Editorial: To Our Shame

On the heels of an event at our local church last evening, and having watched “After Charleston” on PBS tonight, I offer this meditation…

Jeannie and I have just completed a nine-year travel experience which has taken us into all of the lower 48 States and The District of Columbia.  In the course of our journeys, we have seen numerous evidence to document racism that has existed even before our nation was founded.  Multiple firsthand experiences have demonstrated to us the existence of White privilege used for centuries to express power and effect persecution against people of color.

Most of this was excized from our history classes and textbooks, leaving us with a sanitized educational experience that perpetuated a national story which never actually existed in all the ways we were taught that it did.  Without even realizing it, succeeding generations affirmed a patriotism that contained as much shame as virtue (but with the shame factored out)–and doing so with the sanction of an equally-erroneous interpretation of the Bible that allowed the justification of White supremacy (in all sorts of ways) and gave underpinning to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

At base, all this enabled generation after generation to define others as less than human (beginning back on the plantations where many of the “Founding Fathers” emmassed their wealth on the backs of African slaves, and enabling those same men to describe Native Americans as “savages” in ‘The Declaration of Independence’), creating the loophole in “all men are created equal” by declaring some people not to be genuinely or fully “men”–a view which swept women as well into their own less-than status, regardless of race.

From these early days, White privilege has reigned, enabling the spirit and substance of racism to live on.  And we come to our own time with many documented examples (including formal studies and credible writings) of racial disadvantage in social, economic, medical, educational, judicial, political and religious arenas.  Much of this has been maintained by the perpetuation of racial myths and other stereotypes put forward by those who are intent on sustaining White privilege in our day–untruths born of prejudice, but allowed to stand even by some holding and running for public office.

As White privilege persists, the damaging effects of racism continue (spilling over into White social-disadvantage expressions as well, and also into religious prejudice), and as has happened in the past, stress is increasing, pressure is mounting, and acts of violence are occurring.  Desperation is the result when fear and hopelessness are mixed together.

As one who went through the ’60’s (but even then as a White person buffered from knowing and experiencing racial realities in my own home town), all this is eerily familiar, including the need to speak out against contemporary racism, just as others have done in times past.  An understanding of our history must be an ignition of individual and collective will to name White privilege (and the increasing gaps it creates in society) for the social evil that it is.

No single answer will solve the problem because the fabric of our national life is woven from many threads.  But the starting point for any thread is to use every opportunity to call out White privilege wherever we see it, and to include non-violent actions that turn true words into redemptive acts.

Coming off the road from our latest trip and combining it with the past nine years, I am in the infancy of my awareness, and even less knowledgeable of how I might not only continue to speak and write, but also act.  Jeannie and I are fortunate to be part of a local church which has decided to address the uprooting of racism by identifying itself as being engaged in the effort, and by connecting our convictions with other religious and civic leaders in our city who likewise believe that the time is now to say “No” even while still seeking God’s “Yes.”

Beyond this, we have faith to believe that the Spirit of God is once again stirring the souls of folks who see our national inhumanities, weaving us into another movement willing to sing a 21st-century version of “We shall overcome” because we “have a dream” that  “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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8 Responses to Editorial: To Our Shame

  1. Bryant Martin says:

    You are too quick to judge the mind set of people of the 18th and 19th centuries in the U.S. You are judging from quite a spiritual, emotional, and knowledgeable distance about the concept of racism regarding racism within the past 200 plus years. If there was one established fact about racism in past 200 hundreds years is that it was totally believed in by most Americans, from the scientific intelligentsia, theological scholars of all stripes, university professors of all subjects, and the common educated person on the street. In fact, racism was a word that was not used degradingly in 19th century very much because racism was a viable and supportable theory of the rankings of the races throughout the world; and the white race was at the top.
    This does not mean this view applied to all whites concerning racism. Many whites in the 19th century did believe the black race should be treated decently and in a Christian manner; but they did NOT believe that the black race should not be treated equally, and segregation was the RIGHT way to treat a race below the white race. In short, for most American whites racism in the 18th and 19th centuries was NOT wrong. I said, most. There were a good number of whites, especially in the late 19th century who were finally recognizing the scientific and spiritual absurdity of racial theories.
    Don’t judge people of the past with your own current values. Truisms that we hold with great respect today have been held in a different manner intellectually, scientifically, and spiritually in the past. And there is no room to judge these people of the past. They were living in their own current time with their own current values; scientific knowledge; and Christian interpretative viewpoints.
    Lincoln once said when running for president: “If I could save this union by not freeing a single slave, I would do that.” He, too, had his biases. But, he did finally came around to the belief of the equality of the races.

  2. The shaming rules of dysfunctional families (Don’t Talk, Don’t Feel, Don’t Trust) work at organizational, educational, national and international levels. We are sometimes amazed at how blind the disciples were to Jesus ‘plain’ teaching and don’t realize we are them! Thanks Steve.

  3. The Good News that is found in saying “no” to that which harms and saying “yes” to God’s creative love & grace. Amen.

  4. Jeff Blake says:

    Yes to our shame and our challenge to radically change.

  5. Elizabeth Graham says:

    Yes,yes,yes! Thank you for expressing this business of white privilege so eloquently. And to that I add what you briefly touched on. ..white male privilege.

  6. Steve, this is superb. May I have permission to repost this on UM Insight?

  7. Jeff McClendon says:

    Amen! Amen! and Amen!

  8. Ken Hughes says:

    Thank you for this, Steve!

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