On the Unseen Racism

By David Mills
October 29, 2017

“Slave this, racist that, excuse this, justify that. Why is it I never hear the Jewish people blaming and making excuses?” said the commenter, who actually used his own name. “The poor Black man thing is about spent. Next subject please, and I know, I must be a racist because I'm tired of hearing about the ‘race’ thing. Good night and God Bless.”

Most of us (white people who read Ethika Politika) would never say something so gross as this. We’re not going to say anything so overtly racist, even in the slightly indirect form of complaining when someone talks about race. But serious racial sensitivity requires an active sympathy for those who suffer the effects of racism and deference to what they say about it.

In that, a lot of Christians fail.

Not Everyone Who Denies Being a Racist Can Be Believed

The commentor was reacting to a Facebook item by the conservative writer Ishmael Hernandez. Hernandez had described the creation of black American culture, beginning with the slave owners’ destruction of the new slaves’ language and culture. Black Americans suffered, he said, but “Tragedy is not what constitutes the essence of the black experience. Instead, the affirmation of dignity, strength, endurance, and Americanism constituted the main elements.”

He spoke as a strong conservative, a black man, and a Catholic who wants a color-blind society. He fiercely criticizes liberalism. He insists the market will create racial equality much better than government. “There is no police war on blacks in America,” he says, calling it “a total fabrication based on isolated instances.”

Even so, his recognition of the distinctive experience of black people in America was too much for many of his readers. He had said what cannot be said.

Several proved amazingly clueless, like the one who claimed, “Slaves were treated horrible but we only seem to hear about the bad cases.” Others reacted with a little more sophistication, but with the same drive to deny what he’d said. “Today's American ‘black culture’ is not a true culture,” said one, using three standard tropes. “It is rife with criminalization, violence, segregation, immorality, etc, etc, etc. … Why is it acceptable to have ‘black culture’? Why is it acceptable to have ‘black communities’? Why is it acceptable to have ‘black churches’? Why, if one uses the word ‘white’ in place of ‘black,’ it is not acceptable?”

Hernandez did not buy it. “If I were talking about race but only to challenge the black left, I doubt you will be tired of it. In fact, I have no doubt,” he responded to one critic. “I speak extensively and often about the problems within black America,” he told another. 
Never do the people who immediately get tired of race when my discussion goes elsewhere get tired of discussing black crime or other problems. Never. The moment I use history and race to offer a positive outlook on blacks in America my words are twisted as if they are “giving excuses,” and people “get tired.” And they marvel at anyone even having a passing thought of them holding racial antagonisms.
The next day he posted: “Not everyone who denies being a racist ought to be believed. I have had several recent encounters with people who simply cannot be believed.”

We can easily find other black and brown conservatives saying the same thing. It would be hard to find one who couldn’t. In a now forgotten speech from the Senate floor last year, the black Republican senator Tim Scott told of the police harassment he’d endured. He had been pulled over seven times in one year, mostly for no reason other than his race.

He had “felt the pressure applied by the scales of justice when they are slanted. I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness, and the humiliation that comes with feeling like you’re being targeted for nothing more than being just yourself.” He added: “I do not know many African-American men who do not have a very similar story to tell — no matter their profession, no matter their income, no matter their disposition in life.”

The Conservative Christian Default

Most conservative Christians see the reality of racism. But there’s not so much evidence that they’ve really listened to people like Hernandez and Scott. You can see this in Facebook comments like those on Hernandez’s page, but also in the statements of Catholic thought leaders.

In a discussion of a specific racial problem, many default either to pious declarations of human unity or to complaints about the left. If they speak at all, and they tend not to, because abortion, because gays, because liberals. They sometimes combine their pious declarations with their complaints about the left by calling racial concerns “identity politics.”

They may also just say the subject’s too contentious and we should wait until it isn’t. They often — this is typical of the thought leaders — simply don’t seem to notice the problem. Read a site like Crisis and you would not know that black and brown Americans suffered any discrimination.

In discussing the Confederate monuments, these Christians may (or may not) nod to the feelings of their black and brown brethren. They may (or may not) admit that glorifying men who fought to keep other human beings enslaved is at least problematic. Even if they do both, they immediately shift to their culture war narrative. The left is the real — the way they speak, the sole — problem. It’s not problematic memorials, it’s Antifa or Black Lives Matter.

A Catholic, and a brown man, my friend Roberto Rivera has worked for almost two decades as the chief writer for the Evangelical radio show Breakpoint. He’s also a senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Not a liberal. Speaking of his disappointment at his fellow Christians white-washing the event in Charlottesville, he wrote: 
If you can’t say that the messages and symbols on display in Charlottesville are abhorrent without also mentioning the misdeeds of “the Left,” whatever that means, then your “condemnation” rings hollow. It’s not unreasonable to doubt whether you really condemn, or even care very much, about people walking around Charlottesville chanting Nazi slogans like “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil.”
Roberto also challenges the standard narrative that urges “reconciliation.” That, he argues, is the wrong word to use for our hopes for the future relation of white people with black and brown people. He prefers “reckoning.”

A Habit of Listening

Speaking as a white Catholic, I have been the person I describe. Not so wholly as others, but enough. This is what I’ve learned: The white Catholic who wants to speak on race should defer to those who’ve actually lived life as a racial minority. Everyone talks about “listening” and “dialogue,” but we need to do more than listen. That can mean something no more transforming than “sharing.”

In trying to discern the truth, we need to exercise a preferential option for the marginalized. We should weight their stories more heavily than our observations. We should ask ourselves what in our lives and privileges might keep us from seeing things as they really are. We have many people like Hernandez, Scott, and Rivera who will tell us what we need to hear, if we train ourselves to listen.