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June 28, 2015

John White
July 2015

   Wednesday night Bible study has been a tradition in African American churches for more than 250 years. On Wednesday, June 17, at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. a young white man named Dylann Roof was welcomed. He sat with the group for an hour, coldly calculating when he would pull out his handgun and begin shooting at point blank range. He witnessed their kindness; there was no mistaking their humanity.

   Americans swiftly denounced this despicable act. Whites decry the hatred of this lone gunman,“How could he do such a thing?” Blacks sound a different message as they say we have is a race-biased system that has always undermined and destroyed black citizens while favoring whites. That the murders occurred at one of the nation’s most beloved black churches with a long history of fighting for racial justice is no coincidence (read up on Denmark Vesey).

   This is hard for white people to hear. They may respond, “But I’m not racist!”possibly differentiating themselves from George Wallace circa 1963. I’ve made these protests myself. But what I’ve learned is whether I’m a racist (or not) is less relevant than understanding our white-privileged system. If I limit the argument to myself, I fall into the American trap of hyper-focus on the individual (it’s all about me) while missing the larger picture.

   Race and racism are central concerns of African American theology. Willie James Jennings, a theologian at Duke Divinity School, says racism is the constitutive thread of the American social body. Whites, who form the most powerful constituency in this nation, reinforce racial attitudes and policies, of which they as individuals are typically unaware. Fear of the “other”(usually blacks) led to a disastrous War on Drugs, mass incarceration of young black men, and growing disparity in income and wealth along racial lines. Is this the way to treat citizens? Is this good for democracy?

   So, will whites and blacks be forever divided by race? My experience suggests that’s not the inevitable conclusion. More than anything, blacks I know want whites to grasp that we have a system that favors whites, and that this system affects all people living in this nation. To reach this awareness requires homework and hard work, including digging into excellent literature on the subject, such as The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by law professor Michelle Alexander, and The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone, theology professor at Union Seminary of NY. And taking the time to listen to john a. powell at the UC Berkeley Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, and following the work of Jennifer Eberhart at Stanford who studies unconscious racial bias, especially in law enforcement.

   Acknowledging the problems inherent in white supremacy helps us better understand how the horror of a deranged killer reveals deep national problems. Losing these nine murdered worshippers feels like losing kin for blacks across the nation. How can one’s own church feel like an unsafe place to gather?

   As a man whose great-grandfathers fought for the Confederacy, I’d argue that it’s essential to remove the Confederate flag that’s been flying over the state capital in South Carolina, not only because of what it represents (what if the modern German government wanted to fly the Nazi flag?), but also the implicit permission it provides to disturbed assassins like Dylann Roof. Let’s join across racial lines, especially as people of faith, to break old ways and build social bonds that are fair and just.

   In my upcoming New College class we’ll dialogue about how we form our moral Foundations, including those pertaining to race, identity, and bias. Participants can explore their own moral structures and how they may make changes. We hope that the class itself will model how to listen and develop tolerance.

   John White has practiced as a clinical psychologist in the East Bay for 30 years and holds an M. Div. from PSR. In the fall he will offer an NCB class—A Psychology of Moral Practice: Exploring Individual Differences.

Posted on June 28, 2015 at 11:10 PM

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