“Two God-fearing men”
Some words will not let you go.
I’ve been repeating those words and wondering what one phrase has to do with the other.
On Feb. 23, two white men, Gregory and Travis McMichael, murdered Ahmaud Arbery, a black man jogging in a largely white neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia.
Only after a rampant rise in public fervor over two months later were the McMichaels arrested. A fundraising website to seek “justice” for the McMichaels described them as “two God-fearing men.”
“Two God-fearing men”
As I’ve tried to think of some way to honor Arbery that didn’t seem arbitrary, shallow and short-lived, I’ve kept coming back to those two phrases.
I’ve wondered to myself, “On what planet can those two men be called ‘God-fearing’? Which God do they worship? Not mine!”
And yet, the more I thought about it, white supremacy is a sort of religion in our day, a toxic stew of worldview, identity, practices and mythology that provides ultimate meaning for many.
What is that if not a religion?
I don’t think the McMichaels woke up that morning and thought, “Let’s go kill someone,” but I do know they live in the same country I do.
And I’ve been reminded again of the pervasive ways in which white supremacy continues to shape the logos, pathos and ethos of this country.
You can call it “conditioning.” You can call it “training” or “teaching.”
But because we’re using divine language, I prefer to call it “catechesis,” or religious education. The shaping of the soul. The teaching of a macro-narrative that gives meaning to our micro-lives.
The god of white supremacy trains people to see the world through the lens of the white gaze. He is often worshipped at the altar of patriotism. He seeks to dominate and terrify through power and control.
When he has his way, the result is white exaltation and black degradation. His priests are politicians, preachers and pundits who proclaim liturgies of white superiority and black expendability, often in coded language.
The same white gaze looking upon Ahmaud Arbery and saw him as someone suspicious and “lesser” is the same white gaze that looks upon predominately black schools and calls them suspicious and “bad.”
The same gaze looks upon black neighborhoods and calls them “ghettos.” The same gaze looks upon the black working poor and calls them “welfare queens.”
We are fooling ourselves if we don’t see these demeaning phrases as liturgies sung at the altar of white supremacy, spoken in the hopes of receiving the white “amen.”
These words condition people, and these untruths create fantasies that are no more than utter fictions but they become fixed and unalterable realities in some people’s minds.
The reality behind our eyes shapes the reality we see before them. It’s the subtle catechism of white supremacy.
The same white gaze that looked upon Ahmaud Arbery and saw him as someone “suspicious” is the same white gaze that cloaks the criminalization of being black with the jargon of a “war on drugs.”
If slavery was an unjust institution, what shall we say about a criminal justice system that has imprisoned more black men today than were enslaved at the beginning of the civil war, the vast majority of them for nonviolent offenses?
And if one is morally opposed to lynchings, how can one support capital punishment when one overlays the map of lynchings with the map of states that continue to support capital punishment?
Let me save you some work; they are essentially the exact same map. Think there’s some correlation?
The demonstrable racial bias that exists should render capital punishment unjust and immoral, even if one isn’t convinced of its immorality at an existential level.
Our criminal justice system at nearly every level is stacked against black lives. It’s the subtle catechism of white supremacy.
Those who have been taught well at the foot of white supremacy can’t hear the words “Black Lives Matter” without reflexively responding with “All Lives Matter,” thereby erasing the uniquely black experience in this country.
The catechized ones are those who say, “I don’t see color.” They are often baffled when someone brings up race, saying, “What does this have to do with race? Nothing!”
Catechesis has been completed when its graduates are so immersed in its doctrine they can’t even see it any longer.
The liturgy of white supremacy keeps telling the “bootstrap myth,” which convinces people we are only what we make of ourselves. In this view, wealth is always a virtue and poverty intrinsically a vice.
Of course, this myth ignores the long years in our country’s history when cotton production made us the wealthiest nation on earth.
Who did the work and who profited from the money in those days? Who pulled the bootstraps and who got the boots? Did the labor market have anything to do with that illimitable surplus?
White supremacy rolls its eyes at any talk of reparations – a proper form of repentance – because it can’t summon enough truthfulness to see the need for it. The bootstrap myth provides proper cover.
This worldview also feeds the prevailing notion that if Arbery was somehow stealing something or trespassing, then it merited his death – as if white property was of more value than black lives.
The conditioning of white supremacy shrugs at the reality that black people receive unjustly disproportionate health care in this country.
Any attempt to remedy that injustice is met with the all-too-predictable charge of “socialism” or “communism,” a charge leveled against Martin Luther King Jr. himself.
The priests of white supremacy teach that any notion of “the common good” is communism in disguise and to be avoided at all costs.
They teach that life happens in a strictly individualistic manner, which then frees them to blame black people for the struggles of blackness.
Rugged individualism is the distorted altar on which black struggle is sacrificed to ease the pain of white guilt.
The sanctuary of white supremacy is lined with statues of its saints, heroes of the Confederacy that dot the city squares all over the south. Every day, black Americans walk by these monuments.
To question the appropriateness of the monuments is sacrosanct indeed, because doing so threatens to unveil the propaganda of our past and the falsities that seek to shape our future.
You can tell a great deal about a people by the saints they esteem and seek to emulate.
Preston Clegg is pastor of Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas.