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Withered Souls

“There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.”[1]

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

What happens when one consistently ignores their conscience? What kind of damage might that do to a person or people group? These are questions Martin Luther King Jr. took up, specifically regarding white people. King recognized that from the founding of America, Blackness has been relegated and denigrated by design. Princeton philosopher and African American studies scholar Eddie Glaude sums this up well, stating:

Americans often speak of freedom while giving little care to the great legacy of unfreedom at the heart of the American project. We continue to keep separate the American Idea and white supremacy… We keep treating America like we have a great blueprint and we’ve just strayed from it. But the fact is that we’ve built the country true. Black folk were never meant to be full-fledged participants in this society… So when folks claim that American democracy stands apart from white supremacy, they are either lying or they have simply stuck their head in the sand.[2]

Writing 50 years before Glaude, King recognized this great contradiction at the heart of America, namely the ideal of freedom for all mixed with the intentional subjugation of Black Americans. King also believed that the image of God could never be fully erased from a person, and that therefore God had been continually reaching out to whites via their conscience. However, the vast majority of whites ignored this divine call and accepted the status quo of inequality, unfreedom, and racism.[3]

This take on King may be surprising to some since he has been domesticated in popular culture, but in fact King was a radical Black Baptist preacher who called for “restructuring the whole of American society.”[4] He argued that, in America, “logic was manipulated”[5] to justify the immoral practices of slavery and racism because these practices were profitable for white elites and comforting to poor whites—poor whites could at least take comfort in the fact that they were not Black and hope to join the elite class. King summed up the distorting effects of white supremacy stating:

Thus through two centuries a continuous indoctrination of Americans has separated people according to mythically superior and inferior qualities while a democratic spirit of equality was evoked as the national ideal. These concepts of racism, and this schizophrenic duality of conduct, remain deeply rooted in American thought today… [and] have poisoned the American mind.[6]

Here King stands in the tradition of great freedom fighters, such as Frederick Douglass, who demanded that America live up to its stated ideals.

What caused this poisoning of the American mind named by King? He argued that white America’s schizophrenic psychological state stemmed from white Americans’ failure to heed the call of their conscience. In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here, King notes that Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers acknowledged the evils of slavery, and yet still lent their support to a nation that could not have existed without the enslavement of Black persons. From the beginning of American history, the conscience of white Americans has declared to them that slavery and racism are immoral, and all that time the majority of white Americans have worked to quiet their conscience. Whites neglecting their conscience has had negative spiritual effects as well.

King believed that the Holy Spirit works in human beings through their conscience, and that if one ignored their conscience they were separating themselves from God and God’s purposes in the world. Therefore, white persons who fail to act on the demands of conscience separate themselves from God. In so doing, whites also make impossible the realization of their full humanity in God through the beloved community that God is bringing about. And, if we believe that God continues to speak to our conscience today, we must affirm that the failure of white Americans to acknowledge and dismantle white supremacy leaves those of us who are white psychologically and spiritually impaired.

King also recognized that, in more concrete financial terms, white America’s failure to act on the demands of conscience was damaging to the vast majority of white individuals who would benefit from a more just society. He points out that “There are, in fact, more poor white Americans than there are Negro,” and that these poor white Americans would “benefit equally with [Negros] in the achievement of social progress” since, “[the poor white’s] need for a war on poverty is no less desperate than the Negro’s.”[7] In a sermon King recalls that, while in jail, he was conversing with some of the prison workers and he learned their salary.  King’s response was:

“Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes.” And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white… [and] you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.”[8]

Because equality was in the best interest of white and Black Americans, King hoped that poor white and Black persons would work together in the service of a more just nation and world. However, instead of fighting for true justice and equality, King found that white persons were largely content to sate themselves with “Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.”[9] Today we continue to see the effects of Jim Crow, and many systems supporting white supremacy have either remained or worsened since King’s brutal assassination. For example, racial wealth inequality – where the median Black family currently has one tenth the wealth of the median white family – has grown worse since the end of the civil rights era.[10] Additionally, mass incarceration has disproportionately affected Blacks, who are five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.[11] The impact of mass incarceration is compounded when one considers that after one has a “record” in America, financial success and even survival can be exceedingly difficult.[12] This reality, as well as other aspects of white supremacy, traps the majority of the white population in difficult financial and political situations, and ties white identity to the subjugation of Black Americans.[13]

Thus, in at least three ways, a rejection of conscience has done violence to white Americans.  It has involved an endorsement of an identity rooted in the subjugation and inferiority of Black Americans, which alienates white persons from God and God’s purposes in the world.  Additionally, failing to act in accordance with conscience has distorted white persons’ ability to see the world correctly, resulting in a schizophrenic personality.  Finally, failing to act on conscience has created a scenario where a small group of nearly exclusively white elites has amassed almost all power and wealth in our society—a situation that harms both white and Black Americans.

The situation I just described is rather bleak. However, I do think there is reason for hope. King liked to say that “Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter.” In line with King, I believe that the fact of the resurrection gives whites hope that their identity can be reborn in Christ.

What then can we, white persons, do? I would say that white persons must be disloyal to their white racialized communities and work to deconstruct the racial category of whiteness, because it is a category that functions unjustly to lend privilege and authority to those persons considered white.[14] Indeed, throughout its history “white” has been used as an exclusionary term to keep certain people at the top of the social hierarchy while denigrating others. Thus, there are good reasons to question whether “white” is primarily a racial category, especially considering that those who consider themselves white come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.[15] But that argument will need to wait until a later article.[16]

We who are considered white thus find ourselves in a difficult situation. Eddie Glaude puts it bluntly, “If we are going to change how we see black people, white people—and only white people can do this—will have to kill the idea of white people.” Whites need to destroy their identity and work to refashion their identity into one that is compatible with their full humanity—in line with their conscience. As ethicist and scholar of religion Jennifer Harvey states, “to be white is to exist in a profound state of moral crisis.”[17] What Harvey states here requires some unpacking. I do not believe that she is arguing that every white person is guilty of the sins of their forebears merely because of the color of their skin. Rather, what Harvey points us to is the fact that everyone is born into a situation. Blacks are born into a situation where they must fight against forces that attempt to denigrate and dehumanize them. Whites, on the other hand, are born into a situation where they inherit a legacy of racial injustice – systems that give them unjust social and economic benefits – and they must choose either to support systems that perpetuate this injustice or fight against them. There is no safe, neutral middle ground. King said it plainly, “Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”[18] This is due to the fact that to accept the status quo is to lend your support to the existing systems of injustice.[19] So, due to the legacy and continuation of white supremacy, whites are forced into a situation where we must choose a side – this is the moral crisis to which Harvey refers.

A fully human life, then, is not available to white persons whose identity is irreparably tied to whiteness—this is an identity that must be rejected.  In order to open up the possibility for living a psychologically and spiritually unified life white Americans must creatively dismember and refashion our collective identity so that it is compatible with recognizing the equal value of each individual human being. Thankfully, resources exist for whites to move in this direction. Jennifer Harvey’s book Dear White Christians, which was quoted above, is a great resource, and historian and anti-racist scholar Ibram X. Kendi recently published his guidebook to anti-racism, How to Be an Anti-Racist.[20] Practically, though, the first step that must be made is acknowledging the existence of white supremacy; whites must acknowledge the problem before a solution can be found.

To date, white persons have failed to bring about the needed destruction of white supremacy and the white identity rooted in it. The solution to the obscenity of white supremacy lies not in redoubling our efforts to support the American dream and the white supremacy contained therein, it lies in Martin Luther King’s recognition that “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Because I, and the vast majority of other white persons, have affirmed white supremacy, white persons remain in the position of supporting their oppressors and are often condemned to live less than fully flourishing, less than fully human lives. In line with God’s working through our conscience, we, white persons, must honestly acknowledge our history and our complicity in white supremacy.  Then we can begin the hard work of reshaping our personal and communal identity to one that is consistent with God’s presence in the world.  In short, we ought to recognize that King’s prophetic call half a century ago remains true today, “America, you must be born again.”

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Cover image by Matt

David Justice

David Justice

David is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. There he teaches classes in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core program, which is a part of Baylor's Honors College. He earned an MA in philosophy from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and an MA in Theological Ethics and PhD in Theological Studies from Saint Louis University. His research focus is the theology, philosophy, and activism of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and how we can move our society towards the Beloved Community. He and his wife Mariah are raising two sons, Abraham and Theo, in Waco, Texas. When he has free time he likes to run, read, or play video games. If you'd like to learn more about him, please visit his personal website,

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