A cherished friend—a religiously unaffiliated but morally earnest young white woman who recently completed her first year at a prestigious American university, where she majors in Astrophysics—recently wrote to me to tell me that, in light of George Floyd’s murder, she is making every effort she can to educate herself about the dynamics and the reality of racism and white privilege, so that she can do her part to effect lasting and positive change. She shared with me a list of the books she’s reading this summer, and asked me my opinion of her efforts. She even asked me to tell her of my own experiences as a black man who has grown up and grown middle-aged in America. It was not in any way an impertinent request. She and I had often enough in the past discussed, in a much more general way, how to understand our common human predicament in a properly “integral” or “holistic” way; it was always probably a natural next step for us to broach the topic of the very particular predicament that only some of us must endure.
In any event, below, in a slightly redacted form, is the letter I wrote back to her—which, with her enthusiastic permission (mindful that I would maintain her anonymity) I reproduce here. It remains very much a personal letter in tone and form, and for that I ask pardon in advance. But, for just that reason perhaps, it also says more than an impersonal essay might have done. After all, genuine friendship—one bridging differences in sex, age, race, religion, family origin, socioeconomic background, etc.—bears in itself the seed of a comprehensive solution to the problems that challenge us all today.
So good to hear from you and to know that you and your family are safe and healthy! I’m also happy you were able to get your first year—perhaps the most challenging year in college—“on the books.”
I’m doing well, and my closest family members are also safe and sound (TBTG). As for my response to the recent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, among other things, I’ve been in dialogue and sharing my experiences with a pastor and his church community, whom I’ve come to know through their Zoom services. Indeed, what I’ve discovered is that taking a spiritual approach to matters of racial justice can make its pursuit either more difficult, or much simpler—depending on the group or person with whom one is in dialogue.
As you know, some of the most stubborn supporters of racial injustice, white supremacy, and white privilege are persons who call themselves Christians. Why, I just read an article by a Christian who claimed that “anti-racism” (as he called it) is the “new American religion,” as if it’s a threat to, or in competition with, Christianity. Moreover, he couldn’t understand why African Americans, who are killed more frequently by other African Americans than by police, seem to get far more upset by the latter.
Needless to say, J., only someone resting on white privilege could come up with such nonsense. I won’t even address the idea of an “anti-racism religion,” since that’s the kind of nonsense that only an unenlightened white intellectual (or, if a person of color, then only a self-hating and deluded one) could dream up. As for the author’s second argument, however, I will address it since it’s such a popular line with closeted racists.
Needless to say, our good Christian author fails to mention that within any demographic, those who are murdered tend to be so mostly by other members of that same demographic. Why? Because most murderers and their victims know each other or live in the same communities. Therefore, it’s not only the case that blacks are more likely to be killed by other blacks than by the police; it is also true that whites are far more likely to be killed by other whites than by the police (or, indeed, than by blacks).
Of course, this isn’t the point; this isn’t why African Americans tend to be more upset by police killings than by killings arising from within our communities. The answer should be obvious: society empowers police forces with special authority precisely so as to enforce our laws, especially the laws against killing innocent human beings. We have police forces so that we rank-and-file citizens won’t have to take the law into our own hands, and so that we all won’t have to go around with guns and other weapons, defending ourselves and our families from known and unknown threats to life, liberty, and property (in that order).
Now, what if the police forces, whom I, as a citizen—along with you and other citizens—have empowered especially to enforce the laws that we have made and to protect all the people, should themselves turn out to be violators of the law: destroyers of human life and liberty, and sometimes even property? I think it’s obvious this is something much more egregiously evil (and systemic) than the wickedness of a common killer. After all, when the police murder, they do so “under the veil of the law”; they don’t just commit a terrible crime, but they abuse the public trust. They violate their oath to “serve and protect” us—all of us, including African Americans, including me—which is the reason for which they were granted special powers and authority to begin with.
And the fact is that African Americans, whose population remains a mere fraction of white Americans’ (the white population is approximately five times larger than the black population), are killed by police at a much higher rate than whites. In fact, black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers in the course of a police intervention, even for the same infractions, and far too many of these killings are wholly unjustified. (If whites were being killed by the police at this rate, they’d be upset, too—and much more so, if they knew that the rate for other races were considerably lower.) In other words, it seems that, overall, police killing of blacks (and other forms of police brutality)—along with the overall unfairness of the criminal justice system towards African Americans (more later…see the links below)—is an openly racist form of state suppression and control of African American populations. Nor is it alarmist or irrational to see that the ultimate goal and logic of this suppression and control is to disrupt and destroy African American families and communities, thereby keeping blacks in political, legal, educational, economic, domestic, psychological, and spiritual distress, and maintaining the status quo of white supremacy.
Anyway, I have attached a list of links below to aid you in your explorations of these issues.
Let me, though, shift topic somewhat and try to explain why a proper approach to spirituality makes the quest for racial justice much easier: at the end of the day, the notion of equal dignity, like justice, is a spiritual concept. It can’t be derived, ultimately, from a materialistic worldview. It’s useless to try.
From a materialistic standpoint, human beings, like all living things, are not equal. True, all the old racialist claims that there are general inequalities of general competency and “fitness” are statistical fictions and ideological lies. But between any two individuals there are countless kinds of advantage one might enjoy over the other, or powers that one might possess and the other lack. Some are stronger, faster, smarter, more fertile, more immune to disease, more efficient at converting food into energy, less susceptible to mortal injury, and have access to more and better resources than others.
Indeed, in the world of nature, the strong dominate the weak, and that’s all there is to it. And while there are many instances of “intra- and inter-species cooperation” built into the natural order of things, all this is determined by genetics, epigenetics, and instinct. Otherwise, competition, conflict, and violence prevail—“nature, red in tooth and claw,” as Alfred Lord Tennyson famously said.
If, therefore, there is indeed such a concept as “equality of dignity and rights”—such that each individual is equal to every other; women are equal to men; black persons and brown persons are equal to white persons; homosexuals (gays and lesbians), bisexuals and asexuals are equal to heterosexuals (straights); the poor are equal to the wealthy; unbelievers are equal to believers; the governed are equal to the governors; the workers are equal to the capitalists; singles, the divorced, and the widowed are equal to the married; children (pre-born and born), the (physically and mentally) challenged, the sick, and the elderly are equal to healthy adults in their prime; the so-called “impure” are equal to the so-called “pure”; etc.—this isn’t something that’s derived from the material (the quantitative) or even the intellectual (the qualitative) ingredients of different persons, since these all differ from one person to the next.
The single element within humanity that makes us all equal is, of course, the human spirit, or the soul. Without implicit belief in such a concept, it’s well nigh impossible to assert and demonstrate the notion of “equal dignity and rights,” a notion so many of us (even many materialists) hold dear.
Now, for genuinely and consciously spiritual and religious people—not those Christians, Muslims, Jews, Neo-Vedantists, Buddhists, Bahá’ís and others who merely give lip-service to spirituality and religion—this notion of “equal dignity and rights” comes naturally (albeit, not necessarily without interior struggle), since we hold it as a matter of faith. It’s part of the overall worldview—the vision—that we share. For persons of faith, the notion of “equal dignity and rights” is a (spiritual) law of human nature. It’s as real to believers as are gravity, electro-magnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces (which operate by physical laws in material nature or matter) to those who study quantum physics and cosmology.
Therefore, when I’m sharing my African American experience with, say, white persons of genuine faith—and I mean genuine—I’m always received with openness, joy, and love (even if they recognize within themselves a need for deeper conversion), because they implicitly grasp that my demand, namely, that my equal dignity and rights, be “real-ized” in day-to-day life. It isn’t merely a matter concerning “political correctness” or just “getting along,” much less “political expediency.” On the contrary, they grasp that my demand is simply a matter of Truth, Truth that is universal.
I don’t have (first) to “prove,” through philosophical argument or scientific experiment, that I’m equal, or “earn” equality through force, to prevail with a person of genuine faith. For such a person, I am equal; like them, like everyone, I am created “in the image and likeness of God,” and I am therefore a “child of God”—no ifs, ands or buts. For persons of faith, then, the only question is this: How can we, together, “real-ize” everyone’s equal dignity and rights most efficiently, effectively, and lovingly, given the specific strengths and weaknesses of the persons near whom, and the society in which we live? In any case, J., it’s so wonderful to hear from you! Please, always (and at your leisure—no pressure) keep in touch. And may God deeply bless you, your family, your studies, and your future career. As I’ve said to you so many times in the past, I know you’re destined to do great things…and you’re already doing them.
I’m amazed by all the reading you’re doing on racism and white privilege, J.! Please pardon me if I add a few things to your list. What follows are a few links to various articles. Much of the information contained therein is similar to what you’ll find in the books on your reading list, including information about the question of “dismantling” or “defunding” the police. What I like about the articles, though, is that they’re brief and easily transmitted to others, via text, email, or Facebook (among several other forms of social media). So feel free to read, forward, and post away!
As for this next link, J., I know you’re sensitive to the problem of “white centering.” (Indeed, your messages indicate this.) Nevertheless, if I may be so bold, I’m sending this to you—assuming you haven’t already read it or something like it—to help you better articulate your sensitivity, and to help you help others.
Alfred D. Turnipseed is an African American Orthodox Christian whose primary avocation is religious education. A beloved brother, uncle, and father to one terrific cat, he lives in South Bend, Indiana.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.