A Lesson in Privilege

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Published:
February 28, 2019

Although I read his opening statement the night before, I actually forgot that Michael Cohen was testifying to Congress yesterday. I only remembered as I saw the tweets come through on social media. I then, like many others, listened and watched the drama unfold for several hours before other responsibilities demanded that I turn my attention elsewhere. My feelings about the current executive administration are no secret in this forum. I am hoping against hope that yesterday’s testimony is an important step in political accountability for the occupant of the Oval Office.[1] Despite all this, I do not find much of yesterday’s political theater shocking. If anything about it is shocking, it is that someone connected to the occupant of the White House said out loud what has been painfully obvious to millions of Americans since before 2016.

Considering all of that, I do not think there is much to discuss about the main event yesterday, at least not much that is useful to us in this space. However, there is a small vignette from yesterday’s testimony that can be instructive to us as Adventists about an issue that still besets and confounds us – racism. In Cohen’s opening statement, he concluded, supported by anecdotal evidence, that Donald Trump is a racist. To rebut this presumption, Rep. Mark Meadows presented Lynne Patton, a Black women who works for the Trump administration, and posited that she would never work for someone who she thought was a racist. But she works for Trump. Later in the testimony, Rep. Rashida Tlaib challenged Rep. Meadows rebuttal, stating that bringing out a Black person as a “prop” to prove that someone is not a racist was a racist act in itself.[2] Rep. Meadows, angered by the characterization, hurled the accusation that it was racist of Rep. Tlaib to bring up race the way she did, and then argued that he was not a racist in part because "his nieces and nephews are people of color.” I believe we can learn some lessons about racism from this vignette in the middle of Cohen’s testimony –

1. Someone can do something that is racist without being a racist – Rep. Tlaib dealt with this issue in her comments, but I wanted to highlight it. Rep. Meadows jumped to the erroneous conclusion that Rep. Tlaib was calling him a racist when she was only arguing that he engaged in a racist act. What was the racist act? First, the thought that trotting out one person was sufficient to rebut the point. Second, the act of muting that Black person, of not giving her the respect and agency of using her own voice, falls in line with the racist history in this country – silencing people of color and using them as props for an argument that benefits the White person, whose voice is free, clear, and unencumbered.[3] The point that we don’t often want to deal with is that racism is baked into our society in so many different ways that a person does not have to be explicitly racist in order to activate the racist machinery. Our country, politically, socially, and economically was founded on racist beliefs and principles. And while we have done some work to break that machinery, that work is not complete.[4]

2. Proximity to people of color does not absolve any White person of the possibility of racism - I don’t know if Rep. Meadows is a racist. (I am perfectly willing to assume he is not.) What I do know is the fact that he has a nephew and niece who are people of color tells me absolutely nothing about his racism or lack thereof. Did you know that White people lived in close quarters with African-Americans on the same land for their entire lives and still managed to be racist? Did you know that White slave-owners had children of color and still somehow stayed racist? This also addresses the flawed logic of Rep. Meadows’ defense of Trump. Because Rep. Meadows can find one Black person to say Trump isn’t a racist does not necessarily mean anything.[5] White racists often can name one (if not several) Black people that they know, like, are friendly with, respect, etc. There is even a name for this concept- the exceptional Negro.[6]

3. The entire spectacle is emblematic of the privileges of Whiteness – There are several elements of this vignette that raise the specter of White privilege. The presentation of a silent Black woman as a defense against racism. The use of friends and family members of color as a shield against racism. Using an accusation of racism to shut down a racial critique. Each of these elements of this conversation are signs of a privilege that allowed this particular White person to not have to critically engage with the perception and consequences of his actions and how those actions align with our racist past and present. I realize that privilege is a touchy subject for many White people (as it should be quite frankly) but it is a necessary subject of conversation if any real racial progress is to continue to be made.[7] There is a potential reality where Rep. Meadows carefully considered Rep. Tlaib’s critique and responded in a posture of humility and graciousness.[8] Instead he responded in a way that reasserted his inherent advantages and created a frustrating and hostile environment.

What can American Adventists learn from this situation? We exist in a church that still struggles with a legacy of racism and a present in which racism still rears its head. I attended the Seminary at Andrews University a little over a decade ago and experienced racism from people who I assume are now leading congregations. From time to time we wrestle with our racist past and with our current segregated structure (both culturally and systemically). I myself continue to wrestle with the question of the best way forward. But when I look at why we are the way we are, and why so little has changed, I see some the problems raised by this brief moment during the Cohen testimony. In our church, efforts to reconcile on the issue of race were stymied by the paternalistic attitudes of White Adventists who wanted to use their privilege to dictate the terms of the discussion. Brotherhood and the proximity of the races was used to paper over racial issues. The voices of Black members were silenced, their criticisms ignored. This church cannot truly heal on this issue until we are willing to really listen to those who have been and continue to be hurt by racism in this church – without assumption, presumption, or accusation, and with a spirit to really hear and address the pain that racism has and continues to cause.

 

[1] Though the pessimist and cynic in me doubts it. If the last 3 years taught us anything, it is that you can be an explicit racist, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic person and still ascend to the highest political office in the land. If that can happen, I don’t know what would be necessary to bring that person down.

[2] Rep. Tlaib’s characterization of Ms. Hutton as a prop stems from the fact that Ms. Hutton was not called by Rep. Meadows to speak or give any sort of statement or testimony on her own behalf. Rep. Meadows instead told us what she thought while she stood silently behind him until he was done talking.

[3] Seriously though, what purpose did Ms. Patton’s physical presence serve other than as a prop? She said nothing. She could have given a written statement to be entered into the record and it would’ve had more force than her silent attendance.

[4] I want to give an example of what I mean here, but I don’t want to belabor the piece proper. Donald Trump is a racist. There is ample evidence of this. There was ample evidence of his racist beliefs in his campaign. A vote for him was a vote that suborned his racism – a racist act. That does not make everyone who voted for Trump a racist. There were plenty of reasons to vote for Trump that had nothing to do with his racism. The problem is that those who voted for him did not find his racism disqualifying. It is important for me to note at this juncture that the inverse is also true here. In the same way that a racist act doesn’t make you a racist, doing a good thing for a Black person or Black people does not mean you’re not a racist (in case you were wondering what I think about the argument that Black unemployment is low). Finally I should note there are other examples I could give (college admissions, job placement, judicial bias, etc.), but those explanations are too complex for this space.

[5] To be fair, I’m sure that we can find many Black people who think Trump isn’t a racist. The problem is that you can find many more who think he is.

[6] I have personal experience with this concept. My level of achievement has led more than a few White people to say that I was not like “those other Black people.” I once even had a legislative official tell me and another Black male student in the middle of a presentation that men of our level of achievement were “an endangered species.”

[7] Whether through willful obtuseness or objective ignorance, many seem to misunderstand the concept of White privilege. I find that the simplest way to think about it is not necessarily by thinking about it as inherent advantage but rather as the obstacles that the privileged group never even thinks of considering. So it is not necessarily that every White person has some inherent advantage, but rather that there are impediments to success for Black people that White people never even have to consider.

[8] I have been clear in this space before about how groups with privilege of some sort should respond to members of groups that experience disadvantages based on group membership.

 

Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.

Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/jason-hines 

 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

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