Moving from Words to Action after Charlottesville
Michael P. Jaycox
A few weeks ago, my family made a trip to Virginia. Although the purpose of our trip was to attend a funeral, we had an extra day to visit Thomas Jefferson’s plantation before returning home. While taking the “Slavery at Monticello” tour, the tour guide informed us that Jefferson freed only seven out of the 600+ persons he had enslaved, most of whom were biologically related to him as a result of his having raped Sally Hemings. Someone asked the tour guide whether Jefferson had the legal power to free all the persons he had enslaved, in addition to those who were his own children. The guide confirmed that Jefferson did have this legal power, but she was interrupted by several other tourists, all white men, who rushed to Jefferson’s defense, offering various reasons why freeing all of them simply would not have been practical at the time. It was an infuriating interruption, but hardly surprising. White supremacy takes a long time to die.
We visited Monticello on Thursday, August 10, while in the valley below members of several white supremacist groups were preparing to commit domestic terrorism under the pretense of free speech on Friday and Saturday. Many other individuals and groups were descending upon Charlottesville to counter-protest the so-called “Unite the Right” rally, joining students and faculty of the University of Virginia, local organizers, activists, and clergy (Catholic clergy notably were not present). Local activist Tanesha Hudson succinctly summarized the systemic issue behind these events: “This is the face of supremacy. This is what we deal with every day, being African-American, and this has always been the reality of Charlottesville. You can’t stand in one corner in this city and not look at the master sitting on top of Monticello. He looks down on us. He’s been looking down on this city for God knows how long. This is Charlottesville.”
In response to these realities, four members of the group Ethicists Without Borders authored a statement condemning white supremacy and racism in unequivocal terms and invited other Christian theological ethicists to sign. The invitation was intentionally limited because of an undeniable awareness that white supremacy is a Christian problem, a system of racial domination that white Christians created, and which Christian theological ethicists among others are responsible for dismantling. The statement not only condemns white supremacy, it invites its signatories and readers to resist this evil with action. In particular, the statement calls theological ethicists to resist white supremacist evil by infusing our teaching and our writing with political resistance.
I have learned from my involvement with anti-racism organizations that professional educators, who occupy positions of relative power in our respective institutions, have a “gatekeeping” role. We have some control over access to valuable resources, among them the critical thinking skills imparted by a liberal arts education and our selves as educators of, allies in, and collaborators for the common good. Many of us already share these resources with our students. The statement more specifically asks that we direct these resources toward exposing and dismantling white supremacy and racism for the common good.
One way to expose and dismantle, for example, is to avoid the temptation to act as neutral debate facilitators in our ethics classrooms. Not every ethical issue has two sides to be taken up by equally well-informed disputants in an ideal universe; our pedagogy should discourage perceptions that there might be. Educators cannot afford to abrogate our moral authority and the power it confers on us by failing to stand on the side of racial justice in public, partial, and explicit ways. By invoking this civic authority, we also empower our students to do the same. If we allow false moral equivalence to reign unchecked, as Marcia Chatelain warns, we risk creating more “little Richard Spencers,” the mouthpiece for the “Unite the Right” rally.
Moreover, we must be clear with our students that ethics is no mere intellectual exercise in taking this or that position on an issue. Traci Blackmon reminds us that doing ethics necessarily includes the risk of placing your body in the street to support or dissent from specific laws and policies, depending on whether they erode or maintain white supremacy. While it is necessary and good to counter-protest rallies organized by open white supremacists, such counter-protest is not sufficient in view of Jefferson, “the master sitting on top of Monticello.” We must also continue to organize against the broader social system of white supremacy at the federal, state, and local level, clearly maintained and expanding under Republican politicians. These politicians may wear respectable business suits instead of white hoods, but the policy agenda of Trump, Ryan, McConnell, and company on everything from health care to taxes, maintains white supremacy and imperils black lives.
Finally, as a white person raised in and working now to dismantle white supremacy, I want to encourage other white people, as oppressors who continue to benefit from this structural violence, to recommit ourselves to the struggle against this system. I want to remind us as well of pitfalls. For example, when media images and videos of white supremacists circulate, the psychological pressure to create distance that repositions us as “the good white people” is very high. As Maureen O’Connell cautions, Catholic ethicists might be particularly prone to assume that we can undo our own socialization into white supremacy. But individual white moral progress is not the point of anti-racism work; the point is dismantling the white supremacist system. This social goal must continue to be the collective purpose of our work in solidarity with persons of color. In the meantime, grace and sin will coexist in uncomfortable tension as we work for this common good.