Bias and White Supremacy

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From a Wesleyan perspective, addressing the distortion of white supremacy is crucial, because of the importance of experience in understanding how we ought to understand Scripture, live our lives, and build our communities. Additionally, this also diminishes our ability to trust our conscience as a tool to discern the Holy Spirit. According to Wesleyan theologian Michael Lodahl, “Often [John] Wesley spoke of [the] universal yet particular presence of God’s Spirit as being experienced in human life as conscience.” Though Wesley—like King—believed that God never gave up on people, he did recognize that our ability to hear the call of the Holy Spirit via our conscience can be distorted or muted by our personal or cultural failings. 

Rev. Dr. King was not a champion of colorblind conservatism. Rather, King called for a radical restructuring of our internal lives, interpersonal relationships, and the fundamental value structures of this world. Thus, Cornel West’s description of him as a “revolutionary Christian” and “intellectual genius” who “authorized an alternative reality” is on the mark.1 One of the main obstacles that King faced in attempting to create this alternative reality—which he described as the Beloved Community—was white supremacy. He recognized that, from the founding of this nation, white supremacy had infected the stated ideals of freedom, justice, and equality—and that the horrors of colonialism had spread the sin of white supremacy across the globe. 

Perhaps surprisingly, King further argued that, while white supremacy had undoubtedly done serious harm to Black people and other people of color, white people suffered the most severe psychological and spiritual deficits due to white supremacy. In his speech “The Negro and the American Dream,” King even goes so far as to say “the system of segregation puts [the white man] in more slavery than it puts the Negro.” What justifies this claim?

In King’s theology, we are called to be in community with both God and neighbor, and to fail to be in relationship with one is to fail to be in relationship with the other. This is a principle King gleaned from his spiritual mentor Howard Thurman, who was a Black mystical theologian whose teachings greatly impacted King. Thurman stated, “To be in unity with the Spirit is to be in unity with one’s fellows,” and conversely it is true that “alienation from other people is alienation from God’s Spirit.”2 Thus, in this way, King argued that white Christians had alienated themselves from God. 

 Additionally, King saw that white Christians had failed to listen to the Holy Spirit speaking to them through their conscience and that this had damaged white people. In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here?, King notes that each person has God’s law etched on their hearts and that through our conscience God is continually attempting to remind us of this law. White people, however, have long ignored the calls of their conscience in regard to Black people, and this has caused them serious damage. In his speech “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” King argues that “the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred.” From the beginning of America, he argued, “logic was manipulated”3 to justify the immoral practices of enslavement and racism. King notes that the founding fathers recognized the hypocrisy of enslavement in a nation founded on freedom, yet they chose to proceed with their great experiment leaving this incoherence in place. In Where Do We Go From Here, he states: 

Thus through two centuries, a continuous indoctrination of Americans has separated people according to mythically superior and inferior qualities, while a democratic spirit of equality was evoked as the national ideal. These concepts of racism, and this schizophrenic duality of conduct, remain deeply rooted in American thought today … [and] have poisoned the American mind.4

This poisoning of the American mind named by King is due to the fact that white Americans have allowed systems of racism and segregation to exist and become ingrained in their collective psyche, which has in turn reified the incoherence present at America’s inception.  

    One of King’s primary opponents in the fight for change was what he referred to as “the white moderate.” The white moderate is one who is so ensconced in the status quo that even if you convince them that white supremacy exists and change is required, they will be unable or unwilling to imagine a different reality. King’s frustration with the white moderate Christian leads him to cry out in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?” King could clearly see that following Christ involved tearing down systems of oppression, but the vast majority of white Christians either denied the existence of oppression altogether or counseled King to be patient and allow the situation to resolve of its own accord. 

 According to Catholic theologian, Bernard Lonergan, who studied human cognition and how bias can inhibit our ability to access reality, group bias is a group’s tendency to elevate its own concerns and well-being above that of other groups. According to Lonergan in his book Method in Theology, humans naturally have a sense of what he calls the “prior we,” which is a fundamental sense of communion with others built into our psyche.5 For Lonergan and King, we are not fundamentally individuals, but rather persons in community. 

At later stages of the general bias of common sense, we can once again become numb to its effects. Lonergan argues that, under the influence of the general bias of common sense, we fail to ask certain questions and halt the process of our intellect growing or changing. Naturally, our brains seek out new information about the world, but we can train ourselves to stop seeking, to stop asking questions and seeking insights about the world. This refusal can then become a habit.

These two types of bias—group bias and the general bias of common sense—allow us to flesh out King’s account of white supremacy. King recognized that the original incoherence baked into the American experiment by the founding fathers had metastasized—spreading incoherence into other aspects of society. In an effort to maintain our own interests, white people have historically allowed group bias to infect our common sense such that we often are no longer aware of the distortions of reality that we’ve surrounded ourselves with. These distortions have led white America to develop what Lonergan refers to as a scotoma, which is a collective blindspot that blocks part of one’s field of vision. Despite Lonergan’s ableist language, we can see that he is right inasmuch as much of white America is unable or unwilling to perceive the devastating effects of white supremacy that are all around us. 

A distortion of reality is clearly a problem; however, it does not only negatively affect Black people. Lonergan notes that we cannot partition off the incoherent parts of our common sense. The inconsistencies and distortions inevitably spread, such that truths are ignored that would lead to social, political, and economic changes that challenge white supremacy. White supremacy, thus, is baked into the American psyche—contributing to cultural decline. As Lonergan states, “If the sins of dominant groups are bad enough, still the erection of their sinning into universal principles is indefinitely worse; it is the universalization of the sin by rationalization that contributes to the longer cycle of decline.” Thus, what started in America as the sins of the founding fathers has been carried through the generations and affected white America’s ability to make sense of the world.

The repression of insights that challenge white supremacy is damaging in its own right, but, as philosopher David Nordquest notes, it also leads to the suppression of other insights that would benefit society. Material advances may still occur in the areas of technology and industry when insights are suppressed, but larger cultural issues remain unaddressed. This failure to attend to the health of culture is exactly what King names in his sermon, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” wherein King imagines what Paul would write to America. In this sermon, King channels Paul and rebukes America stating, “You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. … Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood.” Thus, white people in America are subject to a degraded moral heritage and shaped by a warped dialectic of community, and we contribute to these distortions and reify the sins of the past when we allow them to continue into the present. 

We live in a society that is deeply irrational, and thus our natural intelligence has difficulty engaging with our society due to the increasing incoherence of our worldview. Lonergan refers to this incoherence as the “social surd,” which is the cumulative effect of allowing irrationality and incoherence to fester and shape our perspective.6 

The other piece of good news is that we were made to be in community with God and each other. The Christian story is one where creation begins as good, created by a good God. We have long inhabited a world choked with sin and death, but that’s not where we come from or ultimately where we are headed. God is at work in the world, redeeming and renewing. The New Jerusalem is on its way, and we are called to participate with God in the process of making all things new.

[1] Introduction to The Radical King xv-xvi

[2] Gary Dorrien, Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel

[3]  Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 77. 

[4] Ibid, 85.

[5]  Chapter 3, Method in Theology

[6] Chris S Friel, The Social Ontology of Christian Smith and Bernard Lonergan: Challenge and Response

David Justice

David Justice is a PhD candidate at Saint Louis University writing his dissertation on the political theology of Martin Luther King Jr. He is also concurrently enrolled as an MA student in the religion department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

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