A Lesson in Privilege


(Spectrumbot) #1

Although I read his opening statement the night before, I actually forgot that Michael Cohen was testifying to Congress yesterday. I only remembered as I saw the tweets come through on social media. I then, like many others, listened and watched the drama unfold for several hours before other responsibilities demanded that I turn my attention elsewhere. My feelings about the current executive administration are no secret in this forum. I am hoping against hope that yesterday’s testimony is an important step in political accountability for the occupant of the Oval Office.[1] Despite all this, I do not find much of yesterday’s political theater shocking. If anything about it is shocking, it is that someone connected to the occupant of the White House said out loud what has been painfully obvious to millions of Americans since before 2016.

Considering all of that, I do not think there is much to discuss about the main event yesterday, at least not much that is useful to us in this space. However, there is a small vignette from yesterday’s testimony that can be instructive to us as Adventists about an issue that still besets and confounds us – racism. In Cohen’s opening statement, he concluded, supported by anecdotal evidence, that Donald Trump is a racist. To rebut this presumption, Rep. Mark Meadows presented Lynne Patton, a Black women who works for the Trump administration, and posited that she would never work for someone who she thought was a racist. But she works for Trump. Later in the testimony, Rep. Rashida Tlaib challenged Rep. Meadows rebuttal, stating that bringing out a Black person as a “prop” to prove that someone is not a racist was a racist act in itself.[2] Rep. Meadows, angered by the characterization, hurled the accusation that it was racist of Rep. Tlaib to bring up race the way she did, and then argued that he was not a racist in part because "his nieces and nephews are people of color.” I believe we can learn some lessons about racism from this vignette in the middle of Cohen’s testimony –

1. Someone can do something that is racist without being a racist – Rep. Tlaib dealt with this issue in her comments, but I wanted to highlight it. Rep. Meadows jumped to the erroneous conclusion that Rep. Tlaib was calling him a racist when she was only arguing that he engaged in a racist act. What was the racist act? First, the thought that trotting out one person was sufficient to rebut the point. Second, the act of muting that Black person, of not giving her the respect and agency of using her own voice, falls in line with the racist history in this country – silencing people of color and using them as props for an argument that benefits the White person, whose voice is free, clear, and unencumbered.[3] The point that we don’t often want to deal with is that racism is baked into our society in so many different ways that a person does not have to be explicitly racist in order to activate the racist machinery. Our country, politically, socially, and economically was founded on racist beliefs and principles. And while we have done some work to break that machinery, that work is not complete.[4]

2. Proximity to people of color does not absolve any White person of the possibility of racism - I don’t know if Rep. Meadows is a racist. (I am perfectly willing to assume he is not.) What I do know is the fact that he has a nephew and niece who are people of color tells me absolutely nothing about his racism or lack thereof. Did you know that White people lived in close quarters with African-Americans on the same land for their entire lives and still managed to be racist? Did you know that White slave-owners had children of color and still somehow stayed racist? This also addresses the flawed logic of Rep. Meadows’ defense of Trump. Because Rep. Meadows can find one Black person to say Trump isn’t a racist does not necessarily mean anything.[5] White racists often can name one (if not several) Black people that they know, like, are friendly with, respect, etc. There is even a name for this concept- the exceptional Negro.[6]

3. The entire spectacle is emblematic of the privileges of Whiteness – There are several elements of this vignette that raise the specter of White privilege. The presentation of a silent Black woman as a defense against racism. The use of friends and family members of color as a shield against racism. Using an accusation of racism to shut down a racial critique. Each of these elements of this conversation are signs of a privilege that allowed this particular White person to not have to critically engage with the perception and consequences of his actions and how those actions align with our racist past and present. I realize that privilege is a touchy subject for many White people (as it should be quite frankly) but it is a necessary subject of conversation if any real racial progress is to continue to be made.[7] There is a potential reality where Rep. Meadows carefully considered Rep. Tlaib’s critique and responded in a posture of humility and graciousness.[8] Instead he responded in a way that reasserted his inherent advantages and created a frustrating and hostile environment.

What can American Adventists learn from this situation? We exist in a church that still struggles with a legacy of racism and a present in which racism still rears its head. I attended the Seminary at Andrews University a little over a decade ago and experienced racism from people who I assume are now leading congregations. From time to time we wrestle with our racist past and with our current segregated structure (both culturally and systemically). I myself continue to wrestle with the question of the best way forward. But when I look at why we are the way we are, and why so little has changed, I see some the problems raised by this brief moment during the Cohen testimony. In our church, efforts to reconcile on the issue of race were stymied by the paternalistic attitudes of White Adventists who wanted to use their privilege to dictate the terms of the discussion. Brotherhood and the proximity of the races was used to paper over racial issues. The voices of Black members were silenced, their criticisms ignored. This church cannot truly heal on this issue until we are willing to really listen to those who have been and continue to be hurt by racism in this church – without assumption, presumption, or accusation, and with a spirit to really hear and address the pain that racism has and continues to cause.

[1] Though the pessimist and cynic in me doubts it. If the last 3 years taught us anything, it is that you can be an explicit racist, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic person and still ascend to the highest political office in the land. If that can happen, I don’t know what would be necessary to bring that person down.

[2] Rep. Tlaib’s characterization of Ms. Hutton as a prop stems from the fact that Ms. Hutton was not called by Rep. Meadows to speak or give any sort of statement or testimony on her own behalf. Rep. Meadows instead told us what she thought while she stood silently behind him until he was done talking.

[3] Seriously though, what purpose did Ms. Patton’s physical presence serve other than as a prop? She said nothing. She could have given a written statement to be entered into the record and it would’ve had more force than her silent attendance.

[4] I want to give an example of what I mean here, but I don’t want to belabor the piece proper. Donald Trump is a racist. There is ample evidence of this. There was ample evidence of his racist beliefs in his campaign. A vote for him was a vote that suborned his racism – a racist act. That does not make everyone who voted for Trump a racist. There were plenty of reasons to vote for Trump that had nothing to do with his racism. The problem is that those who voted for him did not find his racism disqualifying. It is important for me to note at this juncture that the inverse is also true here. In the same way that a racist act doesn’t make you a racist, doing a good thing for a Black person or Black people does not mean you’re not a racist (in case you were wondering what I think about the argument that Black unemployment is low). Finally I should note there are other examples I could give (college admissions, job placement, judicial bias, etc.), but those explanations are too complex for this space.

[5] To be fair, I’m sure that we can find many Black people who think Trump isn’t a racist. The problem is that you can find many more who think he is.

[6] I have personal experience with this concept. My level of achievement has led more than a few White people to say that I was not like “those other Black people.” I once even had a legislative official tell me and another Black male student in the middle of a presentation that men of our level of achievement were “an endangered species.”

[7] Whether through willful obtuseness or objective ignorance, many seem to misunderstand the concept of White privilege. I find that the simplest way to think about it is not necessarily by thinking about it as inherent advantage but rather as the obstacles that the privileged group never even thinks of considering. So it is not necessarily that every White person has some inherent advantage, but rather that there are impediments to success for Black people that White people never even have to consider.

[8] I have been clear in this space before about how groups with privilege of some sort should respond to members of groups that experience disadvantages based on group membership.

Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.

Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/jason-hines

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9448

#2

Interesting assessment, thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jason. Amazing that you were able to watch the staged event beyond 15 minutes… kudos!
My initial response is to cite Thomas Sowell: _The word “racism” is like ketchup. It can be put on practically anything – and demanding evidence makes you a “racist.”_


(Patrick Travis) #3

Jason,
All some of us ask for is fair play with the “exact same standards” used for all.
I realize you don’t t like Trump and made it quite clear before and after the election.
There was a chorus here of those who called him a facist and a the titles Hillary used against Trump supporters.
So now we are to hang on every word of Cohen’s, a proven liar under oath whose sentence was reduced to 3 yrs. From potential 70 for cooperation .
You know, “privilege” isn’t always bad. Often it is the results of families staying together and working for years to help their kids. I’ll accept that privilege as an honor and the means for the uplifting of society as a general principle.
I suggest there was nothing really new yesterday but still waiting for that proof of collusion…you know how they legitimized the special counsel. Not a carte blanche to open dirty laundry.


(Robert King) #4

The last refuge of a scoundrel is to label someone a racist, after they have completely failed in the arena of ideas to win the argument. The saying little men have little ways is on display here.


(JRStovall) #5

Interesting that a lawyer ‘lied’ to protect his client, self admitted, and now his former client will use that, along with clients friends, to try and discredit what ever the lawyer says.
I have seen this movie way to many times!


#6

Maybe it would be a good idea to hear what the so called “prop” has to say…

On Thursday, Patton appeared on Fox & Friends and asked why the congresswoman took the word of a “self-confessed perjurer and criminally convicted white man,” in reference to Cohen, over a black female.

“So to me, that would be my question, that’s more racist than being put up there as a quote, unquote prop,” Patton said. “Trump has time and time again done so much for the black community and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Patton told Fox & Friends that she attended the hearing to be there as a representative of Trump and disagreed with Cohen’s comment that the president was racist.

“The president does not see color, race, creed, religion. What he sees is success and failure and whether that manifests itself as a person, a place, a property, a restaurant, a TV show, a policy, you know, a country, a community, he makes no differentiation,” Patton said. “So, to me, that is what makes people uncomfortable, is that he doesn’t care what people think, and he will tell it like it is.”


(Steve Mga) #7

Paul –
Calling someone a “racist” is a SURE WAY to cut off ALL Conversation.
Especially when Conversation could lead to a productive interchange of thoughts.


#8

Patton is certainly entitled to her opinion. Unfortunately, there is no statement from her. Oddly, she was paraded into the hearing but given no voice to speak for herself by the one who introduced her.

I wonder about all those rental applications that Trump’s rental office placed a “C” on for “Colored” and refused to rent to people of color. A code to discriminate, basically. Maybe Lynn Patton’s family didn’t apply for one of the Trump family’s properties. Or maybe they did and never knew about “the code.”

You can read about the government’s discrimination case (1973) here:


#9

What did you just read? Oh, you mean because she didn’t speak at the hearing? is that what you meant? Did you read the whole article?


(Robert Lindbeck) #10

Some time after Sth Africa elected their first black President, they set up the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission in an attempt to bridge the gap between black and white. This involved people from both sides of the divide coming forward to confess what they had done. They were able to do this without retribution. I don’t know if this included forgiveness for acts such as murder or capital crimes.
In Australia it took decades for the white politicians to say “Sorry” for the way the government of the day treated the Stolen Generation. Land rights have also been a big issue. Much of the delay was the fear of “retribution” (Physical, Legal or Financial). If you take away the fear of retribution you get a greater atmosphere of openness and forgiveness.
God does not call us to seek revenge or retribution for past wrongs, He asks that we forgive and forgive, even if there is no remorse. If Elder Wilson wants to be known as the leader who brought unity to the Adventist church he could do a lot worse than to set up a Reconciliation Commision. He should also be the first person to testify, saying “Sorry” for any acts of racism by the organisation. The forum would then be available for others to testify individually. Past differences, regardless of the un/stated policy of the time, could be redress in an atmosphere of openness and foregiveness, without fear of retribution.
As a white person, it is hard to see white privelage because I don’t always see the obstacles others have. It is hard to walk in their shoes because even if I put myself in the place of others, I get treated differently. All I can do is to treat others as I would like to be treated.


( Duncan) #13

It stinks that this forum has become a political column.


(ROBIN VANDERMOLEN) #14

Donald Trump has done more for racial minorities than any other prior president.

He has, through enticing companies back to USA by tax breaks, and encouraging small companies to expand by reducing onerous regulations, created the best job market in history.

Black unemployment, and Hispanic unemployment have been reduced to the lowest rates in history.

Also teenage and young people’s unemployment are at historic lows, —-only good for young blacks and young Latinos!

Food stamp usage is way down, so are poverty levels. .

The Democrats who have controlled the big inner city black ghettos of Chicago, Baltimore, Washington DC, Detroit for decades, have allowed these inner city slums to fester without improvement .or amelioration of living conditions. Why do blacks continue to vote for the Democratic Party when this party only exploits them?.

The murder rate in Chicago, controlled by a Democrats for sixty years is a travesty, with ZERO effort to control it by the Democratic City Council.

The public schools, controlled by the heavily Democratic Party Teachers Union, has an abysmal, appalling, awful literacy rate among high school graduates. The Teachers Union fights tooth and nail to
prevent the Republican Party mandate of school vouchers. These vouchers would allow parents to choose FREE schooling for their children in private, parochial and yes even ADVENTIST Academies!
Surely the literacy achievements of the black graduates from our SDA academies are hugely better than those graduating from the Democratically controlled public schools?

Let us not forget that the KKK, their lynching, their Jim Crow laws, their Governor Wallace standing in the school house door, were all members of the Democratic Party,

It was Lincoln and the Republican Party that freed the slaves!

The one huge factor in improving the lives of minorities is to give them good jobs.! Wage / salary growth is also showing upward trends.
Also to allow their children to graduate with acceptable literacy rates and math scores, this permitting future lucrative career choices!

What is so RACIST about this???


(James J Londis) #15

My “agreement” was a mistake. Please ignore.


(James ) #16

So Bud Duncan, why we should not talk about politics in these columns? How will Adventists teach of the politics of Moses in Egypt, Jesus trial, the 3 Hebrew boys, Daniel and the lion’s den and the coming mark of the Beast? It will involve politics. You will be asked to testify probably in congress why you are defying the Earth Beast. What will you say during your testimony? We better know world politics well. The whole Adventist world should know the politics of the Beasts because as an Adventists you will have to explain and defend and teach others worldwide what you believe and one day soon even to the President or Congress concerning the Earth Beast (Revelation 13), the image and mark of the beast and why we won’t bow to the Beast. Got Testimony? See Revelation 13.


(Cfowler) #17

You can remove the “heart”, indicating that you liked something, by just clicking on the heart again. It will remove your original “agreement”.


(James J Londis) #18

Not working for me. Sorry.


(Patrick Travis) #19

Put you reading glases on James and push the number and heart and it should show your initial then press the heart again. :slight_smile:


(Cfowler) #20

Maybe there is a time frame for doing this. I can’t remove my heart on some things that are even less than 24 hours old. I thought it work anytime, but I guess it’s only for a period of time shortly after doing it. I know you can remove it, if done fairly soon after clicking it originally.


#21

The privilege of being white is that there is no excuse for not succeeding. It makes it tough as a white person to fail having only yourself to blame. When I fail I cannot blame the system or other racial groups for my failure. Likewise when I succeed I take it as a matter of course that as a white it is only the expected norm and that it was a rigged game and that all I had to do is show up and play the part. Makes me wonder why all those poor whites on welfare and food stamps living in squalor haven’t succeeded. Of course we know that this is not true and that in America we are all rewarded according to our own efforts and accomplishments. Blacks from every country in Africa and the Caribbean are doing whatever they can to get into the gates of the Promised Land America because they know Trump was right when he defined their countries as SH’s. I am so sick and tired of the whole concept of White Privilege when what we should all be thankful for is American Privilege. The only job I will never be qualified for is to be a diversity officer at an Adventist University.


(Patrick Travis) #22

Thanks for the parody.:slight_smile:
What is amazing is that some feel that America is what it is because of pushing a button in a cosmic selection machine and it appears on the grocery shelves without the faintest idea of what went into it. I suggest America is what it is because of divine grace, republicanism and protestantism, (de Tocqueville) family units and hard work. Is it perfect, NO! Nor, any other nation and history! Its demise when among other deconstructions the public can vote itself the purse. It has been a priviledge to be born here, thank you Lord!