Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #162. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Jan. 2, 2021; in print Jan. 3

The year 2020 is in the rearview mirror, finally – though I’m reminded of the Jeep in “Jurassic Park” trying to outrun the T-Rex whose gaping jaws are seen over the words “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” Last year feels like that. It’s going to take a while for 2021 to break free of 2020’s clutches.

I’ve looked back to my Jan. 1, 2017 column, headlined “In this new year, let facts guide the conversation.” Nineteen days later the new president’s term would begin, the era of “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts” – or, if facts persist, they are “alternative facts” – and “Truth isn’t truth.”

The labels “fake” and “hoax” attached to actual facts and truths – climate change and coronavirus being only two among many – will, I hope, soon be ripped off.

As this new year begins, there is one vestige of those years that I think is an especially pernicious legacy of the war on facts and truth, one it will take a long time to break free of. It’s the tacit approval of white supremacy. We all know about “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville in August 2017.

That was rhetoric. More recently, there is policy.

On Sept. 4, the Office of Management and Budget issued a government-wide mandate: “All agencies are directed to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege,’ or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.” Further on, the directive enjoins diverting “Federal dollars away from these un-American propaganda training sessions.”

On Sept. 22, the president followed this up on Twitter: “A few weeks ago, I BANNED efforts to indoctrinate government employees with divisive and harmful sex and race-based ideologies. Today, I've expanded that ban to people and companies that do business with our Country.” And then, “Americans should be taught to take PRIDE in our Great Country, and if you don’t, there’s nothing in it for you!”

“Un-American propaganda,” “ideology,” “indoctrinate” – these are radioactive terms. And they are dangerously misdirected.

Their misdirection is illuminated by an unnerving and energizing and hopeful book, "Tragic Investment: How Race Sabotages Communities and Jeopardizes America's Future-And What We Can Do About It,” by R. James Addington.

Fundamentally and decisively, race is not inherent to anybody. “... racial identity is a social assignment rather than a biological given.” Critical race theory neither teaches nor suggests that the United States is inherently racist or that white people are inherently racist. The mistake is in the very notion of “inherent.”

Addington, like me, is a white guy, only a few years younger than my 81. We’ve known a lot of the same world. He delves into some of his own experiences and prompts me to do the same.

In 1968-69, I was teaching in a college. Black students occupied the Admissions Office, saying that a report issued on improving recruitment of Black students was inadequate. I, a member of the admissions committee, was tasked with explaining our reasoning. In conclusion I pleaded, “We just want more dialog.”

The response precipitated my first reckoning with my own white privilege. “We’re tired of dialog. We want you to listen.” What those students taught me was not that I’m “inherently racist,” but that I’m embedded – even imprisoned – in an inherited system in which those who get to set the agenda control the conversation, and therefore don’t have to really listen.

I am blessed/cursed by male privilege, too. Some years later I was talking with some female colleagues. I prided myself on being a feminist. Something I said elicited this response: “We want you for an ally, but we don’t want you to tell us what to do.” What they taught me isn’t that I’m “inherently sexist,” but that I’m embedded – even imprisoned – in an inherited system in which a white male is the standard, and consequently knows what’s best for everybody.

Addington’s book, many layered, is clearly and cogently argued. We are straitjacketed by our history that is both aspirational and brutal, tracing back to the European colonial-imperial enterprise. As a result, we who are white are conditioned to imagine ourselves the norm, and others therefore deviations.

“Nonracist” misses the point. Racism is an infection in the system. “Antiracism,” like an antibiotic, is the correct prescription. I am far prouder of the America that can face up to its history than of the myopic America recently championed from the bully pulpit.

There is so much more, both incisive and practical, in “Tragic Investment.” I urge you to read it. It will help us start to outrun the T-Rex that is – was, thank God – 2020.