Further exploring the issues raised around Charlottesville, VA – and also in commemoration of this blog’s 100th post – this week we are going from out of the world of Lutheranism to talk with a long time friend of the blog, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas. Generously shared from its original home on .base – the Black Theology Project – Dr. Douglas wastes no time deconstructing the myth that what we saw last Saturday “was not America.” Indeed, she shows how the violence in Virginia has been fore-ordained and set in place since the earliest years of settlement in North America, as well as what we can do about it. Read, comment and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
While the Charlottesville, Va. “Unite the Right Rally” is certainly alarming, it should come as no real surprise. For as disgusting as many Americans find the beliefs of these “alt-right” crusaders, their white supremacist beliefs reflect an ugly truth about this country. The truth is this country, even as it proclaims freedom and justice for all, was founded on an “Anglo-Saxon myth” of white racial superiority.
This is a truth that Donald Trump’s politics has tapped into and brought into clear relief. Simply put, during his campaign and now presidency, Mr. Trump guilefully exploited America’s defining Anglo-Saxon myth while dangerously revitalizing the culture of whiteness that serves to protect it.
Many Americans, horrified by the hate and violence on display in Charlottesville, exclaim, “This is not America!” But the truth we need to know to actually root out white supremacy is that this is integral to America, and has been, from the very beginning.
When America’s Pilgrim and Puritan forebears fled England in search of freedom, they believed themselves descendants of an ancient Anglo-Saxon people who possessed high moral values and an “instinctive love for freedom.” These early Americans crossed the Atlantic with a vision to build a nation that was politically, culturally—if not demographically—true to their “exceptional” Anglo-Saxon heritage. Theirs was a vision soon to be shared by this nation’s Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. As such, America was envisioned as a testament to the sacredness of Anglo-Saxon character and values, if not people.
In order to safeguard this vision a pervasive culture of whiteness was born. Why? Because simply put, not everybody that looks like an Anglo-Saxon in the United States is actually Anglo-Saxon. The perpetual vexing problem for the nation is that from its very beginnings it has been an immigrant nation with migrants—even from Europe, who were not Anglo-Saxon. Yet there was a mitigating factor, at least for those who came from Europe, they were white—and this whiteness made all the difference. To be white was to be considered Anglo-Saxon enough.
Put simply, whiteness became the passport into the exceptional space that was American identity with the rights and privileges of citizenship. From its earliest beginnings, therefore, America’s social-political and cultural identity was inextricably linked to a myth of Anglo-Saxon superiority. The “city on the hill” that the early Americans were building was intended to be nothing less than a testament to Anglo-Saxon, hence white, chauvinism. There is simply no getting around it, a myth of Anglo-Saxon “exceptionalism” has shaped America’s sense of self. It and the culture of whiteness that sustains it runs deep within the DNA of this country.
This is echoed, in a profoundly revealing way, by Donald Trump’s claim that his success is due to the fact that he has “superior genes.” This brings us to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
What happen in Charlottesville is another instance of the resurgence of bigoted hate that has erupted across the country since the November election. And, if we are going to come to grips with this resurgence then we must face the fact that Donald Trump’s vision to “Make America Great Again” is essentially a 21st century manifestation of America’s Anglo Saxon exceptionalist myth and the culture of white supremacy that protects it. His “mantra” of greatness has served as more than a “dog-whistle.” It has been a clarion call to action for those who have clung tightly to the Anglo-Saxon/white vision of America. No one made this clearer than past imperial wizard of the Klu Klux Klan than David Duke when he said, “We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back. That’s what we gotta do.”
Just as a “Unite the Right” rally should come as no surprise, neither should President Trump’s refusal to unapologetically and unambiguously denounce the violence that is white supremacy and religious bigotry (make no mistake about it, such ideologies in and of themselves are violent. For any ideology or system of thought that objectifies another human being and fails to recognize their very humanity must be recognized as violent. Moreover, such ideologies and systems serve only to precipitate more violence.) Far from rejecting the “alt-right” groups and their violent ideologies Mr. Trump has emboldened them with a “birtherism” crusade along with racist, Islamophobic and xenophobic campaign rhetoric: this runs smoothly into his wall-building, “Law and Order” and “nationalistic” immigration policies. Essentially, Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies have played into the bigoted fears and stereotypes that fuel white supremacy, thereby making various expressions of white supremacist violence predictable if not inevitable. To be sure, the politics of Donald Trump and “alt-right” beliefs reflect the inherent danger of America’s defining Anglo-Saxon myth: when it expresses itself it makes people the problem. Hence, “To make America Great Again” is to “take back the country” from the problem people—that is, non-white peoples. So again, it is no wonder that we are witnessing a resurgence of bigoted violence or for that matters presidential calls for bans, orders and policies that prevent “certain” peoples from enjoying the full rights and privileges of citizenship.
If it wasn’t clear before, the events in Charlottesville have now made it abundantly clear—we have reached a decision point as a nation. We must decide whether we want to be a nation defined by its Anglo-Saxon myth of exceptionalism and white supremacist culture or one defined by its democratic rhetoric of being a nation of liberty and justice for all. This question is even more poignant for people of faith. For we must decide if we are a people committed to a vision of a country that reflects an “Anglo-Saxon” God or a God whose image is revealed through a racial/ethnic/religiously and culturally diverse humanity.
If we are in fact committed to building a nation and being a people reflective of a God with a vision of justice and freedom for all, then we must do more than just counter-protest. Rather, we must proactively protest for the kind of nation and people we want to be.
Proactive protest first and foremost means telling the truth, even the harsh truth about who we are as a nation and a people. We continue to arrive at these “Make America Great Again,” moments of Anglo-Saxon chauvinistic violence because of America’s utter refusal to face the hard truths of it own story. James Baldwin is right, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Until America faces the truth of itself, the violence of white supremacy in all of its expressions will continue to plague our nation and prevent us from ever living into the rhetoric of being a place where there is justice and liberty for all.
This brings us to another aspect of what is required of us if we are in fact committed to building a nation and being a people reflective of a God with an inclusive vision of justice and freedom. We are required, as Mahatma Gandhi said, to “be the change we want to see.” This is indeed at the heart of proactive protest.
Practically speaking this means that we should be people of sanctuary and witness.
To be a sanctuary means that wherever we are present no one should feel diminished or unsafe because of who they are or are not.
It also means that we must work to make our communities safe spaces for all who are made to feel unsafe by the various policies, bans and orders of exceptionalism in our society. More specifically, it means creating spaces free of bigotry or intolerance of any kind and resisting at every level of our society any efforts to reinstate 21st century versions of Jim Crow Laws like “Stop and Frisk,” or poll taxes like Voter Id’s, or LGBTQphobic orders, or ethno/religiously-centric “travel bans” and immigration policies. This leads to what it means to be a witness for the kind of change we want to see.
Proactive witness means, in the least, calling out racism, xenophobia and any other ism or bigotry for what it is, even when it mask itself in the “politically” correct language of “greatness.” It further requires calling out the racially biased social economic policies, laws, systems and structures that traps certain peoples in a dehumanizing culture of poverty and feeds the prison industrial complex. We must refuse to be silent until these systems and structures are dismantled. Audre Lorde has reminded us that our silence will not save us,” and she is right.* Our silence has not and will not save us from the violence of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism—therefore we must proactively witnesses against it.
In 1961 James Baldwin declared, “The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can do this only if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.” The events of Charlottesville make clear that the time has come for us to decide who we want to be: a nation that is defined by racialized “greatness” or by justice and freedom for all.
Kelly Brown Douglas, MDiv, PhD, is currently the Dean the Episcopal Divinity School in Manhattan. Before that, she was the Professor and Director of the Religion Department at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. She is a leading voice in womanist theology and has served as an Episcopal priest for over 20 years. Widely published in national and international journals, her groundbreaking book Sexuality and the Black Church was the first to address the issue of homophobia within the black church community. Her most recent publication is Stand Your Ground, where she writes, “There has been no story in the news that has troubled me more than that of Trayvon Martin’s slaying. President Obama said that if he had a son his son would look like Trayvon. I do have a son and he does look like Trayvon.” Other publications include, The Black Christ, Black Bodies and the Black Church, and What’s Faith Got to Do with It? She has also received the Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement, and was honored as “Womanist Legend” by the Black Religious Scholars Group.
*Paraphrased from Audre Lorde, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action* Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press Feminist Series) (p. 40). Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony. Kindle Edition.