Tuesday, 18 August 2020

James Cone on Silence and White Supremacy

The single best resource I’ve read on racism so far is James H. Cone’s article, ‘Theology’s Great Sin: Silence in the Face of White Supremacy’, Black Theology 2:2 (2004), pp. 139–152. ‘Theology’s Great Sin’ is a challenge to White theologians to ensure that racial issues inform their theologies, no matter their research interests. Moreover, the essay also explores reasons for why White theologians—and by extension, I suppose, White people generally—tend to avoid talking about racial issues or minimise them. Cone makes four observations:

Whites do not talk about racism because they do not have to talk about it. (p. 144)

White theologians avoid racial dialogue because talk about White supremacy arouses deep feelings of guilt. (p. 145)

Whites avoid ‘race’ topics with African Americans . . . because they do not want to engage Black rage. (p. 146)

Whites do not say much about racial justice because they are not prepared for a radical redistribution of wealth and power. (p. 149)

These comments in particular stood out to me:

Though racism inflicts massive suffering, few American theologians have even bothered to address White supremacy as a moral evil and as a radical contradiction of our humanity and religious identities. White theologians and philosophers write numerous articles and books on theodicy, asking why God permits massive suffering, but they hardly ever mention the horrendous crimes Whites have committed against people of color in the modern world. Why do White theologians ignore racism? . . . Shouldn’t they be the first to attack this evil? (p. 142)

It is important to make a distinction between personal prejudices and structural racism. Dealing with people’s personal prejudices should not be the major concern. It is emotionally too exhausting and achieves very little in dismantling racism. I am not very concerned what people think about me as long as their personal prejudices are not institutionalized. The issue is always structural. While I may not get people to like me, it is important that the law prevents them from harming me on the basis of their prejudices. (p. 144)

That the oppressed are sinners too is a very important point to make but often hard to hear, especially when it is made by the oppressor. The ever-present violence in poor communities is at least partly due to the sins of the oppressed. We must never assume that God is on the side of the oppressed because they are sinless but rather because of God’s solidarity with weakness and hurt—the inability of poor people to defend themselves against violent oppressors. (p. 145)

I would not recommend ‘race’ as a topic of conversation during a relaxed social evening of Blacks and Whites. Things could get a little heated and spoil a fun evening. (p. 146)

Blacks invoking the ‘race’ card also make Whites uncomfortable. . . . But Whites should remember that Blacks have the ‘race’ card to play because America dealt it to them. It is not a card that we wanted. (p. 148)

Fighting White supremacy means dismantling White privilege in the society, the churches and in theology. Progressive Whites do not mind talking as long as it does not cost much, as long as the structures of power remain intact. (p. 149)

And finally:

To create an antiracist theology, White theologians must engage the histories, cultures and theologies of people of color. It is not enough to condemn racism. The voices of people of color must be found in your theology. You do not have to agree with their perspectives but you do have to understand them and incorporate their meanings in your theological discourse. This is what Whites almost never do. (p. 151)

The whole essay is worth reading if you can access it somehow.

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