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“The Gospel of liberation is
bad news to all oppressors
because they have defined
their “freedom” in terms of
slavery of others.”
– James H. Cone
In the many weeks since the Zero Tolerance Immigration bill has gone into effect, I have devoted some time, between contacting my senators and congressman, into more fully researching the politics and historiography of whiteness, the radical theology of Jesus and the historical framework of Immigration Policy in the United States.
While, perhaps for some, these components may not seem interrelated, I have found it both exceedingly informative and critical to investigate their interconnectedness. Indeed, it is plausible to suggest that recent zero tolerance immigration policy is the direct production of policies and ideologies developed and fostered over time.
This is not to argue that the current administration has not fostered a culture which, perhaps, made this policy more likely. While this is certainly true, it is equally important, if not more so, to consider how we got herein order to discern how to act.
First, it is helpful to provide a brief history of Racism and Immigration Law within the last two centuries. This timeline is located to the left and is by no means comprehensive.
For a larger image of the timeline, click here.
For a more complete timeline from the Racial Justice Equity Organization, click here.
As I began to investigate the complicated yet interconnected history of religion, politics and whiteness in America, I couldn’t help but notice the ubiquitous and pervasive theme of Americanized power and privilege asexistentialism. While immigration policies and zero-tolerance sum games are often visible bad actors what remains under-investigated is the ideology and theology of whiteness and how these understandings critically inform the contemporary.
To begin, perhaps it is best to define whiteness as the union of both identity and agency as described by Barbara Fields, Professor of History at Columbia University, paper published in International Labor and Working-Class History, entitled Whiteness, Racism and Identity:
“[R]acism unseats both identity and agency, if identity means sense of self, and agency anything beyond conscious, goal-directed activity, however trivial or ineffectual. The targets of racism do not “make” racism, nor are they free to “negotiate” it, though they may challenge it or its perpetrators and try to navigate the obstacles it places in their way. Even as racism exposes the hollowness of agency and identity, it violates the two-sides-to-every-story expectation of symmetry that Americans are peculiarly attached to. There is no voluntary and affirmative side to racism as far as its victims are concerned, and it has no respect for symmetry at all…. race denotes a state of mind, feeling, or being, rather than a program or patter of action, it radiates a semantic and grammatical ambiguity that helps to restore an appearance of symmetry, particularly with the help of a thimblerig that imperceptibly moves the pea from race to racial identity. Whiteness is just such a thimblerig. It performs a series of deft displacements, first substituting race for racism, then postulating identity as the social substance of race, and finally attributing racial identity to persons of European descent. By those maneuvers, it is possible to reinstate the orthodox pieties” (2001, pg. 48-49).
This definition firmly situates whiteness as that invisible normative in which all other races are both rendered visible and, although contrary, invisible and are also racialized. Arab terrorist. Black vandal. 16-year-old white female, missing. Consider, the ease of media outlets which utilize whiteness as the standard.
What exactly does anyone, journalist, legislator, pastor, teacher, ICE agent, do when they racialize the immigrant? For example, ICE Agents, having recognized the man as a Mexican, arrested him on the spot. There was no dialogue or negotiation, just as mass deportation was no matter for dialogue or negotiation during the Mexican Repatriation of the 1930’s and 40’s.
The notation of race here is particularly important to recognize because a function of racism is to forbid its objects to function as anything other than a member of specific race. Consider the implications if the blurb had read: ICE Agents, having recognized the person as a man, arrested him on the spot. While, perhaps, the critic would argue this as a stretch, when deconstructing ideologies of whiteness and politics, it is important to understand why, how, and from whom such ideologies and policies are constructed.
Because, the historiography of whiteness has been detailed and described in length by many academic scholars, I will not invest any more time articulating its functions and features. However, for those of you whom are interested in increasing your understanding of whiteness, I will include some resources at the bottom of this blog post.
While the history of the United States is one which remains firmly situated on the politics and supremacy of whiteness, it is hardly arguable to suggest that the zero-tolerance policies as invigorated by the current administration is surprising. However, this should not be mistaken for an advocacy of careless complacency or mediocre activism.
Indeed, as illustrated throughout the depraved and unjust policies foundational to America’s history, it must be everyone’s duty to speak out against injustice. And, as Christ followers, we each are called to name evil and speak truth to power.
As a Christian and follower of Jesus, I have found that the call of Jesus is one in which effectively shatters the westernized ideals and idols of safety and security.
Jesus continually calls his followers into the way and relationship of and with other people.
Jesus calls his followers into the way of policies, legislations and governmental acts.
Jesus calls his followers into the way of walls and pipelines and contaminated water because Jesus calls us each to do the work of restoration, resurrection and redemption.
In the Gospel of Matthew, one is reminded again of what it is to follow Jesus: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ and to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
As Christians, we are more than equipped to do this work, for we are not equipped by our own strength but by the eternal well of Jesus. And, as Christians living in a land formed on the bones of marginalized persons, we must also reconcile with a history of complacency and a reality of easy deniability.
I have found hope and conviction in the late James H. Cone’s writing, particularly this following excerpt regarding the role and history of the church and racism:
“The Christian community, therefore, is that community that freely becomes
oppressed, because they know that Jesus himself has defined humanity’s
liberation in the context of what happens to the little ones. Christians join the
cause of the oppressed in the fight for justice not because of some philosophical
principle of “the Good” or because of a religious feeling of sympathy for people
in prison. Sympathy does not change the structures of injustice. The authentic
identity of Christians with the poor is found in the claim which the Jesus-
encounter lays upon their own life-style, a claim that connects the word
“Christian” with the liberation of the poor. Christians fight not for humanity in
general but for themselves and out of their love for concrete human beings.” – James H. Cone The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
As, I have grappled with the zero-tolerance immigration policy, I have come to find renewed hope in two understandings:
1. The hope of the Christian faith rests firmly in the hands of a good God. And, God is fundamentally situated on the side of justice. God was present in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed. And, “God declared victory out of defeat, life out of death and hope out of despair.”
2. The Church, in order to remain faithful to the Lord, must become intentionally anti-racist by making a radical and decisive break with the politics of whiteness and race oriented supremacy.
As I think about the zero toleration policy, I am reminded yet again of how policies rooted in historic, often unchallenged, whiteness, will continue to defend and protect white supremacist ideals. Let us be clear that God has not ordained the separation of children from their parents. No. White men have called the protection of whiteness existentialism and, by way of governmental power, have defended and protected whiteness by naming it ‘god’.
The politics and radical liberation of Christ insists on freedom from all masters. This includes whiteness. Christ’s death not only liberated us as a faithful people, but radicalizes us to proclaim the entirely dangerous notion of love for the stranger and for self. May it be so!
As you enter your week, may each of you go in love, for love alone endures. Go in peace, for it is the gift of God. Go in safety, for you cannot go where God is not.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism – Robin DeAngelo (Book comes out on June 26, 2018).
Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack – Peggy McIntosh
So You Want to Talk about Race – Ijeoma Oluo
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race – Beverly Daniel Tatum
The Invention of the White Race – Theodore Allen
White is a State of Mind – Melba Patillo Beals
The Pedagogy of the Oppressed – Paulo Freire
Ain’t I a Woman – bell hooks