Across the United States people are talking about a photograph that appeared in the 1984 medical school yearbook of Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia. One person in the photo is in blackface, reminiscent of Al Jolson, the white actor who dressed in blackface to demean black people. The second person is dressed in a hood and robe of the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist, domestic terrorist organization founded by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
People from across the social, political and cultural landscape have been discussing whether Northam should resign (a decision not announced but seemingly inevitable as of this writing). Northam initially apologized for the photograph, declared that he had no memory of taking it or submitting it to his yearbook, and affirmed that he is a better person now than he was in 1984. He later denied being in the photographs.
I, too, am disgusted about the photograph. If Northam was a white supremacist in 1984 as a grown man in medical school, I’m not about to congratulate him for concealing his identity every day for the past 35 years as people of color have struggled for equality, dignity and even survival from the evils of white supremacy.
“White Christianity in America has long tolerated, and continues to be complicit in, the sin of white supremacy.”
Northam is, oddly, a timely example of a hard and painful truth that too many people insist on avoiding – namely, that many white Christians who claim to love God and follow Jesus tolerate white supremacy and are complicit in it. We are now dealing with the consequences of four centuries of posturing by white people about the love of God they profess while steadfastly failing to produce fruits worthy of repentance.
White Christians conceived, financed and enjoyed privileges from slavery. White Christians supported and defended segregation. White Christians refused to outlaw lynching, but vilified peaceful civil rights activists. White Christians embraced the state-sponsored terrorism of racial profiling, abusive and homicidal law enforcement behavior, mass incarceration, voter intimidation and suppression, economic and environmental violence, and a host of other evils attributable to white supremacy.
In my home state of Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is a graduate of Bob Jones University in South Carolina, a college founded by an avowed racist. As Hutchinson’s administration actively works to re-segregate, privatize and defund public education, many religious leaders in the state ignore that history and disregard how it relates to Hutchinson’s policies concerning public education, mass incarceration and other social justice issues. Hutchinson, who enrolled at Bob Jones in 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, has even been a featured speaker for events honoring the life and ministry of Dr. King.
As has been widely documented, President Donald Trump has been associated with personal and commercial racism across his lifetime. As a presidential candidate, Trump accepted endorsement from David Duke, a white supremacist and former KKK leader. Trump’s statements and actions as president have further exposed his tolerance for white supremacy. White Christians campaigned for Trump, cheered his election and continue to support the racist immigration policies of the Trump administration.
“Gov. Northam should step down, stop speaking and start listening in order to begin the painful work of learning truth about white supremacy he will only learn from its victims and survivors.”
White pastors and other congregational leaders conceived, organized and invested billions of dollars in capital campaigns to build white flight, private schools and “family life centers.” YMCA and YWCA memberships, services and financial support in communities across the country declined as churches went into debt so white parents could feel righteous about not sending their children to public schools and after-school activities with children of color.
Gov. Northam should step down, stop speaking and start listening in order to begin the painful work of learning truth about white supremacy he will only learn from its victims and survivors. But the history of white supremacy clearly shows that Northam shouldn’t be the only participant in that that painful process.
The deep and bitter truth exposed by Northam’s situation is that white Christianity in America has long tolerated, and continues to be complicit in, the sin of white supremacy. Northam isn’t an outlier. He merely offers the latest, high-profile evidence of that deep and bitter truth.