by Rev. Lawrence Ware
I am often asked to participate in panels about race. This usually happens in February, because Black History Month is the only time many universities are interested in talking about what ails black people on their campuses. At the end of almost every panel discussion, there will inevitably be a question from a well- meaning, if not naïve, person asking for solutions. After hearing us lay out the complexity and intractability of white supremacy in America, this person will usually ask, “So…what can be done?”
This question comes from a place of optimism about the ability of the United States to overcome the race-based inequity that is foundational to its existence. The person wants a succinct, easy answer that will allow her or him to walk out the door feeling a sense of hope. I never give a hopeful answer.
I don’t think race-based inequality will get substantially better in this country. I don’t have hope.
Ta-Nehisi Coates was heavily criticized when Between the World and Me was published. Many criticized him for being hopeless. Consider the following passage:
You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. . . . Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.
He says it at the end: “struggle over hope.” No, Coates is not hopeful. Why should he be? Anyone who is a student of history can see where this current fascination with racial justice will end.
First, there will be outrage. Then, there may be policy implementation. Finally, there will be complacency while the policy that was enacted is quietly rolled back. Eventually, there will be another moment of crisis, and the process will begin anew. It’s happened before. Slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, civil rights, then Nixon and Reagan—we’ve seen this before. We know how the story ends.
Like the well-meaning person who asks, “What can be done?” many expected Coates to end with hope. They wanted a reason to be optimistic. He was accused of having an analysis limited in scope by the pain inflicted upon black life. I disagree. I think he was just being honest about what he sees happening, because he is informed by historical patterns. The rise of the Trump candidacy, in light of history, is not surprising. Like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan before him, Trump represents a backlash against policies that would help poor, black, and brown people.
This brings us to Christmas.
Typically, this season is thought of as a time of hopeful expectation. That is the conceptual underpinning of the birth narrative. During a time of darkness comes a beacon of hope. Lyrics from “O Holy Night” say it perfectly:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope; the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
A “thrill of hope,” and “the weary world rejoices.” Hope, because finally the one has come to deliver the oppressed from their oppression. The world is weary because of injustice and exploitation. I can see how many can read this holiday as hopeful. I just don’t.
The Jesus story doesn’t end well. Ultimately, he is rejected by many in his day, and he ends up crucified. Not exactly a happy ending. Yet, I think that it is his death that shows us the true meaning of Christmas.
Martin Luther King, Jr., once said,
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. . . .Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
Frederick Douglass said something similar:
If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation…want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning.
To me, that’s the meaning of Christmas: the birth of struggle and sacrifice in pursuit of justice.
There has been marginal racial progress in America. And because of this marginal progress, black Americans are expected to rejoice and be optimistic. Slavery was abolished, yes, but the abolition of slavery was never the goal. Jim Crow was defeated legislatively, but the end of Jim Crow was not the goal. The goal is, and has always been, equality. That’s it. As Malcolm X said,
You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress. . . . No matter how much respect, no matter how much recognition, whites show towards me, as far as I am concerned, as long as it is not shown to everyone of our people in this country, it doesn't exist for me.
“Better” is not equality. Black people in America want equality. The question is not, “s it possible for things to get marginally better?” Of course it is. But will those in power strip themselves of the privilege whiteness affords them? No. I’m not optimistic about that.
Yet, there is still much beauty worthy of celebration. There is beauty in the struggle for equality. There is beauty in building community, as Jesus exemplified, with those who are like-minded in their pursuit of equality. There is beauty in time spent with family and friends. There is beauty in liberating the mind from the chains of internalized white supremacy, capitalistic excess, and patriarchy. There is beauty in this world. There is no need for despair. Christmas symbolizes the responsibility of the moral person to fight for justice—yet, the eradication of injustice in one’s life time is not the goal. The call is to speak truth to power. How that story ends is beyond our control, but it our responsibility to join in the fight.
With that in mind, Merry Christmas. Join us in the fight against inequality.
Lawrence Ware is an Oklahoma State University Division of Institutional Diversity Fellow. He teaches in OSU's philosophy department and is the Diversity Coordinator for its Ethics Center. A frequent contributor to the publication Democratic Left and contributing editor of Religious Socialism, he has also been a commentator on race and politics for the Huffington Post Live, NPR's Talk of the Nation, and PRI’s Flashpoint.