The Myth of Innocence

CharlottesvilleToday is an eerie day. Yesterday was a day of horror: marchers with torches, KKK members with robes and flags and foolish-looking shields; clergy in robes facing miliamen in body armor, carrying huge guns; the sudden hurtling of a gray car into human flesh and bone.

Today, all is calm, as if waiting. Is that it? Are thousands of racists going to march through one of our cities, threaten those worshiping in a church, engage in domestic terrorism, and then…nothing? No forceful denunciation of hatred from the White House, no mass marches around the country….nothing?

A few days ago, I read these words from James Baldwin. They were hard to hear, but I also immediately recognized them as true:

White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany. They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded — at least, in the same way. For my part, the fate of the Jews, and the world’s indifference to it, frightened me very much. I could not but feel, in those sorrowful years, that this human indifference, concerning which I knew so much already, would be my portion on the day that the United States decided to murder its Negroes systematically instead of little by little and catch-as-catch-can….I have seen and heard and endured the secrets of desperate white men and women, which they knew were safe with me, because even if I should speak, no one would believe me. And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.  (The Fire Next Time, 1963)

The truth that Baldwin articulates is more readily apparent today, after we have seen the confederate flag flying next to the Nazi one, than it was the day before: the truth of the willed indifference of many white people to the suffering to which we collectively subject our black neighbors, both those of us who will that suffering and those who are appalled by it.

I was born in 1968, when the Civil Rights act had already been signed into law. I have never known a world in which the different peoples of America were not equal in the eyes of the law. And I have spent my adult years unlearning the optimism which that fact once gave me. I have spent them learning to see that, under certain pernicious circumstances, equality before the law counts surprisingly little in this world.

At this point, my fellow white Americans fall into roughly three groups: there are those who have embraced a racist ideology, whose numbers, I continue to hope, must inevitably shrink; there are those who act for the creation of a better and more equal world, whose numbers, while growing, remain too few; and there are those who persist in believing that the problem of systemic racism has been solved, or that it never existed, or no longer exists. They cling to the myth of their innocence.

It is to that third group that I am addressing these words:

After these last years, you have to be willfully blind and deaf to pretend that there is no problem, and that you are not complicit in it.

You have seen a man choked to death for selling cigarettes on the sidewalk.

You have seen the police officer who killed him fail to be indicted.

You have seen a man shot to death for complying with the instructions of a police officer at a routine traffic stop.

You have seen the police officer who did that exonerated.

You have seen poisoned water flowing from the taps of a majority-black city, while no one rectifies the situation. For three years and counting.

You have seen the police descend in force on protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, bludgeoning them and beating them and using tear gas and rubber bullets.

You have seen Nazis and white supremacists and white nationalists descend on Charlottesville with torches and heavily armed militia, and you have seen one of them drive a car into a crowd of unarmed civilians, and you have seen the police fail to suppress them with beatings or tear gas or rubber bullets. In fact, you have seen the police fail to suppress them at all.

You no longer have the excuse of ignorance.

Much as it pains me to admit this, the members of the so-called Alt-Right, which is simply a fancy word for racists, did one thing right at Charlottesville: They did not pretend they were powerless to effect change.

Every day, all over this nation, people of genuinely good will carry out our lives, comment on the racism we see around us, and feel powerless to make a difference on less than a very small scale, particularly under this President. But those bigots did not take refuge in a sense of powerlessness. They knew that they had power: power to march and power to make their beliefs known and power to organize and power, even, to elect a president. And their commitment calls our bluff, my friends. If the forces of evil and division believe that they have power and act on it, it is no longer acceptable for the forces of love to sit around wringing our hands. We, too have power: power we can create, power we can leverage, power we can use to make this country a less brutal place.

Too long, white Americans have clung to the myth of innocence. But Christianity isn’t about innocence: it’s about knowing the face of evil, and choosing what is good.

Inaction is also a choice, my friends, and it is a choice not to reach for what is of God.

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your children may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19)


(For clarification, those are militia-members, not representatives of a national or state government.)