In a conversation after church this past Sunday, I actually started a sentence with:
The greatest sin of white liberalism...
As a white liberal, that's a tough place to be. Before I tell you what I think the greatest sin of white liberalism is, let me tell you how I got into a position to start a sentence like that. A few friends of mine were talking about the Civil Rights movement, when one of them wondered why, by the end of the 1960s, there were so few white clergy involved any longer.
It was suggested that the black community had "grown up" by then. That they were ready to "take over," and didn't "need us" anymore. This suggestion was not meant to be racist, and probably has some truth to it. At the very least it points to a paternalistic attitude that many white liberals still take toward blacks. (On this very blog, a commenter said, in reference to liberal loathing of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, "White liberals show their viciousness when their darkie won't perpetuate their system of condescending patronage.")
Issues like affirmative action are so difficult not just because in attempting to reverse the effects of race-based discrimination they in fact do discriminate (see this post for important distinctions between kinds of discrimination, lest you mistakenly believe that I am arguing here that affirmative action is wrong because it amounts to a kind of discrimination), but also because some argue that any favoring of blacks by a long-racist white society is simply another form of racism, which undermines black self-determination.
In that context, then, I could have easily said that the "greatest sin of white liberalism" is its often-paternalistic attitude. But it isn't. Condescending paternalism (and by no means do all white liberals fall into this attitude) may be ugly, but it is accompanied whenever it appears by a desire, a need, to be morally responsible for the fate of the other, and that sense of moral responsibility and connection is to be encouraged. That sense of moral responsibility - even if it does not always recognize the need for the other to also be a responsible and relatively autonomous moral agent - recognizes the deep interconnection that exists between the historical oppressor and the historical victim of oppression. So, the "greatest sin of white liberalism," as far as I'm concerned, can't be paternalism, though that is something that we who work for the liberation of the oppressed should always be on guard against.
As I read history, it wasn't just white paternalism and the need for black self-determination that caused a rift in the Civil Rights movement. Rather, it was another great sin of white liberalism, the sin that on Sunday, in a fit of rhetorical something-or-other, I declared the great sin, the greatest sin, of white liberalism, that as I read history forced the rift. This great sin is the worst sort of political realism, manifest in the tendency of white liberals to say things like:
Of course, I agree with you, but... the country (or the state, or the church, or whatever) just isn't ready for...
Of course liberals - like any other political group, movement, or ideology (though it is doubtful that the word "liberal" is at this point so sufficiently defined that it could really mean any of those things) - need to be politically realistic. We need to pursue policies that have some hope of practical political success. But we also need to distinguish between issues of political policy subject to the need for realism and fundamental moral issues, issues of inalienable rights. And, on such issues we need, as best as I can tell, to toss realism aside and engage in a more prophetic politic.
In the conversation at church that got me so riled up that I spewed out "the greatest sin of white liberalism," there was a lesbian who quietly recalled a conversation she had with a former civil rights leader. She said that she appreciated the need to build up the black family, but must that be done at the expense of gays and lesbians. As she recalled, he said something like "We, as a country, just aren't ready to have that conversation yet." She said that she thought she knew how that same man must have felt, so many years earlier, when a well-intentioned white preacher probably said the same thing to him.
Our country may not, in this dark day, be ready to have a serious conversation about the fundamental rights of gays and lesbians to have their most cherished relationships recognized by a society that is inexplicably frightened by them. We may not even be ready to have a serious conversation about the linger effects of our racist legacy, and the more subtle forms that racism takes today, when it is less fashionable but no less uncommon. But, as I understand it, the greatest sin of white liberalism - and a sin that has, in my friend's experience, moved well beyond the bounds of the white community - is a refusal to lead prophetically on issues "we" just aren't "ready" for.
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