In the wake of the Charleston, South Carolina, tragedy, there has been little conversation on how we white liberals should respond to questions related to race. As a native Charlestonian, I have a special reason to weep over the killings at Emmanuel AME Church: for the families of those who died, for my hometown that I will always love and for my country. As a young and then older white clergyman, I have long tried to seek both racial justice and love across race lines. I ask these questions continually of myself as well as fellow white liberals:
- First, why are we white liberals always seeking to recruit black folk to be part of our programs but never think of joining effective black advocacy groups? I have found this true in all of my workplaces: South Carolina, Boston, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. One of the most dynamic advocacy groups in New Orleans, Justice and Beyond, meets weekly at Christian Unity Baptist Church. African American leaders from across the city — preachers, union members, various justice advocates — attend and bring their issues for discussion and action. Of the hundred or so who attend each Monday, maybe 10 are white.
- Second, why haven’t we made a clear distinction between overcoming personal racism and overcoming institutional and cultural racism? It’s great when we begin to overcome personal bigotry, but that’s a lot different from working steadily for citywide, countrywide racial justice.
Some of the most liberal people I know give little attention to sad, un-American facts: like the number of black folk who fill our prisons, like the number of black children who grow up in poverty and attend under-performing schools, like the percentage of unemployed black males.
- Third, why do we white liberals often write off conservatives even though they may be showing the way toward personal racial reconciliation? People like South Carolina’s conservative governor, Nikki Haley, who wants that Confederate flag removed from the capitol grounds, like conservative white volunteers I work with in the Kairos Prison Ministry at Angola. I never see anything close to racism among the many white and black volunteers as they relate to one another and to the mostly black inmates.
If we white liberals are going to strive for racial justice, I believe it imperative that we seek allies across political, religious and racial lines.
The tragedy of my hometown, Charleston, the many tragedies related to racism in Louisiana and around the country leave us no time for self-righteousness, refusing to partner with those we differ with on various issues. So fellow liberals, let’s join with all who seek racial justice and love!
William H. Barnwell