Scholar strike for racial injustice

A bunch of U.S. professors and scholars will stop teaching and attending to routine meetings today and tomorrow, in order to have a sort of “teach-in” about racial injustice in America. On the blog of Academe magazine, Anthea Butler and Kevin Gannon write:

“Scholar Strike is both an action, and a teach-in. Some of us will, for two days, refrain from our many duties and participate in actions designed to raise awareness of and prompt action against racism, policing, mass incarceration and other symptoms of racism’s toll in America. In the tradition of the teach-ins of the 1960s, we are going to spend September 8–9 doing YouTube ten-minute teach-ins, accessible to everyone, and a social media blitz on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to share information about racism, policing, mass incarceration, and other issues of racial injustice in America.” Link to full blog post.

It was Anthea Butler, professor of religious studies and Africana studies at UPenn, who started the whole thing with a tweet towards the end of August. I’ve been interested in her work for a while now: she keeps getting quoted in news stories I read, and she’s got a book coming out in the spring, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, that I’m looking forward to reading.

Butler and Gannon also acknowledge that many, perhaps most, scholars working in academia, will not be able to participate in the strike:

“We are also acutely aware of the precarity of most college faculty; many of our colleagues hold positions in which they cannot step away from their duties for a day or two, or are covered under collective bargaining agreements. It might seem odd to think of college faculty as “workers,” but the stereotype of the fat-cat tenured professor is not an accurate one. Indeed, 75 percent of all credit hours in US colleges and universities are taught by underpaid adjunct faculty, who not only lack the protections and benefits of full-time faculty, but are employed on a class-by-class, term-by-term basis. Even those of us in more secure positions still work on campuses where fiscal crises and a pandemic have combined to make everyone’s employment status precarious….”

And of course it’s a challenge to do this kind of teach-in when many students aren’t even on campus due to COVID — and of course, distance learning was already becoming the norm for many colleges and graduates schools, since distance learning is so much less expensive for the administrators to operate. Nor is it a coincidence that distance learning also makes it much harder to fan the flames of discontent among students.

Follow the strike live:
Scholar Strike Web site
Scholar Strike Youtube channel
Scholar Strike Facebook page
Twitter hashtag #ScholarStrike
Canadian Scholar Strike
News stories:
Inside Higher Ed article
Religion News Service article (emphasizes religion and theology scholars)

Click on the logo above to head to the Scholar Strike Web site.

“My religion is humanity…”

Alice Locke Park, pacifist and early feminist, was a member of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto from 1907 to 1920. Alice resigned from the church in 1920 in protest of the way some people in the church supported the the First World War; she was probably referring to people like Rev. Bradley Gilman and George Fullerton Evans, both of them saber-rattlers who spouted pro-war “propaganda” (in the words of another pacifist in that congregation). She later joined the Quakers. But she was a Unitarian for 13 years, and some of her writings seem to me to encapsulate a very contemporary Unitarian Universalist worldview—like this statement:

My religion is humanity—humanitarianism—confident that the present time is all that we are sure of, and [that] our duty, our progress and our usefulness are all here and now—If we think earnestly of the present and try to do all we can right here and now—we are at least sure of immediate results. My religion is boundless—Nothing human is alien to me. [quoted in Eunice Eichelberger, “‘Hearts Brimming with Patriotism,’” ed. Robert W. Cherny, California Women and Politics: From the Gold Rush to the Great Depression, Univ. Neb. Press, 2011, pp. 321-332.]

I think this would make a good responsive reading, if you arranged it something like this:

My religion is humanity—humanitarianism—

Confident that the present time is all that we are sure of, and that our duty, our progress, and our usefulness are all here and now—

If we think earnestly of the present and try to do all we can right here and now, we are at least sure of immediate results.

My religion is boundless—Nothing human is alien to me.

Not that this is some final definition of religion, some kind of dogma. By the end of his life, my father had become such a strong environmentalist that he refused to call himself a humanist any more, and I can imagine his criticisms of this reading. Nevertheless, the call to action and the appeal to a wide humanitarianism should be pleasing (if not definitive) to most.

Where the battle will be fought

All praise to the protesters. I didn’t go to any anti-racism protests myself, because I’m in a higher risk group for COVID-19, but the world-wide protests have brought anti-black racism and unjust policing practices to world consciousness.

But now comes the hard part: working at the local level to end unjust policing practices. This is going to be hard because we’re all going to have to dig into the messy details of local politics.

For example:

Last night, I received an emergency email from the San Mateo branch of the NAACP. Someone discocvered an unpleasant surprise in the agenda of today’s meeting of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. Rev. Lorrie Owens, president of the San Mateo branch, writes:

“The Board will be voting on a resolution to approve the Fiscal Year 2020-2021 budget, which includes an item we are vehemently against. Last month, at the 05/05/2020 Board of Supervisors Meeting, the supervisors vote to waive the Request for Proposal process to allow for an expenditure of not to exceed $922,110.83 to purchase 310 new Tasers for Axon Enterprise, Inc.”

In other words, the Board of Supervisors is going to budget nearly a million dollars to buy a weapon that has been used disproportionately on people of color, and is linked to unjust policing practices. And the Board is doing this in the face of an impending budget crisis brought on by the massive economic crisis we’re facing.

Well, I submitted a comment to the Board, although I read the NAACP email too late and missed the deadline for public comments. Yet I’m sure there will be plenty of NAACP members who submitted timely comments, and whowill be able to attend the online meeting, and speak against this unjust and fiscally irresponsible budget item.

But my real point is this: the policies that result in unjust policing are rooted in this kind of obscure local politics. The decisions to militarize the police, to authorize the police to use disproportionate force, don’t get made by police chiefs or police officers. These decisions get made by local officials, often in the form of budget priorities. Most of these local officials mean well, but their actions receive little scrutiny by us voters.

In other words, the responsibility of us voters goes beyond voting once a year in general elections. We also have to watch over local officials throughout the year. And if you don’t have the time or expertise to dig into county budget details (I know I don’t), then you join an organization that you trust to do that digging for you.

If you’re healthy enough to go to protests, by all means go. But anyone who cares about anti-racism and unjust policing also has to commit to being involved in local politics. And, based on my experience, joining your local branch of the NAACP is a good place to start influencing local politics.

Battling implicit bias

Questions have been raised about the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a psychological test which purports to find implicit bias in individuals. Olivia Goldhill, writing for Quartz, an online business journal, reports that the IAT has a low reliability, or test-retest, score; where perfect reliability would score as 1, and strong reliability would score as 0.7-0.8, the race IAT has a reliability score of 0.44, or unacceptable. Goldhill also reports that several meta-analyses have found that the IAT is a poor predictor of behavior.

I have my own criticism of the well-known race IAT, which you can take online at the Project Implicit Web site. I took this test online, and scored as having a low to moderate bias in favor of African Americans. As much as I’d like to think I’m Mr. Egalitarian, I had a problem with the test: it required me to make fast judgments about low-resolution photos of facial characteristics, and I know myself well enough to know that I have poor facial recognition ability — I once passed my mother and younger sister on the street and only recognized them when I realized that these two women were laughing at me — so any test that requires me to recognize facial characteristics is not going to produce accurate results.Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of the actual test, I’m still skeptical of using tests for implicit bias to implement organizational change. In my experience, that’s not the way organizational change actually happens: it’s not as easy as administering a test, identifying who has implicit bias, and then watching the complete eradication of bias. If it were that easy, we already would have eradicated racism, sexism, etc.

“What the ‘Bias of Crowds’ Phenomenon Means for Corporate Diversity Efforts,” an article by Liz Kofman (a change management consultant with a doctorate in sociology), suggests a different path towards changing organizational biases that I find more pragmatic. Writing for Behavioral Scientist, an online non-profit magazine, Kofman identifies three recommendations for organizations wishing to get rid of bias.

First of all, Kofman suggests that we “focus on changing processes, not people.” In other words, forget all those training sessions where you make individuals in the organization confront their inner biases; instead, change your organizational processes to reduce chances for bias. Why don’t more organizations do this? I suspect it’s because it’s much easier to hold a workshop on implicit bias than it is to do the hard and detailed work of changing organizational processes. It’s fine to hold those workshops, and Unitarian Universalist congregations wishing to address bias should continue to offer, for example, the excellent “Beloved Conversations” class developed by Mark Hicks at Meadville/Lombard Theological School. Just don’t expect one workshop to take the place of lots of rather boring but necessary detail work.

Kofman’s second recommendation is to “prioritize process change and stick to it.” She points out that this is not easy; it takes “organizational will and discipline to implement and sustain … new processes.” Furthermore, Kofman says, an organization needs to focus on a few key process changes, making those a priority; otherwise, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with too many changes and then nothing happens. Prioritizing process changes, and sticking to them, has proved to be an insurmountable problem for most Unitarian Universalist congregations I’ve known: lay leadership changes from year to year and so priorities change from year to year; new and attractive projects arise and draw attention away from ongoing projects. It’s easier to do that high-profile capital campaign, or to add solar panels on your building, than it is to stick to the hard work of implementing new organizational processes designed to reduce racism and sexism.

And this brings us to Kofman’s third recommendation: “provide resources and incentives for change management.” Because “everyday processes influence the bias of crowds” in any organization, you need to change those everyday processes; but too often there are not resources to help people change those processes, in addition to which there’s little incentive for change. Take for example a Unitarian Universalist congregations which wishes to become less white. Clearly, one thing you’ll need to do it completely overhaul the intake process — how potential members are greeted on their first visit, the processes used to integrate newcomers into the congregational culture, and so on. All that is hard work, so one critical resource required for change will be staff time, from both paid and volunteer staff; and because staff time is a limited resource, other projects will have to received fewer staff hours. And how will you provide incentives for those staffers, particularly for the volunteer staffers? None of this is easy.

To summarize: While Implicit Association Tests might be fascinating, they are probably not particularly useful tools for implementing organizational change. Instead, congregations seriously committed to, e.g., becoming less white, should pay attention to the change management technique of process change.

A leftist historian’s view

For quite some time now, the very few leftists remaining in the United States have been openly critical of the Democratic Party’s attempts to address racism. This is, in part, because leftists view the Democrats as neo-liberals who are committed to maintaining the inequalities inherent in free-market capitalism. One such leftist is Dr. Toure F. Reed, a historian at Illinois State University. Back in 2015, he published an article titled “Why Liberals Separate Race from Class” in the leftist-socialist magazine Jacobin, in which he offered a historian’s critical assessment of contemporary liberal attempts to  address racism.

In his view, the liberal attempts to address racism in the 2010s (including, e.g., Black Lives Matter, etc.) do not compare well with the anti-racist efforts of the 1950s and 1960s. Those earlier efforts grew out of New Deal labor-liberalism, a very different political context  from the neo-liberalism of the 2010s; the earlier efforts were committed to broad economic egalitarianism, according to Reed, whereas contemporary efforts resist any attempt to include economic class as crucial to fighting racism. In his 2015 article, Professor Reed concluded:

“If one views the excesses and failures of the criminal justice system solely through the lens of race, then victims of police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct tend to be black or Latino. However, if one understands race and class are inextricably linked, then the victims of police brutality are not simply black or Latino (and Latinos outnumber blacks in federal prisons at this point) but they tend to belong to groups that lack political, economic, and social influence and power.

“From that vantage point, the worldview expressed by Johnson and others misses the mark and falls into the same trap that, ironically, liberals have offered a stratum of credentialed black Americans for decades: opportunity within a market-driven political and economic framework that disparages demands for social and economic justice for all (including most black people) as socialist, communist, un-American, or even class-reductionist.”

Three years later, in late 2018, the situation hasn’t changed. And in 2018 Professor Reed published a new book, Why liberals separate race from class: The conservative implications of race reductionism. (New York & London: Verso, 2018). I haven’t read it yet, but I came across an interesting quotation that makes me think that I must read it:

“Emancipation and even Reconstruction were produced by a convergence of interests among disparate constituencies — African Americans, abolitionists, business, small freeholders, and northern laborers — united under the banner of free labor. The civil rights movement was the product of a consensus created by the New Deal that presumed the appropriateness of government intervention in private affairs for the public good, the broad repudiation of scientific racism following World War II, and the political vulnerabilities Jim Crow created for the United States during the Cold War. To be sure, Reconstruction, the New Deal, the War on Poverty, and even the civil rights movement failed to redress all of the challenges confronting blacks. But the limitations of each of these movements reflected political constraints imposed on them, in large part, by capital.”

In contrast to the current Democratic party agenda, I am convinced that racism can only be addressed by tackling classism, and by promulgating a broad egalitarianism. As a result, I don’t fit in well with the much of the political agenda of broader Unitarian Universalism. Our religious tradition is currently dominated by the concerns and outlook of the white college-educated elite (i.e., the majority of our members); elite Unitarian Universalists are unwilling to face up to the extent to which they benefit from the exploitation of the working class, and from the continuation of business-as-usual consumer capitalism. Fortunately, there were a goodly number of Unitarian Universalists who supported Bernie Sanders — even though I would consider him a center-leftist, rather than a socialist — he isn’t as far to the left as, say, Bayard Rustin or the later Martin Lught King, Jr., — but still, he represented a desire for a broad egalitarianism.In any case, I’m going to have to read Professor Reed’s new book.

More from Professor Reed:
“Between Obama and Coates,” Catalyst, Winter, 2018, is a historian’s detailed examination of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s critique of post-war liberalism
“Affirmative Action’s Labor Roots,” Jacobin, 2016, is a vigorous defense of affirmative action

Tree of Life

Early Sunday morning, I got the announcement from Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice: “Local synagogues will be gathering TODAY, Sunday 10/28 at 7PM at Congregation Beth Am for mourning, prayers and mutual support after the tragedy at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, PA. Other congregations are warmly welcome to join them.”

Several of us from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) decided to join them. Just in case there were a lot of people, we decided to carpool over. We left the UUCPA parking lot and drove down Charleston Rd., and by the time we crossed Foothills Expressway we realized we were in a line of cars headed to Congregation Beth Am. Even though we were fifteen minutes early, there were no parking places left, and we wound up parking off the road under a tree.

When we got inside the synagogue, the sanctuary was already filled, and they had begun opening up the sliding doors into the social hall. We helped set up more chairs, then sat down. The woman next to me was checking the score of the ball game; she was rooting for the Dodgers, but said her daughter was rooting for the Red Sox. When she found out that I came with some Unitarian Universalists, she thanked us and warmly welcomed us to her synagogue.

More people kept arriving. They brought out even more chairs. I told the woman sitting next to me that I was perfectly able to stand, so if anyone wanted to sit down, she should give the chair to them. I stood near the door, and watched people stream in. There were a few women wearing hijabs. I saw a couple of clerical collars. Not everyone was white. People just kept coming in, and when I finally turned to look behind me I saw that now the entire social hall was filled, too, and there were dozens of us standing along the walls.

The best parts of the service were the songs we sang together. I couldn’t see the words projected on the screen at the front, but I hummed along as best I could. There were good speakers, too, but how much could you say about the senseless murders of eleven people? One of the speakers who touched me most was a Muslim woman; I don’t remember what she said, but I remember her tone of voice which said she knew viscerally what it was like to be a target, and that we all had to look out for one another. The other speaker who touched me deeply was the rabbi who said that her ten year old daughter didn’t want to go to temple on Saturday morning because it wasn’t safe; her rabbi mother insisted they go, and that touched me because that’s what we have to do: we can’t hide from this kind of terrorism, we must face up to it somehow.

It took a quarter of an hour to get out of the parking lot. While we sat in line, Laurel told us about the door-to-door canvassing she was doing in the Central Valley to turn out the vote. I couldn’t help thinking that politicians need to back off with their divisive rhetoric, even if divisiveness wins votes; I couldn’t help thinking that it’s mostly Republican candidates who are making statements that incite violence — Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln! We can’t hide from this kind of divisive rhetoric, we must face up to it somehow. Door-to-door canvassing might be one of the best ways to do this; we learned this during the successful campaign for same-sex marriage: demonstrably the strategy that worked best in moving people towards tolerance was face-to-face conversations.

UPDATE 11/2/18: According to the Palo Alto Weekly, there were a thousand people in attendance (in the photo accompanying the article, I’m the tall guy standing in the back).

Above: The view from halfway back in Congregation Beth Am (blurry, because I couldn’t hold the phone steady).

The Bible on immigrants

Rabbi Michael Feshbach of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, made a strong statement on June 29. In his opening words, he said:

“Bottom line: he was afraid of the immigrants. They looked different, they spoke another language, they carried on with strange customs, followed a different faith, had a totally new way of looking at the world. Even casual contact, even letting them pass through his country would bring change. And God knows, it might threaten the way things were. And so, we read, that Balak, the Moabite king for whom this week’s portion is name, ‘was alarmed.’ ‘Vayagar Mo’av.’ The root word for being ‘alarmed’ is related, is seems, to the word for ‘ger,’ ‘stranger.’ The ‘other.’ The very one which our Torah and our tradition teaches, time and again — 36 times in the Torah itself — who we are supposed to welcome, who we are to feel compassion towards, against whom we are forbidden to discriminate or persecute or oppress.

“That… that is the heart of Biblical values. No actual and honest reading of the Bible… none… could miss that point.”

In other words, those who are using the Bible to justify the forcible separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border have misinterpreted the Bible.

This is a message that quite a few other religious progressives have been giving over the past couple of weeks: the Bible clearly states that we should welcome the “other,” not demonize them.

Anti-intellectualism among Unitarian Universalists

Kim Hampton nails it in a post titled “Anti-intellectualism in Unitarian Universalism”:

“Why is it, for all of our supposed intellectualism on a wide range of subjects, most Unitarian Universalist show absolutely no curiosity regarding religion itself? Part of the reason Unitarian Universalist social justice work can be so haphazard is because most UUs don’t understand that the only way to sustain oneself in the work of social justice is to have a firm religious grounding.”

Examples of our anti-intellectualism are easy to find: fundamentalist humanists who refuse to engage in thoughtful dialogue with angry theists (and vice versa); those who reduce Unitarian Universalist thinking to thoughtless recitations of the “seven principles”; those who conflate politics of the U.S. Democratic party with Unitarian Universalist social justice; etc.

I think Hampton makes an especially good point about the anti-intellectualism that pervades Unitarian Universalist social justice work. Yes, Unitarian Universalists should be opposed to the current practice of ICE separating children from their parents. But on what grounds do we oppose this human rights violation? — do we ground our opposition in natural law arguments, or in arguments from the Western religious tradition? The answer makes a difference. Back in a 2002 General Assembly lecture (see below), Prof. Carole Fontaine argued that Unitarian Unviversalists occupy a unique niche in human rights work: we should be able to talk with both secular and scripturally-based human rights workers, and thus we should be able to build alliances between these two groups, potentially a very powerful coalition.

But we can’t get to that point unless we get over our anti-intellectualism, and start thinking seriously about who we are and what we can do. And so, right now as Unitarian Universalists we are wasting an opportunity with the humanitarian crisis of the separation of immigrants and their children: had we been more thoughtful and less anti-intellectual, we could on the one hand challenge the completely incorrect Biblical justifications offered for what ICE is doing, while offering a liberal religious denunciation of the ICE abuses; and on the other hand build more effective bridges between religious progressives and secular human rights workers.

More about Fontaine’s lecture…. Continue reading “Anti-intellectualism among Unitarian Universalists”

Immigration detentions

This week, we’ve seen widepsread outrage on social media about the detention of children by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This outrage is a good thing. We should all be outraged.

But I would like to remind people what happened in 2007 when ICE raided the Michael Bianco plant, a defense contractor in New Bedford, Mass. There was a quick surge of outrage, which quickly subsided. And nothing changed in ICE.

Not only that, but the full story of what happened was lost in the noise of the outrage. I was in New Bedford in 2007, where I occasionally served as a chaplain for labor unions, and from union members I heard parts of the story which didn’t get much publicity. Here’s what I heard from union members and other activists in New Bedford:

Just before the raid, ICE contacted state social workers. ICE knew that many of the people they were planning to detain had children, and they wanted the social workers to come take care of the children. The social workers refused: first of all, they knew they didn’t have the resources to take care of children (and, from what I heard, ICE was not offering funding to care for the children adequately); second of all, the social workers did not want to be part of such a ridiculous and inhumane raid.

ICE made the raid anyway. Today, ICE continues to assert that they did nothing wrong. On the 10th anniversary of the raid, WBUR, a Boston radio station, interviewed Bruce Foucart, the ICE official in charge of the Michael Bianco raid, who claimed: “‘We worked with [the then Massachusetts Department of Social Services], we worked with public safety, we worked with the New Bedford Police Department, we worked with the New Bedford School Department officials,’ Foucart says. ‘Our concern was we did not want to have children coming home to empty houses.'” That is not what I heard from union members, who included workers with the Department of Social Services and the police: social workers said children were not adequately cared for. Besides, parents were separated from their children, which is simply inhumane. Despite what ICE said and says, the whole thing was a complete mess.

Worse yet — and these things were barely reported in the news media or in social media — it turned out that the unscrupulous management of the Michael Bianco took advantage of the vulnerability of these mostly Mayan immigrants — because yes, the management knew quite well that their workers did not have proper documentation — by forcing the workers to work two consecutive eight hour shifts each day. Management avoided alerting the state labor department by giving each worker two names. A worker would punch out from their first eight hour shift under one name, then punch back in again with a time card that had a different name. The union members from whom I heard this story pointed out the management of the Michael Bianco plant violated the law in several ways: they forced workers to work hours per week more than the maximum allowed under Massachusetts state law; the workers did not receive overtime pay; and the workers were cheated out of at least some of their base pay.

To make matters still worse, the management of the Michael Bianco plant — the management of a U.S. defense contractor — got away with minimal penalties. A slap on the wrist. That’s all. ICE ruined the lives of the undocumented immigrants and their children, and the people who were really at fault were barely inconvenienced. And ICE learned that the outrage dies away pretty quickly, so they have continued making the same kinds of raids.

Yes, we should be angry at what ICE is doing right now. But please remember that this kind of thing has been going on for more than a decade now. I’ve heard a lot of people saying they want to do something to stop this human rights atrocity, and that’s great — but in the honesty of your own heart, please think back to March 6, 2007. Were you outraged at what happened in New Bedford? Did your outrage back then cause you to work to end the abuses of ICE?

And, as you answer in the honesty of your own heart, will your present outrage last long enough for you to do anything more than send a check to the ACLU? Will your present outrage extend beyond the commonly accepted narrative that the only place ICE commits abuses is along the Mexican border? — can your present outrage extend to ICE abuses in a down-and-out working class city in Massachusetts in 2007? — will your outrage be able to extend to ICE abuses that are happening in Iowa, North Carolina, and throughout the United States, most likely including where you live?

Now, here’s the most important thing I have to say:

Please remember that all injustices are linked. I assume you’re already working on another one of the pressing injustices of our times. Maybe you’re working for well-known campaigns like Black Lives Matter or #MeToo or global climate change. Or you might be working to address less well-known but equally important projects like ending domestic violence, or stopping toxics in the environment, or transgender rights, or nuclear nonproliferation, or literacy, or stopping elder abuse, or labor rights, or whatever. I would suggest that the most important thing for us to do is continue working on the injustices to which we are already committed. Continue that work, and find out how to make explicit connections between our present justice work, and the outrages that ICE is committing. This was the power in what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was doing at the end of his life: making explicit the connections between racial justice, peace, and economic justice — making explicit the notion that all injustices are linked, and that working on one injustice helps the fight for justice everywhere.

It’s fine to feel outrage and anger and fear and discouragement, and all those other complicated emotions that we’re feeling now. But I’d suggest that we not let our present justice work slacken even one little bit. Mind you, if your community is subjected to one of these raids, then you may find yourself having to change your justice focus to immigration raids. But in any case, if your outrage over the border detentions causes you to lose momentum on your justice work, in other words if the outrage gets in the way of doing justice work, please let the outrage go. We need to find solace and support through our justice-making communities, through our congregations, wherever we can — get professional psychotherapy if you need it — but we don’t want to be consumed by outrage.

In fact, I’d suggest that instead of becoming obsessed with news media and social media accounts, you will feel better if you engage in any kind of justice work. Because all injustices are linked, you will be making a difference in the injustices that ICE is currently perpetrating.

“White supremacy” as a strategy for racial justice

“White supremacy” has become a new catch-phrase among those who are trying to fight racial injustice, replacing “white privilege” as the catch-phrase du jour. I think it’s worth asking: will the phrase “white supremacy” help us succeed in combating structural racism, where “white privilege” seems to have failed us? Here are three reasons why I suspect “white supremacy” will fail to make much of an impact:

1. Robin DiAngelo, a professor of social work at the University of Washington (and a white woman herself) wrote an influential paper in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy in which she defines a phenomenon which is relevant here: “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility.”

DiAngelo goes on to propose a pedagogical approach to help white people understand whiteness and racism: “It is useful to start at the micro level of analysis, and move to the macro, from the individual out to the interpersonal, societal and institutional.” This approach, claims DiAngelo, “allows for the pacing that is necessary for many white people for approaching the challenging study of race.” DiAngelo advocates for an “ongoing process” rather than an event. By contrast, I believe anti-racism catch-phrases tend to trigger “white fragility,” which has the unintended effect of shutting down an ongoing process of antiracism.

2. Most of the white people I’ve heard using the phrase “white supremacy” are college-educated professionals; that is, they are upper middle class whites. And all too often, they manage to use the phrase “white supremacy” so that it sounds like they are directing it at others; I mean, if I’m enlightened enough to use the phrase “white supremacy,” then I must be halfway to embodying righteous racial justice in myself, right?

As someone who spent the first dozen years of his work life working in a lumberyard and then as a carpenter, I know I got tired of being condescended to by self-assured upper middle class college-educated professionals who seemed always to assume that they knew more than I did about everything, simply by virtue of the fact that they were professionals and I was working what they considered to be a crappy job. When I hear white college-educated professionals making public statements about white privilege, I hear the same tone of voice I heard when the same class of people condescended to me in the lumberyard. In short, I don’t think the phrase “white supremacy” carries well across the class divide between college-educated professionals and everyone else; nor does it carry well across the many gradations of class that exist within the ranks of college-educated professionals. None of us likes to be condescended to.

3. Finally, it has been my experience that systems change does not happen in a linear fashion. I was first introduced to systems theory by Jay Forrester’s book Urban Dynamics. Forrester was the first one to model systems change as a non-linear mathematical function, and I remember going through the FORTRAN code he printed in the back of that book and realizing that he was modelling systems as interconnected feedback loops represented by GO TO commends. Forrester’s mathematical model provides a couple of useful insights: ordinary cause-and-effect causality does not work with systems; and because of their interconnected feedback loops, systems tend to return to a stable state, except if they suddenly make a leap into a new stable state. Since then, I have found that non-linear models work very well in describing and effecting change in systems like family systems and congregational systems; and I am pretty confident that larger-scale human systems also are best modeled as non-linear.

That being the case, I am skeptical of the efficacy of “white privilege” as a useful tool for systems change in the area of racial justice, as if the simple linear act of naming the problem with linearly effect positive change. Based on past experience with attempts to use linear models to effect change in non-linear systems, I would expect the initial use of the phrase “white supremacy” to provoke strong reactions which effect short-term change, followed by a backlash, and an eventual return to the previous equilibrium. (And this is pretty much what I’ve seen happen with the old catch-phrase “white privilege.”)

How, then, can we effect positive change in the non-linear system of structural racism?

Well, if I could answer that question, I’d already be working on implementing positive change. But I think Robin DiAngelo is onto something when she argues for beginning with the individual. When I look at the astonishingly effective playbook of the same-sex marriage movement, this turns out to be one of their most effective strategies, what Freedom To Marry calls “values-based conversations”: “In California in 2008 and 2009, volunteer-collected data shows that values-based [face-to-face] conversations were moving 25% of all undecided and opposed voters to be more supportive of [same sex] marriage, with half these moving towards undecided and the others moving to be new supporters.” Obviously, the political battle for same-sex marriage differs significantly from structural racism that is cultural and social as well as political (and we can’t ignore the racial make-up of the same-sex marriage movement). But perhaps one thing we we can discover in the success of the same-sex marriage movement is the importance of direct one-on-one conversations between individuals; if us white people can start talking as individuals to one another, perhaps without relying on the current catch-phrases, we might find that we are making some non-linear progress towards out goal.

Not that I believe that values-based conversations will be sufficient to end structural racism. But I do think that some kind of individualized, non-condescending, non-linear approach is about the only kind of approach that will effect permanent and positive change.