The Unfairness of It All

Social Justice - A Short Definition and History - Michael Owens

God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, 
and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Matthew 5:45

Thirty-four years later, it still traumatizes me to think about it.

It was January, 1986, and I was halfway through my first year of seminary at Southern Methodist University. I'd been encouraged by a professor to attend an event up on "the hill," part of the greater SMU campus we denizens of the "God Quad" rarely visited. Charles King, an African-American activist, was presenting what I thought would be a seminar on civil rights. I learned a lot that night, but not in the rarified academic way I preferred. King was a righteously angry man, and his approach channeled that anger into furious tirades against the injustice that was and is integral to Black life in America. It's hard for me to remember exactly what he said, how he structured his argument, and how I wound up turning it inward upon myself. My memory is that he detailed the through line from the beginnings of African enslavement and running right up to the present reality, both then and now, of underemployment, incarceration, broken families, police brutality, and so much more of the horror that is just part of being an African-American, then pinned the blame squarely on white Americans, and even more squarely on any white Americans who happened to be in attendance that night. And I was accepting that blame, internalizing it, wondering how I could ever look an African-American in the face again.

There was no fairness in this assignment of blame. My immigrant ancestors from Sweden and Germany arrived in America after the Civil War. My Acadian ancestors were refugees who, fleeing Canadian oppression of French Catholics, had settled in New Hampshire. Charles King didn't know this about me--I was just one of several white faces in the crowd that night--and I was not about to challenge him about it. I'm sure I could've stood up and left at any time, though I had the distinct impression that he would've called me out in front of the hundreds of attendees for doing so. But as hard as it was to continue to sit in that ballroom and have this man lump me in with the enslavers and Kluxers I so despised, I didn't want to leave. I felt like I deserved it.

There was nothing rational about this taking on of collective guilt. That early in my ministerial career, I had not yet shed the atonement christology that is still so prevalent in Protestant though--the idea that the crucifixion of Jesus was necessary to appease an angry God who, without that sacrifice, would've been justified in destroying all of Creation for the collective guilt of sinful humans. (Just to be clear: I stopped believing this doctrine within a year of this event.) If Jesus could take on the sins of the whole world to save it from his wrathful Father, then certainly I could assume the collective racial sins of white America. I'd made myself into a scapegoat for four hundred years of genocidal oppression.

This made things awkward for me when I encountered Black classmates or professors. There was a guilt barrier between me and them, and I didn't know how to reach across it to simply reach out to them. I felt like I owed them all a collective apology for everything my side of the color spectrum had done to them. It was four years before I finally had a heart-to-heart with a Black classmate about these feelings. It was the beginning of my last year of seminary, and we were both in a class on missions, taught from a socialist perspective. We were both young fathers, and something in that day's lecture had led us to commiserate about the difficulty of raising children in such a turbulent world. It was a good conversation, and I felt the time was right to broach the topic of that traumatic night up on the Hill. He listened attentively and, when I finished my story, shook his head sadly. "That was not helpful," he said. "It could've been done much more gently." I felt the burden lighten then: perhaps I could have friendships with African-Americans that weren't awash in my guilt for being white.

It's been thirty years since that conversation. The harsh reality Charles King exposed me to has not vanished. American persons of color still suffer from America's original sin, no more clearly than in the undeniably racist abuses of police officers across the United States. The presence of an unapologetically overt racist in the Oval Office has inflamed wounds that had, under his predecessor, begun to at least scab over, empowering racists to come out of the woodwork in places long considered strongholds of progressivism. I'm glad to see so many people who look like me finally coming to the cause, and the tide seeming to begin to turn in a way that gives me hope for a future, however distant, that is post-racism; but we clearly have far to go.

Back to the fairness question: I was not raised to be a racist. My father's parents were New Deal Democrats who worked for racial equity both as missionaries in China and as progressive university educators in the United States. My father and his siblings spent their lives working for a better, more inclusive America. I didn't grow up in privilege--my father's profession of Methodist ministry ruled that out--and had to earn my own way through college, graduate school, and seminary, studying first to be a music teacher, then a minister. And yet, I've certainly benefited from the privilege I never chose for myself. I've been pulled over for a variety of reasons over the years, but only once given a ticket by a traffic cop. I've deserved far more, but looking into the car and seeing a neatly-dressed white man, they've all (except that one time when I was 26 and driving a beat-up jalopy)--even the less friendly ones--let me go with a warning. That I deserved far more tickets than that is borne out by the several I've had this decade from traffic cameras: robots, it seems, don't make exceptions for middle-aged white guys.

That's the one obvious way I know I've benefited from being white. I'm sure there are plenty of others I'm just not aware of: the ease with which I've always been able to find an apartment or rental house, to shop unscrutinized by store security, to walk through a downtown area. I didn't ask for these privileges. Much to the contrary, I'm appalled at their existence. But there is no escaping the reality that people who look like me created this system over the course of centuries of murderous oppression, and today people who look like me are fighting tooth and nail (and pistol and rifle) to hang onto it.

These defenders of white supremacy are growing increasingly desperate. Their president is tweeting his way into a humiliating box office defeat. Their far more progressive children and grandchildren are becoming increasingly estranged from their views, and are now publicly allying themselves with movements like Black Lives Matter. The question is no longer whether the system will change, but how many lives will be lost in the process. The movement remains nonviolent, though it has radical elements who are not afraid to punch some racist faces. While some police departments have reacted disproportionately with riot gear, tear gas, and military vehicles, others have reined in their response. Sensing that they may not have the police backing they expect, some die-hard white supremacists have begun brandishing their guns in public and driving cars into crowds. Property damage seems to be the extent to which most protestors are willing to go: monuments to any historical figure whose biography features slavery, genocide, or enacting racist policies have been defaced and toppled.

I'm looking at this as a time of correction. The scales of justice have been overwhelmingly tipped in favor of white people for far too long. It stands to reason that evening them out will inconvenience some of us who've benefited from the imbalance. We may even feel some small hint of the unfairness our Black and Brown neighbors have down for hundreds of years. Some of us will complain loudly about it. Most will just grumble.

Hopefully, some of us will say, "It's about time!" And it is. White Europeans have been working for five hundred years to make North America a haven for white Europeans. The project has been successful beyond their wildest dreams. It's come at a high cost to the lives of people who aren't white or European. Correcting this imbalance can't help but hurt. But looked at over the course of half a millennium of injustice, it seems eminently fair.


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