Escaping the Web of White Supremacy
Our Most Urgent Task in the Work of Character Formation
Richard T. Hughes

When it comes to understanding race in this country, I have been a very slow learner all my life.

When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” I was twenty years old and a college student in Arkansas, living not far from the great, defining events of the Civil Rights Movement. But I might as well have been on the moon.

What I remember most about those years is that I remember nothing—nothing at all about the Children’s March in Birmingham, nothing at all about the police dogs that attacked them, nothing at all about the high powered water hoses that took the skin off the young marchers, and nothing at all about the paddy wagons and the jails. I didn’t read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I didn’t even know he had written it.

Malcolm X was murdered on my birthday in 1965. I didn’t know who Malcolm was.

The fact is, the Freedom Movement passed me by like a ship in the night.

That failure to listen, to hear, and to see defined everything about my world. It even defined the church-related college I attended from 1961 to 1965. Virtually all of my professors had dedicated themselves to the work of shaping character—Christian character—in the lives of their students. There can be no question about the purity of their intentions. Still, they did their work in the context of a highly circumscribed, whitened world that paid no attention and no regard to people of color.

Today I recognize that failure to listen, to hear, and to see as the heart and core of white privilege. The fact is, I was a privileged college student, preparing for a life of greater privilege than even my parents had known. I was living in a bubble called the American dream. And it was that bubble—that whitened, all-encompassing bubble—that rendered Martin Luther King Jr. and the black struggle for social justice irrelevant to my concerns.

Not until 1967 did I begin to wake up to the tragic realities of racial injustice in the United States. What woke me up were the protests and the foment over race and war at the University of Iowa, where I was a doctoral student. Slowly, I began to see and hear what black people wanted white people to know about our nation, our churches, our schools, and, indeed, about ourselves.

But part of me remained in a stupor.

Fast forward now some forty-five years to 2012, when I participated in a panel discussion at the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion. That panel convened around James Cone’s important book on the role white Christians played in lynching black people in the United States. That book is titled The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

As a white man, I knew I couldn’t critique a book on “the lynching tree.” So I simply told my story in light of Cone’s book. As part of my presentation, I explored the five American myths that I discussed in the first edition of Myths America Lives By—that the United States is a chosen nation, a Christian nation, and an innocent nation; that the United States is also nature’s nation, fully in sync with the natural order of things; and that the United States is the millennial nation, ushering in a golden age for all humankind.

When I concluded my remarks and took my seat alongside the other panelists, James Noel, a professor of African American Christianity and American religion at San Francisco Theological Seminary, leaned over and whispered, “Professor, you left out the most important of all the American myths.”

“And what might that be?” I inquired.

“The myth of white supremacy,” Noel replied.

My initial response to Noel’s assertion underscores, on the one hand, the subtle power of the myth of white supremacy and, on the other, why so many white Americans would likely reject Noel’s claim. I had spent years thinking about the Great American Myths. I had taught classes and written books and articles on that subject. While I acknowledged the persistence of racism in American life, not once had I considered the notion of white supremacy as an idea that has been central to the American mythos. I understood that avowed white supremacists stalked the American landscape, but I had always viewed them as standing on the margins of American life. To suggest that white supremacy was a defining American myth struck me as preposterous.

But as I reflected over many months on what Noel had said, I began to see his point. I began to see that even whites like me—whites who strongly reject racist ideology—can escape the power of the white supremacist myth only with extraordinary effort, if at all. This is because assumptions of white supremacy are like the very air we breathe: they surround us, envelope us, and shape us, but do so in ways that we seldom discern. Put another way, notions of white supremacy are so embedded into our common culture that most white Americans take them for granted, seldom reflecting on their pervasive presence or assessing them for what they are.

After sharing these ideas with a black church some months ago, a woman from the church explained that she and most other African Americans think about white supremacy every single day. They think about it, she said, because they have to. They think about it when a store employee stalks their every move in a retail outlet. They think about it when they have to explain to their children what not to do and what not to say in case they are pulled over by a cop. They think about it when they encounter daily micro-aggressions. Part of the meaning of white privilege is that white people don’t have to think about white supremacy at all. And that is why white supremacy is like the air we breathe.

I have told these stories to help us discern the powerful ways that white supremacy routinely undermines our work of building and buttressing character in the lives of our students and our parishioners. If we fail to grasp the power of white supremacy for what it is, we may very well do our work from the confines of a white-washed bubble. We may well indulge ourselves in the illusion that we are working at character formation when, in reality, we merely reinforce in the hearts and minds of our students the very same notions of white supremacy that have shaped us, their teachers. We risk raising up students—especially white students—whose goodness and morality chiefly serve the interests of people who look like them. Finally and inevitably, if we fail to grasp the power of white supremacy, we insulate ourselves and our students from the ethical concerns that stood at the heart of Jesus’s life and ministry. And that is why I believe that the work of unmasking the myth of white supremacy is our most urgent task in the work of character formation.

James Noel’s comment drove me, in time, to thoroughly revise the first edition of Myths America Lives By and to place the myth of white supremacy at the very heart of the American experience. I finally grasped the truth that African Americans have understood for years on end—that the Myth of White Supremacy is, indeed, the primal American myth that informs all the others and, second, that one of the chief functions of the other five myths is to protect and obscure the Myth of White Supremacy, to hide it from our awareness, and to assure us that we remain innocent after all.

When I had finished writing the revised edition, I sent the manuscript out to readers, both black and white, for comments and suggestions. A white scholar and friend who resists racism with all of his might and whose work I hold in the highest esteem, responded with this comment: “I fear that you may…undercut yourself by reaching too much [and] depicting this myth [of white supremacy] as the root problematic myth.…It seems somewhat arbitrary to me to give…white supremacy a sort of logical priority among the myths.” He therefore suggested that I eliminate the contention that white supremacy is the primal myth and argue instead that it merely overlaps and connects with the other American myths.

When I asked several African American scholars to assess my friend’s critique, they responded viscerally. They argued with passion that James Noel was right—that the Myth of White Supremacy is indeed the primal myth that drives American life and history, and that to tell this story in any other way would be to perpetuate a lie.

The radically different responses from the white reader, on the one hand, and the black readers, on the other, was an epiphany for me and helped me see the other truth that underpins this book—that in the United States, black people and white people live in two very different worlds. These worlds are so different, in fact, that most whites—indeed, most white, Christian scholars—have a difficult time even hearing the black lament, much less understanding it.

How many white Americans in the mid-nineteenth century, including white Christians, could grasp the truth that Frederick Douglass spoke when in 1852 he asked that searing question, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” “I answer,” he said,

a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness swelling vanity…your shouts of liberty and equality hollow mockery.

And how many white Americans in the mid-twentieth century, including white Christians, could even begin to grasp the truth that Malcolm X spoke when he said in 1964, “I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”

If white people listen to people of color, we will hear a very different story from the one we typically hear, for people of color know from painful experience that white supremacy is not the exclusive property of marginal groups like the Ku Klux Klan. People of color know from experience that white supremacy is part of the American DNA.

They know this because they have lived it, but most white people resist their voices because we fear they will tell us truths about ourselves that we do not wish to hear. And so we push back. We mute these voices, we distort them, and we malign them. We have done that to every black prophet who has arisen in the United States. We did it to Martin Luther King Jr., whom FBI director J. Edgar Hoover labeled a communist with the strong support of many white American Christians. We did it to Malcolm X, who most white Americans dismissed as a radical subversive. We did it to Angela Davis when we focused on her politics rather than her lament about racial injustice. We did it to Muhammad Ali when he refused to fight in Vietnam. And today we accuse Colin Kaepernick and other athletes of betraying the American flag when they protest police brutality and racial inequality by kneeling during the national anthem.

There is perhaps no more powerful example of our failure to hear black voices than the story of Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago from 1971 to 2008. In 2008, exactly forty-four years after Malcolm affirmed that he saw only an American nightmare, Wright preached a sermon in which he told the truth about the black experience in the United States. “When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly,” Wright said,

America failed. She put them in chains. [She] put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness…and then wants us to sing, “God Bless America.”

And then Wright said the only words that any white person remembered from that sermon—the only words, in fact, that most media outlets reported: “No, no, no,” Wright said. “Not ‘God Bless America’; God Damn America!”

The media didn’t report on the historical context that Wright had developed up to that point. And it didn’t present Wright’s complete statement, for he went on to say, “God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme.”

That single line—“God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme”—was the lynchpin for Wright’s sermon that morning. His text for that sermon might well have been the very first of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me.” But precious few white Americans—including white Christians—could even begin to grasp that point.

The reaction to Wright’s statement among whites was swift and overwhelming. The issue was not that Wright said “damn” from his pulpit. The issue was that Jeremiah Wright, a black man, had summoned divine judgment on white America.

In fact, Wright had spoken words very much like the words we read in the biblical book of Revelation, condemning ancient Rome, disguised there as Babylon, for trading in slaves and building its empire on the backs of the poor.

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great,” John wrote, for she has sold not only gold and silver and sheep and horses, but also “slaves, that is, human souls.” (18:11-13). “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great,” John wrote, for “the merchants of the earth have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness” (18:3). Then John made the crucial point, that God—not Rome—is Lord. “For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns,” John wrote. And unlike Rome, this great God Almighty “will wipe away every tear” and there shall be neither mourning nor crying nor pain anymore.

This was precisely the point Jeremiah Wright sought to make, for when he reached the end of his sermon, he said this:

The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent. [But] where governments fail, God never fails…. I want you to know that you are more than a conqueror; through Christ you can do all things…. God never fails. You can’t put down what God raises up. God never fails. You can’t keep down what God wants up. God never fails. He’ll abide with you, he’ll reside in you, and he’ll preside over your problems…. God never fails.

But white America, including large numbers of Christians, condemned Wright so completely that Barack Obama—a member of that church since 1988—had to break ties with his pastor or risk losing the election. We can trust that precious few in that predominantly African American congregation of more than 8,500—and, for that matter, precious few African Americans elsewhere—criticized Jeremiah Wright for what he said that day.

The nub of the matter is this—if we are serious about the work of character formation, then we must hear what African Americans have been trying to say to white Americans for hundreds of years. If we are serious about character formation, then we must listen to people such as Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X and Angela Davis and Ta-Nehisi Coates. If we are serious about character formation, then we cannot afford to marginalize the Black Lives Matter movement or scholars like Kelly Brown Douglas and Carol Anderson or sports figures like Colin Kaepernick or preachers like Jeremiah Wright.

In the speech that likely got him killed—his 1967 speech at the Riverside Church in New York City where he spoke out against America’s war in Vietnam—Martin Luther King Jr. thundered words that captured the heart of Jesus and, for that very reason, stand as a beacon for the work that pastors, Christian professors, and others do in the field of character formation:

Because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and outcast children I come tonight to speak for them. This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

I grasped virtually nothing of this vision when I was a college student some fifty-six years ago. I grasped nothing of it because my professors grasped nothing of it, even though they imagined themselves seriously engaged in the work of character formation.

Much has changed in this country since I was a college student in the 1960s, and those changes signal hope. Still, we have more work to do if we intend to defeat the demon of white supremacy that stalks our schools, our churches, and our hearts. Until we see the world through the eyes of the weak; until we hear the voices of the voiceless resonating in our hearts; until we grasp and appreciate what King meant when he said that we must stand “with the victims of our nation and those it calls enemy;” and until we, too, can affirm that “no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers”—until we grasp these truths not only with our minds but also with our hearts, our work of character formation will fall miserably short of the ethical vision of Jesus. And we will deceive ourselves, for though we may imagine that we are turning out better people, better Christians, and better citizens, we will turn out instead one-dimensional people—good and moral people in many ways, but people so thoroughly blinded by the bright light of their whiteness that they are numb to the lament of the oppressed.

Richard T. Hughes is professor emeritus at Pepperdine University and Messiah College and teaches at Lipscomb University. He is author, co-author, or editor of over a dozen books, including Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning and The Vocation of a Christian Scholar: How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind. This essay is adapted from a talk he delivered at “The Character of the University” conference at Baylor University, October 17-20, 2019.

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