A three-choice question that explains America

Being an assistant minister puts me in a small, unusual club. It’s a bit like being vice president — a high-visibility job with a not-always-clear role. Most second-chair clergy I know are content to be there, rather than itching for the top dog to get out of the way. Still, there’s plenty to talk about when we get together.

At one recent gathering, a fellow No. 2, the Rev. Erin Gingrich, captured our situation with a question: How does your supervisor view you — object, resource, or equal?

This incisive question could apply to any number of situations; the answer determines how much you’re going to thrive. And I realized that it’s a question that can help explain the history and present reality of the United States of America.

Object, resource, or equal: How have you and your ancestors been treated? Are you seen as equally human? To what extent have your people thrived?

When Europeans began to invade this land — many of them persecuted themselves — they viewed Native Americans primarily as objects to be removed, like so many boulders or stumps in a farm field. This was brutal practice for centuries, with racist theology and political viewpoints backing it up. Occasionally, native peoples were considered resources, as helpers, for knowing how to survive on this continent. But mostly they were, and in many minds still are, seen as savages, heathens, not fully human, certainly not equals.

Africans brought over in the hulls of ships were also treated as objects, tools to extract wealth from those fields cleared of trees, stones, and other humans. When slavery ended, African Americans were objects to be ghettoized, terrorized, incarcerated, and killed. As the grim numbers remind us, equality has never come close to being achieved.

If you’ve had a relatively pleasant American life, it can be unsettling to accept that we live in a country built on domination, on hierarchies, on people acting on each other rather than with each other. But “one nation” is an unfulfilled imagining.

Umair Haque boldly suggests that we are a country of people who punch down and have always done so, passing on the persecution that wave after wave of European emigrants suffered. Hurt people hurt people — the abused become abusers. True egalitarianism is not believed in, or even desired. Those people are not my equals. Why share, when you think you have a chance to conquer?

Individual good behavior or piety is not the solution to the longstanding pattern of American objectification. The whole system subverts human flourishing and has, among other things, comforted poor whites for centuries with the idea that at least they’re not black. The hierarchies of race and racism were invented to support predatory capitalism.

And the strategy is still working, every day.

The black president’s every achievement must be negated or undone, to restore the hierarchy, for the upending made too many whites uneasy. We are encouraged to fear and look down upon our neighbors — to buy guns, turn to authoritarian leaders for false security, to surrender liberties, to avert our eyes when Gestapo-like raids take the immigrants next door.

Racism is the demon child of greed, and there is so much money to be made, in profit and in political donations, by the fostering of inequality, in the fueling of fear.

It’s news to some and deadly obvious to others that the United States has never functioned any other way — that, as Langston Hughes put it, “America never was America to me.” I’ve seen people of good conscience become overwhelmed when learning the histories they were never taught.

But “there is no prize for meaning well,” as the Rev. Theresa Soto says. There is no end in sight for the empathy shortage for people of color — witness the disparity in public support for Black Lives Matter vs. the white, more privileged teen survivors in Florida.

Empathy is a great personal attribute to have, but as Bree Newsome explains, empathy is not actually the answer to eliminating the ways that our country is structured to benefit white people. Empathy never has been the main driver of justice. If simply living in proximity and getting to know each other led to liberation, slavery would have lasted a week, and men would have regarded women as equals millennia ago.

Electoral change is crucial and must be a focus this year. The systems in place are capable of some level of reform. But they are largely self-perpetuating in their hierarchies (see: the race/gender/wealth composition of Congress). So we should expect some continued nonviolent disruption to force a shifting in, and sharing of, power.

Elevating America’s oppressed peoples out of object status and toward true equality is the work of generations. That the newest generation of young activists understands the connectedness of the work is a bright spot in our nation’s swirling storm.