Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas’ Convention Address: Being Church in These Dividing Times

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Being Church in These Dividing Times

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas [1]

We all know the numbers, but it is good to be reminded of them. As reported by the Sentencing Project, “African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males. Given current trends, the report continues, one of every three African American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino males—compared to one of every seventeen white males. When we look at the numbers by states, they are even more startling. Again, taken from the Sentencing Project, African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites. In five states (Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin), the disparity is more than 10 to 1. In twelve states, more than half of the prison population is African American with my state of Maryland topping the nation with a 72% African American prison population.

Within the state prison systems Latinx Americans are imprisoned at a rate that is 1.4 times the rate of whites. The disparity of Latinx Americans to whites is particularly high in states such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New York, where it the ratio to whites is 3-4 times to 1.

The numbers are just as disconcerting when it comes to women. For while there are many more men are in prison than women, again quoting the sentencing project “the rate of growth for female imprisonment has outpaced men by more than 50% between 1980 and 2014.” Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%. In 2014, the imprisonment rate for African American women was twice that of white women while Hispanic women was 1.4 times that of white women.

Even more disconcerting is what has become known as a school to prison pipeline. This pipeline is evident in the racially disproportionate rates of school suspensions and juvenile sentencing. According to recent Department of Education data black males are three times more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended from school, while black girls are six times more likely than their white counterparts. In fact, black girls are the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system, perhaps reflecting the particular vulnerability of black girls given the intersectional realities of gender and race. In fact, a recent study by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality found that adults view black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5-14 perhaps accounting for the fact that black girls are disciplined much more often and more severely than their white peers both in schools and within the juvenile justice system. It is interesting to note that while black boys are often viewed as older and criminalized by the age of 10 unlike their white counterparts, this is taking place at a much earlier age for black girls.

There is an even more disconcerting manifestation of this racialized cycle of violence (which I will say more about later), and that has to do with the disproportionate numbers of children of color who live in poverty. According to the reports from the Children’s Defense Fund, one in three black children and more than one in four Latino/a children were poor in 2015, compared to one in eight white children. Nearly one in six black children and one in nine Latino/a children were living in extreme poverty, compared to one in 17 white children. More than one in three black children under age 5 were poor; one in five were extremely poor.

In short, what we find in our country is that black and brown bodies are trapped in life-defying realities from poverty to incarceration, to death. Moreover, that these realities continue with little or no outcry, and certainly without public outrage, tell us something about this time of division that our nation now faces. For the point of the matter is, this division is about more than cultural wars or political differences, rather is about who are and want to be as a nation, as a people—as most significantly as people of faith. The question we as people of faith must ask is what does it mean to be a church that is a people committed to the “Jesus Movement,” in this current time in our nation. In order to answer this question, we must first recognize speak the truth regarding the division we now face as a nation, as a people.  Such truth telling begins with recognizing how narratives of white supremacy and anti-blackness have come together in such a way to bring us to where we are today as a nation as they make various assaults upon black and brown lives inevitable if not acceptable. And worse yet, both corrupt our very sacred humanity thus distorting if not betraying our very relationship with God. Put simply, the more that we are indeed consumed with, complicit and controlled by the supremacy of whiteness and the narrative of anti-blackness then our very spirituality is at stake, that is, our relationship to God and thus to one another. And so, this morning in the brief time before me I want to examine these two narratives, before turning to the implications for who we are as church and people of god.  Let me first turn to the narrative of anti-blackness. What is it all about? Where did it come from?

Anti-Blackness: A Narrative of Violence

The narrative of anti-blackness became most palpable with Europeans’ earliest incursions into the African continent. While ancient Greek and Roman scholars were certainly a chauvinistic people when it came to their appraisal of their own people’s body aesthetic, there is little evidence that color prejudice was integral in their thought or culture. Even as the Greeks described the African’s as “burnt people,” this description did not imply a stigma of color. Rather it pointed to their belief concerning the impact living close to the sun had on a people’s pigmentation. In the main, the reality of color prejudice is of Western origination, coming into full relief with the earliest European encounters with Africa.

While the belief that Africans were meant to be slaves was prevalent prior to European encroachments upon the African continent, an anti-black narrative was not as apparent until their arrival. For as historian Winthrop Jordan says, “one of the fairest-skinned nations [the English] suddenly came face to face with one of the darkest peoples on the earth.”[2] The color difference was so “arresting” that these early European “explorers” of Africa made little of African people’s diverse skin tones. Instead, they typically described them all as “blacke.”

Whether describing Africans as black was initially done with purposeful malicious intent is debatable, what is clear is that skin-color mattered to the Europeans in their encounters with a people seemingly starkly different from themselves. Furthermore, black was not a benign signifier. No less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary had already established whiteness as a sign of innocence, purity and goodness while blackness signified vileness, danger and evil. As far apart as the English complexion was from the African, the meaning of whiteness was from blackness. Consequently, to describe the Africans as black insured that the Eurocentric color-defined gaze would not remain innocent, if it ever was. It was only the beginning of an anti-blackness that provided the aesthetic justification for the enslavement and other violent acts against the bodies of “black” men and women.

As crucial as skin color was, it was not the only physical feature that astonished these early white intruders, and soon to be pillagers of Africa; and thus, not the only aspect of the anti-black narrative. Europeans also noted, with ominous condescension, the fullness of the African’s lips, the broadness of their noses and the texture of their hair. It soon became very clear that there was more at play than just a shocked realization of how diverse human creation was. In the European imagination, the Africans’ physiognomy signaled a genetic difference. When coupled with the dissimilarity of dress and customs, not to speak of religions, the European interlopers became convinced that the “blackness” of the Africans was more than skin deep. They believed it penetrated through to the very character and soul (which some Europeans claimed Africans did not possess) of the people, thereby signaling a people who were so thoroughly uncivilized that they were more beastly than human.

That Africans were likened to beasts was consequential. This beastly descriptor implied not simply that they were wild and uncivilized but also hyper-sexualized. As Jordan points out, the terms “beastial and beastly” carried with them sexual connotations. Thus, when an Englishman described the Africans as beastly “he was frequently as much registering a sense of sexual shock as describing swinish manners . . .  “[3] The similarities that the Europeans registered between the Africans and the “apes,” more specifically orangutans, gave way to further insinuations concerning the African’s sexual habits. The unfortunate circumstance was that the Europeans first encounter with the orangutans coincided with their first encounter with the people of Africans. Hence, they were just as startled by these animals’ similarities to humans as they were by what they considered the Africans “sub-human” qualities. It required, therefore, a small leap in the European imagination to conceive of an inherent connection between the African “apes” and the African people. Once such a tie was forged, it was an even easier leap of logic for the Europeans to assume as Jordan remarks “a beastly copulation or conjuncture” between the two species.[4] By crafting such an indecent link, again as pointed out by Jordan, Europeans were able to “give vent to their feelings that Negroes [Africans] were a lewd, lascivious and wanton people.”[5] It was in this way that “blackness” came to signal a people who were grossly uncivilized and dangerously hyper-sexualized.

That the early European encroachers onto the African continent, Africans only fortified the notion that African men and women were dangerous.  If nothing else, it was clear to the white interlopers that these were a people who needed to be patrolled and controlled given their dissolute character and “beastly” disposition.

Now before we go further one thing must be made clear. This narrative of anti-blackness is in and of itself violent. It is a narrative that negates the very humanity of a people; therefore, it is inherently violent. Any ideology or system of thought that objectifies another human being must be understood as violent. Furthermore, such a system of thought initiates a cycle of violence in which the oppressed, in this instance black bodies, become entrapped. In short, the narrative of anti-blackness spawns a multi-dimensional cycle of violence against black bodies. This brings us to the centrality of this narrative to the American identity and its interaction with whiteness in America.

The anti-black narrative arrived in America with the Puritans and Pilgrims. When America’s Pilgrim and Puritan forebears fled England in search of freedom, they believed themselves descendants of an ancient Anglo-Saxon people, “free from the taint of intermarriages,”[6] who uniquely possessed high moral values and an “instinctive love for freedom.”[7] Fueled by this myth 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. As such, America was envisioned as a testament to the sacredness of Anglo-Saxon character and values, if not people. American exceptionalism was Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism. In this regard, to be an Anglo-Saxon was the measure of what it meant to be an American. American identity was equated with Anglo-Saxon identity. In order to safeguard America’s mythic Anglo-Saxon vision and sense of self a pervasive culture of whiteness was born.  Essentially, whiteness became the perfect way to mask the fact that America was an immigrant nation with migrants—even from Europe—who were not actually Anglo-Saxon.

The elevation of whiteness was inevitable since —as noted earlier—whiteness had come to signify purity and moral innocence, a skin-tone therefore befitting exceptional Anglo-Saxons. Invariably, therefore, whiteness forged an impregnable wall between America’s myth of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism and that which might compromise it— such as those persons on the other side of whiteness.  Hence white culture, with an anti-black narrative as its defining feature, was born. For, there was nothing that opposed whiteness more than blackness—not only in color but also in what it signified about a people. To reiterate, blackness signified a lewd, dangerous and immoral people while whiteness signaled a chaste, innocent and virtuous people. In the words of legal scholar Cheryl I. Harris, “The amalgamation of various European strains into an American identity [that is Anglo-Saxon identity] was facilitated by an oppositional definition of black as other.”[8] It is this oppositionality between whiteness and blackness that forms the basis of white supremacist ideology. With the emergence of a white supremacist ideology two things become clear. First, perhaps stating the obvious, the ideology of white supremacy depends upon the narrative of anti-blackness since the notion of white superiority rests on the idea of black inferiority.  Second, whiteness itself must be regarded as a violent identity construct inasmuch as it is defined in denigrating opposition to that which is non-white, notably blackness. This brings us back to the fact of white culture. To reiterate, if America’s mythic Anglo-Saxon/white identity was to be protected, then blackness had to be repelled at all costs, and this is the job of white culture.

white culture in its various manifestations is that which perpetuates the idea of white superiority and—especially through its legal and extra-legal expressions—helps whiteness to stand its ground against any corrupting or threatening intrusions into the white Anglo-Saxon space—like black bodies. In this regard, there is no getting around it, anti-black violence—is in America’s DNA.

Anti-Blackness and the Black Female Body

Now before I say more I must point out the unique bearing this narrative of anti-blackness had upon black women, form the earliest beginnings, helping us to understand the roots of the study mentioned earlier concerning the negative perception of black girls. For, the European gaze was not only shaped by color, but also by gender. Thus, it involved a racialized standard of beauty that indicated whether or not one was a “proper woman.” The visage of a beautiful woman in the English mind was well established during the Elizabethan period, with the Queen serving as the perfect exemplar of it.

Once again, this aesthetic assessment was not benign when it came to black women in America—especially given the enslaved realities of their lives.  As far away as black women were from the standard of “white” beauty, they were also from the standard of femininity and what it meant to be a “lady.” As is well documented, black women became the perfect foil to white women.  While white women were considered virginal, pure Angels in need of protection, black women were considered wanton, lascivious Jezebels in need of controlling.

With this said, it is important to understand the profoundly violent reality of the narrative of anti-blackness and its centrality to American identity in our contemporary social-political and cultural context, and that must begin with the “Make America Great Again” Reality of Donald Trump.

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. 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 with it’s concomitant narrative of anti-blackness that protects it.  Moreover, 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 we saw in Charlottesville should come as no surprise, neither should Donald Trump’s refusal to unapologetically and unambiguously denounce the violence that is white supremacy and religious bigotry. Far from rejecting the white supremacists/anti-black groups and their violent ideologies Mr. Trump has emboldened them with a “birtherism” crusade along with racist, Islamophobic and xenophobic campaign rhetoric which set the foundation for 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 and anti-blackness, thereby making various expressions of white supremacist violence predictable if not inevitable.  To be sure, the politics of Donald Trump and white supremacist 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—which brings us to the way in which he specifically carries forth the narrative of anti-blackness.

In a June 2013 tweet, Donald Trump said it is, “the overwhelming amount of violent crimes in our major cities is committed by black and Hispanics, a tough subject.”  He of course doubled down on his version of reality as he continually repeated some version of it in his observation concerning American inner cities. You will recall his saying, “African- Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.”

It has become clear that in Trump’s view, “the African-Americans” and “the Latinos,” as he often refers to us, are synonymous with crime and therefore are these people are the problem.” So again, it is no wonder that we are witnessing a resurgence of bigoted violence, or for that matter presidential calls for bans, orders and policies that prevent “certain” peoples from enjoying the full rights and privileges of citizenship.

The “Make America Great Again” politics of Donald Trump notwithstanding, we must recognize that something perhaps even more insidious has occurred for the unsuspecting good people who sit in our pews.

The anti-black narrative that is central to America’s collective identity has insinuated itself into the collective American consciousness. Consequently, it has successfully implanted deep with the American psyche the image of the black body as a dangerously criminal body and an ever- present threat to whiteness. Numerous studies show this to be the case. They reveal that when white people, in particular, see a black body, they see a criminal. Indeed these studies reveal an almost “automatic, unconscious” responses to black bodies as if those bodies are threatening or criminal in and of themselves. In this same line, there are various other ways in which a narrative of anti-blackness shows up, perhaps unwittingly, such as in white America’s responses to protest. For instance, according to a recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 67 percent of white Americans believe protesting against the government’s unfair practices are good for the nation. However, when asked the same question, but specifically about protests led by black people, that number dropped to 48 percent.

The point of the matter is, that as long as the violent narrative of anti-blackness is a decisive aspect of America’s Anglo-Saxon identity, then black bodies will be disproportionately impacted by denigrating and deadly violence and never given the full privileges of citizenship let alone the respect for being human.

To reiterate, the narrative of anti-blackness is violent as their sole purpose is the denigration and dehumanization of black people, and those who are regarded as black by a narrative of white supremacy. And so, what are we as people of God, as church, to do about it? This brings us to the cross.

The cross represents power that denigrates human bodies, destroys life, and preys on the most vulnerable in society. As the cross is defeated, so too is that power. In God’s resurrection of Jesus, God defeated the cross through non-violent, life-affirming force. It cannot be stressed enough that God’s resurrecting power is one that by definition respects the sacred integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is significant in two ways as we reflect upon the violence that violates black lives.

black feminist literary artist and social critic Audre Lorde once said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”[9] What the crucifixion–resurrection event reveals is that God does not use the master’s tools. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself. As Lorde suggests, using “the master’s tools” may bring a temporary solution, but it does not bring an end to the culture of deadly violence itself. As such, “only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.”[10] This implies, therefore, that the only way to defeat violent power is with non-violent means.

There is no doubt that the cross reflects the depth and scope of human violence. The cross, in this respect, represents the consuming violence of the world. It points to a world that is saturated with violence. This violence includes not simply the physical brutality meant to harm bodies, but also the systems, structures, narratives, and constructs that do harm, including the narrative of anti-blackness and the systems and structures it fosters in conjunction with the narrative of white supremacy. To reiterate, anything that would devalue the life of another is violent. Through Jesus, God enters into this world of violence, yet does not take violence into God’s very self. Thus, God responds to the violence of the world not in an eye-for-an-eye manner. Instead, God responds in a way that negates and denounces the violence that perverts and demeans the integrity of human lives. God accomplishes this by affirming life, as seen in the very resurrection of Jesus. Essentially, God responds to the violence of the cross—the violence of the world— in a nonviolent yet forceful manner that is life-affirming. Put simply, the protest of Jesus was one that affirmed through word and ministry the life of those that the violent systems and structures of his day disavowed. In this regard, God’s non-violence is not passive. Rather, it is a forceful response that protects the integrity of one’s sacred humanity and thus life. Again, this is clear as one recognizes that Jesus was crucified because of his active resistance to the violent political and religious powers and structures of his time that trapped certain people in violent, hence crucifying, realities of living. Essentially, while violence, like narratives of anti-blackness and white supremacy seek to denigrate and do harm to the bodies of people, nonviolence seeks to free bodies from denigrating and deadly violence. Not resorting to violence breaks the very cycle of violence itself. It is in this way that the crucifixion-resurrection event reflects nothing less than a counter-narrative to the crucifying narrative of violence. This brings us to this matter of narratives.

Anti-Blackness and the Matter of Black Lives

Even as people must consistently resist and dismantle the systems and structures that serve to protect the myth of Anglo-Saxon (white) exceptionalism, something just as essential must be done to counter the various narratives of violence against brown and black bodies. That is, there must be actual counter-narratives that affirms the value of brown and black people. These narratives must disrupt the collective consciousness of America—especially white America—if black and brown bodies are ever be truly free from the various violent  manifestations of  America’s whiteness and anti-blackness. And this is where our churches and faith communities must take the lead. If indeed we are people of the cross, then we must show forth the counter-narrative that is the cross in our very realities of being church. In this regard, the refrain blacklivesmatter is just as significant as the movement’s active protest against the systemic and structural violence perpetrated against black bodies. For the refrain itself offers a direct counter-narrative to a narrative of anti-blackness as it loudly affirms the sacred value of black lives. So in the end, it is essential that the blacklivesmatter refrain be consistently repeated in the public square.

But there are other ways that we in our churches can disrupt the white narrative of supremacy that degrades black and other non-white bodies. Such disruption begins with what paying attention to the worship and fabric in our churches. We must pay attention to the color of the sacred images that fill our churches. In this regard, we must realize that brown and black Christ belongs not simply in black and Latinx churches. They most especially belong in white churches. The sacred images and icons of God that fill our churches must point to a God who is understood only through the diversity of God’s creation. If we are to know God, we must experience that God through the fullness of God’s richly diverse human creation—that is through all those who bear God’s image. Moreover, if we are going to counter those images that demonize and degrade black bodies, then we must put forth images that reveal them as sacred—hence again the images and icons within our churches must be bathed in more than whiteness. At the same time, we must be vigilant in our churches regarding the stories we read to our children. What do the characters in our Sunday school books look like? A recent study showed that of 3200 children’s books published in the United States in 2015 only 14 percent had black, Latino, Asian, or Native American main characters. This can’t be the case in the books we introduce our children to in our churches, let alone in our homes if ever we are to disrupt the narratives of anti-blackness and white supremacy. The role of churches in this regard becomes even more important when we realize that according to another recent study fully three-quarters (75%) of white Americans report that the network of people with whom they discuss important matters is entirely white, with no minority presence, while 15% report having a more racially mixed social network. Bottom-line is that the formation of the kind of spirituality that fosters sacred regard for those who are not white and counters the violent narratives of anti-blackness and white supremacy begins with cross-cultural/racial engagement that emphasizes the sacredness of black bodies thus making the connections between black bodies and God, showing them as revelatory indeed of God. Inasmuch as a lack of cross-cultural/racial literacy and engagement promotes narratives of violence—and it does—then such a lack is anti-God, which further means that a church that does not promote cross cultural literacy, respect and appreciation is the same.

In the final analysis, we as communities of faith, as church, are to follow the way in our time that lead Jesus to the cross. This means in all that we are and do recognizing and actively resisting the narratives of anti-blackness and white supremacy as they are manifest in our society and churches at the same time that we proactively work to build a world where each and every human being is treated as the sacred child of God that they are.

 

 

ENDNOTES:

[1]  This talk is excerpted from Kelly Brown Douglas, “More Than Skin Deep: The Violence of Anti-Blackness” in Vincent W. Lloyd and Andrew Prevot, editors, Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2017), 3-18.

[2] Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: Universioty of North Carolina Press, `1968), 6.

[3] Jordan, White over Black, 33.

[4] Ibid., 31.

[5] Ibid., 32.

[6] Tacitus, Germania,  Medieval Sourcebook, http://www.fordham.edu

[7] Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny:The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge:MA: Havard University Press, 1981),26.

[8] Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property, Harvard Law Review, 106, no. 8 (June 1993):1742.

[9] Audre Lorde, “the Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” in Sister Outsider:Essays and Speeches (Berklely, CA: Crossing Press 2007), 110.

[10] Ibid., 110-13

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