Old laws that were explicitly, undeniably racist, were not removed from the books, but simply (usually) not enforced.

Grandparents and parents who grew up in a system designed to protect their benefits and raise their preferences at the expense of everyone else taught their children how unfair it was that these people now were getting such large slices of the pie. Looking at the slivers being cut for others, they’d say, “Why, there’s hardly any left for us! We used to have the whole pie, and now these people who didn’t even help bake it get to eat it up. What about us? We’ll starve!” All the while, their eyes remained averted from the kitchen where the pie was made.

We plow on as resolute and relentless individuals, completely unaffected by the portions of the past we find distasteful, and clinging to those portions of the past we think are critical. We have had no lament about where we have been, no place to process any sense of collective shame or guilt. We have had no reconciliation. Given this, is it any surprise that we have elected leaders at multiple levels of government who are individualistic, who have no sense of shame or guilt, who have no ability to weep with those who weep?We could speculate about what King would do or say if he were still here to guide, to be a conscience, but there are only a few people who have studied him enough to be qualified to do that. What I’m more interested in is what I’m going to do and what you’re going to do.

If you are white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of non-white people in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • When I disagree with non-white people about where we are on race in this country, do I look for other non-white people to validate my beliefs?
  • Have I ever borne an emotional burden about something they’ve experienced regarding race with a non-white brother or sister?
  • Have I ever felt shame or guilt, untempered by resentment or resistance, around the way things are in this country, even if they’re not my fault?

If you are not white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people of different ethnicities than myself where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of someone non-white of a different ethnicity in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • Do I center the pain of my ethnic group and compare it quantitatively against the pain other ethnic groups have experienced, or do I lament with other stories of injustice?
  • To what extent am I complicit in holding up systems of power that unfairly preference those that have historically held power?

The reason why none of these questions are reciprocal toward white people is because since white is the historically dominant group, all of these preference raising questions come naturally. It’s not anything magical about the notion of whiteness; it’s just how cultural dominance works. You will be in relationship with the dominant group in some form. You will be under leadership from someone in the dominant group. You will understand their preferences and cater to them if you want to thrive. So for those of us new to this conversation, please understand this isn’t a finger-wag at something you were born with. This is about being intentional about dismantling imbalances in systems of power.

When I hear King the philosopher and social activist speak, I hear him asking us to seek the Beloved Community. When I hear King the pastor speak, I hear him asking us to lay down our preferences at the Cross and seek the well-being of our brothers and sisters at both an individual and systemic level.

Looking at 2068, what kind of country do we want for our grandchildren? Do we want a country that’s still in a cold Civil War that’s now 200 years old? Do we want a country that sits in resentment, fear, and individualistic separation? Or do we want to make the braver, harder, choice, and plow forward in love, letting lament and a sense of righteous shame break our stone hearts and remake them as flesh, then letting our collective love and intimate knowledge of each other heal and reconcile?

It sounds like a pipe dream when you put it like that. But just sixty years ago, I’m sure someone sat at their dinner table and thought “I appreciate what King is saying, but he’s crazy. Things will never change.”

Injustice for All?

The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll whisper “no.”

-Rorschach, “Watchmen”

One of the most insidious legacies of racism in our country is unequally applied justice. Poor black and Latino neighborhoods are overpoliced. “Respectable” black people with no criminal record have a fear of police, and most have stories about themselves or a friend getting unduly pulled over and/or poorly treated, or worse. Many white people find these stories hard to believe because they are so out of line with their own experience. In the places they’ve been, police have often been helpful protectors, occasionally even looking the other way for minor infractions.

I have lately been watching the reaction to Otto Warmbier‘s case. As a tourist in North Korea (pause to let that sink in), he attempted to steal a banner to bring home as a souvenir for which he would be rewarded. The North Korean government caught him, arrested him, and sentenced him to 15 years in their prisons. There is now an outcry to seek clemency and bring him home.

I have also seen the coverage of a recently discovered heroin epidemic here in Atlanta. The episodes of reporting are given sympathetic titles like “We All Make Mistakes” and “Please Understand”. (Seriously, go look. I’m not making this up.) The photos of victims of the epidemic are shown to humanize them, show what good kids they were before something unknown drove them into the path of addiction.

Many of my black friends have greeted these stories with snorts of derision. As black Americans, we know all too well what a mandatory minimum sentence can do, turning a youthful error into a lifetime’s failure. We have seen drugs destroy our communities in the 70s and 80s while the rest of America looks on and wags their finger, whispering under their breath, “I knew it.” or “Just say no. How hard is that?” Even now, as traffic stops turn into homicides, we see characters defamed and radicalized. Where were the cries for mercy then? Where was the humanization? Can you even imagine West Baltimore, Chicago, or South Central Los Angeles getting that kind of careful, loving analysis?

I have no objection to telling the truth. Whether Warmbier’s case warrants mercy is irrelevant to the point that he took the world to be his playground and thought that the privileges he enjoys in this country were transferrable to what is possibly the most dangerous country for Americans in the entire world. The circumstances that led the kids in affluent suburbs to use heroin neither fall neatly in the bucket of personal responsibility nor in that of externalities. That said, I grow concerned on two fronts.

I don’t want my heart to grow hard. If a white person, or any other human, is hard done by by the police, or has a hard experience that tears them apart, I want to feel compassion for them where they are. I see case after case of black injustice though, and I find the same thoughts entering my mind as those I see from my peers. “Well, I guess they’ll see now.” “Welcome to reality.”

At a more philosophical level, I am concerned that our desire to see the shoe on the other foot will lead to a tolerance for injustice. As we fight for people we know and love personally, who look like us and face the same struggles, we must never forget that our goal is to intersectionally end injustice wherever it lives. I shouldn’t want for them what I know people that look like me get. We shouldn’t want that for anyone.

I won’t deny, there is a grim satisfaction to see someone find out a truth the hard way when you know they wouldn’t believe you if you told them in advance. However, those of us who are coming from any non-dominant axes of privilege have to find an extra measure of grace to see us through, and to always see what the privileged and comfortable let themselves be blinded to. What’s worse for us, we have to see it and dispense said grace to everyone.

This is an area where I find Christian theology, properly applied, very helpful. The notion of the Imago Dei, that each human being is an image bearer of God, helps us apply this lens of grace to everyone, even those who by their actions or by our judgment may seem to be the least deserving. This is a bewildering concept to those who do not believe; how could [insert evil person from history here] be an image bearer of God? One answer: the same way a dirty and cracked mirror is still a mirror.

I also find the teachings of Jesus to be useful to help remind me. Jesus was clear about overturning systems of injustice or rules that sought to preserve comfort and ease of a few at the expense of many. Jesus went to those who, by conventional wisdom, were the least deserving, and pulled them closest to him. Then he called us to do the same.

I don’t want to take Rorschach’s stance. More accurately, I don’t want to want it. I see the wave of detritus frothing like a disaster movie, the unclean and unclaimed legacy of discriminations and denials. I see it in this election cycle threatening to choke us, set us back decades. As the authoritarian cavalcade reaches into the lives of those it was designed to protect, I want to reply to their “Save us!” with an icy “No.” But as a person who believes what Jesus said, I’m called to try to find the balance between calling out the unevenly applied care and caring for the wronged, even when they might have wronged me given the chance.

I am still figuring that one out.