By Chett Pritchett
“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
As we approach the celebration of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., I took some time to re-read his Letter from Birmingham Jail. His epistle is set in context, and yet, speaks directly to our present situation in 21st century America. At the time, King was responding to the call from progressive white clergy to temper the activism of the civil rights movement in Alabama. Eight white clergymen had taken out a full page ad in the Birmingham News calling the movement being built in their city “untimely and unwise,” and painting the racist policies carried out by public safety commissioner, Bull Connor, as needed in an attempt to promote unity.
Today, we have heard it said that in America, we are living in a post-racial society. From Ferguson to New York City to Cleveland, we have been given ample examples of this falsehood. I could talk a lot about how the lack of educational and economic opportunity play a role in continued institutional racism. I could talk about the abysmal number of people of color in the American incarceration system. I could talk about environmental racism and the location of garbage dumps and incinerators in relation to communities of color. All of these examples of institutional racism are indeed vital conversations to be had. But today, I want to talk about the concept that underlies all of these experiences of race in America today: white privilege.
As a white male growing up in Appalachia, racial diversity was rare. My worldview was white. Sure, we were poor and I had some family members who were Asian and African-American, but my social location was still grounded in the experience of being white.
Today, I sit in a sea of privilege and power, with a view of the Supreme Court and the United States Capitol from my office window. And yet, no less than 10 blocks away, the Metropolitan Police Department will situate 4 to 5 patrol cars near the predominantly African American high school near my home when school lets out. I seriously doubt this happens at every school at three in the afternoon. Why? Because white privilege reigns.
A few blocks further north, a Section 8 housing complex has a police camera in place on the corner with police “roll ups” happening on a regular basis. Meanwhile, across the street, homes are frequently being “flipped”, driving up property values, and driving many black residents to the suburbs. Why? Because white privilege reigns.
Similarly, white privilege reigns when well-meaning liberals refuse to visit certain sections of town because of the reputation those sections have for being unsafe, when in reality, there are just poor people and people of color living, working, and going to school there. Why? Because white privilege reigns.
This same white privilege is at work in our own United Methodist Church, too. Today, our sanctuaries are still the most segregated places in America. Even in congregations which claim welcome and openness to “all,” they often operate out of a place of color-blindness. Color-blindness is another name for white privilege. It allows us to proclaim the truth of universalism (God’s love is for everyone), while not challenging us to build relationships with those who battle racism and the outcomes of white privilege on a daily basis. Why? Because white privilege reigns.
So, how do we move from a reign of white privilege to the reign of God?
Since we are all tied in that network of mutuality, that garment of destiny, we (and here I’m speaking to white folks) need to be about doing anti-privilege work. There’s no sure path to overcoming racism, but together we can work on seeing the connections between systemic policies and practices, developing intercultural competencies, and the expanding the value of personal relationships.
White people need to do our homework before we assume the nearest person of Asian, African, Latin, and Native American descent has time to educate us. One great way to start is by reading “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh.
Do not expect to receive “Racism 101” over one cup of coffee or one education hour. Oftentimes, we may hear stories about racism after we risk sharing our race ignorance and risked publicly noticing the white privilege present in our local contexts.
Do not fold racism into non-racial oppression. Race privilege is never exactly the same as privilege based on gender or sexuality. Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to hear a number of people in my social location (white, gay, male) equate racism to homophobia. While injustice and oppression exist in both experiences, equating one with the other negates actual lived experiences and plays into the myth that multiple identities do not exist.
Expect to work hard – and don’t expect praise for doing this work. I mean, we should all being doing this anyway, right?*
The work of dismantling racism, in many ways, must begin with dismantling the reign of white privilege. This is the continued work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the eternal vision of the Gospel: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
*Based on the ideas of Jennifer Simpson “From Identifying Race Privilege: From One White to Another.”
Chett Pritchett is the executive director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and Wesley Theological Seminary. Residing in Washington, DC, he is a lay member of Dumbarton United Methodist Church.