Needed: more woke white people
Reading "The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future" by Robert P. Jones, Simon & Schuster, 2023 and RCL Advent 1B.
White supremacy is a not just a southern thing. I started Part II of Jones’ book this week. It takes place in and around Duluth, Minnesota and begins with a long account of decades of racist violence. If you decide to read this book, be prepared to weep when you read about the enormity of suffering white people have happily and without scruples visited on Native American and Black people.
I’ve been on my Becoming Anti-Racist camino for six months. Along the way, I have read so many stories like this that I can no longer believe that they are exceptions to the rule of American goodness. I am beginning to think that white supremacy is a more important American value than democracy or “liberty and justice for all.” All of which is to say that my perspective is changing.
Being “woke” is about perspective. Black American folk singer-songwriter Huddie Ledbetter, (a.k.a. Lead Belly,) told Black people to “stay woke” in a 1938 recording about the Scottsboro Boys.1 He was saying that to stay safe, Black people needed to keep the right perspective: the awareness that white people could be wildly dangerous and deadly. The need for that perspective has not changed.
Perhaps the “woke” perspective for a white person is being willing to see what the white world looks like from the perspective of those who are not-white, not-privileged, not trusted, not valued, and frankly just not wanted. Maybe it means understanding that America’s deepest value is upholding the systems and institutions which protect white supremacy.
In Duluth, there were white people who tried to interrupt the racial violence. They tried to put their words and their bodies between the mob and its innocent victims. The problem was there weren’t enough woke white people trying to do that.
In this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus says “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come…” He was right, then and now.
We do not know when or where the next killing mob will arise. But we can work on getting woke now. There are always early signs of trouble. We need to know how to spot them, and understand that they will grow if they are not challenged and thwarted. And we need to know who we can call on for support, because one person, alone, is not enough.