Desegregation was to be a bridge toward equity and equality, alongside other bridges fought for during the Civil Rights movement, but one has to wonder. When lynching, sharecropping, rape, convict-leasing, and releasing police dogs on children didn’t work to stop the generations of Freedom Fighters in this country, did we just pivot? Did we just pretend the bridges would actually find a landing ground or were we always intending to simply add more length to every bridge we could—showing off its beauty, making sure we got pats on the back for building it, but knowing it would never find functionality because we would never let it land on the grounds of equity and equality. A longer bridge that’s always under construction simply showcases the vast veil DuBois refers to.
In church and Christian nonprofit spaces, one of the most prominent bridges is “Racial Reconciliation” and there are some ornate and intricate versions. Stages and conferences, hugs and meals, not to mention hashtags all shared by the Bridge’s name. She is a beauty to behold. But where does she land? What does she actually accomplish?
Good friends lived on that bridge: talented women of color who worked at a church where the white, Republican leaders silenced their voices and denied them equitable pay. Questioned their aspirations. Pistol-whipped their anger into submission. Underneath the pretty coat of paint, behind the smiling pictures, Black lives were undervalued. “But we’re working towards equity! We’re not far from finishing the bridge!” the white Christians would respond when they felt the heat. But it’s not just a response; it’s a calculated motto to keep the peace. It’s a technique used to euphemize the actual, difficult, and offensive work of peace-making.
According to Rev. James M. Lawson in his book Nonviolence and Social Movements, “Like lynching, rape and other forms of violence in the segregated South served as ‘tools of psychological and physical intimidation’ that reinforced white supremacy by stripping black bodies of their humanity and underscoring the cheapness of black life.”
While the tools have changed, the output is the same: stripping black bodies of their humanity. These days it’s “colonizers disguised as collaborators” as a Black pastor described it to me. It was violence before that reinforced white supremacy and violence is still about reinforcing whiteness. But violence has a new name: victory—with its zero-sum-game-rules, victory always places one group above another. Racial reconciliation, too often, is actually seeking victory, not justice. In the 1950s the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights created 10 commandments as a pledge they used in their nonviolence training. Commandment number 2 said “Remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.”
Is your racial reconciliation just another form of tokenism? Even if there are BIPOC leaders in your church or nonprofit, is the dominance of white culture expected at that table? Do thoughts, hearts, and glares condescend people who speak with an accent? How do your leaders define “proper” English? Is a certain political party used as a plumb line for one’s faith?
Racial reconciliation is often utilized as another way to win. Another check we can mark off on what our church does right. Another success: we have the videos and the small groups and the right percentage of leadership reflecting the congregational makeup. But reconciliation doesn’t arrive just because we win. Just because we bring in more POC congregants. In fact, winning is what separates us all the more because winning is always individualized. Reconciliation becomes more about boosting up our church’s name, our brand, our denomination. But reconciliation is actually communal; and therefore cannot function as a rung on our hierarchical ladders even though we want it to. I understand why some refuse to use the phrase. It’s yet another bridge painted in the veneer of a job-well-done meanwhile, there is/are:
- BIPOC voices being silenced in leadership, but they are at the table
- A perpetual use of “one day” to silence dreams and hopes of BIPOC colleagues, but they are allowed to express those dreams
- A refusal to name what is White Supremacy, but they can joke about white privilege
- A refusal to confess and name that no white-dominated organization is immune to White Supremacy, especially this one, but they have Black speakers come to their conferences
- Black pastors being told they’d receive support only to realize that when they do something well in the community, they will be seen as nonprofit/church competition, and therefore they will be seen as a threat, not a neighbor, let alone a sibling. But they will call you sister and brother
- Black managers being told they are rebellious when they say something about how white cultural norms dominate the workplace, but they did allow you to be in this managerial position of great honor
This victory causes self-harm too. Adrienne maree brown said in her book, Emergent Strategy, “I am socialized to seek achievement alone, to try to have the best idea and forward it through the masses. But that leads to loneliness, and I suspect, extinction. If we are all trying to win, no one really ever wins.” When the Christian organization offers this same type of individualized achievement-seeking socialization, reconciliation cannot be grasped. The Bridge will have nowhere to land. The prominent goals of churches and nonprofits in racial reconciliation seems to be who can get the trophy for the prettiest bridge. Whose name can be most well-known in the community?
The focus should be on creating a sturdy bridge that lands on a solid foundation sure to last for our future generations; but sadly, we’re building towers to the sky not bridges to each other.
Gena Rucco Thomas