Black power advocate Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) once said, “There are answers to the right questions.” In that spirit, consider the question seven-year-old Marissa of Montpelier, Vermont, one of America’s whitest states, asked weeks into a worldwide protest to end excessive force against black people: “I thought the police were supposed to keep us safe. I thought we were supposed to call them when we needed help. Now I'm wondering, who do we call when the police are being unsafe?”
What should we do when powerful institutions misuse their power? The question strikes not only at the heart of American law enforcement, but at the heart of American institutions nationwide—from police stations to schoolhouses to houses of worship. Who do we call when institutions entrusted to care for the most vulnerable cater instead to the racially powerful while ignoring demands for justice from the racially marginalized?
Unfortunately for Marissa from Montpelier, the answer from a former Philadelphia police chief proved inadequate:
Well, first, you let a grown up know what's going on so they can take action, because we don't need police officers doing things like some that you’ve seen on some of the videos that have been shown recently … police officers are there to help … don’t hesitate to let a grown up know so people like me, that used to be a police chief, can take action and do what we need to do to make sure that we only have police officers that are there to serve and protect people, not to harm people.
The chief’s tone confirmed a serious misconception when it comes to addressing racism. Too many Americans believe racism results from a few bad individuals who lack empathy for others and a collective failure to build relationships by speaking up. To end racism, from this perspective, we must feel our shared humanity with those who are racially different and build relationships to help them. Empathy and relationships are valuable, but this solution misses the core concern of Marissa’s question. Racism is not a failure of relationship as much as an abuse of institutional power.
Marissa’s question implied that since police are endowed with the power of the state, only a power equal to, or greater than, the state can challenge them when they misuse it. The police chief’s instruction to “let a grown up know what’s going on so they can take action” missed the point of her question. Her question implied that the grownups she knew were powerless to stop incidents like what we witnessed in Minneapolis. How could she believe otherwise when the police abusing George Floyd wouldn’t cease even after becoming aware that cameras were recording them? Furthermore, how could Marissa trust that a request for police to take action against other officers would be effective, given that not one of the four officers involved in Floyd’s death did anything to stop it? Or after seeing the viral video of Kenosha, Wisconsin, police shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back?
Many white Christians insist that better relationships can solve racism in America, that racism is a matter of the heart rather than institutional power. These white Christians will say, “We aren’t called to transform institutions. We can’t eliminate racism by legislating it away. We must engage in evangelistic efforts to change hearts and minds. Only then can reconciliation happen.” But none of these answers recognizes the societal power imbalances between black and white Christians, imbalances that lead white people to view black people as needing white charity. And never do white Christians ask black Christians: Do black Christians want reconciliation?
So-called “racial reconciliation” is primarily a white Christian attempt to remedy the tension in American race relations. But from a black perspective, racism is not so much interpersonal as institutional. White Christians want to eliminate the tension between them and black Christians, while black people want to eradicate the inequality and experience the freedom to live as full citizens of this nation.
White Christians will quote Martin Luther King Jr. out of context and appeal to his dream of colorblindness, life “in a nation where [children] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” White Christians revel in the dream that one day “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Meanwhile, black folks keep the context for King’s dream by noting how his famous words were delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King began with the words, “the Negro still is not free,” and ended with preaching the soaring line “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
The focus on relationships to the exclusion of freedom as the goal of racial justice in America is an egregious omission. “Relationships” are an inadequate response to the indignities black and brown people experience as a consequence of living with this nation’s metaphorical knees on their necks. If relationships are inadequate, then what must be done to ensure that this nation, in all of its institutions, fulfills its promise that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? White Americans must begin recognizing the right questions about how to rectify the pervasive imbalances in economic, political, and institutional power between racial groups in America.
Recognition requires advocating for restitution, which, scripturally speaking, includes repentance from the sin of racism and compensation for harms suffered, with interest (Lev. 6:1–7; Ex. 22:1–31; Num. 5:6–7; Luke 19:1–10). There can be no true liberty if white Americans refuse to recognize the harms caused by racist policies and practices—and the ways their communities have benefitted from them. Without restitution for debts incurred by those harms, attempts to reconcile communities only sanctify racial inequities. That’s because no reform of the structures that caused the harm occurs. Communities only cease to participate in unjust behaviors that they acknowledge as unjust. A community that refuses to make restitution for harm done will never be a community of liberty and justice for all. And because liberty and justice are as much the currency of churches as are grace and faith, churches are as responsible for making restitution as secular institutions.
White Christians can begin taking responsibility as congregations and denominations by following Kwame Ture’s advice to ask the right questions:
How have we benefitted from the racial status quo in America?
What structures have we intentionally, or unintentionally, created to uphold racial power inequities?
What actions could we take to make restitution?
By addressing the right questions of institutional power, white churches can join in prayers, rallies, and marches with communities throughout the world protesting racism in America. In so doing, they can move beyond relational answers to racial inequality and into the work of recognition and restitution.
David Evans is associate professor of history and intercultural studies at Eastern Mennonite University.
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