New initiatives are seeking to curb what is often portrayed as a growing epidemic of heroin use in America. But as Ekow Yankah wrote in a brilliant piece last month, titled “When Addiction Has a White Face," this new attention to the plight of the addicted and the justification from law enforcement that “these are people with a purpose in life” has only come when the faces of addicts are no longer black and brown, but white.
Crack devastated African-American communities and got a military-level police response. When white mortality drops because of heroin and opioid addiction, we deploy interventions, Lazarus drugs, and rehabilitation. White privilege and supremacy in plain view — The War on Drug Offenders vs. The War on Addiction.
And there are many of my white brothers and sisters who will once again read these headlines, or even my words here and believe there is nothing wrong. Accusations of “race-baiting” and “playing the race card” become the poison dart to sink any real efforts at coming to terms with white privilege within the majority culture. And yet there is an addiction, one that the vast majority of white Americans take in with every single breath. The drug of white supremacy has millions of addicts — and it is time for a recovery movement.
Of course, admitting you have a problem is the first step of recovery, and getting white folks to see that is no small task. W.E.B. DuBois famously recounts being at a ball and inviting a white girl to dance, only to be rejected because of his race. In that moment, he says it was as though a veil dropped, one through which he could see the other white couples dancing, but one that he could not break through. The task of admitting you have a problem is the task of seeing that the veil exists.
Earlier this month, I was honored to be a part of a conversation about Jim Wallis’ new book — America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America. As I read the book, I was grateful for the ways Wallis lays out the evidence — from the legacy of slavery to police brutality and mass incarceration, and a powerful reflection on Ferguson and Baltimore as the parables of our day. But what is perhaps most helpful for the white reader of this book are the stories of Wallis’ own recovery — recognizing that his father went to college on the Montgomery GI Bill following WWII, a privilege not afforded to returning black veterans of the war; or getting an FHA loan to buy a house for their family in Detroit when the government did not extend the same financing to African Americans in those days.
Many white folks I know grew up like I did — thinking that white supremacy was for terrible, horrible people who wore funny white hats and burned crosses. Once I finished that family tree project and found out no one in my family was in the KKK or, as far I could tell, ever owned slaves, I could exhale and go about by suburban, white, middle-class existence, never realizing I was inhaling the drug of white privilege with the very next breath.
But on closer examination, there are institutions that I participated in — a childhood church that was part of the largest Protestant denomination in America, founded on the desire of Southern slaveholders to maintain slaves, and a college and seminary that once had ties to the same wealth and bounty that was immorally made on the backs of millions of slaves. During a recent invitation to preach at my seminary, it was painful for me to say, “behind the white Georgian columns of many of our churches lies the blood of our sisters and brothers.”
Recovery isn’t easy. It is painful to recognize that the things you have participated — even reveled in — has meant the suffering of others. As white folks, we have to examine the darker corners of our history and shine a light on the hard things, confront them and seek repentance.
My friends in the recovery movement remind me that they are always “in recovery” — that there is no cure or time when they will cease being in process. There is real truth to that in my own experience of whiteness. As Jim Wallis says in the book, “dying to whiteness” is an essential task, for I am French/English/German, not merely white, or the even more ambiguous categories of “Caucasian” or “Anglo.” Still every journey begins with a single step, and coming to terms with my/our own inexorable privilege is the first step on the path.