One night William Stringfellow dreamed that he was stabbed with a knife on 125th Street in Harlem, at the hands of a black man who had asked him for a light. Stringfellow then lived in Harlem not far from there. He was a white man who graduated from Harvard Law School and, in 1956, promptly put his training to use in the streets. He was doing his part. Yet it was clear to him in the dream, he later wrote, that “the murder was retribution.” Further: “No white man is innocent.”
The re-emergence during the past year of outrage over racial injustice has prompted many white people to wonder what they might do. What policies might one propose and advocate to combat economic inequality along the lines of skin color? What condolence might one offer to the victims of mass incarceration?
A leader in the Black Lives Matter protests, Alicia Garza, has said, “We need you defecting from white supremacy and changing the narrative of white supremacy by breaking white silence.” But well-meaning speaking-out can have its hazards, too. Another activist’s exasperated blog post, titled “Dear White Protestors,” repeats as a refrain, “This is NOT about you.”
Much of Stringfellow’s output as a lay theologian takes up the challenge of what can usefully be said by white allies about racism in the United States of America. (He died 30 years ago this month; a collection of his writings, Essential Writings, is now available from Orbis Press.) Stringfellow wrote from the echoes of Harlem, the North’s subtler but no less cruel counterpart to the Jim Crow South. Harlem taught him a theology of the demonic principalities—institutions, ideologies, idolatries—that lure us into the dominion of death. Racism, as a principality, is not an aberration of a few cross-burning racists but a condition that manifests itself most pervasively among those who pretend to be innocent of it. Again, “No white man is innocent.”
“If you want to do something,” Stringfellow told an audience of concerned members of the clergy in 1963, “the most practical thing I can tell you is: weep.”
This was both a reprimand and a policy proposal. The challenge before white people was not more ingenuity or eloquence but, as he wrote in My People Is the Enemy, “they must surrender their prerogative of decision.” It is for the people who know injustice best, by having suffered it, to choose the path of liberation and lead the way. It is for white people to follow and to relinquish the privileges of supremacy. “The preface to reconciliation,” he continued, is when white people begin “risking their lives and the future of this society in the hands of the Negroes.”
Though I have no statistics on the matter, the bylines and photographs that tend to appear in this magazine suggest that its readership is far more white than the actual makeup of the Catholic population in the country today. I wonder if to such an audience Stringfellow’s words ring as scandalously today as they did in the early 1960s. They ring at least as true.
Partly in anticipation of the coming papal encyclical on the environment, I have been meeting with a group that seeks to support those on the front lines of the climate crisis, who are disproportionately people of color. We shared a supper recently with a group of organizers in the Black Lives Matter movement. This society heaps on our communities the waste it can’t put anywhere else, they reminded us. Yet in the white-dominated environmental movement, their voices remain on the margins.
White people have managed not only to reap the profits from climate change, and to predominate among its deniers, but also to weaken efforts to stop it by making others feel unwelcome. As the journalist and activist Naomi Klein has written, “White supremacy is the whispered subtext of our entire response to the climate crisis, and it badly needs to be dragged into the light.”
William Stringfellow had a tragic tenor to his white ally-ship, but he also sought to be a Christian in it. (He was an Episcopalian, to be precise.) He affirmed the gospel of life as much as he railed against the kingdom of death. And he believed them to be integrally related.
“My hope,” he wrote, “begins in the truth that America is Babylon.” Only when we recognize our fallenness is there the possibility of redemption. “The good news is relative to the veracity of the bad news.”