- Rituals of White Privilege:Keith Lamont Scott and the Erasure of Black Suffering
I. Introduction: Religion and Race
In the twenty-first century, 70.6 percent of Americans self-identify as Christians,1 58 percent of them still segregate themselves by race on Sunday mornings, and white Protestants make up the majority of this 58 percent.2 These facts belie the claim, popularized after Barack Obama's 2008 presidential election, that America is living in a postracial society3 And yet, the role played by religion in white people's lived experiences of race, racism, and white class privilege in the United States tends to be neglected by philosophers and religious studies scholars, except perhaps when considering white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.4 Contemporary philosophy is secular in a way that generally excludes and is even hostile to religion as a meaningful component of people's lives.5 Likewise, while religious studies scholars frequently examine religious texts and histories with great care, they tend to try to distinguish themselves from theologians and thus to avoid the significant role that faith might play in a person's lived experience.
While the appropriation of Christianity by explicit white supremacists is important to understand, it is not the only or even the most influential form that such appropriation has taken and continues to take. In its contemporary [End Page 34] form, it also occurs in "well-meaning" Christian settings, such as religiously grounded hospitals and churches, which are populated by white people who tend to think of themselves as non-racist and/or even anti-racist and devoutly Christian. As we will argue, these are sites in which religious rituals that provide social control are (re)enacted, and many of those rituals reinforce anti-black racism and redeem white class privilege. The Christian ideal of the priesthood of all believers might aspire to full and equal racial inclusion, but it has not yet been achieved. This is why critical race scholars cannot and should not divorce religion from race and racism. To understand contemporary white class privilege, we must grapple with its ritualization and codification in religious practices, spaces, and communities.
In what follows, we examine how contexts of Christian faith impact white people's unconscious investments in racial privilege, drawing on examples from the state of North Carolina, including the September 20, 2016, police killing of Keith Lamont Scott in the city of Charlotte. While the police officers claimed that Scott held a gun when he complied with their demands to exit his car, his wife, who witnessed the shooting, disputed that account, and ongoing protests over Scott's killing erupted in Charlotte within hours of his death. As we analyze elements of the historical backdrop, regional context, and immediate aftermath of the Scott shooting, we use conceptual tools from religious contexts to understand some of the rituals and informal codifications of anti-black racism. Our interdisciplinary aim is to connect religious-historical (Robinson Moore) and philosophical-psychological (Sullivan) approaches to understanding anti-black racism in the United States, simultaneously intersecting our experiences with race and racism as a black woman who is an ordained Presbyterian minister (Robinson Moore) and a white woman who has argued for the need for white soul work vis-a-vis race (Sullivan). We write this essay as equal collaborators who have worked for approximately two years with each other and, both individually and collectively, with faith communities in Charlotte on issues of race. As we will demonstrate, many forms of anti-black racism carry within them the trappings of religious structure: myth, ritual, and symbolism. We explore the unconscious ritualization of racial ideology among white evangelical Presbyterians and white Universalist Unitarian liberals in the city of Charlotte, particularly as "well-meaning" white Christians (broadly conceived) sought to effect change within Charlotte's racial climate after Scott's death.
II. Religious Ritual and Sacred Time
Historically, white class privilege has emerged within the context of Judeo-Christian culture in America and has shaped the ways in which whites have [End Page 35] scripted black bodies with invidious meanings and imageries appropriated straight from Christian doctrine...