Old White Guy Whitesplains Social Justice

Screenshot of David Brooks’ most recent NY Times column. Link here.

David Brooks has swallowed a big lie. Now he is propagating it:

“…a quasi-religion is seeking control of America’s cultural institutions. The acolytes of this quasi-religion, Social Justice, hew to a simplifying ideology: History is essentially a power struggle between groups, some of which are oppressors and others of which are oppressed.”

Until now, I’ve largely seen the “social justice is a religion” trope from right-wing white evangelicals terrified of losing their political power. Their targets have usually been people like me: pastors who believe Jesus did indeed have much to say on matters of power and oppression. They have simply wanted to discredit folks like me as “not real Christians.” I’m used to this, and have largely let it go.

But David Brooks, who has a much larger platform and sophisticated audience, has now brought this trope into the mainstream. I know a lot of clergy-types and moderates who love Brooks, so I am addressing this primarily to you:

Brooks is giving voice to some of the discomfort you may feel. He’s also completely wrong about activism, and late to the party about symbolism.

Let me start with the obvious bullshit before I come back to the “social justice as religion” trope.

Academics, activists, and organizers ALWAYS point out that symbolic changes are not substantive. This is a truism. A tautology. It’s like saying frosting isn’t cake, or “beauty is only skin deep.” There has been no end of activist writing over how painting “Black Lives Matter” on a street doesn’t change policy, or that “greenwashing” and “rainbow flags” don’t solve anything. “Performative” allyship is primarily about “virtue signaling” (like “politically correct”, this phrase was a liberal self-critique before conservatives co-opted it). And historically-oppressed groups need “accomplices, not allies.” So in pointing out that symbolic changes are… well, symbolic… you are very, very late to the party, David Brooks.

Yet symbols are important, and often most important to the people who say that they *are not*. It is an old, old trick to pretend you don’t care that someone attacks a beloved symbol. Symbols and the rituals around them have power. If they didn’t, most religion would evaporate.

Which brings us back to “religion.”

As a scholar of religion, I need to point out that there are a lot of things that can be called “religion.” Sports, for example, have chants, hymns, rituals, codes of ethics, myths, and sacred texts.

But the rhetorical goal of calling this movement for social justice a “religion” is not to give it importance, but to discredit it. It’s to create a binary choice for people who do consider themselves religious (to support a “false” religion or their own) and for those who do not (to be “religious” or agnostic). It’s to rebuke white evangelicals, some of whom are just waking up to the fact that systemic oppression might be something God cares about, and a call for them to return to the individualistic, status-quo, white supremacist religion of their predecessors.

There is little institutional organization to this anarchic, diverse, grassroots movement we are seeing, so slapping the label “religion” on it is a way to both create a false expectation it can never live up to and to elevate Brooks’ own worldview, which is thoroughly white, male, respectable, and homogenous.

Brooks’ rhetoric also obscures and marginalizes the religious and theological critique of white power. This is especially harmful to womanist, black, and queer theologians and pastors who have been calling us religious folks to take this stuff more seriously for AGES.

There’s a lot more wrong with this article, like the fact that he accuses SJWs of being narrowly focused both on “symbolism” and “structures.” It comes off as argle-bargle from an old white dude. I think he’s anxious that his voice might have less power in the new world that is emerging. “A hit dog will holler,” as they say.

So as one white dude to another: grow up, David Brooks. Take several seats. Read a book. Listen before you opine on stuff you know little about. People have been talking about this stuff LONG before you.

Be Specific! (Dismantling White Supremacy)

White colleagues:

Dismantling white supremacy requires more than soul-searching. We also need to talk about policy. Specifically these three:

1) Criminal justice reform: end the disastrous, racially-motivated, failed war on drugs. Treat addiction like a public health problem. Reduce the number of people in prison and on probation.
2) End voter suppression, especially the disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated persons; but also gerrymandering, voter ID, and other forms of suppression.
3) Make reparations. I am partial to Cory Booker’s “baby bonds” policy, but would certainly go for others. The goal here is to reduce inequality, and does not necessarily require proving enslaved, displaced, or other oppressed ancestry.

These three represent the community organizing principle of bodies, ballots, and bucks. White supremacy is manifest in the way violence is inflicted on bodies, political power is drained, and economic power is reduced.

There is certainly personal, relational, spiritual work that needs to be done by people with whiteness, and that gets hashed out on social media a lot. Most of it can be distilled into people shouting “TRY HARDER!” which may feel good to say but is ultimately unspecific and demotivating. But these are concrete *policy* issues that we need to talk about and support to dismantle white supremacy. Some are actual bills in front of your state legislature this year.

Why these particular three?
A) There are *only* three because three is easy to remember when you talk to your white friends and family.
B) There is already bipartisan support and momentum for some of them (specific bills for the first two).
C) They affect the material conditions of people’s lives, and disproportionately affect black folks. But they *also* affect a lot of white folks.
D) Victory can be leveraged for more power in the future,
E) You might even convince your racist friends and family to support them.
F) I’ve placed them in what I believe is an ascending order of difficulty, but YMMV.
G) There could certainly be others and I will gladly accept correction by either black folks or experts on policy.

White allies need to get well-versed in policy. I don’t actually care* if someone agrees with me about the sources and abstract mental models of what racism is. Don’t bother trying to get them to admit or recognize privilege, because a) it only makes them defensive and b) those things don’t necessarily affect the material conditions of people’s lives.

You can’t convince crazy Uncle Roy that he suffers from white privilege, so ask him instead if it makes sense to pay $30K a year to keep people in prison instead of paying $3K a year on a drug recovery program. Ask him if he thinks it’s good that “The Land of the Free” incarcerates more people than any nation on earth. Appeal to his values.

These are topics we know white people will budge on if framed the right way.

Root out implicit bias, do the internal work, deal with white fragility, yes, sure, absolutely. But when we talk about white folks talking to white folks, we need to avoid the rhetorical conversion fallacy: I don’t actually need to get people to *agree* with me. And it may be easier to get traction with some folks talking about policy rather than feelings and attitudes.

Also, people don’t actually tend to change from the inside out. They don’t have a conversion experience and then change behavior. They change from the outside in. (I’m a preacher, and I’m VERY skeptical of the power of internal conversion.)

So talk about concrete things: 1) criminal justice reform, 2) ending voter suppression, and 3) reparations. Those are way more important than getting Uncle Roy to stop saying “All Lives Matter.”

*(Okay, I DO care about how white people understand racism, and I WANT them to do the spiritual work, but I also know not to throw pearls before swine. I need to think about the intended outcome of a conversation when we enter it, and if it’s to make people agree with me, I’ve probably already lost.**)

**(Once you abandon the conversion fallacy, you are more free both to listen and to speak. Creating disruption and discomfort are also legit rhetorical goals. You do not have to “win.”)

That is all.