There are days when I’m tempted to sit in stupefied, silent awe at white supremacy. The night I watched the map of the U.S. turn red as Donald Trump won the presidency was such a day. The night men marched the streets of Charlottesville, wielding tiki-torches, chanting “Blood and soil,” was another. The day a terrorist entered a New Zealand mosque and shot 49 innocent people while they prayed was yet another. There are countless more.
Such days represent periodic moments of clarity, revealing just how durable, pervasive, and resilient the beast is that we call white supremacy. The old forms of oppression adapt and evolve into the present. The old debates are taken up by new interlocutors. For every step toward racial progress, there seems to be two steps backward. It’s enough to make a person want to throw up their hands.
In recent years, I’ve come to believe that there’s a thin line between despair and worship. I grew up in the world of American evangelicalism, and one of the hallmarks of many Sunday gatherings in that world is the lifting of hands while people sing about the greatness of God. Many people define this gesture, to lift their hands, as a sign of praise and surrender.
People throw their hands in the air and sing about how God is bigger and stronger, and can crush any opponent. Sometimes, it feels like we’re doing the same thing when we throw up our hands in defeat at social injustices. There’s a trippy Bible passage that reminds me to resist that urge.
Who is Like the Beast and Who Can Make War Against It?
In the Book of Revelation, the apostle John records a vision of a miracle-working, many-headed beast, representing the Roman Empire, that emerges from the sea. The beast calls fire down from heaven. One of its head’s comes back to life after suffering a fatal wound. The whole world seems to be amazed at these displays of power and throws up their hands singing:
There are two types of people watching the beast. There are the patriots who subscribe to the empire’s ideology and worship Caesar, who sing out of enthusiastic allegiance. Then there are the “woke” few who see the true, monstrous character of the regime and its leader.
The woke think they wouldn’t be caught dead singing along with the sheeple of the empire, and yet they often do without even realizing it. Every time they are overly impressed with the empire’s capacity for oppression, throwing up their hands in resignation, they are also singing “Who is like the beast and who can make war against it?”
We do this too. In despair, we throw up our hands saying:
“Who is like white supremacy and who can make war against it?”
“Who is like systemic racism and who can make war against it?”
“Who is like anti-blackness and who can make war against it?”
This tendency to stumble into a kind of worship of the ills with which we contend is a part of one famous black scholar’s complaint about another popular writer’s work on race: “In short, [he] fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable.”
Answering the Question
On these days, when I am reeling from some exhausting display of anti-blackness, I refuse to throw up my hands to white supremacy. I refuse to give it praise by naming it unbeatable. I refuse to present it my hope as an offering.
Instead, I choose to gaze at the history of those men and women who have opposed white supremacy before. I choose to be in awe of Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass, of Fannie Lou Hamer and Dr. King, of Mandela and Caesar Chavez. The fight against racism has involved many battles and will require many more. I choose to look at the victories, past and present, of ordinary people against that monster, in this long battle for justice.
They call the people “The Sleeping Giant” for a reason. When we are awakened to our collective power to organize and fight for change, there is little that can stop us. We have gained ground against white supremacy before. We can do it again. We can do it until racial justice is our common sense.
Every little victory in the history of this conflict is an answer to that ancient question: Who can make war against white supremacy?