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Have We Already Gotten Over Charlottesville?

Matthew Tuininga

What happened in Charlottesville horrified many people in this country: Nazis marching alongside the KKK on the streets of America; street-fighting; terrorism. There was an outpouring of righteous indignation, much as there was after the shooting of nine black people by Dylan Roof in a Charleston church.

Debates raged over whether or not President Trump was right to draw attention to violence on the part of “both sides.” Are soviet-flag-waving, anti-fascist activists worthy of the same denunciation as Nazi-flag-waving, white supremacists? Is it legitimate to respond to violence with violence?

But now we have moved on. After all, we have been here before. This is the stuff of which PBS documentaries are made, though in the past they have usually been in black and white.

To be sure, much has changed. I am glad that overt racism receives such sharp denunciation by the media and by many Christians today. And yet, what bothers me is how eagerly we as a nation denounce overt white supremacy, even as we blissfully ignore the more subtle racism that permeates our cities, courts, and prisons. This has far more destructive consequences for black people than a hundred rallies similar to Charlottesville’s.

The sheer vitriol of our denunciation belies our own complicity in racial injustice for which we are so desperate to atone. We forget that even during the 50s and 60s many respectable white Christians, even in the South, abhorred violence and disorder.

Many white moderates love to signal our virtue by condemning violence and calling for the removal of Confederate monuments. Meanwhile, we go back to our comfortable white suburbs, built with help from federal, state, and local governments during waves of white flight. We go back to our good jobs, our safe schools, and our stable investments. All the while we forget how racial discrimination systemically prevented African Americans from building the same sorts of lives, leaving millions trapped in poverty to this day.

We continue to ignore the deadly effects of police brutality, mass incarceration, poverty, unemployment, and dysfunctional schools that continue to plague many. This is all evidence that the racist legacy of America endures in ways that most of us cheerfully ignore.

What, you say, didn’t black people win equality under the law in 1965? Haven’t they had an equal shot since then? Sure, there are still racists out there, and we all condemn them, but hasn’t overt racism been dead at least since the 1970s? certainly don’t know any educated Christian people who are racists.

You think I’m making this up?

What about police brutality and mass incarceration? Its legacy is complicated, as James Forman, Jr., shows in Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, but if you remain unconvinced that it is a uniquely deadly problem for black people in this country, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Do you want a more personal perspective on the pernicious effects of racism on black people? Read Coates’s Between the World and Me.

We could go on and on. The primary problem in this country is not overt, violent racism, as horrific as that is. The greatest obstacles facing black people are not the David Dukes and Dylann Roofs of the world. The primary problem is still what it was in the days of Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail: the white moderate.

It is the person who hates violence and bigotry, who personally bears no ill will towards a single black individual, and yet who is suspicious of any policy that might remotely disrupt the status quo (or that does not arise from the abstract, color-blind principles of small government and economic prosperity). It is the person who would never actively harm an African American brother or sister, and yet who passes on down the road while millions of black men, women, and children wallow on the other side in the misery of injustice.

The primary sin of many in middle-class white America is not that of commission but of omission.

As James Baldwin famously put it in The Fire Next Time:

[T]his is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.

Do white American Christians see the oppression of our black brothers and sisters? Do we see them at all? If we do not see racism and its continuing pernicious legacy in our cities and schools and churches (and rural areas and workplaces and prisons), that says much more about us than it does about the existence of racism.

That was the basic thrust of Jesus’ preaching as recorded in the gospel of Luke. It’s not enough for us to be good law-keeping Pharisees who denounce violence and overt hatred. It’s not enough to be reactive. White moderates have always been good at that. We must show solidarity with the oppressed. We must take responsibility for the legacy of racial injustice. And that’s something white American Christians have never done.

That’s going to take a lot more than the shock of a Charleston or a Charlottesville. It will require some serious soul-searching on the part of white Christians who, far too often, have resembled Pharisees more than the way of Jesus.

4 thoughts on “Have We Already Gotten Over Charlottesville?

  1. DCal3000

    Thanks for your reply to my earlier comment, Noelle. It is helpful and moves the conversation forward. I have two points in response.

    First, the reason I singled out Reformed Christians in my previous comment is that this website purports to be a Reformed Christian website and because Dr. Tuininga himself is Reformed. He accuses “white American Christians,” presumably himself included, of having “never” taken “responsibility for the legacy of racial injustice.” He also suggests that this failure may be sin. If his claim is true, it leaves open the possibility that all previous apologies from various denominations, all efforts to promote diversity and repentance, all the articles by white American Christians on this website, have still left those with white skin color in the mire of race-based sin. That leaves us without a specific model to follow to address the issue. Dr. Tuininga, and other writers like him, owe us suggestions for specific solutions.

    You bring up a specific suggestion–race-based reparations; I find that helpful, since you are not simply wringing your hands in white, pseudo-guilt. That said, I am troubled by the idea and need to know more about how reparations would work. If it would be a government-sponsored program to correct generic racial injustice (rather than specific wrongs committed by specific entities), it would inevitably have to involve a “white” tax, since taxing African-Americans for reparations would be defeating the point. That means, though, that IRS audits would need to involve physical examinations of skin color or DNA, in order to defeat those who might avoid the tax by falsely claiming minority status. The tax would also need to be applied to poor whites if it’s to correct racial injustice, since poor whites have also been historically guilty of racism. In the end, I fear such reparations would divide the country more than it is already divided. Some such policies, in fact, sound suspiciously similar to sinful policies employed by white supremacists in the not-so-distant past. I don’t think it right or just for the government to decide how to treat me based on the shade of my skin color.

    I am more interested in hearing about private reparations–along the lines of Zacchaeus’s example in the New Testament. We work to right wrongs that we or our families have specifically committed. There is where stories from people like you could help. If you determined that financial reparations were warranted, how did you determine how much to pay and who to pay it too? How were you able to do that and continue to meet your other financial obligations? Stories like that could serve to inspire and bring about healing merely from the telling. And, of course, reparation might not always be financial; other factors could be discussed too. I would be interested to hear more, and I thank you for already working to contribute to the discussion.

  2. Noelle

    How hard have you guys looked for these blueprints? Do you insist that the action items be identified by Reformed Christians before you engage, or are you willing to partner with people outside of the church? The author posted one article that has a pretty straightforward solution–Ta’Nehisi Coates’ “Case for Reparations.” I’m thinking there’s some pretty solid arguments for a Jubiliee-style revival in this country, that might-could and definitely SHOULD be led by the church, in which justice flows like streams (and not metaphorically! Justice flowing like streams of restorative, reparative capital–returning our ill-begotten wealth to those it was stolen from).

    Another spectacular mind spearheading this “blueprint” is Ibram Kendi, who has an anti-racism research center in DC that targets the foundations of the policies that underpin & uphold racism in our country.

    I’m thankful that the person you are demanding blueprints from is white. Because these blueprints are OUR responsibility. We are the culprits, and we ought to make reparation and restoration our business, and not place the burden of fixing the problem on our POC brothers & sisters.

  3. DCal3000

    I would like to echo the previous commenter in wanting to see more of a blueprint from Reformed Christians on how to combat racial injustice. Racial injustice indisputably exists, and Christians need to stand against it. Dr. Tuininga suggests, “We must take responsibility for the legacy of racial injustice,” but he also says “t]hat’s something white American Christians have never done.” His latter statement suggests that there is no blueprint by way of example from any white American Christian, including those who write for RAAN. It also indicates that all previous statements of repentance or alleged efforts at racial reconciliation have fallen short–even sinfully so. If that is the case, the situation is indeed serious and clarity is needed. Moving forward, what does taking responsibility look like?

  4. Michael Vander Laan

    OK, let’s assume I agree with this blog. (I do probably agree with 90% of it.) I would also have to consider myself a “white moderate” and thus the target of this post. (I could write a response about the wisdom, or lack thereof, about posts that are meant to target groups of people, but I will skip that.)

    My question is this: What are the solutions, or at least what are some of the ideas that might provide a solution?

    Matthew, the only solution you offered here is to “see” our black brother and sisters in Christ. What does that mean? And how is that supposed to help?

    I’ve been member of churches with significant numbers of black members, including one which was started by a group of Afro-Americans. I know the Southside of Chicago reasonably well. I’ve been to the CRC’s Race Relations Conference. Can I “see”? I don’t know if I can or not. What I do know is that I don’t feel any of this helps me deal with any of the issues raised in the post.

    In my opinion, the current edition of racial conflict is unproductive and in deep need of a clear agenda and goal. It has to be more than anger to be justice, lest the anger become a mortal vice. It has to be more than guilt-tripping upper and middle-class whites. It needs an agenda that will change reality in God-glorifying ways. What’s the blue-print?

    If anything, as a white moderate, I’d like to challenge Reformed African Americans and Reformed whites to come up with a clear agenda and goal for improving the social fabric of African American communities. And then promote it, get it on the political table, and make a difference.

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