Behind every political deal in this country, the first casualties are always the ordinary people, who are barely treated as human.
Chinese artist and activist
The modern world is a world of large, complex institutions. These institutions replaced the social world of families and communities. Instead of relationships being at the heart of our national society, we have politics.
The way politics is conducted in the modern world is to simplify the issues so that there is no longer any thing to think about, it is just about the emotion of the subject. Combine emotions with the power of images you have a toxic mix that alienates people from the realities of the world at large by distracting them with politics.
This is true across the ideological spectrum. This isn't a left / right thing. It is how institutions manage their "relationship" to people. As a result, we live in a world of greater conflict, division and confusion than is necessary.
This is particularly true with the question of race. For me, two hashtag phrases frame this place of race in America.
One is #BlackLivesMatter.
The other #WhitePrivilege.
I find these two phrases saying things that may be missed, or, that their most passionate promoters may or may not see. Yet, we need as a society and as individuals to talk about the deeper meanings of these phrases.
Those who speak about #WhitePrivilege are speaking about the privilege that White people have had in the USA since the day Columbus stepped on shore. All that they assert maybe true. Some of it is ugly, some of it is not. The question that confronts those of us who are White is "What should we do about it?".
So far, since this idea began to be promoted, I have heard of no one who has stepped down from their position of privilege so that someone who has been disadvantaged by that privilege may find opportunity which presently is not given to them.
This idea is a political message. All contemporary political messages are inherently dialectic, saying two things.
The #WhitePrivilege message has two messages.
To White people it is a reminder that they should feel guilty for their privilege. But their guilt does not require any action. By simply holding a belief in #WhitePrivilege our guilt as White people is relieved.
The more insidious message here is the one reminding African-Americans that not only are they are still victims of racism, but they are depended upon the White establishment for its resolution. In effect, in my opinion, #WhitePrivilege is a code word for #WhitePaternalism. Is that not the political system that African-Americans and other minorities have found themselves in?
I find #WhitePrivilege a sophisticated version of the liberal White racism that I heard in my seminary urban ministry course 35 years ago. At that time, an African-American scholar spoke to us about the racism of Whites. I found his words hollow, and prejudicial, unwittingly making the claim that Blacks were in effect helpless in the face of #WhitePrivilege. And yet, here he stood speaking to us as an authority, looking very much like a representation of White privilege, except with dark skin. I knew then, that this was not directly about race, or rather about our relationships with one another as the races, but about the politics of race. Politics in this instance is a code word for power. This is what #WhitePrivilege has always been about.
I am suggesting by this post that #WhitePrivilege is really a reminder to the African-American community that their benefits as citizens have always come as a result of the #WhitePaternalism of those who lead the nation. I don't think that those who speak of #WhitePrivilege realize that they are saying this. I think in their earnestness to resolve racial conflict, they want to take responsibility. But continuation of the paternalism that has been at the heart of the American political system towards all minorities is not really a suitable answer here in the second decade of the 21st century.
The other phrase #BlackLiveMatters rose up as a way to focus public attention on the rate of violence brought against Black males by law enforcement officers. It is a movement not unlike the conservative Tea Party movement seeking to draw attention to issues within their communities about how the government, in this case, law enforcement agencies, treat them.
Whatever the merits of their cause, the politics of the nation, and not realities of the local communities, is where these issues are being addressed.
There is a deeper message, however, in this phrase that I believe is worth reflecting upon.
#BlackLivesMatter is, also, a statement of the recognition that African-Americans are people, not merely victims, but people worthy of dignity, respect and honor. The power of language can get at this point this way.
If I was to call Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr a Black man, everyone would acknowledge this to be true and quite obvious.
However, if I was to say that Dr. King is a man who is Black or an African-American, then I would be saying something different. I would be first saying that he is a man. He is a man who was a son, a husband, a father, a pastor, a national Civil Rights leader, a Nobel Prize awardee and ultimately, a martyr, who is Black or African-American.
When we say #BlackLivesMatter, we are speaking about people who are more than the color of their skin. They are people like you and me. People who live and work to fulfill their dreams, care for their families, and participate as full citizens of their country. Much about us may be different, but those differences should not divide us, but rather enrich our lives as citizens of the same nation.
Politicians may or may not get this because to do so complicates the messages that they are trying to communicate to their political base. Politicians don't want us to think. They want us to believe in them. Belief often requires suspension of our critical thinking faculties. They want to touch our emotions, so that we are not thinking too much on election day.
When I think of #BlackLivesMatter, I think of Dr. King and Rosa Parks. I think of W.E.B. Dubois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright, of Roberto Clemente, of Tar Heel basketball star Charlie Scott, and, of my high school football coach, Baxter Holman. I think of friends and colleagues over the years through whom I've become a better man for knowing them. I think of the beauty of Yolanda Adams as she sang on The Tonight Show. #BlackLivesMatter because they are rich in contributions to the cultural and intellectual life of America.
When I think of #WhitePrivilege, I think of the Clinton's, the Bush's, the Trump's, and all those White men and women who have served in Congress, and yet have not figured out that the vast majority of problems this country faces, like race, are products of their own failed leadership. Why is it that fifty years after the voting rights act and the war on poverty was instituted that we are still dealing with those issues. I'm convinced that is because it is politically expedient to do so.
Institutional nature of modern society is essentially political in nature. Politics in this sense is both a product of image, of appearance, and, of transactions and exchanges of privilege. I have something you want, and, I will exchange it for your vote or support at the next election or team meeting. The more transactional our society has become, the more toxic its political culture.
What's the solution?
It begins with our own perception of the world. It is important to understand that the institutional nature of our society dictates how we view other people. When people have the opportunity to meet and get to know one another, the similarities of our lives take on a greater presence than our differences. Politics emphasizes our differences because that sequesters communities into voting factions.
However, when we perceive our world as foremost and fundamentally, a series of interactions with people, then race takes on a different perspective.
Let me suggest as you walk down the street today, look each person you pass in the eye, smile and say "Good day.", "How ya doin'?" or nod your head. Many will return the gesture, others won't.
Learn to strike up a conversation. If you are respectfully curious, you'll find a way to begin a conversation.
Listen. Appreciate. Don't argue.
Learn to see who this person is from their perspective.
Politics tells us that we must defend our position. Why? Because our self-identity is so fragile that must have a political identity to feel secure. This is another reason why politics has become so toxic in America.
Forty years ago, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of life is bound up in relationships. If we were to place our emphasis on building relationships across political, cultural and racial lines, then we'd find the capacity to restore peace and prosperity to our communities.
In the end, #BlackLivesMatter because their lives are like our lives and the lives of people everywhere. They matter and are worthy of respect and honor.
And privilege, whether White or otherwise, matters only when responsibility is taken to use that privilege to build relationships and community that serve each person.