Whose America does Donald J. Trump want to “make great again”? Confronted as I have been so regularly by news coverage of the part-spectacle, part-genuine presidential campaign, I have had many occasions to puzzle over this slogan, “Make America Great Again!” And I cannot shake the disturbing recognition of the white privilege that undergirds such a statement’s internal logic and narrowly focused appeal.
At what point in the 240-year-old history of the United States was it so great for black people that we would want to return to that “greatness” again? A similar question could be asked about the “Americas” of women more generally, religious minorities, indigenous peoples, Latino/a people, gays and lesbians, and the physically, mentally or emotionally disabled, among others. But here I want to focus my attention on the fact of white privilege and draw attention to a pervasive reality underlying Mr. Trump’s slogan, one that does not receive the attention it must, at least not from many white Christians.
As a white male, especially one who also benefits from an unsought clerical privilege in the church, it is my responsibility to raise this subject personally and publicly and to acknowledge that I benefit from the structural sin of white privilege in a society (and, as some theologians have rightly argued, in a church) that is in deep collective denial about its existence.
The nature of my unwitting complicity with American white privilege and many of the ways I directly benefit from the color of my skin came into stark relief when I first encountered Peggy McIntosh’s now-classic 1988 essay, “White Privilege and Male Privilege.” Ms. McIntosh lists dozens of daily effects of white privilege as she experienced them, including:
“I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.”
“I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”
“I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”
“When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.”
Reading these and other examples, I came to recognize the many previously unacknowledged benefits in my own daily life. Subsequently I have not been able to un-see the white privilege that pervades my being-in-the-world. When I am on planes or buses, in restaurants or stores, or interacting with acquaintances or strangers, I see the manifold ways structural racism marks all bodies in relationship and the disturbing ways some are advantaged while others are disadvantaged.
White privilege affords people who look like me a nearly universal benefit of the doubt while simultaneously casting a shadow of suspicion and incredulity on the motives, reasoning and experiences of black and brown people. White privilege means that people who look like me can go about the world with a sense of entitlement and belonging, whereas people of color are often considered outsiders, aliens and must explain themselves. Because of white privilege, people who look like me never have to confront our nation’s history of systemic racism, while the histories and bodies of black people are erased and ignored.
I confess I have been overwhelmed at times and frequently unsure of what to do in response to this knowledge. Like poverty, sexism, environmental degradation and other structural evils, combating white privilege seems quixotic if not impossible. But its persistence depends very much on the silence and willful ignorance of those who benefit from its reality.
It is not enough for white people merely to acknowledge the reality of white privilege, but it is the necessary starting point. As M. Shawn Copeland, the Rev. Bryan Massingale, James Cone and other black theologians have reminded the church and academy over the years, until white ministers and theologians seriously acknowledge and address white privilege and racism, not much is going to change. Furthermore, as the white Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, wrote in his essay “Letters to a White Liberal” in 1964, until white people are willing to sacrifice their privilege, all their expressed concern about racism is effectively worthless.
It is the brilliant and unsettling work of black and antiracist theologians, as well as that of journalists like Ta-Nehisi Coates and poets like Claudia Rankine, that continues to inform my critical awareness of racial injustice that not only exists but also benefits me. Maybe if white privilege were more widely recognized, America could indeed be great someday.