Bishop Ray Tiemann, from the ELCA’s Southwestern Texas Synod, provides a concise, practical response to discussions on race at my home seminary – the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago – as well as the church as a whole in the US. Taken from a speech he wrote in response to an article written by the Rev. Dr. Richard Perry, Jr, (from the book On Secular Governance: Lutheran Perspectives on Contemporary Legal Issues) and presented before the LSTC Board of Directors, Tiemann makes a direct connection between the all-too-easily forgotten history of Jim Crow and the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Grey, and the victims of Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, SC. He then gives personal testimony of what he does, as a “White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant” to mitigate his own privilege as best he can – inviting others to do the same. Please read, comment, and share. Let’s keep this conversation going!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ,
As we planned this event I was asked to speak about a part of the subject of racism that particularly intersects with me as a White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. I want to talk about white privilege.
“White privilege” is a term for societal privileges that benefit white people (in Western countries like the United States) beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. It has been a challenging process for me and one that I have only started. I’m certainly not an expert on the complexity of white privilege, but one thing I have learned is that white privilege and racial discrimination are opposite sides of the same coin. One does not exist without the other. So, as much as I may be tempted to deny it exists, both white privilege and racial discrimination are a part of my life and yours as well.
One glaring example that comes to mind is in our home state of Texas. Though the Emancipation Proclamation was a presidential proclamation and executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863 – in a single stroke it changed the federal legal status of more than three million enslaved persons in the designated areas of the South from “slave” to “free” – since Texas was not a battleground state, its slaves were not affected unless they escaped. Finally, on June 18, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston Island with 2,000 federal troops to occupy Texas on behalf of the federal government and on June 19 declared the total emancipation of slaves in Texas. So, three years, five months, and 18 days after the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves became free in Texas.
This day, June 19, is even celebrated as a state holiday in Texas – though recognized nationally as well – called “Juneteenth.”
Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537) is another horrific example of this. This United States Supreme Court decision (in effect between 1896 and 1954) upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities – enshrining the doctrine of “separate but equal” and inspiring the proliferation of countless segregation laws known collectively as “Jim Crow.”
However, though “separate” was always there, “equal” wasn’t. For example:
- Farm workers and maids, who made up 60-75% of the work force in the South, couldn’t join unions, get minimum wage, have regulated hours of work, or get Social Security until 1950.
- Health services were unequal, so that in the 1940s, statistics show that access to doctors in Mississippi was 1/1,800 whites, 1/18,000 for African Americans.
- Metropolitan Life Insurance Company noted death rates 203 times higher for African Americans for the flu, TB, and pneumonia and life expectancy was on average 10 years less.
- In 1940, the cost of the value of education in schools was $162 per white student and $34 per African American student, with only 3% of white schoolchildren who worked, compared to 16% of African Americans.
- Any relief payments were not equal. Local authorities kept payments artificially low for African Americans so as not to undercut the labor market’s low wages. “By decentralizing authority and fragmenting decision-making, national policies (of the New Deal) could be administered to suit white Southern preferences.” *
I believe we continue to struggle with that challenge even today, more than sixty years after Brown v. The Kansas Board of Education did away with “separate but equal.” All we need do is consider how racial tensions continue to exist as evidenced by the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, or Michael Brown’s death in St. Louis, or the shooting deaths by Dylan Roof in Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
So what can we do, since most of us here are like me, White Anglo Saxon Protestants? If the goal is to open doors for conversation across races, I need to be aware of the barriers that come unbidden as part of my white privilege. So, how will I do that?
First, I need to deal with the guilt I feel, knowing that the history is true and is a part of my history and my being. In one sense, it is not about my trying to live a life that seeks to not be prejudiced. It is, however, a realization that I am part of a system that gives me advantage because of the color of my skin. For example, when I was in Washington DC a week ago as part of the ELCA’s Advocacy Days, we visited some offices in the House of Representatives. I was with two Latina women who had personal stories to tell about why it is important to end detention of immigrant children. They told their stories, but the staff person kept turning to me for comments. I couldn’t believe he felt my words would have more weight than theirs, but then I was male and white.
Second, I have a personal desire to be kept comfortable. I don’t like having these hard conversations or face these hard realities. I will avoid this conversation if I can, I will change the subject, I will make excuses, and I will deny it’s true. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 7(19), “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” It’s a constant struggle.
Third, when I am working with people of color, I have to get over feeling that “I know what you need, that my experience is the standard by which everything else is measured.” We have a tendency to do that when we go on mission trips, not asking what the needs of our neighbors are, but assuming we know and taking with us things that don’t help.
Finally, I have to stop being afraid and remaining silent. In wanting to avoid conflict, too often I don’t speak up when God gives me the opportunity. This sin of omission can be as great as a sin of commission, because when I don’t speak up, others assume I am agreeing with them. So, the nasty, loud voices continue unchecked.
As I said earlier, learning to address my white privilege is a life-long process. What I keep in mind to help me are those Scripture verses which remind me that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, as the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 3 (27-28): “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Thank you for letting me share.
*Historical details from the book, “When Affirmative Action was White,” by Ira Katzelson.
An open letter from African American Presidents and Deans in Theological Education. A full list of the authors is at the bottom of the letter.
A response given by the Presidents and Deans of the ELCA seminaries. A full list of the authors is at the bottom of the letter.
The Rev. Dr. Ray Tiemann was called to serve as the fourth bishop of the Southwestern Texas Synod in 2000 and was re-elected in May, 2006 for a second six-year term and was re-elected in May 2012 for a third six-year term. Prior to his election as bishop, Tiemann served as co-pastor at Holy Ghost Lutheran Church in Fredericksburg, Texas, since 1985. He was pastor of Abiding Savior Lutheran Church of Cameron, Texas, from 1979 to 1985. Currently a member of the LSTC Board of Directors, Bishop Tiemann also previously served as chair of the Southwestern Texas Synod’s Commission for Professional Leadership, twice as Dean of the Hill Country Conference, and as chair of the planning committees for several synod assemblies and other synodical events. Tiemann received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Texas Lutheran College in 1975, a Master of Divinity degree from Wartburg Theological Seminary in 1979, and a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching degree from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago in 1995. His thesis centered on the relationship between the children’s sermon and the general sermon for the day as a way to reach a broader segment of the congregation with the message of the Gospel. He and his wife, Debbie, reside in Fredericksburg. They have two children, Daniel and Rebecca.