Noisy gongs and clanging cymbals: The death machine of white denial
Along with many others, I nervously sat glued to the TV news on Tuesday awaiting the jury’s decision in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd.
My gut was twisted, expecting once again to hear “not guilty” pronounced, and anticipating another wave of justified anger and protests to sweep our nation.
And while I was relieved to hear the announcement that Chauvin was found guilty on all three counts with which he was charged, and I could only begin to imagine the relief of my Black and brown friends and allies, I knew that what we had just witnessed was not justice.
Accountability, maybe, but not justice.
Who is the system working for?
On our local TV news the next night, area law enforcement officials (all white men) reacted by claiming that the verdict should restore people’s faith in our legal system.
“The system works,” they asserted.
I’m sorry, but that’s just BS.
The system doesn’t work.
As Garlinda Burton, Interim General Secretary of the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race notes in this excellent article, the only person the system really worked for was Derek Chauvin.
“But I have Black friends…”
We have a problem with racism and white supremacy in this country, which by definition is a U.S. white-dominant Christian church problem. We are a nation coming apart at the seams, torn asunder by racism, racial hatred, and racial mistrust, standing shakily on unjust, racially stratified systems that uphold white people as “good” and all others as “bad,” unwelcome, and unworthy. Racism has such a deadly, cancerous hold on our personal, spiritual, and civic lives that it infects, weakens, and wearies our nation, to the point that our ideals of liberty and justice for all are but noisy gongs and clanging symbols.
Whenever I mention white privilege or systemic racism among many of my white friends (especially those within evangelical traditions), they immediately get defensive.
The very idea that they could benefit from systems and structures that explicitly advantage them because of their skin color is unthinkable to them.
They (usually loudly) proclaim that they aren’t racist because they “have Black friends” or “don’t hate Black people.”
What they seem unable to comprehend is that those very attitudes are products of our society’s centering and normalizing of whiteness as the ideal.
So let’s state it clearly one more time for the kids in the back:
Racism doesn’t only mean hating people of another race.
Privilege doesn’t only mean you getting material things that other people don’t.
Racism—and, more directly, white privilege—means upholding those systems and structures that inherently advantage people with white skin.
It means seeing your white experience as “normal” and the standard by which all other experiences should be measured and toward which they should strive.
It means that you don’t have to worry about the constant, daily violations of your personhood our institutions impose on Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
Justice delayed is justice denied
There are those who will say that, despite setbacks, we are at least taking baby steps toward justice.
And while that might be true on some level, it’s a very privileged statement.
It’s easy for me, a 58-year-old white man from a predominantly white community with a general sense of economic well-being, to say that progress happens slowly.
That we have to be patient.
That results come over time, not overnight.
Again, those statements might be true, as far as they go.
But how does incremental awareness help our Black and brown friends and neighbors get into a car to drive to work, or to take their family out to dinner, without worrying that a stop sign violation could result in a death sentence?
Liberty and justice for … all?
A popular meme I’ve seen floating around recently says something to the effect of, “You taught us to stand in school and pledge allegiance to a flag that stands for liberty and justice for all, then you arrested us for demanding it.”
Noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.
It is imperative that those of us with white skin recognize, confess, and repent of all the ways we uphold racist and white supremacist systems and structures that make life not only more dangerous, but just blatantly more difficult and unfair to people who don’t look like us.
We must demand better of our elected officials, our law enforcement communities, our businesses, our neighbors, and—perhaps especially—our churches.
We must demand better of ourselves.
Our denial is complicity.
And it’s killing people.
Header photo credit: Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com