Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Real White Man's Burden


No, don’t overstep your boundaries, girl
Act like you have a little sense
Was the lesson my mama taught me
To live surrounded by a whiteman’s fence.

Michelle Cliff, from Within the Veil (1985)

Yeah, I love being famous. It's almost like being white, y'know?
Chris Rock

Love is a steadfast commitment to the well-being of other people.
Cornel West

The most effective and powerful stimulus of violence in the human species is the experience of shame and humiliation. It is not lack of material things that causes shame, it is the gap or disparity between the wealth and income of those on the top and those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
James Gilligan, Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Med

In a display of the precious irony that makes him a unique prophetic voice in this particular American moment, Stephen Colbert asked Cornel West, after Obama was elected as the first African-American President, what West will be doing with all his free time now that there is no more racism in America ("plant a garden?"). This, of course, plays off the insistence of so many whites that we live in a post-racial era where we confront racism only in textbooks and Civil Rights era films. And it's not just racism but discrimination and power-games of all sorts. In the second volume of their book Ambassadors of Reconciliation (2010), Ched Myers and Elaine Enns offer a variety of contemporary examples of when privilege and power are deceptively unacknowledged:

1. When a white person claims to be “color blind”
2. When someone with a college education asserts that “we’re all more or less middle class”
3. When a man insists “I’m not sexist"
4. When a bank CEO complains about how he is at the mercy of the market forces
5. When a millionaire presidential candidate tries to act folksy at a campaign barbecue
6. When a major oil company advertises how much it is doing for the environment


Myers, a 5th generation white Californian and Enns, a white Canadian Mennonite, are married and currently live in Ojai, CA, spending most of their time researching, writing, speaking and hosting Christian spirituality retreats at their home. So what does race, class, gender and power have to do with Christian faith? Myers and Enns explain:

Our theological assumption here is that biblically, power is a gift and a “good” to be shared equitably, not a possession to be hoarded—like the manna of Exodus 16. A fundamental vision of “enough for everyone” is why the Hebrew prophets constantly challenged the distribution of power in their social world and why Jesus of Nazareth located himself among the most marginalized.

It is our further assumption, though, that Christians today should be working to promote just redistributions of power whenever and wherever needed, rather than preoccupied with increasing our own individual or group power, as the dominant culture unabashedly teaches us to do.


This issue is virtually untouched in churches. This has not always been so. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, theologically conservative Christian publications like the Christian Herald endorsed world peace and major reform for immigrants, African-Americans and women & child, including increasing rights for labor unions. However, in the past century, these conservative branches of American Christianity have shelved political engagement. Why this Great Reversal (as Christian historian George Marsden has called it--see his book on recent American church history that is still surprisingly relevant today)? Consider these 3 crucial factors (according to Marsden):

1. A shift to a pietistic reading of the Bible (the significance of Jesus became confined to the heart and to the future)
2. A shift to a pre-millenial understanding of the future--nothing can get better on earth until Jesus shows up and raptures his followers
3. A reaction to their rivals, the liberals or modernists, who embraced the "social gospel" (along with a more "scientific" worldview that accepted evolution and rejected miracles)

Two World Wars and an atheistic Communist threat spurred these "fundamentalists" (the name they gave themselves) into a political platform that focused solely on pietistic moral issues (like prohibiting alochol, evolution, and eventually abortion and gay rights). Any sort of class-based or race-based policy conveniently did not fit their reading of the Bible. As the Christian Century so preciently proclaimed it in 1921:

When the capitalist discovers a brand of religion which has not the slightest interest in 'the social gospel,' but on the contrary intends to pass up all reforms to the Messiah who will return on the clouds of heaven, he is found just the thing he has been looking for.

We desperately need a new Great Reversal that inspires and challenges Christian churches, non-profit organizations, publishing houses and PACs to extend public love and structural justice to the powerless and disadvantaged in our society. White privilege is still a deceptively dubious reality in our society (you can take your own inventory with this and then watch this too). Extending opportunity to our neighbors and strangers of other colors, genders, ethnicities and classes is a priority that was first articulated by Jesus, not Marx. Christians who use fear-based labels like "redistribution" and "secular socialism" to describe policies that will humanize and dignify the unprivileged are playing adolescent games that conveniently divert needed attention away from those who Jesus ironically advocated for in his teachings and ministry (and called his followers to do the same).

Christians are those who work for just systems and structures, in addition to their secretive charitable giving (Matthew 6:1-2). The onus for transformative change will be on followers of Jesus who actually have cultural, social, economic and political privilege and power who are in a position to come alongside of the poor, disadvantaged and demonized in their struggle to survive and flourish. We should be sensitive that this solidarity, or kinship, averts the awkward road of paternalism. Those at the bottom of the socio-economic-political heap are already crippled and blinded by deep feelings of insecurity and inferiority created by interpersonal and structural racism. This cycle of violence starts with structural injustice (like this and this and this) which leads to both internalizing (addictions, mental illness, sexual promiscuity) and externalizing (domestic abuse, robbery, gang-banging) violence. They need white Christians to take seriously our societal condition and applaud their efforts to fight for justice.

Those in positions of privlege/power should bring all their resources and imaginative strategies to work tirelessly for a more just and equitable world that transcends scapegoating minorities under the guise of "personal responsibility" or "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" (Jesus' death was God's verdict to end scapegoating of all forms). The first two vital steps of the journey of this thousand mile trek towards justice, however, are (1) acknowledging the real biblical mandate for (mostly)white American Christians to pursue "downward mobility" as a crucial part of our discipleship (just think of how Jesus himself released his own privilege to give up his life for justice) and (2) sacrificing our own resources (time, money, connections to power, etc) in order to make "a whole new world" (II Cor 5:17) a living reality. If we cannot (or refuse to) take these first two steps towards racial justice, then we will continue to live in a supposedly post-racial society that is more imaginary than Sarah Palin's death panels.
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Appendex--Click & Meditate on These:

Income Earners:


US Prison Population:


US Unemployment Rate:

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