“Race relations” is in the air lately.
Well, for minorities it has always been in the air. Like this fun video shows (watch until the end)
And really, “race relations” is a problematic term in several ways (not least of all because it leaves out ethnic, cultural, religious, and gender minorities, among others). But that aside, it is on people’s minds right now. The events in Charlottesville brought this to a sharp head, and I hear a lot of people asking questions, or shaking their heads in horror and disbelief.
So I brushed off a book I read a few years ago and wrote my own little contribution to the conversation.
Reading this you quickly realize that most Klan members were people you’d like to have at your back yard BBQ.
Like most members of the Nazi party in 1930s/40s Germany, they weren’t monsters. They weren’t yelling obscenities or spewing hate in the middle of the street. They were people who would be *very* familiar to “us.” They loved their families, volunteered with charities, and spoke politely to people of all ethnicities and religions in the grocery store. The Klan, and other groups that spring from the same root, is abhorrent to, but not divorced from, everyday North American Protestantism (aka mainstream society – even if you’re not Protestant).
From the inside sleeve:
“To many Americans, modern marches by the Ku Klux Klan may seem like a throwback to the past or posturing by bigoted hatemongers. To Kelly Baker, they are a reminder of how deeply the Klan is rooted in American mainstream Protestant culture.”
David Stevenson, the Grand Dragon of Indiana (who, spoiler alert, as a murderous psychopath was largely responsible for the downfall of the KKK in the 1920s) used his considerable influence in politics to seek legislation that prohibited religious garb (aimed at Catholics), Bible reading in public schools, public display of the flag, and the dissolution of parochial schools. Any of this sounding familiar?
“The order’s lasting legacy … is its combination of Protestant Christianity, nationalism, and intolerance … The unified order ceased to exist, but … the Klan’s brand of religious nationalism, prejudice, and intolerance [continue].” (Pp. 229, 232)
Baker argues that the Klan is more than “the fringes of the right, as the Klan’s antipluralist, Christian, and intolerant rhetoric emerged as a crucial component of American political and public culture.” And here’s the kicker:
“… the Klan was not a movement of the right-wing fringe but a movement of white Protestant citizens who wanted to protect their dominance and their culture.” (P. 232)
In other words, the Klan was not an aberration of America (or Canada – yes, we had/have the Klan too, though they added an anti-French component here), but rather interconnected with the heart of mainstream (white Protestant) culture. This was the beginning of the ongoing culture wars. While the Klan certainly differed in their tactics and methods than other conservative groups, they share(d) common values. “Declension, family values, nationalism, Protestant faith, affirmation of traditional gender roles, … and intolerance” were central (P. 233).
This is not to say that if you hold conservative values you are tantamount to a Klan member. It is also not to say that “the story of America is racism.” That’s one of its stories. But so is Martin Luther King, Jr. He was every bit as American as Grand Dragon Stevenson, and to ignore that in a bid to highlight America’s race relations problems is to actually affirm the Klan’s message — that they are the true Americans.
I’m saying that it is too easy for all of us to look on and feel repulsed (I should hope) by the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville without any understanding of the bigger picture, and where we, and our families, and our friends, and our churches (if applicable) fit into this larger matrix.
Our society is constantly demanding that everyday Muslims who are afraid of and horrified by terror attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam denounce them and their groups. Why do we not expect the same here? Well, because “we” know that though the men at that march may look like us, and may even be people whose company we’d enjoy (though not the ugly bigotry part), they are not us. We see difference. When “we” see “others,” however, they become a group. This is not inherently prejudiced, it’s actually social psychology. But unless you do some internal correction work, it can *easily* become prejudice.
So, taking the term from Lara B. Sharp, I’m going to use my “white privilege superpowers” — what she also calls her “white witchcraft” — and acknowledge that as a white North American Protestant Christian (the “Protestant” part here gets complicated, depending how you classify Mennonites – theologically [Anabaptists, distinct from the 15th century Protestant movement] or sociologically [definitely Protestants], but we’ll go with it here) I come from the same place as the Unite the Right protestors in Charlottesville. And while we might not be friends (I’m thinking they’d rather not grab a bite with a birkenstock-wearing-super-liberal-loud-mouthed-feminist-pacifist-Christian, but hey, my mom thinks I’m cool) we’d probably have friends in common. And speaking of my mom, I’ll quote what she says to me here: “how then shall I live?”
And at the end of the day, as a Mennonite I AM a believer in positive peace, and so I do believe that that which is deepest in ALL of us is the eternal Good. So if you feel the need to do something, I suggest supporting Life After Hate. A group, founded by a former neo-Nazi, that works to educate and de-radicalize people away from far-right, white supremacist groups.