The Confederate Flag Is Not the Only Thing That Needs to Come Down
The Confederate Flag flying over the South Carolina capital building was a morally bankrupt phenomenon in our country long before nine great saints of the Christian church were martyred because they were black.
What happened in Charleston was white supremacy terrorism.
And what’s been happening in the institutions and in the soul of this country for centuries is white supremacy culture.
It’s good for the Confederate Flag to come down. But, it’s not good enough.
The soul work of the “American experiment” (as America was often called in my high school U.S. history class) is much more difficult, much more radical than removing a symbol of white supremacy from one state capital building. No incremental titration will do. For this experiment to turn a corner and be a healthy system, there are some elements of this experiment that must be extricated.
The ones who have the most work to do are “my people”—white folks, including all us white folks who believe in our hearts that we are “not racist.” This includes us white Christians, who have some particularly big transitions to make if we truly want to “take down” more than just the symbols and memorials of white supremacy in America.
The Internet is full of blog posts about the “10 things white allies need to know about racism” and the “5 things white people need to stop saying.” This is not one of those blog posts.
I don’t have a recipe for dismantling the architecture of white supremacy in America that would work for every single soul who needs it. I’ve been at the work of being antiracist practically my whole life. I’ve been an activist, a learner, a friend, a listener, a minister, a voice for change, a confessor, and a penitent.
I’ve done work in the church, in the academy, in the intimacy of my family, and in the shadows of my own soul and psyche. I’ve done all this work for all of these years, and I still have a lot of work to do. Even with all my good intentions and my sincere willingness to hear and internalize the truth about white supremacy, this way of seeing things, this way of doing things, this way of being in the world formed me in ways that I have yet to discover. This is not a statement of resignation. This is a statement about how profound, how deep this whole thing goes.
Some could say I got a “head start” in this work growing up in a family who actually talked about race in a liberative way, with a father who was a member of the NAACP, with a heritage of generations who spoke up against racism even in the deepest parts of Mississippi at the turn of the century while the Civil War was still smoldering. What can appear to be a “head start” can also be a deficit at times in this journey. I have benefited from racism in ways that are hard for me to look at. “Good white people” can easily lapse into thinking it’s the Dylann Roofs of the world who are the problem, not us.
I have had a steep learning curve, immersion learning in fact, about how some of the very values I have held dear are actually containers for entrenching white supremacy culture. Things like “academic integrity” and “good manners” and even the good old “Protestant work ethic” can be carriers of white supremacy culture. Realizing these things is disorienting. Rebuilding from those realizations is bewildering and, frankly, lonely. For me, being antiracist has also meant loss of community and a reframing of my mentalities, habits, and practices that do not make me a welcomed part of many of the conversations I use to feel at home in.
The Dylann Roofs of the world are, indeed, a big problem, and they are a problem we need to acknowledge. They are the white family’s racist uncle who everyone just tries to ignore. These hard-core white supremists are a dangerous and ruthless part of American culture. They are domestic terrorists and we need to regard them as such.
At the same time, the subtleties of white supremacy are the biggest barriers to real change and substantive justice in this country. And these subtleties are some of the building blocks of white supremacy and some of the pillars of how many of us whites build our sense of justice, kindness, and even love. We have not found our way through these things. The way is being made now—and we need more people cutting the switch backs through some pretty dense overgrowth.
We white folks have our hardest work to do in recognizing the givenness of white supremacy in American culture and in our own selves. Our university system was born out of white supremacy (if you don’t believe me, read Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder), the heart of American capitalism was spoon-fed by white supremacy (if you don’t believe me, read The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist), and our laws and views of justice and fairness were fast friends for white supremacy from the beginning (if you don’t believe me read, Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today, by Jacqueline Battalora). And this is just some of the institutional architecture of white supremacy. The Church has been a BIG partner in all this, too. (If you don’t believe me, there is a great article by Dr. Willie Jennings at Duke on it. If you don’t mind hearing more from me I’ve got a book coming out this fall co-authored with Duke Theologian Mary McClintock Fulkerson about it).
In and among the two by fours of the institutional architecture, are the nuts and bolts and the cement of this whole system—internalized racism. Internalized racism includes the unconscious layers, the biases we embody around everything from parenting, to appearance, to what’s right and what’s wrong. And all of these layers of who we are have been in the cultural formation we have all ingested, breathed, and found our way in—not just white people, but all Americans. Unlike the “double consciousness” that W.E.B. Du Bois described for how black people figure out how to function differently in the white world and in enclaves of black communities, white Americans have moved about in the world with the privilege of obliviousness around the intricacies our own complicity and privilege. We have not learned how to embody a critical consciousness around white privilege. We have not learned how to resist its hold on us and grow a counter-cultural sense of ourselves. And, so dismantling white privilege can be very threatening, it can feel like an erasure of our very selves.
And from this obliviousness and fear come all of our learned defenses around really looking at race and at whiteness. This layer of white supremacy culture is what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “a new kinder and gentler white supremacy” that “talks about race without naming it.” We talk about fairness, not whiteness. We talk about individual responsibility, not systemically racialized disadvantage. We talk about the American dream, not about all the ways wealth has been tenaciously concentrated in white-dominant communities, families, and institutions. We talk about “reverse-racism,” not about power and the invention of whiteness as the payoff of racism.
Those of us who are white, who benefit every day from a system of privilege based on whiteness, who want to be antiracist need to work together and support this difficult work among white people. We need white-dominant communities and institutions as well as individuals who are willing to do this work. I am praying that this time in American culture is the tipping point, and that this work will be less isolating for white people and become an accepted part of being a white American in the 21st century.
If you are a white antiracist person reading this, thank you for taking the time and for being willing to listen. Those are two important skills we need to habituate if we want things to change. Taking down the Confederate Flag is not a start, it’s another step. And what your next step is, I cannot say. But I know if you and I are going to keep finding our way on this antiracism path, we will see more than the world change. You and I will change, too.