Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Reflections on "Black" and "White" in Cone

For those of you who are sick on reading about James Cone, I apologize. I can't seem to escape him at the moment. I had moved on to J. Deotis Roberts, and found much I liked in Roberts. But I've had to backtrack a little bit, and revisit Cone. Roberts, you see, often responds to Cone, and I felt that in order to understand what Roberts is saying I need a better understanding of Cone. So I've picked up Cone's A Black Theology of Liberation, and so far find it as challenging (and at times infuriating) as Black Theology and Black Power.

Before I delve too much into today's topic - Cone's usage of the terms "black" and "white," and my reflections on that usage - I want to share a quote with Pam, who has also struggled with Cone, and has wondered aloud what, if anything, he has to say to her own experience of (small scale) oppression:

...there are, to be sure, many who suffer, and not all of them are black. Many white liberals derive a certain joy from reminding black militants that two-thirds of the poor in America are white. Of course, I could point out that this means that there are five times as many poor blacks as there are poor whites, when the ratio of each group to the total population is taken into account. But it is not my intention to debate white liberals on this issue, for it is not the purpose of black theology to minimize the suffering of others, including whites. Black theology merely tries to discern the activity of the Holy One in achieving the purpose of liberation of humankind from the forces of oppression.


Cone clearly indicates that he is concerned with oppression, even the oppression of whites. White suffering matters to Cone, and, as we shall see later, when white persons suffer, or act on behalf of those suffering under the yoke of oppression, they participate in blackness. You see, for Cone, any act of oppression is "white," and any act of liberation on behalf of the oppressed is "black."

In what I've read of A Black Theology of Liberation, much like in Black Theology and Black Power, Cone presents us with many powerful ideas, some of which all of us should agree with. One such idea is the connection between theology and community:

Theology... cannot be separated from the community which it represents. It assumes that truth has been given to the community at the moment of its birth. Its task is to analyze the implications of that truth, in order to make sure that the community remains committed to that which defines its existence. Theology is the continued attempt of the community to define in every generation its reason for being in the world.


The relationship between theology and community reinforces both the communal nature of revelation (see Teilhard's idea of the "organ made for seeing God") and the contextual nature of theology. Theology, as Cone understands it, "is defined by the human situation that gives birth to it." Thus, in crafting an overtly black theology, Cone is not doing something categorically different than what has been done before, insofar as it, like all other theologies, is a theology that comes out of a community, and exists for that community. What he is doing is simply acknowledging the fact that what had before been seen as a "universal" theology is a particularly white theology that reinforces the belief that the white experience is the normative one.

However, in part because Cone (rightly?) sees white theology as anti-black, his black theology is anti-white. What he means by anti-white becomes clear as we see in more depth how he uses the terms "black" and "white."

In Cone, "black" = "the oppressed," and "white" = "the oppressors." He sees "white theology" as theology of oppression, theology that helps fortify the power of dominators at the expense of the dominated. As such, because God is always on the side of the oppressed, white theology is theology of the Antichrist. Black theology, by contrast, is Christian theology. He emphasizes this so strongly, I suspect, because my criticism of him - that his theology is more black than it is Christian - is not, by any means, a new one.

At the onset of this book, Cone offers two reasons - no doubt offer in the face of opposition, though he says that back theology need not defend itself against white criticism - "why black theology is Christian theology":

First, there can be no theology of the gospel which does not arise from an oppressed community. This is because God is revealed in Jesus as a God whose righteousness is inseparable from the weak and helpless in human society. The goal of black theology is to interpret God's activity as related to the oppressed black community.

Secondly, black theology is Christian theology because it centers on Jesus Christ.


The second point, as you can no doubt see, is related to the first. The Christ that black theology centers on is not the blond- haired, blue-eyed savior of white Christianity, but the revelation of God to oppressed communities. The Christ that black theology centers on, in other words, is not the harmless giver of conventional wisdom, but the very power of God for the oppressed. This Christ is a much more revolutionary figure than the dull character found on the portraits hanging in white churches.

It may well be that the distance between the Christ of the black church and the Christ of the white church is at the heart of Cone's criticism of white theology. In any event, his criticism of white theology - that it is a theology of the oppressors, by the oppressors, and for the oppressors - helps us understand what he means by "black" and "white":

No white theologian has ever taken the oppression of blacks as a point of departure for analyzing God's activity in contemporary America. Apparently white theologians see no connection between whiteness and evil or blackness and God. Even those white theologians who write books about blacks invariably fail to say anything relevant to the black community as it seeks to break the power of white racism. They usually think that writing books makes them experts on black humanity. As a result they are as arrogant as George Wallace in telling blacks what is "best" for them. It is no surprise that the "best" is always nonviolent, posing no threat to the political and social interests of the white majority.


Overlooking for now that once again Cone has, in declaring nonviolence "no threat to the political and social interests of the white majority," failed to appreciate the power of nonviolent resistance; there is much here that speaks deep, powerful, and damning truths. But, is it quite true to say that "no white theologian has ever taken the oppression of blacks as a point of departure for analyzing God's activity in contemporary America,"? It may be. I don't know, and I don’t know if Cone, writing here in 1970, knew, either. But to become fixated on the historical accuracy of that statement is to miss the way that Cone is using "white." By "white" he does not mean those with light skin - though in his mind most if not all whites are light skinned even if not all light skinned people are white - nor by "black" does he mean those with dark skin - though, again, most black persons, as he understands it, are dark skinned. By "black" and "white" he means something more subtle than just race and ethnicity.

Cone understands "black" as the universal group of the oppressed, and "white" as the universal group of the oppressors:

Blackness, then, stands for all victims of oppression who realize that the survival of their humanity is bound up with liberation from whiteness.


Anticipating some criticism of this, Cone writes this - which spells out his use of the terms "black" and "white" - in the footnote to that statement:

I do not intend to qualify this statement, because too much is at stake - the survival of the black community. But perhaps some clarification is needed here. Some critics will undoubtedly ask, "How can you dismiss out of hand any criticisms that white theologians or others in traditional white Christianity might raise concerning your interpretation of black theology, and at the same time use quotations from white theologians, both European and American, with approval? If white theology is as bad as you say, why not dismiss them altogether, without any reference to their work?" Of course, these are challenging questions, and I can see whites milking this idea for all it is worth.

...those who press this point have taken too seriously the American definition of white. When I say that white theology is not Christian theology, I mean the theology that has been written without any reference to the oppressed of the land. This is not true of Karl Barth and certainly not true of Bonhoeffer. Reinhold Neibuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society moves in the direction of blackness. To verify the blackness of a particular perspective, we need only ask, "For whom is it written, the oppressed or the oppressors?" if the former, it is black; if the later, it is white. I do not condemn all persons who happen to look like white Americans; the condemnation comes when they act like them.


That is how Cone uses the words "black" and "white." Thus I think that we can say that, per the conventional use of the terms, it is possible for a "black" person to be "white" (though Cone does not say this, and may not agree with it) and likewise it is possible for a "white" person to be "black." Thus Cone can appropriate certain aspects of "white" theology (per the conventional use of "white" - that is, the work of Barth, Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr, Tillich, etc.) for his "black" theology.

But does this appropriation - combined, as it is, with his altering of the conventional usage of "black" and "white" - amount to the same sort of selective co-opting of white culture that whites have long done of black culture? To say that Barth's work or Bonhoeffer's work is not "white" theology, or to say that Reinhold Neibuhr's work "moves in the direction of blackness," is to say that white works that please Cone are really black works. Isn't this just what white culture did when "race records" or "rhythm and blues" became, in the work of Cleveland disc jockey Alan Fried, "Rock and Roll," so that it could be sold to white teenagers? And if that was racist, how is the black co-opting of the work of white theologians, coupled with the denial of their whiteness, not also racist?

I do not wish to deny the prevalence of white racism, nor do I wish to deny either my own participation in that or the long-standing connection between whiteness and cultural, social, and political domination. White culture has a long, sad history of dominating other cultures, and Cone is quite right in criticizing that. In many, many cases I humbly accept his criticism. But to redefine "white" as "oppressor," and to say that those white who work against oppression are not properly white, this I cannot accept.

For the good of all humanity whites need to deny the necessary connection between whiteness and oppressing others as vehemently as blacks deny the necessary connection between being black and being inferior. If Black Power calls blacks to stand up and understand themselves in a new way, then perhaps white culture can learn from that and have a similar movement. This movement should not be an attempt to deny past and present oppression by whites, nor should it be an attempt to further empower whites, who enjoy already far too much power. Rather, this movement should be an attempt to, in the face of the long, sad history of white exploiting and oppressing others, to reinvent what it means to be white. To own and honor those whites who Cone would call black; to say that these figures taught us that we don't have to participate in oppression, that being "white" does not have to include oppressing others.

This, of course, cannot be an attempt to deny the shameful past or the only slightly less shameful present. But, while it cannot deny a long history of morally unjustifiable domination, it must assert that, moving forward, domination is not a necessary attribute of being white.

In identifying "white" with "oppressor" and "black" with "the oppressed," Cone, while identifying a strong historical trend that continues into the present, does not, in my opinion, provide us with a way forward. Just as blacks are called to empowerment, whites must be called to repentance, and through repentance, transformation. And, just as white society has never been justified in demanding the blacks deny their blackness to gain acceptance, the call to white repentance, while it must involve a call to give up forever the ways of domination and oppression, cannot involve a denial of whiteness.

7 comments:

Brian said...

Sandman, you write:

"To say that Barth's work or Bonhoeffer's work is not "white" theology, or to say that Reinhold Neibuhr's work "moves in the direction of blackness," is to say that white works that please Cone are really black works. Isn't this just what white culture did when "race records" or "rhythm and blues" became, in the work of Cleveland disc jockey Alan Fried, "Rock and Roll," so that it could be sold to white teenagers? And if that was racist, how is the black co-opting of the work of white theologians, coupled with the denial of their whiteness, not also racist?"

I think that you might be missing part of what Cone means by calling Barth or Bonhoeffer a "black" theologian. The point of the labels doesn't seem to be to sort out the theologians-I-like from the theologians-I-don't-like, but to distinguish those theological positions that can capture the wrongness of racialized oppression and the experience of the oppressed from those theological positions that can't do this. I contend that this is a more or less objective property of a person's theological position, whether one subsequently likes that position or not. Naive "just-me-and-Jesus" theology, for instance, has a difficult time accounting for why racialized oppression should be a theological issue, whether one likes or dislikes such theology for other reasons.

Your comparison of Cone's usage to the sanitization of "race records" in the 1950's for white audiences trades, I think, on a similar confusion. Remember that for Cone, "whiteness" and "blackness" are not meant to be ways of talking about biological phenotype (skin color, facial features, etc.), but simply markers for the positions people take within oppressive social systems relative to the oppression such social systems bring about: Some people are oppressors, others are the oppressed. As you yourself observe, the people who occupy oppressive roles in a social system need not have white skin on Cone's theory. On a system theory of racial oppression (which Cone seems to hold; he's not alone on this), the meaning of your actions isn't determined exclusively by your intentions, much less your biological traits, but by the role your actions have in maintaining (or resisting) the functioning of oppressive social arrangements.

What this means, in a nutshell, is that on a system theory of oppression, "reverse discrimination" arguments of the sort you proffer here don't hold up. Reverse-discrimination arguments presuppose a backdrop of moral and political equality between potential discriminators that on a system theory doesn't exist. On this theory, the racialized sanitization of black music in the 1950's contributed, regardless of anyone's explicit intentions, to maintaining a certain normative ideal of how one should sing, act in public, etc. Cone's calling Barth a "black" theologian, by contrast, is a counter-move against, a resistance to, the oppression built into theologies that demonstrate a systematic blindness to racial oppression or even actively sanction such oppression. On Cone's own theory, then, his own actions are morally different than Alan Fried's, even if it should turn out that Cone really does wants to oppress whites.

You might well ask: Why insist on describing the social regime that fixes roles in an oppressive system as an opposition between "whiteness" and "blackness," since those roles aren't tied of necessity to one's skin color? I can't speak for Cone, but I think that such a move is justifiable, especially in an American context; whiteness and blackness identify the most glaring and historically rooted examples of oppressor and oppressed in American history, so they're the most available terms to use to make this point about social systems and social roles something more than just an abstract exercise in social theory.

Sandalstraps said...

Brian,

I'll engage the rest of what you're saying some other time - I just finished writing nine pages on Lamin Sanneh's Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture and so I'm more than a little bit drained.

However, I did want to respond to this, since it points me toward a comment I was going to leave as a kind of footnote to this post:

You might well ask: Why insist on describing the social regime that fixes roles in an oppressive system as an opposition between "whiteness" and "blackness," since those roles aren't tied of necessity to one's skin color?

I see Cone here responding to a way of speaking about moral and spiritual issues in terms of "black" and "white" that still permeate our culture, but are hopefully less prevalent today than they were when Cone was writing this in 1970. "White" has long represented "purity," or "goodness," or "godliness," while "black" has been reserved for "evil," the "corrupt," the "devilish." This is found not only in the symbolism of the white wedding dress as a representation of purity, or in language that speaks of the "black villian" (as in, the purely evil villian with no redeemable features) or the "blackness" of a soul that has turned to wickedness. This is even found in the trivial: what is the difference between Angel's Food and Devil's Food?

My most charitable understanding of Cone's use of "black" and "white" is that he correcting this usage of the language of black and white to speak to moral and spiritual issues.

As for the rest of your comment, I see a long conversation that is better had in person than in the comments section of a blog. I am not yet convinced that " on a system theory of oppression, "reverse discrimination" arguments of the sort you proffer here don't hold up," nor am I convinced that at least my argument here "presuppose[s] a backdrop of moral and political equality between potential discriminators."

I think that we can make distinctions between racism in the oppressors and racism in the oppressed, and say that racism in the oppressed - whatever form it takes - is far less wrong than racism in the oppressors, without totally giving up the ability to say that Cone's use of "black" and "white" here has and is intended to have a racial component that is similar to what he is railing against, and provides us with no way forward. If we can't call Cone out on that, I'm afraid that might leave us in a position where whites have no rights that blacks are bound to respect, which is in my view as untennable a position as the its inverse.

But this conversation would go much better, I suspect, in my living room over cheesecake!

PamBG said...

I can simultaneously see this approach as being both charitable on Cone's part - and I mean that genuinely - AND unsatisfactory in the end.

Ironically, the black congregation which I worshipped preached the message over and over that each individual is precious and beloved in the eyes of God and I think that, in the end, it's that simple.

Whilst I don't want to minimise by any means the very real oppression and suffering of "racism", I don't want to be an honorary black any more than I want to be an honorary man.

But I'd LOVE to share a slice of cheesecake with you.

PamBG said...

Explanation: The word "racism" is in scare-quotes because the thinking on this side of the pond, anyway, is that there is only one human race and discrimination is on the basis of skin-colour, not race.

The scare-quotes do not mean to imply that discrimination on the basis of skin-colour never happened.

Brian said...

PamBG, you write:

"Explanation: The word "racism" is in scare-quotes because the thinking on this side of the pond, anyway, is that there is only one human race and discrimination is on the basis of skin-colour, not race."

It strikes me that the regnant thinking on this side of the pond is that there is only one human race. That is, there is only one human race, if what you mean by that is that homo sapiens form a singular species that is genetically stable across putatively racial classifications. However, the reality is that "race" as a tool of discrimination and oppression has never been JUST about skin color or any other specific set of biological characteristics. "Race" as a tool of classification means that some biological property or properties is taken to be associated with some morally relevant set of properties (intelligence, propensity to violence, sexual promiscuity, etc.) Contrasting "race" and skin color confuses the issue; skin color is used in racial theories as an index of race, not as some sort of substitute for it.

Sandman: I'm not a big fan of cheesecake, but we could certainly talk about this. I can't resist one comment, though, in response to this remark:

"If we can't call Cone out on [the racially discriminatory component of his position], I'm afraid that might leave us in a position where whites have no rights that blacks are bound to respect, which is in my view as untennable a position as the its inverse."

This sounds very much like a slippery slope argument to me, unless I haven't understood entirely what you mean. It is true that on my understanding, "rights" aren't some abstract thing that everyone just "has," like a deck of cards that they carry around with them and then strategically deploy in the poker game of life. (This seems to be the way many prominent liberals, like Ronald Dworkin, think about rights.) Rights are simply a convenient shorthand for referring to an especially important class of moral obligations owed to a person or persons, where such moral obligations would always be defined contextually, relative to whatever morally important considerations prevail in a situation. This justifies the intuition that rights always have some finite scope; if X has a right, then it is possible in general for X to overstep his legitimate right, or for X's right to be outweighed by countervailing considerations. It's a complicated form of moral reasoning, and it's probably not easy to convert it into legal and political institutions, but it still strikes me as the most justifiable way in which to think about things nonetheless.

Why this matters is that I believe that due to the history of racial discrimination in America and elsewhere, whites really do have weaker rights than blacks. All I mean by this is that given the relevant history, whites have a greater burden of obligations to blacks than vice versa. Ultimately, I'm an egalitarian; let's not lose sight of that. But I'm suggesting that our sense of moral obligation, and even our understanding of who has what rights, can and should enjoy a greater sensitivity to history than we might be led to expect by the mainstream of thinking in moral and political philosophy.

A less theoretical way of making this point is as follows. If I follow you, you're suggesting that it would be more legitimate if Cone and others simply restricted themselves to criticizing oppression, but without making any particular to-do over the fact that it just happens (coincidentally, I guess) to have been the work of white people. Pointing out that fact-- and it is a fact-- is somehow supposed to be corrosive of whites' dignity and self-respect, and therefore pointing it out is counterproductive. Better for black folks to "love the sinner and hate the sin"-- to point out the injustices as they come along and go on stressing the inherent goodness of the white folks. But Cone might respond, I guess, that he has to pay a price for reassuring white folks that they aren't really so bad deep down that white folks don't have to pay. Why should Cone have to pay the price of denying the racial connections between different oppressions that he sees just because we want to make sure that white folks don't feel any loss of self-respect?

Don't get me wrong-- I'm white, and I suspect that everyone knows it. It's not like I can somehow stand apart from the fact that my whiteness gets me a certain degree of unearned privilege. But that doesn't mean that I should have the luxury of remaining unaware of that fact. That's one of the greatest privileges of whiteness-- at the end of the day, none of us white folks have to talk about any of this stuff, and we can go to bed at night confident in the reality that all of us good white folks are really good deep down. Why should Cone have to deny his own experience and his own rationally-drawn conclusions to prop up the self-respect of people like me?

PamBG said...

That is, there is only one human race, if what you mean by that is that homo sapiens form a singular species that is genetically stable across putatively racial classifications. However, the reality is that "race" as a tool of discrimination and oppression has never been JUST about skin color or any other specific set of biological characteristics.

If people of minority skin colour tell me - a person of the majority skin colour - that they don't like the concept of "racism" because it implies that they are a different race, then I feel I must honour that. For the reasons you cited to Sandalstraps in your post. Although on an intellectual level, I agree with what you're saying.

This is where the meaning of words, how one hears them, and terminology come into play. For example, I worry sometimes about using the word "black" with Americans. As far as I know (these things change rapidly), "black" is a perfectly PC word over here and is used to also describe people from the Indian Subcontinent as well as people of African and African-Caribbean descent.

In the UK (I confess I'm not really all that aware of the current situtation in the US) there are also all sorts of issues about heritage and identity. Recent African immigrants do not consider themselves in the same position as those whose parents immigrated from the Carribean (often Africans will tell you that they know their identity whereas British black people do not).

As a somewhat separate remark, I think their is not one "black theology" either. African theologians will draw on black American theologians but they feel they have different issues and even that they want to use different biblical stories as paradigms to reflect their story. Same again for black British theologians - drawing on the theologies of black Americans and Africans but feeling that their situation is different again, despite many similarities.

Sandalstraps said...

Brian,

The only response that I have is that what I'm trying to say is that while we cannot deny a historical connection between whiteness and oppressing others, if we as whites are ever going to stop oppressing others we have to deny a necessary connection. We have to build from the ground up a new way of being white which, while it does not deny the past or the present - both of which are ugly - has some hope for the future.

When Cone follows the white pattern of using terms like "black" and "white" to mean something much more value-laden than just ethnicity, he is partricipating in one of the errors of white racism.

I'm by no means trying to say that this is equal to white racism, as though blacks and whites were equal in terms of political power, or as though political power were irrelevant to the ethics involved. I'm not trying to say that what he's doing is just as bad as what we have done. All I'm saying - and really all I'm saying in terms of value-judgment (as far as I know, anyway - ther may be some unconscious or at least less conscious value-judgment here that I'm not noticing) - is that this use of language provides us with no way forward.

When the best examples of socially responsible white theology are claimed to be "black" - even if Cone does not intend for their to be any racial component to the term - then whites are not allowed to look to that theology as an antidote to our general understanding of ourselves in relation to others.

You're right about the slippery slope component to my last comment, which is why conversations are better held in a more organic environment. My fear is that if whites are not allowed to criticize the way that blacks use language - especially when that use of language participates in a racist error made by the dominant white culture, and as such, in my view, offers no way forward either in the redemption of whites (who need to be redeemed from our racist and oppressive past and present - oppression isn't good for the oppressors, either) or in the relations between whites and blacks - then we are in a position where whites can say nothing at all to blacks, and where blacks need not have any moral duties to whites as whites.

If this idea depends on an assumption of political equality between blacks and whites, then it will not stand, because I am as aware as anyone else that blacks are de feacto less equal than whites.

If this accepting this means that whites get to continue to insist on the grounds of reconciliation between the races, then it also will not stand, since no true reconciliation can happen on the terms dictated by the oppressors.

If accepting this means giving up on black self-determination, the it is an abborant idea, and I will repent of it immediately.

I am simply trying to, for whites, help redefine what it means to be white so that we can somehow be free from our patterns of oppressing others. As such, I object to Cone's use of black and white, because it denies the whiteness of those few whites who I think serve serve as the new pattern for what it means to be white. While the power involved is much different, this is similar, in my view, to the white community's denial of the authenitic blackness of those blacks who somehow manage to succeed in a white world.

I know that seems like a reckless statement, and I may be wrong. I understand that whites enjoy a great advantage in political power, and that power must be accounted for in making an ethical judgment about black-white relations. Blacks and whites do not have the same kinds of ethical obligations to each other. But one obligation that I think should be shared is the impermissibility of denying ethnic identity.

Perhaps I care about this so much because I have had part of my "whiteness" denied before. In college I took several "black" courses - Black Music History, Modern Black Writers, etc. In those classes I was a minority - though I understand that there were vastly different dynamics in those rooms than there are in the broader American culture. My presense there was strange to many of the black students, who had to account for it somehow. There was a generally unstated (and perhaps correct) belief that white people simply don't care about black culture.

Immediately it was assumed that I wasn't really white - that I must have married a "sister," and so adopted black culture as part of my own heritage. This assumption, of course, did a great deal less harm to me than the denial of authentic blackness does to many blacks who try to succeed in a white world. But in terms of the self-understanding of ethnic groups, it is a similar (not identical) move.

If whites cannot express an authentic (and non-paternalistic!) concern for blacks, and if whites cannot speak out against the white oppression of blacks without that entailing some fundamental denial of their own whiteness, then we will never be able to understand what it means to be white without understanding whiteness as an oppressive force that must be resisted. This places whites of good conscience in a position where, to be responsible moral agents, they must deny their nature as whites. That is something I'm not yet prepared to accept.

Again, I'm not trying to deny Cone's claims about what it has meant to be white, not about what it means to be white. I'm simply trying to assert that, going forward, being white need not continue to mean oppressing others. Whites today need a new concept of what it means to be white, so that we will no longer be the oppressors, and start being responsible moral agents. As such we can't let Cone dictate "white" any more than he can let whites dictate what it means to be "black."