The Abolition of Whiteness
An altar call for the Souls of White Folk
But this cowardice, this necessity of justifying a totally false identity and of justifying what must be called a genocidal history, has placed everyone now living in the hands of the most ignorant and powerful people the world has ever seen: And how did they get that way? By deciding that they were white.
— James Baldwin, On Being White…And Other Lies, 1984
You worship idols besides God and fabricate falsehood. In fact, those whom you worship besides God have no power to give you your sustenance, therefore seek your sustenance from God
— Holy Qur’an 29:17 (The Spider)
In 1977, Imam W.D. Mohammed launched a national campaign called the Committee for the Removal of All Images of the Divine (CRAID). The purpose was to challenge Black churches’ use of racialized images to depict Jesus and other biblical figures. The strategy was to meet with church leadership to present an argument against iconography rooted in scripture, history, and social science. The Bible forbids graven images of God and the divine, the argument went. Plus, whitewashed images of the divine were not only inaccurate but harmful to the psychological well-being of Black folks. The message echoed the Honorable Marcus Garvey’s edict fifty years prior to “burn all pictures of white Madonnas and white Christs.” Some churches, particularly in Texas, were receptive of Imam Mohammed’s message and removed their statues and paintings. Others refused. In response, his followers would picket outside recalcitrant churches, passing out tracts about CRAID after the services, and holding up signs.
After domestic terrorist Dylann Roof murdered nine Black parishioners in 2015, a new movement against racial iconography emerged. The national debate it stirred centered on whether statues and monuments memorializing white confederate politicians, war “heroes”, and historical figures should occupy public spaces. Similar to CRAID’s argument, those in support of removal of these symbols have done so on both moral and historical grounds.
A day after Roof went on his killing spree, Ta-Nehisi Coates argued a case for removal of the confederate flag saying that, “Roof honored his flag in exactly the manner it always demanded — with human sacrifice.”
In 2017, New Orleans mayor, Mitch Landrieu, gave a speech — borrowing heavily from the work of Take ’Em Down NOLA — about the emotional harm confederate monuments cause, urging his constituents to view them through the eyes of a Black child:
Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are, too?
Since 2015, the discourse has expanded to include schools, plazas, parks, and streets named after white folks ranging from 19th century colonizers to 20th century Klansmen. City councils across the country are now wrangling over the issue and, in many instances, are divided along political and racial lines — those opposed to removal arguing the importance of “preserving history.”
One major reason for the divide is because, in the white imaginary, American history is a tale of light versus darkness. Savage versus civilizer. Jesus and George Washington, Billy Graham and George Wallace are all on the same side. The side of those who walk in the light. W.E.B. DuBois said, “to be white is a virtue” and “the one fundamental tenet of our practical morality.” Any and all idols in white likeness are, therefore, praiseworthy and deserving of honor and recognition. No matter how heinous their treatment of indigenous people or how many enslaved people they owned, they remain the salt of the earth.
This moral erosion has made it quite impossible for those who think of themselves as white in this country to have any moral authority at all privately or publicly.
Growing up in church I used to sit back when the pastor made the call to the altar. He’d begin by asking a question concerning how we were living our lives and in what state we wanted to leave it. I’d watch from my seat as the weary souls of Black folk lined up to kneel down before God. Occasionally, the pastor would come lay hands on some — especially if they were new to the church. They’d catch the holy ghost and their bodies would convulse. Ushers were always on standby to help contain the movement. No one at the altar batted an eye — too concerned, no doubt, with working out their own salvation.
I understood the altar call to be a tradition to help wayfaring souls — the unsaved and those needing to renew their “sacrifice” to God — find absolution. Its roots, however, were much more radical. Long before white evangelicals came to be categorical adherents of the cult of white supremacy, evangelist Charles Finney created the idea of the altar call. A primary purpose of this “new measure” within the church was to enlist converts into the abolitionist movement. It was an outgrowth of his Systematic Theology, which centered on the “unity of moral action.” At the time, and even now, he was criticized by Christian leaders for being a “huckster” and a “quack.”
Finney’s “new measure”, however, gave white folks an opportunity to sacrifice for the liberation of Black people. He believed that “all unconverted abolitionists are slaveholders in heart, and, so far as possible, in life” and therefore a “child of the devil.” Professor and historian of race and religion, Edward J. Blum, observed, however, that “the Civil War and the abolition of slavery [did not] redeem the soul of white America.” Early in his career, Dr. King suggested that “maybe God called [Black people] here…to save the soul of this nation.” Suffrage and the end of de jure segregation, he found, didn’t bring salvation for white America either. Prior to his death he came to realize that Black people’s unearned suffering could not redeem them. White folks would have to work out their own salvation.
In 1997, American author and historian Noel Ignatiev delivered a speech at a conference in Berkeley, California. Throughout his talk, he made the case that the purpose of analyzing white identity is not merely to interpret it but to abolish it. This call for abolition was not for an adoption of color blindness. It was, counterintuitively, the exact opposite. White folks, he argued, must begin to actually see themselves as white. Richard Dyer, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Warwick, explains why in his essay, The Matter of Whiteness:
As long as race is something applied only to non-white peoples, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm…The point of seeing the racing of whites is to dislodge them/us from the position of power, with all the inequities, oppression, privileges and sufferings in its train, dislodging them/us by undercutting the authority with which they/we speak and act in and on the world.
This subversion of whiteness is the only way for white folks to become visible to themselves. For how can they abolish an idol which they cannot see?
Religions are built on myths and rituals. To renounce the cult of white supremacy requires unlearning the myths that uphold it. The myth of American meritocracy. The myth that Black people’s problems are due to cultural pathology. The myth of reverse racism. The myth that having liberal politics or Black friends and relatives means you are free of idolatrous ways.
The core rituals, which give the idol of whiteness its legitimacy, must also be abandoned:
- Absolving white folks’ sins— past and present — via the legal system, print and digital media, literature and in general public discourse.
- Demonizing or disregarding the victims of the various forms of ceremonial white violence via the same channels.
This apostasy is what Ignatiev called being a “traitor to the white race.” It is to “nominally [classify] as white but” also “[defy] white rules so strenuously as to jeopardize his or her ability to draw upon the privileges of whiteness.” What is necessary, then, is self-exile. For to challenge the very foundation of the imaginary construct known as the “white community” is to alienate one’s self from it. From this fission, Ignatiev says, can come the “building of a new human community.”
When Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) entered Mecca after his exile, his enemies feared that the Muslims might take vengeance for years of persecution. Instead, he quoted Prophet Joseph’s words to his brothers after he overcame their plot against him: “There is no blame on you today.” Muhammad added, “Go now; all of you are free.” He knew that exacting revenge would not be conducive to building a new community in Mecca, but that cleansing its heart from idolatry would. The Muslims made their way to the Kaaba, located in the center of the town, and destroyed the idols, marking the beginning of the end of Arabia’s Age of Ignorance.
Since before the founding of the United States, there has always been a fear in the white body politic of retaliation of the enslaved. It is a rational fear for those, like Meccans in pre-Islamic Arabia, that live by the law of retaliation. We do not want revenge. Neither do we wish to be your saviors. We are, instead, calling you to the altar. We are calling you to abolish the idols erected in your heart. In Mecca, the Arabs’ chief idol was Hubal. Yours is whiteness. All the wealth, status and power you’ve accumulated in its false worship must be purified through almsgiving. That is, the economic, social and political capital you have must be used to advance the liberation struggles of all those who have suffered under white hegemony.
To be an abolitionist today is not only about destroying the modern day forms of slavery such as prisons and convict leasing, but also understanding that that work is tied to the vital labor of emancipating yourselves from the falsehood which veils you. It took lifetimes to build this chief idol and will take lifetimes to destroy it. It is a struggle you must pass on to your children and that they must pass on to theirs — just as we have had to do.
Shortly before his execution, the abolitionist John Brown said, “I have only a short time to live, only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause.”
So white folks, how are you living your lives? And in what state do you want to leave it?