‘No White Man Is Innocent’

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?

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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.”

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Tim O'Leary
5 years 2 months ago
It is liberal anti-family policies that have contributed to the near extermination of a family culture, of all races. But, I agree that it is the individuals themselves (and not just bad policies) who bear the greatest responsibility, with bad life choices, irrespective of the color of their skin. As to where most African-Americans are being murdered, it is in the big blue cities, some of which do not have a single Republican district. Many of the murderers to not even get caught, despite after severa repeatedl killings, so the murder rate is probably related to the incarceration rate. You might consider if death by murder is a greater evil than incarceration?
Chuck Kotlarz
5 years 2 months ago
How do liberal anti-family policies cause divorce rates to run 25% higher in deep red states than in deep blue states? Mass incarceration of staggering numbers of people—primarily young African-American and Latino men has resulted from nonviolent, mostly drug-related offenses.
Tim O'Leary
5 years 2 months ago
Chuck - See my comments above. Regarding incarceration, the percent of African-Americans or Latino men in prison divided by their percentage in the population is the wrong statistic for implying any discrimination. For example, we know that men of all races are incarcerated at a much higher rate than women. That is not grounds for claiming a systematic anti-male sexism. A better statistic is the number of incarcerations divided by the number of convictions or arrests, but even these are not perfect (as arrested men are more likely to be incarcerated than women). If you are looking for a racial slant (something I find unhelpful since it perpetuates racial consciousness and racism) look at the number of murders convicted across racial lines ("blacks" killing "non-blacks" and "whites" killing "non-whites"): is white-on-black crime today worse than black-on-white crime?
Douglas Fang
5 years 2 months ago
“It is liberal anti-family policies that have contributed to the near extermination of a family culture, of all races” – This is utterly nonsense. The family crisis is a worldwide phenomenon and there is nothing to do with liberal or conservative policies. This is why the Pope has put in special Assembly to look at this very problem. Also, it is also similarly nonsense that “white liberals who are responsible for the plight of black Americans”. As we just celebrate the Selma event, I just wonder what happened if those white liberals did not fight for the equality of black Americans. As an Asian American myself, I can attest that a high majority of other Asians feel the same way – there is an unconsciously unspoken and hidden discrimination performed by “angry” white male Americans, especially in the so called red states. You can close your eyes and deny all you want, but it is still there…"We are all sinners..."
Tim O'Leary
5 years 2 months ago
Douglas - the breakdown of the family is indeed happening across the West. It has many contributing causes, but the sexual revolution (breakdown in sexual norms, sex-outside-marriage, multiple partners, etc), no-fault divorce, welfare disincentives to marriage, etc. have all played a role. So, who has been promoting the sexual revolution? I completely agree that "we are all sinners..." but the theme of this article was to suggest that the white man (whatever that is) in particular was a sinner" which takes a racist slant on it. Some Asians may indeed be discriminated by some angry "white male Americans" and this is their own specific sin (Africans and Asians are not free from that sin either). To see how racially retrogressive the titular terminology of this article is, imagine if the title of the article was "no black man is innocent" or "no yellow man is innocent" - wouldn't you find that outrageous?
JR Cosgrove
5 years 2 months ago
This article has nothing to do with racism, poverty or climate change. It really has nothing to do with white guilt and especially it has nothing to do with religion or sin. It is all about a world view, one that has taken a huge beating in the last 60 years. In the early 20th century the intelligentsia had concluded that socialism was the only moral way to organize the world and that capitalism was the cause of most of the recent evil in the world. But events especially in the United States turned this worldview upside down. Socialism was proven to be not the best way to organize society but actually a very inferior way to do so. One example after the other led to the very obvious conclusion that socialism destroyed societies and that capitalism actually led to vibrant and free societies. It was a hard pill to swallow and the true believers never gave up. They changed from an overt establishment of socialism to other goals. They went to "equality" as the holy grail to be sought with the stealth idea that this would eventually lead to their utopia of an equal society where there were no rich governing all and capitalism was a distant thing of the past. As part of this over all objective, their immediate goals had to change and they were changed. Equality was to be the immediate holy grail and this manifest itself in movements to eliminate racial discrimination, equal rights for women in all things, acceptance of homosexuality as an equal life style to heterosexuality, and a movement to protect the environment. It was a multi-pronged effort with each element seeming reasonable but all geared to undermining capitalism and establishing what was hoped for a much better way to organize the world. The tools to accomplish these goals were couched in ideas of fairness, guilt or fear, all based on noble rhetoric. The real objectives were never stated. Instead we continually hear chants about the unfairness of everything, or the devastation to the planet that would occur if we did not act. But these are just wedges to achieve the real goal, the destruction of capitalism and its so called evils. So when Mr. Schneider brings us racism, the environment, or poverty it is not that he cares about racism, poverty or the environment, but because he is using these themes to achieve another goal. He wants us to assent to these fairness objectives or environmental objectives with the knowledge that it something else that is desired. Now does Mr .Schneider know that he is doing this or is he just good intentioned dupe trying to do what he considers noble objectives. I do not know but one thing that is always present with these people is a lack of discussion as to what is the best way to accomplish something. There is no reasonable debate. Otherwise we would get a completely different opinion from what was written above. So let us not kid ourselves that we are all guilty of something or that there are unique great injustices out there (there have been much greater injustices in the past) or that we should weep over something we have not caused. If you want to blame someone, blame God who created us unequal. He created us as we are. This does not mean there isn't something to be done to help the less fortunate. But when someone tries to paint guilt or fear on someone to accomplish an objective, be aware there is a hidden objective.
Chuck Kotlarz
5 years 2 months ago
Capitalism may have unmatched economic potential. Capitalism’s long term track record, however, has been "feast or famine". At best, severe economic contractions are perhaps the worst waste of all, the waste of idle plants and workers. At worst, prolonged economic hardship can stress society into unpredictable outcomes like Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong. Capitalism has neither the tools nor the focus to address all long term interests of society. Marriner Eccles (Federal Reserve chairman from 1935 to 1948) felt a properly managed plan of government expenditures (social security, unemployment insurance, etc.) was essential to preventing economic depressions. In the sixty-four years prior to social security, seventeen economic contractions occurred and unemployment typically ranged from 12% to 25%. Eccles felt a system of taxation conducive to a more equitable distribution of income was also essential to preventing economic depressions. Of the nine worst US economic contractions since 1850, e.g. Great Recession, Panics, Depressions, etc., eight have had a Republican controlled Senate, eight had a Republican controlled House of Representatives and seven had a Republican President.
Martin Eble
5 years 2 months ago
Mankind’s long term track record has been "feast or famine". Visit the abandoned pueblos in the American southwest and see examples of "feast or famine". “Capitalism”, whatever you mean by that, has little or nothing to do with it. In the United States, despite surface differences, at a practical level the two major parties are so close one could not slip a piece of paper between them. People who look for political solutions to mankind’s problems are rendering to Caesar the things which are God’s.
Chuck Kotlarz
5 years 2 months ago
Abandoned pueblos offer little to enhance one’s grasp of capitalism. Might I suggest banking legislation Glass-Steagall. Of the ten worst economic contractions since 1850, none started while Glass-Steagall was active (1933-1999). At a practical level the two major parties have a virtually endless list of differences, such as example forty-three…traffic fatalities in deep red states run twice that of deep blue states. On the contrary, people who look for capitalistic solutions to mankind’s problems perhaps are rendering to Caesar the things which are God’s.
Martin Eble
5 years 2 months ago
Abandoned pueblos offer considerably more than Eccles to enhance one’s grasp of capitalism. I do agree that dismantling Glass-Steagall was a catastrophic error. At a practical level the two major parties drink from the same wells of vast monies, and at the end of the day the substantive issues, not the show issues like "Obamacare" but the issues that ship American jobs overseas, enjoy bi-partisan endorsement. If by "capitalistic solutions" you mean people who recognize that people seek their own welfare and have a right to private property, then they are rendering to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.
Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 2 months ago
This article IS about poverty, the poor. Through the writings of William Stringfellow, we are challenged to look at the poor. Not as a problem to be solved or failures of the system, but as GIFT to those of us trapped in our "security". People to be cared for. Gotten close to. Listened to. Helped. Even reverenced. Stringfellow turns the usual world views (of how best to manage the money) upside down. He even scandalously asks us to put ourselves in the hands of Negros!! Let them decide the course of our fate. William Stringfellow says that the poor make death visible - the poor must contend, daily, with the most primitive concerns of human existence: food, clothing, warmth, housing, rest. Most of us, being affluent, are immune to these struggles creating the illusion that death isn't at work in our lives. But the lives of the poor puncture this illusion. The struggles of the poor reveal the activity and power of death in the world. More, the poor witness to the fact that we, the affluent and rich, live at the expense of others. "What sophisticates the suffering of the poor is not innocence, nor extremity, nor loneliness, nor the fact that it is unknown or ignored by others; but, rather, the lucidity, the straightforwardness with which it bespeaks the power and presence of death among men in this world. The awful and the ubiquitous claim of death is not different for the poor than for others, or, for that matter, for nations or ideologies or other principalities or powers; but among the poor there are no grounds to rationalize the claim, no way to conceal the claim, no facile refutation of the claim, no place to escape or evade it... "...What sophisticates the suffering of the poor is only the proximity of their life to death every day... "...The awful vulnerability of the poor is, in fact, the common vulnerability of every man to the presence and power of death in the world" -- William Stringfellow, My People is the Enemy Strong Lenten meditations ... "The travail of the poor is intercessory for the rich--for them, in their behalf, in their place, it substitutes for their own suffering. They [the rich] would suffer if the poor did not purchase for them some immunity from suffering..." -- Stringfellow As with the message of Jesus, we are still scandalized.
Tim O'Leary
5 years 2 months ago
Beth - sometimes I think you read a completely different article into the one you comment on. I have to go back and re-read the article as I think I have missed some major theme. You say this is all about the poor or poverty, yet neither word is mentioned, and there is only one reference to that subject "economic inequality" - which is quickly given a racial spin, as it is followed along the lines of skin color. On the other hand, "white" is mentioned 17 times, almost in every paragraph and always as the problem people. ("black" and 'color" are mentioned 5 times). This is not surprising given the TITLE! As to the topic you would have preferred to read about - the subsistence poor (the homeless, etc), you make some novel points (from Stringfellow) - the idea that the poor are intercessory for the rich - or that the poor purchase some immunity from suffering for the rich. But, rather than fixate on just the economically poor, perhaps, you might say that all who suffer might "purchase" some immunity for those who do not suffer. There is a lot more poverty beyond the material. And before the modern period of free markets and technological advances and democracy, only a tiny minority would have been affluent, by any modest modern measure. However, the scandal of Jesus was not because a poor man suffered and was put to death - that was sadly not uncommon. Many were put to death because they stole food or for petty crimes, etc. No, the scandal was that the Messiah, a pure and holy and divine God-man, died for sinful humanity (I Cor 1:23) - all of us, rich and poor, of all nations and races, and all times, if only we accept Him as our Savior.
Roberto Blum
5 years 2 months ago
It seems to me that of all the comments on this piece only a small minority is willing to keep denying "until hell freezes" the obvious: white male guilt for racism, institutional discrimination and poverty inflicted on African-americans and other minorities in the U.S. Hopefully we are examining our consciences and taking steps to correct the secular injustices we've committed as a group.
Tim O'Leary
5 years 2 months ago
Roberto - you are even denying the math of this comment string (posted as of 3/22): there are 16 commentators (excluding Nathan the author). Of the 16, only 7 buy into the racist side (as in "all whites are guilty) and 7 support MLKs side (as in judge not by the color of one's skin): TOL, ME, JC, EPM, HG, T & VK. Two othes say nothing about race, focusing their comments on global warming (DL, FJ). But, since your argument is that guilt comes with genetics, then what about mixed race people? Would Obama be 50% guilty since his mother was white? And how do you get to exonerate so-called "white" Hispanics? I really thought our society was beyond such calculations
Roberto Blum
5 years 2 months ago
"White male racism" is not genetics. Never said that it was. White male racism is a socio-economic category. Please don't put in my mouth words I didn't say. Good luck with your ideology. In my count, only TOL, JC, ME and EPM are deniers.
Tim O'Leary
5 years 2 months ago
Roberto. I know math is hard but even 4/16 would not be a "small minority". In any case, I would count VK, TF and HG as being opposed to the white racist slur (to quote TF “The [article] "analysis" above is destructive. For decades---policies have brought about a solid Black Middle Class---despite a history of Southern Democrat hate and racism. However, years of liberal Democrat policies have destroyed inner-city Black communities. “ and HG “Most "White People" are innocent of racism. It is poverty, not racism that destroys lives.). You count the global warmists in your camp but I doubt they are only fixated on "whate male" CO2 production. Why would you still use genetic markers (skin color and male sex) when you mean a non-genetic socio-economic one? If you wanted to exclude white homeless people or white children or white foreigners or white Hispanics or (pick an exception), why not use a more apt term for the people you want to convict of guilt? Maybe, you are not conscious of your inherent racism-sexism? There is a real problem on the left with the use of math language severed from reality. Some examples, 1) a "million-man" march that has only a few hundred thousand attendees; 2) 10% of the population is gay (it is 2% on all large polls), 3) "we are the 99%" (the 85% percentile makes $100k), and most recently, 4) a "hands-up, don't shoot" slogan when it never happened (4 Pinocchios from the Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/wp/2015/03/19/hands-up-dont-shoot-did-not-happen-in-ferguson/?hpid=z4) - ok this isn't math - just a common variety lie.
Roberto Blum
5 years 2 months ago
As usual you have the last word. So be it.
Chuck Kotlarz
5 years 2 months ago
If not racism, maybe politics, perhaps an enhanced gerrymandering as minority felons can’t vote. Recall, the most votes any Republican presidential candidate received from Blacks since 1968 was Gerald Ford in 1976 (15%).
Tim O'Leary
5 years 2 months ago
Chuck - African-Americans are responsible for their own votes, and if they vote purely along racial lines, that would be their fault? You say minority felons can't vote? Do you mean to imply that "white" felons can vote? I think not. The Bureau of Justice Statistics says 82% of felons are male and 59% are "white" - do you really want to restore their right to vote?
Chuck Kotlarz
5 years 2 months ago
“Black” clearly identifies a voting bloc perhaps subjected to a voting purge due to Black’s minimal (15%) support of Republican presidential candidates going back to 1968. Bureau of Justice Statistics notes almost 3% of black male U.S. residents of all ages were imprisoned on December 31, 2013, compared to 0.5% of white males. Based on 2013, a black male was six times more likely to be incarcerated than a white male. Deep red states incarcerate at a 50% higher rate than deep blue states indicating a black male is then nine times more likely to be incarcerated in deep red states than a white male.
Chuck Kotlarz
5 years 2 months ago
See comment below dated 3/23/15.
Eric Whittaker
5 years 2 months ago
I didn't really see a call to action in this article, although I expected one. My personal mission to help my black brothers and sisters consists of this: promote black family structure. Glorify the sacrament of Marriage in word and deed. Make known the countless benefits of married life and of raising children in a two parent household. This seems to be to be a more pro-active approach to treating the inequalities and injustices within the black community. It's at least much better than "weeping" and continuing to repent for the sins of my forefathers.
Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 2 months ago
White men have been the top dog for quite some time now, and are unable to know or understand the situation of the pack. For some reason they get sensitive and defensive when this is pointed out.
Tim O'Leary
5 years 2 months ago
Beth - there is a racial tone deafness on the left. It just cannot give up thinking in racial categories. I do get particularly sensitive when I see so-called progressive Catholics abandon the egalitarian civil rights as epitomized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi. And even though the left says it hopes for a time when racial categories will be a thing of the past, it is hard to take them seriously, as every action they take is to keep it central to their worldview, on so many issues.
Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 2 months ago
MLK came to see that the problem of racism and war are intertwined. This is more complex than just the color of skin. MLK named the triple giants of evil: racism, materialism, and militarism. He was pressured not to make this link, and in fact it took him from 1963 till the famed 1967 Riverside church speech to speak “against the apathy of my own soul” and break his own silence against the war in Vietnam. The result was powerful, controversial, and as of today, still a task for all the real followers of MLK to heed. (I know you'll get the last word on this, so I'm going to formally bow out now :-) )
Chuck Kotlarz
5 years 2 months ago
Sugar coating race helps no one. In round numbers, deep blue states have 40% higher black education attainment (college degree); deep red states have a 40% higher black incarceration rate. Nationwide, 98% of state-level elected Republican officials are white. Five of the ten worst states for black education attainment are deep red states; none are deep blue. Five of the ten best states for black education attainment are deep blue states; none are deep red. Wisconsin, the worst state in the country for black education attainment, may get even worse under Scott Walker’s proposed higher education budget cuts.
Tim O'Leary
5 years 2 months ago
Chuck - you seem addicted to looking at everything through a racial lens. No wonder you see racial injustice everywhere. 1) Have you checked to see if all your numbers could be better explained by socio-income levels, absent fathers, and parent’s education? (see Brookings Inst. link below) 2) In the states that have better black education attainment, don’t the "whites" also do well? 3) Have you looked to see if the incarceration rate has any relationship to the conviction rate? 4) Have you looked at the race of the victims? 5) Do you know that in 2011, blacks were 5 times more likely to be murdered than “whites” and their killer was black 90% of the time (single victim/single murderer stats)? And they were most likely to be killed in deeply blue cities. So, before you clamor for a mass release of the incarcerated, consider how much damage it might do to minority communities. Have a look at the Brooking Institute’s report from last year: (http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2014/05/10-crime-facts) and compare Fig 1 to Fig 5, showing a parallel reduction in crime to a rise in incarceration. They note that the victims of crime are disproportionately poor and black. With the rise in incarcerations, the crime rate has halved since 1980, and the main benefactors of this have been poor minorities, who were plagued by gangs and drug dealers in their communities. As to your blue/red state comparison, even using your own racial terms, your percentages are way off and your racial interpretation is false. From a source very friendly to your analysis (http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/rd_stateratesofincbyraceandethnicity.pdf - Table 6, page 11) the District of Columbia has by far the greatest difference between "white" and "black" incarceration rates - the ratio is 19-fold. This is in a place that is largely governed by African-Americans! Iowa is 2nd worst (14-fold) and Vermont 3rd (13-fold). Alabama is the 4th and Mississippi the 3rd least in difference. The average difference in black-white incarceration was 5.6 nationally in this report, which pales in comparison to discrepancies based on gender. US govt (2013) statistics shows a 13-fold difference in men/women incarceration. But, it is even worse in California (21x). If I were to think like you and judge incarceration rates only by gender, and not take into account the conviction rate, I would have to conclude that there was severe hatred for men in California, a blue state.
Chuck Kotlarz
5 years 2 months ago
“Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won't fatten the dog.” Mark Twain The average number of African Americans that have at least a bachelor’s degree increased 2% since 2000. Good job deep blue states.

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