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.