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The Invisible Protection of Whiteness

The social reality for the southern Negro community was perceived as full of danger. The threat of death for Negroes, young and old, who did not comport themselves in accord with the prevailing codes of conduct of Jim Crow segregation.  The full force of the law or white racial animosity was a likely response to a perceived form of misbehavior by a Negro. . . . The accused  in general, and a Black person in particular, can suffer violence from a mob, officers of law enforcement, and even at the hands of those who already have been accused, convicted, and imprisoned.

– Rev. Theodore  Lockhart,  But for These: A Memoir of Helpers on My Way to a Cohort of Preachers, Dog Ear Publishing, 2018

That is how my longtime ministerial colleague and contemporary Rev. Ted Lockhart describes growing up poor in the Jim Crow South in his book, But for These.   His survival as a youth in Florida depended on “how to live and cope in a social environment that assaulted your humanity and human dignity and worth as a person.” (Ibid)  A comparison of Rev. Lockhart’s Jim Crow-conditioned upbringing with my white-conditioned nurturing in Pennsylvania provides an introduction to the invisible protection of whiteness.

My big family of ten members was poor, but in our small city of Williamsport, Pa. we still enjoyed the invisible means of access to opportunity in America: our whiteness.  The white-controlled hierarchy of access to political, economic and legal power, in which we were immersed, had so conditioned us that we unconsciously took our white privilege for granted.  Our school teachers were white, as were our clergy, and our political and civic leaders, and the police, and all the merchants as well.  While there were no signs that said, “Whites Only,” few, if any, Negroes were seen at our favorite swimming holes, movie theatres, dance halls, baseball diamonds, and drug store and street corner hangouts. There was no longer any need for segregation laws to control the Negroes’ interactions with us white persons. Everyone was conditioned by the Negroes’ assumed historic subservience and comforted by their comparably small number and lack of visibility.  Most of them lived near the railroad tracks, and “stayed in their place” – except in our public schools where there was structured intermingling.  There was no need of laws to enforce their being second class citizens.

While we were poor, my family was not forced to live near any railroad tracks. During my grade school years in the 1930s, when we did have to move, my father expressed concern that we not live near “Swamp Poodle,” another area in my home town where Negroes lived.  Our moving involved renting another double house, just three blocks from where we had lived – and only a few blocks from where a Negro family lived: the Gibsons.  Layton Gibson, the oldest son, was big and loud and scary.  His brother, Lionel, who was my age, was gentle and friendly.  I wanted to bring Lionel home after school to play, but that wasn’t done in my neighborhood.  And there was Julia, Layton and Lionel’s sister, a year younger than me.  I hated it when my friends would tease me, shouting, “Billy loves Julia!  Billy loves Julia!”  How dare they say that about a person whom I believed was ugly and inferior.  My “white brain-washed “ superiority prevented me from realizing that Julia may have felt the same way about me.

My white privilege conditioning prevented me from seeing the personal slights and political-economic, legal discrimination endured by Negro persons.  No clerk followed my friends and me around in stores, thinking we were going to steal something.  I didn’t have to worry about police stopping me for being in the wrong neighborhood, and, if I said the wrong thing, getting arrested – or worse yet, beaten or shot.  When I went out, my parents did not need to warn me about being cautious and courteous in the same way Negro parents did with their children.  I went freely where Negroes feared or hesitated or were financially unable to go.   In this regard, I obtained considerable financial assistance from the Methodist Church in getting through college, seminary and graduate school.  And along the way, there were no Negroes in my 1954 Methodist seminary graduating class, and I recall only one in my department in  graduate school.

The invisible advantage of whiteness is still very real today, and the police play a key role in enforcing that reality.  While their job is to protect and serve everyone, often their primary role in communities of color is to occupy and control black and brown persons. They are paid to monitor and put down the fall- out from the white status quo’s blocking of the mobility and dreams of people of color.

Thus there are risks involved for black persons when they call the police for help.  Civil rights investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones describes the risks in her article, “Yes, Black America Fears the Police.  Here’s Why.”  She writes that “calling the police . . . carried the very real possibility of inviting disrespect, even physical harm.”  She states, “We have seen witnesses treated like suspects, and knew how quickly black people calling the police for help could wind up cuffed in the back seat of a squad car.”  Their experience led her and her black friends not to think to call the police when shots were fired during a Long Island picnic, with no one was hurt and the shooter vanishing.  She explains: “We feared what could happen if police came rushing into a group of people who, by virtue of our skin color, might be mistaken for suspects.”  (Ibid)

“This was before Michael Brown,” journalist Hannah-Jones continues.  “Before police killed John Crawford III for carrying a BB gun in a Walmart or shot down 12-year-old Tamar Rice in a Cleveland Park. Before Akai Gurley was killed by an officer while walking in a dark staircase and before Eric Garner was choked to death upon suspicion of selling ‘loosies.’ “ (Ibid)

This also was before the shooting death of 17-year-old unarmed black youth, Anton Rose.  Obviously fearing police, he fled on foot when a car in which he was a passenger was stopped by police.  A white police officer, who was later acquitted, shot him “three times – in his back, face and elbow.”  The policeman’s acquittal sparked protests in Pittsburgh. (“Anton Rose Shooting: White Police Officer Acquitted in Death of Black Teenager,” By Adeel Hassan, The New York Times, March 22. 2019)

One of journalist Hannah-Jones’s key points: “We are not criminals because we are black.”  But that is not how black people are perceived by many police.  She explains: ”Black people often see police as the face of larger systems of inequality in the justice system, employment, education and housing.”  To substantiate her point, she quotes historian Khalil Gibran Mohammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness, who writes, ” ‘Policing is ‘the most enduring aspect of the struggle for civil rights.  . . . It has always been the mechanism for racial surveillance and control.’ ” Hannah-Jones concludes: “Black communities often face higher rates of crime and thus want good relationships with law enforcement.  But that is not likely,” she says “until the U.S. finds a way to address the history of using the police as a tool to reinforce systems of racial inequity.” (“Yes, Black Americans Fear the Police.  Here’s Why,” Ibid)

The equating of blackness with criminality contains a double-edged sword. Black people not only face danger when they call the police for assistance.  They face even more danger when white people call the police on them. Daniel Victor’s New York Times piece, “When White People Call the Police on Black People,” makes this point.  He provides six cases, within just a month, where white persons called police  to confront black people who were minding their own business.  One was a black Yale graduate student, Lolade Siyonbola, who fell asleep in a dorm parlor after intense study.  When a woman, who lived in the dorm, turned on the light and saw her sleeping, she called the police.  “Several officers” reportedly “arrived, and Ms. Siyonbola showed them the key to her apartment and ID.”(May 11, 2018)

Another instance is that of two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, sitting in Starbucks, waiting for a business partner.  An employee called the police when they refused to leave.  This incident led Starbucks to close all its stores and “to give 175,000 employees anti-bias training.” (Ibid)  It will take a lot of anti-bias training to become aware of and undo the historic white-conditioned association of blackness with badness.

Most telling of white fright of and the related threat to black persons is the case of 14-year-old Michigan youth, Brennan Walker who missed his bus and began walking to school.  He got lost, and stopped at a house to ask for directions.  He knocked on the door, and a white woman inside panicked.  “ ‘Why are you trying to break into my house?,’”  he reported her saying.  He tried to explain that he was lost and looking for directions to his high school. As she kept yelling at him, he saw a man come downstairs and grab a gun, and head for the door.  He quickly jumped off the porch and ran for his life, as the man came outside and fired his gun at him.  Brennan “kept running, hid, then cried.” (Black teen misses bus, gets shot at after asking for directions in Rochester Hills,”www.fox2detroit.comApr. 13, 2018)

When I was a young man, while driving in the Pennsylvania countryside, my wife and I ran out of gas and became stranded.  We walked to a home nearby, knocked on the door, and shared our predicament with the white couple inside.  Not only did the husband drive me to a garage to get gas; his wife entertained my wife until we returned.  The invisible advantage of whiteness.  The visible disadvantage of blackness.  To seek to correct that disadvantage is a great threat to whiteness.

Black power movements create great unease in many white persons, who fear losing their dominance and related power.  An example is the Black Lives Matter movement, begun as an “enraged” reaction to the unjust killing of Trayvon Martin, whose killer, self-styled vigilante George Zimmerman, was acquitted, and the unjust killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri policeman Darren Wilson. (see ‘WHAT WE BELIEVE,’ www.blacklivesmatter.com) Deep down these white persons are believed to have an  existential fear of the loss of their dominance and power – and even a fear of white genocide, which in assumed to be a projection of their wishes toward black persons.

Here is actually the fear of black equality, which is seen in white groups springing up in reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement.  Thus we have a Blue Lives Matter movement , which is a pro-police response to Black Lives Matter.  Never mind, as Karen Dolan reports in FORTUNE, that in 2017 the “fire-arm related killings of police officers  declined from 2016,” with “2017 mark[ing] one of the safest years in decades for on-duty police officers.”  Not that Blues lives don’t matter, she states.  “But in our country, black and brown lives have always mattered less, and ‘blue lives’ have always mattered more.”  She continues: “People of color are targeted, criminalized, incarcerated, and killed at rates vastly disproportionate to those of white people who commit the same offenses.” (“These ‘Blue Lives Matter’ Bills Send the Wrong Message on Race and Violence,” May 31, 2018)

There is also the White Lives Matter movement, which the Southern Poverty Law Center states “is a racist response to the civil rights movement Black Lives matter.”  The SPLC quotes Rebecca Barnette, a co-founder of White Lives Matter: “What happens to blacks in this country at the hands of law enforcement is none of our concern . . .other than to prepare to restore order and rebuild our neighborhoods taking back our lands one community at a time.  . . . We guard our town borders and make our homes white and great again.” (WHITE LIVES MATTER,’ www.splcenter.org)

The White Lives Matter movement, as a reaction to Black Lives Matter, reveals the fear of the loss of white entitlement if Black persons gain equality and its power..  The creation of a White Lives Matter movement discloses white people’s denial of their white-favored history, which has sparked the need of a Black Lives Matter movement.

The mentality of the White Lives Matter movement is found in people of faith. In Methodism’s then Southern New England Conference, the lives of the many white Conference ministers mattered more than the lives of the very few black ministers.  In 1971, black ministers were bypassed and a white minister was appointed to Boston’s racially mixed Church of All Nations.  This perceived discriminatory appointment led the Conference’s Black Methodists for Church Renewal to accuse the all-white, appointment-powered, Cabinet (i.e., the Bishop and his five District Superintendents) of discrimination and call for an investigation by the denomination’s national Committee on Religion and Race.

I accepted a request to lead a Conference-wide group of ministers and lay persons in support of the investigation.  Our group joined the Black Methodists for Church Renewal in a successful effort to get a majority of Conference delegates to vote to approve the investigation.  I also taped that racially charged Conference session, and gave it to the national investigating committee.

As the investigation proceeded, Bishop Matthews was replaced in 1972 by a newly elected bishop, who was black, Rev. Edward G. Carroll.  Bishop Carroll’s appointment led a black Conference minister to say to my colleague Rev. Lockhart: “Ted , I think they have just elected a boy to do a man’s job for the work on white racism that needs to be done here in New England.” (BUT FOR THESE)  Lockhart himself was quite involved in the investigation, being Chairman of the Conference Commission on Religion and Race.

In 1973, as the investigation was wrapping up, I performed the gay marriage of two male members of Boston’s Old West Church, where I had been minister for almost eight years.  Bishop Carroll latched on to the gay marriage, writing in his front page “Bishop’s Column” in The Methodist Churchman (official newspaper for New England Methodists, now defunct): “Homosexuality [not the investigation of the Bishop and Cabinet’s alleged racism] is now foremost in the life of” New England Methodism “due to the recent event at Old West Church involving the Rev. Dr. William E. Alberts.”  Never mind that the investigation of alleged racism threatened the appointive power of the Bishop and his Cabinet, the career of Superintendent Barclay who manipulated the appointment process favoring the white minister, and the liberal reputation of the white-controlled Southern New England Conference.

Bishop Carroll and his five white district superintendents developed “eight reasons” why I was “un-appointable” – effectively assassinating my character, which led a majority of Conference ministers to approve the motion that I be forcibly retired.  (For an account of my forced retirement, see Alberts, “Easter Depends on Whistleblowers,” CounterPunch,  March 29, 2013)  Rev. Lockhart writes that “some clergy Conference members viewed that characterization [“homosexuality is now foremost in the life of” New England Methodism]by Bishop Carroll and his Cabinet as a way of subverting the anticipated report to the Conference by the national investigating committee on its findings about racial discrimination in the appointment of a White minister to the Church of All Nations.” (Ibid)

The Conference devoted little time to – and no action was taken against — Superintendent Barclay for the key role he played in the Cabinet’s alleged racism. The General Commission on Religion and Race’s report stated, “. . . So often in our investigation is Rev. Barclay quoted by others as rejecting black candidates and favoring white candidates, we must conclude that Rev. Barclay has no real commitment to appoint a black minister to Morgan Memorial [the Church of All Nations].”  But that’s as far as the investigation went.

The hierarchical uproar over the gay marriage I performed served its distracting purpose. It succeeded because the job security of many United Methodist ministers depends on their conditioned commitment to obey their “superiors in office” – who thus keepmkkk their consciences.  It was not just about Bishop Carroll and his district superintendents.  It is about a hierarchical structure that keeps and corruptsUnited Methodist ministers’ consciences.

A few years after my forced retirement, Bishop Carroll abruptly removed Rev. Lockhart from the church he was serving.   Lockhart was separated from his wife— as was I from mine, which became one of the eight “reasons” Carroll used against me.  As chair of the Conference Commission on Religion and Race, Lockhart himself played a key role in that investigation alleging racism by the former bishop and the same Cabinet of district superintendents Carroll inherited.

I believe my case is an example of the punitive treatment that may befall any white person who challenges the white-favored racial status quo.  I also believe Rev. Carroll was selected for the top position of Bishop in the white-controlled United Methodist Church because of his demonstrated willingness to play a white-expected role in the denomination.  He is an example of white-selected black leaders.  Conversely, black clergy leaders, serving in white-dominated faith groups, pay a severe price when they refuse to allow themselves to be used for the appearance of equity.

Rev. Lockhart and I grew up in opposite worlds.  Mine invisibly protected by my whiteness.  His visibly endangered by his blackness.  The challenge is to experience each other’s humanness, and to humanize the institutions in which we live and work and have our being. Required is the full liberation of black — and white — people from “the womb of oppression” Rev. Lockhart describes in his poem ‘GROWING UP BLACK’ in his book, IN SEARCH OF ROOTS:

Mama says,

It’s not good to say no.

I wondered why.

Mama says,

I want you to be a good boy.

I wondered why.

One day, forgetting, I said,

No because I felt that . . .

But nothing knocks memory like

Washboard bruised knuckles!

Get it out of your head boy,

Or I’ll kill you.

Get it out of your head boy – be good

Or I’ll kill you myself.

 

Crushed I wondered why.

But she, grabbing a voice

Which echoes through a valley of depression

Cried out with a million-voiced choir of Black

Mothers.

“Sometimes I feel like a

Motherless child, a long way from home.”

 

I wondered about that too.

Until wandering into the wider

World of gym, crow and lawns

Stretching for the serene purity

That a white picket fence promises,

And where saplings struggling to become

Trees are stunted, broken, or rooting upward,

I saw a black Man

Mauled like a porky pig.

 

And where his organs were

They swashed with manful strokes

Hands full of turpentine

And faces full of laughter.

Saying, “This will teach you uppity Niggers

Now say no and tell a white man what you feel!

This’ll teach you.”

 

Mama says

It’s not good to say no

I wondered why.

Mama says,

I want you to be a good boy.

I wondered why where saplings

Struggle to become Trees

Are stunted, or broken yet

Rooting in their own ground.

 

Runners of a fierce NO nudging upward

And watered by the hopes of Amen-ing Mothers

Who in crushing us, prayed no paper prayers

But mapped the prayer known only by the Down:

That we would rise up as Heroes

Bursting from the womb of oppression

Giving shape to a great gitting up morning.

 

More articles by:

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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