For me, on the one hand, it is a grace from God that I am teaching for the first time a course on African American Religious Thought this spring semester at my home institution, Mount Mary University. On the other hand, I am mindful of the 2018 pastoral letter on racism, Open Wide Our Hearts, that I have reflected on and prayed about, observing that there are some aspects of it that are very good, but also wondering why the letter does not analyze and critique the reality that is the fundamental reason behind why the letter was written in the first place: the normativity of Eurocentric hegemonic racist ideals and practices that have been embedded in the fabric of the United States of America for centuries. These ideals translate to the notion of White privilege or the unearned advantages and benefits that exist just for being White. I am very aware that for many, White privilege is an uncomfortable topic to critically acknowledge, to critically examine, and to critically discuss. A common term that describes this uncomfortable behavioral and emotional response is “White fragility.” Perhaps that is why it was not specifically identified and addressed by the bishops: not wanting to make people uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, in my African American Religious Thought class my students and I are working through a timeline of the human events that institutionalized Eurocentric hegemonic racist ideals and practices in the Unites States of America. On January 1, 2019, as a country we marked the 400th year anniversary of the arrival of the first African chattel slaves in this country. From the arrival of the first African slaves in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia, slavery continued for over 200 years. Two centuries is a long time to create a habitus, or ingrained set of habits and dispositions, about another group of people who were considered non-humans, ignorant, 3/5th persons, and property. A few of my White colleagues have shared with me that within their family history, some members benefited greatly from the slave economy. When the Emancipation Proclamation occurred in 1863, however, followed by Reconstruction, their families lost everything and became economically poor. My White colleagues submit to me that in some corners there remains much hurt, anger, hatred, and resentment, in some cases toward Blacks themselves, for this turn in history which adversely affected the economic well-being of their family members. For that reason, to this day, some White people do not feel that reparations for African chattel slavery are necessary because of the repercussions faced by their own ancestors, who landed in an economically impoverished state. Yet after the Reconstruction period, people in the United States have lived in a hyper-racially-divided country with Eurocentric hegemonic racist ideals and practices at the forefront of American life, beginning with the Jim Crow Era. During this period, freed Blacks were heavily reprimanded for their freedom which had yielded the bleak economic outlook of some Whites. During the Jim Crow Era, the segregation of Whites and Blacks was enforced and reinforced until the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were put in place as a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
On several occasions this semester, I have emphasized to my undergraduates that when we really look at the timeline of historical events that cemented White racism in the United States, including the anger, hurt, and confusion experienced by some White people in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation, we have only lived in a legally integrated society for just over 50 years. This is opposed to over 400 years of blatant White normative rule over and control of Black people, and people of color in general.
With my students, we study African American religious thought, not only detailing and narrating the lived experiences of African slaves and their descendants, but also highlighting the creative ways that they utilized moral agency to survive and thrive despite the harshness and perilousness of Black life. If we are serious about “opening wide our hearts,” we have an enormous amount of work to do to make that happen because this system of White normative oppressive thought and practice is so deeply entrenched in the culture of the Church and society. In my class, we discuss the fact that this system is in some ways cyclical and that there is a need, indeed a demand, that this cycle be broken through unlearning the untruths engrained by White supremacist racism.
First, we must descriptively acknowledge that White racism actively and not passively exists in multi-faceted ways, systemically or structurally, and then prescriptively determine how white racism is to be systemically or structurally dismantled. Secondly, we also must remember that White racism and the unearned privileges and benefits that have resulted from this system are really a problem for White people to address and redress through prayer, study, theological reflection, analysis, transformative actions, a process that must be repeated over and over again. Thirdly, because the system has a life of its own over the centuries of its existence, the notion of unconscious racial bias is a challenge for many to grasp. We must understand how it is manifested. Fourthly, when one part of the family of God is wounded or hurting from the adverse effects of White racial oppression, we are all wounded and hurting as a family of God and must also engage in processes of healing and reconciliation.