If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
— 1 John 1:8
In 1968, a large portion of white America deceived itself. With the victories of the civil rights movement in hand, probably most white Americans believed that the “issue of race” had been settled, that America had ticked “Deal with Racism” off its to-do list, and that it was time to move on to other things. That delusion pretty much held until the election of Barack Obama, if not somewhat before. Over the past decade or so, people started uttering racial epithets in public that most people hadn’t heard in years. Leaders, both political and religious, began to weave racially charged language into their speeches. It seemed that permission had been given to speak about black people and other non-white peoples in ways that most of at least middle and upper class white America had thought was gone. People wondered, “Where is this coming from?” And, the delusion was shattered (except among those absolutely determined to hold onto it despite all evidence to the contrary). It turned out that America hadn’t dealt with racism — it had just gone underground. And a whole complex of issues, brought into focus by Barack Obama’s election as the first black US President, moved it out of the shadows in which it had been lurking.
What white America had failed to take into consideration back in the late sixties was the insight that Archbishop Desmond Tutu shared as the system of apartheid was coming to an end in his country of South Africa. You can legislate apartheid out of existence and make it illegal, he noted, but legislation does not change the human heart. And it was figuring out how to change human hearts — to overcome the racism that lay therein — that was, in some ways, South Africa’s greatest challenge (and, perhaps, still is). That challenge, it turns out, is also America’s challenge.
The fact remains that, despite the real progress that the civil rights movement brought about, for the vast majority of white Americans, black people and other non-white peoples are perceived as “other”. Even among those white Americans who don’t hate non-white people (which is, I believe, the vast majority), we still tend to see non-white people as not quite like us, as other. And that means that when we encounter non-white people in situations that are at all unusual, unfamiliar, or tense, there is, I believe, in most white Americans a little bit of fear operating below the surface — fear that, for the most part, we remain either unaware of or are unwilling to acknowledge. It is that basic perspective with regard to non-white people — seeing them as other — that is the first ingredient in what seems to be happening in our country right now. Along, of course, with much more virulent forms of racism that still live powerfully among a minority of white America.
The second ingredient in current events is the narrative that has been gaining strength for some time now, a narrative which says that white Americans are somehow in peril, that our livelihood and prosperity are somehow under threat. For many Americans, of course, that narrative has been all too real, given the economic dislocations of the past decade or so. The fact is that some Americans, both white and non-white, are under tremendous economic pressure, and government seems unable or unwilling to address these issues in ways that cause people to actually feel that there is help for them. This provides an opening to another, parallel narrative, that suggests that government is actually the enemy of every-day people, actively working against them. People tell themselves and each other that they might be required to “take government back”, so alienated have they become from our public institutions. There is no question that, for some Americans, there are real grievances that require a response. But it is also the case that a large number of white Americans who are doing well economically and in most other respects have “bought in” to this narrative, and been encouraged to regard themselves as somehow imperiled without any actual evidence that this is the case. These narratives of peril and of government mistrust make people afraid and angry, and that fear and anger activates that ancient human tribal instinct, an instinct that regards anyone who is considered other (not of our tribe) as even more of a threat.
Finally, the third ingredient in this poisonous stew is the American relationship with violence. Culturally, we have embraced violence for really all of our history as somehow “cool”. Those who resort to violence in a cause that is deemed right are always portrayed as heroic — and even the villains against whom they fight have a certain heroic quality about them, even as they go down to defeat. Against this cultural background of “violence is cool” is the very real availability of weapons. Recently, fueled largely by the narratives I cited above, some states have created laws that allow guns to be carried by large portions of citizens, increasing the potential for violence in any particular situation.
These three ingredients have, I believe, led to the tragedies we have seen this week, and that we have seen all too often in American life. While some of the law enforcement officers who have killed black people have probably been possessed by the more virulent forms of racism, carrying with them a certain hatred for non-white people, I suspect that most of the officers who have perpetrated these tragedies are, instead, possessed by the same kind of racism that effects most white Americans: a view of non-white people as other, and a lingering discomfort and fear of them. Imagine, then, when a white police officer possessed by this view of the black man as other, who is a little afraid of that other, responds to a police call, and that in responding, the police officer knows (particularly if he or she lives in certain states) that it is entirely possible that someone involved in the situation has a gun. It seems to me that the police officer arrives at the situation already a bit afraid, both of the non-white other and of the possibility of armed citizens. How easy it would be for such an officer to respond, particularly in an unusual and tense situation, out of that place of fear — and in doing so, kill someone unjustly. Please understand that I am not seeking to excuse such an officer — simply to understand the ingredients that make up these tragedies.
And is it any wonder that some of those black people, having lived under the shadow of otherness for so long, might lash out at law enforcement officers as happened in Dallas, and thereby compound the tragedy with more tragedy, and take us further down a road that we may have trouble figuring out how to step off?
I cannot speak to the experiences of non-white Americans — I am not qualified to do so. But I can speak to the experience of white Americans, at least a certain segment thereof. And it seems to me that, as we wring our hands over these violent events, we must stop deceiving ourselves, and allow the truth to make its way into us. The truth is that almost all of us look upon non-white people as other, and we must begin to change that. The truth is that the vast majority of white Americans are not uniquely in any kind of peril, and we must jettison the narratives that say that we are. The truth is that government is not our enemy, though it could be a much better friend — and middle and upper class white Americans in particular have the ability to help make that happen. And the truth is that violence is not cool or heroic — it just ruins lives and puts people at each other’s throats.
Dismantling all these self-deceptions will not be easy. They live in us in surprisingly deep ways. But that is our spiritual task. Regardless of one’s religious commitments, the truth of the matter is that religion is about transformation of the self in the direction of deeper solidarity with the human family, deeper compassion, and deeper connection with the sacred. All of the religious traditions say this, each in their own way. In Christianity, we call this work repentance — an honest assessment of our own self-deceptions, and an honest commitment to working at dismantling those self-deceptions, all undertaken with the grace of God.
I pray that somehow, we can find our way into this work. Because the time for self-deception needs to end — we all need more truth, more light.