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 and biblical texts. This type of scripting has continually invested sacred and secular meanings in the lives of white people and African Americans alike over the years. A type of racialized hermeneutics still exists today within white evangelical Protestant culture and has continued the processes of "othering" and dehumanization of nonwhite people and, in particular, African Americans, even those who share the same faith and citizenship. In this respect, distorted appropriations of Christianity have provided the narrative language and moral framework for the continuation of white class privilege and the notion of black inferiority among well-meaning white Christians.
Catherine Bell's theory of ritualization helps illuminate this phenomenon. Her arguments concerning ritual and ritualization are centered on the social existence of the concept of ritual, the values ascribed to it, and the ramifications of these perspectives for scholarship. Questioning "the origins, purposes and efficacy of ritualized actions," Bell argues that "ritualization is a strategy for the construction of a limited and limiting power relationship . . . a relationship [which] simultaneously involves both consent and resistance, misunderstanding and appropriation."6
For Bell, the social dynamics in which rituals take place are more important than the ritual act itself. As such, she is more interested in addressing how ritual activity "reproduces and manipulates its own contextual ground." With such a focus, Bell, building on Victor Turner's work, posits that "ritual is [both] related to communal unity [and] is also the site of mediation between communitas and the formalized social order." For her, "acting ritually emerges as a particular cultural strategy of differentiation linked to particular social effects and rooted in a distinctive interplay of a socialized body and the environment it structures." Ritualization then functions as a cultural strategy of differentiation whereby the "lived tensions and values of social life [demarcate] a privileged opposition—which differentiates by opposing and unites by dominating." Further, "ritualization subjects these tensions, terms, and social bodies [into] a . . . problematic."7
Situating Bell's arguments around ritualization within the context of race provides an additional perspective on the function of ritual, particularly within America's racial context. If, as Bell argues, ritual operates as a form of "social control" that is a "culturally strategic way of acting in terms of belief, ideology, legitimation and power,"8 then racism and racial production, with all of [End Page 36] their varied manifestations, operate as a ritualized form of social control in American society, which positions black folk as "problematic." The very taxonomy of race-making and racial-recognizing as a form of "categorization of human beings over against other human beings implies an inequality between two things (black and white, male and female)," and, as such, constitutes "an activity . . . harmful" to the those being defined as "other." Indeed, as Bell argues "the most powerful act of subordination [is] disguised in [modes] of differentiation."9 Though Bell does not delve into the deep waters of racialization, her arguments around ritual and ritualization is salient here because studies of racism have tended to look peripherally at the structures of religious formation and religious imaginaries.
American Christian discourses wedded racial ideas with biblical texts creating ideological rituals that operated as a form of social control and constituted a "strategy for the construction of limited and limiting power relationship[s]" between whites and nonwhites, and, in particular, African Americans. In other words, white privilege has been ritualized between ritual participants. Again, building on Bell's analysis and also her utilization of Clifford Geertz's work, Bell states that "ritual participants act, whereas those observing them think." Meaning, therefore, is received differently between the ritual actor and the ritual observer or, in Bell's example, between the "outside theorist" and the "ritual actor." While the ritual actor appropriates meaning from an insider's view, the theorist grasps the meaning of the ritual from an outsider's view, which, in turn, can result in the "outsider theorist grasping meaningfulness as a cultural phenomenon." Such a purview of the ritual by both the actor and the observer creates a dichotomy where by the "thinking [observer] and the acting actor is simultaneously affirmed and resolved [creating a] homologization that makes ritual appear to provide . . . a privileged vantage point on culture."10
However, when a social ritual is contextualized by race, such as the exercise of white privilege, those who perform the ritual and those who observe the ritual, whether consciously or unconsciously, may also be those who have the power to define the meaning of the ritual and its control over those who are neither invested in or value the ritual act. Here again, expanding on Bell's analysis, we argue that ritualization, when complicated by the power dynamics of racism, speaks to a necessary third party: one who is unwillingly drawn into the processes of ritualization either by proximity or coercion. This third party is more often than not controlled, regulated, and subjugated by the ritual and its meaning within the social context of race and racism. As Bell writes, [End Page 37] "Ritualization is a strategic play of power, of domination and resistance, within the arena of the social body."11
In the case of race, those who are subjected to the processes of racial ritualization are thereby involved in the rituals of white privilege, even though they are not invested in it. Historically, black bodies have been the most subjugated social beings to the ritualization of whiteness and white privilege. African Americans are neither invested in supporting the rituals of whiteness nor upholding the social-political and often economic performances of whiteness, yet, by virtue of their proximity to whiteness, they are unwillingly conscripted into the ritual process of white privilege. The gaze of whiteness and white privilege is on the black body and by that gaze, grounds its identity.
This racialized gaze also speaks to a fourth participant in the process of ritualization: those who enable what Bell terms the "strategic play of power [and] domination."12 Within acts of white privilege, there are those who are part and parcel of the processes of defining meanings of rituals. Like the bystander who silently observes a crime but does nothing to confront it, thwart it, or help those being controlled by it, so the silent enabler of white privilege is a prominent player in the function of racial ritualization in society. The enabler is a tacit partner in ritualization, often watching the ritual actor perform deeds of white privilege alongside the ritual observer, both of whom ascribed meaning and power to ritualized actions of white privilege. And while the ritual enabler is not fully invested in the performance of white privilege, the fact that they remain silent and do nothing to mitigate against the enactment of implicit bias and white privilege within their own communities or families allows them to benefit from those who do engage in white privilege, even as they are aware of others being controlled and manipulated by the ritual action.
Together the four parties in religious rituals—the actor, the observer, the subjugated, and the enabler—create sacred time, as understood by Mircea Eliade.13 (People subjugated by religious rituals are not invested in and even might resist the creation of sacred time, but they are involved forcibly in it nevertheless.) Reenactments of sacred events interrupt ordinary, profane time with a past meaning and reality that is holy. For many religious people, it is a primordial mythical time, which cannot be located in a particular historical moment, that interrupts profane time. For Jews and Christians, in contrast, the sacred past that interrupts the present is historical—this is the significance [End Page 38] of the bodily incarnation of Jesus Christ—but this is a history that has been sanctified by God's presence in it. The sacred past that is reactualized in the present took place in history rather than in a mythical beginning of time, which means that for Jews and especially Christians, history can manifest the divine. History can be sacred, and sacred history is not trapped in a bygone past but can be recovered and relived in the present.14 Whether mythical or historical, however, the interruption of sacred time allows the religious person to be born again, to "beg[i]n life over again with his [sic] reserve of vital forces intact."15 Rituals that reenact sacred events renew, regenerate, and re-energize their participants, infusing the present with holy meaning.
One example of a Christian ritual that creates sacred time is the Eucharist. We choose this ritual as an example because it involves the phenomenon of transubstantiation, which will be relevant to our analyses of anti-black racism below. During the Eucharist, Christians reenact Jesus's sharing of his body and blood with his disciples via the offering of bread and wine. The blessing of the wine and bread by the priest or pastor (the ritual participant) at the beginning of the sacrament is understood to transform them into Christ's body and blood. In other words, the ritual ontologically creates a different world. Transubstantiated, the wine and bread do not represent Christ's body and blood; they are his body and blood. The substance of the world is changed, and a different world comes into being for believers. Reliving the historical meal at which this sharing took place, Christians experience the event as alive in the present, not buried in the past. Christian faith is renewed as believers drink Christ's blood and eat of his body. At first, participants observe the priest's or pastor's blessing, then they shift to participating in the ritual when they approach the altar to drink and eat. In this ritual, the profane world is interrupted by a sacred world, a moment in time that is other than the present even as it gives the present (a different) meaning.
III. Lynching "Suicides"
Historic Christian discourses that justified the subjugation and enslavement of black peoples were ritualized actions that set the stage for white people to maintain the social order of white privilege and give divine sanction to white control over black bodies. As rituals are repetitive performative acts, these ideological ritualizations of Christian-framed rationales of black inferiority and white superiority became codified in the minds of American citizens over the centuries and have now become the default lens by which black people are [End Page 39] observed by white people. Such a distorted gaze by white people, even those within the Christian context, has the tendency to destroy white empathy for black suffering, rendering anti-black suffering either benign or justifiable because black people are deemed sinful threats to the social order.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, white people tended to erase black suffering by transforming it into entertainment for white people.16 Documenting how "enjoyment defined the relation of the dominant race to the enslaved," for example, Hartmann calls this process "the transubstantiation of abjection into contentment, [which] suggested that the traumas of slavery were easily redressed and, likewise, the prevalence of black song confirmed blacks' restricted sentience and immunity to sorrow"17 Just as the wine is—not merely represents—the blood of Christ after the sacrament of the Eucharist takes place, a slave singing and dancing is joyful and content in the world that the slaveholders created through the rituals of the coffle, the slave market, and so on. This does not mean that other worlds do not simultaneously exist.18 Slaves' dancing and singing were very different things in the world of the slaves than in the world of the slaveholders. Our point is that black suffering largely did not exist in the world of the slaveholders. Black slave activity could be an "innocent amusement" for white people because black people existed for whites as prone to gaiety and immune to sorrow.19
Another historical example of the ritualized erasure of black suffering through white world-making is found in the lynchings of black people. This claim admittedly might seem counterintuitive: surely killing a person by lynching him or her is an example of causing extreme suffering, not erasing it? Through the religious meanings ritualistically given to lynching by white people, however, the act of hanging a black man to death was transubstantiated into something other than mere suffering. Being a Christian did not erect a barrier to participating in lynchings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, moreover. Far from it: white Christians had no qualms about attending lynchings of black people. Their religious faith enabled white people to understand the lynching of black men "as a religious act, laden with Christian symbolism and significance; . . . [indeed] Christianity was the primary lens through which most [white] southerners conceptualized and made sense of suffering [End Page 40] and death of any sort."20 In fact, as Amy Louise Wood argues, white people were needed as witnesses (ritual observers) of the ritual of lynching to help it fulfill its meaning.21 Their witnessing served as a manifestation of white people's alleged spiritual redemption. The agonized cries of the black person being lynched were not signs of black suffering, but rather crucial components of a white experience of spiritual elevation above the degraded lynched victim.
The ritual of lynching took place frequently in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the South, 3,959 known lynchings from 1877 to 1950 have been documented, and North Carolina ranked second out of twelve states with 102 lynchings in that period.22 The lynching of black people is not merely a historical event, however. It is very much a present reality in North Carolina and other states today, although many (white) people are unaware of its continued occurrence, primarily because lynchings are now documented by means of the category of suicide. In August 29, 2014, for example, Lennon Lacy was found hung in Bladenboro, North Carolina. A star football player at his high school, Lacy's body was discovered hanging from a "child's swing set in a predominantly white trailer park" in the early morning.23 Local investigators ruled Lacy's death as a suicide, arguing that the boy's death was caused by depression following the death of his uncle. The North Carolina NAACP and Lacy's mother, Claudia Lacy, contested the explanation of local authorities and demanded a full investigation of Lennon's death, claiming that it had all the trappings of a hate crime based on the "possible race-based animus toward Lacy and his family"24
Like the 2015 lynchings in Mississippi of Otis Byrd (March 20, 2015) and James Craig Anderson (June 26, 2015), which were declared acts of suicide by local authorities and FBI investigators, Lacy's lynching was clothed in the [End Page 41] language of suicide, thereby relieving or protecting the larger white society from confronting the horrors of white privilege taken to extremes. The communities in which these events took place chose to disconnect the horrific history of Jim Crow lynching from its modern-day manifestations. Further, these communities, most of them avowedly affiliated with evangelical Protestant communities, engaged in an erasure of black suffering by utilizing the language of suicide to obfuscate the reality of anti-black racism and terrorism within their own society.
The claim of suicide simpliciter places the blame of violence upon the victim and automatically relinquishes the duty of law enforcement agencies to look for the perpetrator(s). Indeed, in cases where contemporary lynchings are often cloaked in the language of suicide, the alleged perpetrator of the lynching either goes unpunished or, if identified, is made out to be the victim. A case in point was when the aunt of John Rice, one of four perpetrators in the murder of Anderson, stated, "He's not a racist nor a murder . . . if anything, he is being tried by the media, suffering from reverse racism and placed in jail without bond."25 Ignoring the reality that Rice along with his friends had repeatedly engaged in outings to "Jafrica" where they rolled through the streets of Jackson, Mississippi, harassing African Americans and homosexuals during the summer of 2011, Rice's family as well as other members in his family stated that Rice was a "good boy," even while the courts documented that he, along with his friends, brutally beat Anderson while screaming "White Power!" and then ran his unconscious body over with their truck.
We understand contemporary lynching "suicides" of black people to be continuations of historical lynchings. Lynching "suicides" constitute a profound rupture in time, participating in what one could call white sacred time. This is a timeless moment of time that provides racial renewal and regeneration in contrast to white disorientation, resentment, and or guilt in the racial present. The sacred time that white lynchers, and by extension many other white people, recover and insert into the ordinary present is the American historical period of openly celebrated white supremacy. This is a historic period marked by the stereotype of the "black brute" who was a threat to American society and especially to white women and their alleged purity. This particular juxtaposition of white purity and black bodies cast in the mold of an oversexualized and animalistic black male cannot be divorced from the evangelical Christian [End Page 42] context in which it evolved. White history is not contained in a bygone past. White people can recover, relive, and be regenerated by it in the present, interrupting their ordinary life—replete with contemporary challenges to white privilege and white priority—with a revered time in which white people enjoyed racial domination over people of color, and black people in particular, and in which they were free to redeem their whiteness via acts of terror. The fact that lynchings are still part and parcel of America's cultural milieu, and yet disguised in the language of suicide by white authorities living in and often connected to Christian communities, constitutes an unconscious sacralization of white privilege that reifies the erasure of black suffering.
The result is that black bodies are ritually codified through Jim Crow—inspired images and justifications for black dehumanization, justifying white peoples' erasure of black suffering even in the most overt forms of white terrorism. Such codifications are repetitive visualizations and presuppositions of black inferiority and depravity, which are often culturally passed down from generation to generation in white societies and propagated through a continual pejorative view of black people in media news sources. In either case, this lens becomes the primary spectacle by which black humanity is interpreted, which is the result of an ever abiding and often unconsciously embedded culture of white hegemony. That culture—our culture—has been conditioned to ignore, devalue, or minimize black suffering in the form of anti-black violence, black disenfranchisement, and economic inequity. Phenomena like "white flight" and modern-day moves to resegregate schools under the language of "rezoning" and "gentrification" are all reflections of the ways in which black suffering has been ignored within American culture, which is predominantly Christian in its moral ethos. This is the historical backdrop and regional context in which Keith Lamont Scott encountered Charlotte police officers on the afternoon of September 20, 2016.
IV. Prayer Vigils in the City of Charlotte
If police shootings of black people are the modern day, state-sanctioned version of lynching,26 then Scott's killing could be considered part of a centuries-long ritual of lynching in which the black victim's suffering is erased. This is a ritual complete with actors (the police officers who shot Scott), observers (additional officers on the scene), a sacrificial body subjected to the ritual (Keith Scott), and [End Page 43] enablers (the well-meaning white residents of Charlotte who were "protected" from an allegedly dangerous black man). It is a ritual that has been enacted many times with different names in different cities in the United States and that gained particular attention in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014. Rather than elaborate the unfortunately well-known ritual of police shootings of unarmed black people, we wish to examine additional ritualistic ways in which black suffering was erased in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the aftermath of Scott's death.
The city of Charlotte, where 43 percent of its residents are white and 34 percent are African American, is indicative of its larger cultural context. A metropolis known as part of the South's proverbial "Bible Belt," Charlotte historically has displayed a Christianity embedded with the values and discourses of Jim Crow culture, which in turn has shaped the power structures of the city. Since 1866, Sunday mornings within mainline Protestant churches in Charlotte have continued to remain segregated. This fact is especially striking amid a population of over 800,000 residents, where 46.7 percent of them openly call themselves Christian.27 The urban landscape of Charlotte is another reflection of how race runs alongside Christianity. For example, the most historical white Protestant churches were built closest to the heart of the city, whereas the African American Protestant denominations were located further away from the center. Thus, despite a religion that advocated for "the priesthood of all believers," Christian churches in Charlotte were segregated by race and demarcated socially and politically by space through historically ritualized performances of white hegemony.
Such realities are paradoxical in a city that has openly boasted of being the first southern center to desegregate its lunch counters in the 1960s and its schools in 1970s. The voluntary acts of Charlotte's Chamber of Commerce on May 23, 1963, to call upon businesses to open their doors to the city's black residents and the landmark decision of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Board of Education in 1971 ushered in a new era within the city's racial landscape. Yet, despite the gains of the modern civil rights movement within the secular arenas of the city, the sacred spaces of Charlotte's mainline Protestant churches remained firmly attached to America's racial color line.
One of the most influential and wealthiest denominations in Charlotte is the Presbyterian Church. Presbyterians have been setting the cultural and political tone of the city since its founding in 1768. Charlotte's Presbyterians were especially [End Page 44] committed to building the city's municipalities and hospitals. In fact, five Presbyterian churches established one of the most noted hospitals in the city. Today, that hospital is regionally ranked as eleventh among premier hospitals in North Carolina. Since its inception, that hospital has been connected and funded by predominantly white Presbyterian groups and has reflected the values and discourses of those communities. Despite these Christian-based imperatives, segregation was still a prime factor in the ways in which the city's Presbyterians performed their "deeds of brotherly love." Like many Christian-affiliated institutions in the city of Charlotte, the Presbyterian Church has experienced flare-ups of the legacies of racial segregation whenever the city has faced black protest movements and calls for full equality by its minority populations.
When this particular hospital was first established in 1903, the institution openly declared itself a "whites only" hospital.28 In fact, most hospitals in Charlotte during the early part of the twentieth century barred African Americans from receiving treatment. Despite the 1954 landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education, the hospital's Board of Trustees voted unanimously to maintain its policy of segregation in 1963, even after most hospitals in the city had begun to open their doors to black patients. And while records note that private conversations revealed that "the board was not unanimous in its sentiments about keeping the hospital open to whites only,"29 the hospital remained publicly entrenched in its anti-black racism and flatly refused to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When government funding was cut off from the facility, the hospital grudgingly opened its doors to Charlotte's black residents in April 1966.30 The hospital's historic stance against desegregation uncovers the deeply ingrained roots of anti-black racism in Charlotte's cultural climate and exposes the long history of white erasure of black suffering. Indeed, the fact that an institution can be created by one of the city's leading white Christian groups to alleviate suffering in the name of Christ yet maintain a policy of exclusion toward black people demonstrates the power of white privilege to influence Christian doctrine and praxis.
Today, anti-black feelings and ideologies continue to lie hidden within the institutional framework of bureaucratic policies or spoken behind closed doors. It usually takes a cultural crisis of some sort to unearth these chasms of anti-blackness with their distorted codified constructs of black and brown bodies, allowing them to surface among avowedly Christian institutions and communities. Such a [End Page 45] cultural crisis happened when Scott was shot. Despite the noted presence of self-identified Christians and Christian-based institutions in the city, the shooting of Scott revealed the varied levels of racial ritualization within a city and exposed the continued propensity of the city's white population's erasure of black suffering.
A case in point was when a white local chaplain working in the Presbyterian hospital discussed above set up a prayer vigil for Charlotteans affected by the shooting. The hospital's predominantly white male top administrators responded by shutting down the prayer vigil and accusing the chaplain of provoking a riot on hospital grounds. Such a curious response where the chaplain's right to organize a prayer vigil—an activity directly related to her job description—reflects the ways in which racial ideology has been codified in the minds of "well-meaning" white liberals who are committed to Christian values.
The backlash from hospital administrators against a chaplain seeking to establish a prayer vigil in the aftermath of the shooting speaks to the ways in which white privilege has historically invaded Christian culture in America. Prayer, a ritual very familiar within the Christian tradition and practiced by both black and white adherents, was seen by hospital administrators as a potential catalyst for, and perhaps even a component of a race riot rather than an act of peace and comfort for the Charlotte community. Why? How does racialization transform the sacred? How did the prayer vigil become a perceived threat to Charlotte's white power structures in the hospital? One wonders if all parties involved in the Scott shooting—the police officer, the victim, and even those rioting in protest of the shooting—were white, would the hospital administrators have been more accepting of the chaplain's call for prayer? Again, the chaplain's attempt to establish a prayer vigil was directly in accordance with her job description and reflected a legitimate expression of Christian faith. Yet when race entered into the context of her call for prayer, particularly in relationship to the presence of black people in the city of Charlotte, her suggestion of a prayer vigil became suspect and subversive. The actions of the hospital imply that white privilege has determined even which racial groups can be the object of Christian prayer.
Such actions are reminiscent of the long history of anti-black terrorizing rituals against African American churches and black faith communities. As early as 1831 in North Carolina, slaves and free people of color were forbidden by state law to "officiate as a preacher or teacher in any prayer meeting, or other association for worship where slaves of different families are collected together."31 Other laws forbade slaves and free people of color from meeting [End Page 46] with other African Americans. Ironically, the actions of African peoples coming together to pray, preach, or teach in relationship to the Gospel of Jesus Christ were seen as subversive and criminal, including in places such as North Carolina. Sadly, placing connotations of criminality on African Americans, even those engaged in sacred acts, is nothing new in the minds of white society. The possibility of black Charlotteans gathering for prayer along with their white Christian counterparts on behalf of the city and those grieving Scott's shooting was transubstantiated by the hospital's administrators (the ritual actors) into a "riot."32 This transformative act interrupted ordinary time in Charlotte with a sacred historical time in which North Carolina Black Codes legalized white privilege by forbidding African Americans the same right to pray as their white Christian counterparts. White control of black bodies, even, or perhaps especially, in religious spaces, speaks to the ritualization of white privilege and the reinvocation of the epoch of openly practiced white supremacy.
V. Rakeyia Scott's Video of the Shooting
In addition to transforming a prayer vigil into an incitement to riot, in the days immediately after Scott's shooting black suffering was transubstantiated into a simplistic class marker. This occurred, for example, when Sullivan was leading a five-week study group on "good white people" at a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church.33 The study group of about thirty people was predominantly white and middle class, as is the UU church more generally.34 It participates in the pattern of racial self-segregation in Charlotte outlined above. After the shooting, the group set aside its assigned topics to try to process what had [End Page 47] happened and what was continuing to happen in Charlotte as days of protests unfolded. Like many in Charlotte (and nationwide), after the release of the video of the shooting taken by Keith Scott's wife, Rakeyia Scott, many group members watched it trying to discern whether Keith Scott had a gun or a book in hand and, more generally, whether the police officer's actions and fear of Scott seemed justified, and so on.35
In the midst of a free-ranging discussion of these questions, one middle-class white woman whom we will call Ann (a pseudonym) suddenly exclaimed, "But did you hear how many times she [Rakeyia] said the f-word?" Ann's tone was animated and disapproving. A couple of people sort of mumbled yes, she did say that word a lot, then their sentences trailed off. As the leader of the study group, Sullivan asked, as nonconfrontationally as possible, why that was relevant. Ann didn't directly answer her question. She instead commented tersely, with pursed lips, that Scott's wife didn't need to yell that word so many times. Lured by a red herring, the group lost track of the shooting and death of Keith Scott and became focused on Rakeyia Scott's cursing. In something of a processing-aloud mode, Sullivan conceded to Ann that as a middle-class white woman, she (Sullivan) didn't use the f word very often, but she probably would use it in a really extreme circumstance. Ann energetically retorted—implicitly agreeing with Sullivan, but denying that this was one of those circumstances—"You'd think her husband had been shot or something!" As Sullivan mumbled (not sure if she had heard Ann correctly), "But he was shot. . .," Ann continued repeating how inappropriate it was that Rakeyia kept yelling the f word over and over.
We suspect that Ann acoustically remembers Rakeyia yelling the f word prior to her husband's shooting, which might explain Ann's scornful remark "You'd think her husband had been shot or something!" (For present purposes, we will set aside the question of whether it's "reasonable" [from whose perspective?] to yell the f word when one's husband is "merely" being targeted by police officers with guns, but not yet shot.) In fact, Rakeyia Scott uses the f word seven times in the video, all of them after Keith Scott was shot. The two instances of the f word prior to his shooting come from the police as they are yelling at Keith and to each other. Through an acoustic transubstantiation, Ann experienced Rakeyia as guilty of the foul language used by the police. With her remark, Ann simultaneously erased the police officers' use of the f word in and through her erasure of Rakeyia's suffering. [End Page 48]
While Ann admittedly is only one person, we think her response to the video reveals rituals of world-making in which many white people participate even if they are not as vocal about it as Ann was. Ann could be considered the primary actor in the ritual, with the remainder of the white people (almost exclusively women) in the room implicitly called by Ann to serve as ritualistic observers or, at minimum, as ritualistic enablers and hence beneficiaries.36 The rituals of white world-making are not necessarily conscious and, in fact, tend to operate non- or unconsciously for many middle-class white people. For Ann, the f word, and not a dying man or a wife's pain watching him suffer, is what was significant about Rakeyia's video footage. It was as if there wasn't an injured man bleeding on the street or a scared wife trying to take in what was happening to her husband. Transubstantiated into a criminal nonperson, Keith Scott stopped existing in the world that we are describing. Likewise—or we might say, for that reason—Rakeyia's pain didn't exist either, for there allegedly was nothing to be pained by or upset about. What existed instead was an improper, out-of-control black woman. Ann did not hear Rakeyia Scott's agitated "f***!" as an agonized outcry that "narrate[d] death to an unknown public as it is unfolding," but instead as a verbal marker of Rakeyia's class status.37 In Ann's ears, Rakeyia's language made comprehensible and emotionally manageable what might have been a confusing and terrifying video to watch. The curse word "saved" Ann from a reality—her own reality, as well as that of Rakeyia—that was suffused with pain. There was no suffering to be witnessed in the video, just as there was no politically audible or credible narrator in it, only an outburst of inappropriate language.
While we do not wish to ignore Keith Scott's suffering, we want to focus further on Rakeyia's pain and Ann's understanding of it as a display of lower class crassness. Ann's criticism of Rakeyia implies that if Rakeyia had remained relatively silent or had spoken to the police using only "appropriate" language, her concern about their treatment of her husband would have been justified. Rakeyia's loud cursing supposedly demonstrates that she was not really concerned about her husband; she instead was using the incident as an excuse to berate the police. But we question whether Rakeyia's silence would have been [End Page 49] understood as filled with pain. Whether silent or loud, black pain, fear, and anger tend to exist in white people's worlds as insolent and inappropriate. "Whether loud or quiet, Black girls [and women] who refuse to concede fear to power are violently chastised into submission."38 It is not an exaggeration to say that Rakeyia Scott was lucky, so to speak, that she wasn't arrested after the police officers finished "subduing" her dying husband. We need only recall Sandra Bland's 2015 police encounter and subsequent lynching "suicide" in a Houston-area jail to know that black women can be arrested for speaking to a police officer with an irritated tone of voice.39 The soundscape in the United States is far from being a level racial playing field. Indeed, "the ability to be audibly annoyed . . . and live is a contemporary marker of a very old strain of white privilege."40
The white ritual enacted by Ann's comments about Rekeyia Scott is not unique to people of faith. Irreligious white people are just as likely as religious ones to erase black suffering. And yet, we should not dismiss the fact that Ann's comments were made in a faith context, one with roots in Christianity (specifically Protestantism41) and one that explicitly "seeks a world of equity and justice."42 A key principle of Unitarian Universalism for which it is known is its energetic work for social justice.43 When it comes to race, however, Unitarian Universalism is not very different from many other mainstream (white) Christian denominations, including the Presbyterian Church in Charlotte described above. To say that a faith context makes no difference to understanding Ann's remark is to be dismissive of America's religious and racial history and to move too quickly past the question of how a white person's commitment to social and racial justice can go hand in hand with the erasure of black suffering. For [End Page 50] this is one of the significant things that Ann's comments teaches us: even in a church explicitly committed to social justice, religious belief is no automatic bulwark against white habits of racial privilege and domination. Despite their faith commitments and dedicated work for social causes, white UU members tend not to "get at" racial injustice.44
This inconsistency is not so puzzling once we appreciate the power of white sacred time in white religious people's lives. We would argue that, understood as a ritualistic act of transubstantiation, Ann's comments about Rakeyia Scott opened up a moment of white sacred time within the UU church that Sunday afternoon. The power and intensity of that moment is the flipside of the white coin of UU members' failure to actively "get at" racial injustice. As is the case for many white people, "getting at" racial injustice is not where their energy comes from even if they rationally understand that racial injustice is a problem. Tackling white class privilege tends to drain, rather than replenish their "vital forces."45
The fact that Ann probably did not intentionally summon white sacred time does not contradict our claims here. White rituals often are performed unconsciously nowadays, but that does not undercut their effectiveness. Indeed, it often augments it. Given the social prohibition in contemporary ordinary times against white people's enjoyment of racial domination, moreover, a religious ritual that suddenly interrupts everyday life with a font of unconscious (as well as possibly conscious) meaning would be precisely the sort of exceptional event needed to break through racialized business-as-usual. The structure of (white) sacred time as "hav[ing] no part in the temporal duration that precedes and follows them" can be what gives it such power.46
By transubstantiating the suffering of both Rakeyia and Keith Scott, drawing them as necessary third parties into a racial ritual in which they were not invested, Ann interrupted the racial apathy of everyday white life, repeating a historical form of whiteness that is not past but rather very much alive in the present. Here we can see the role of religious faith in sanctifying contemporary [End Page 51] whiteness and re-energizing ongoing white class privilege and white supremacy. Through the event occasioned by Ann's remarks, whiteness was religiously animated and validated. It became, as it allegedly always was and always should be, redeemed.
In the context of race, the religious claims of Christians in the United States—broadly conceived, welcoming all believers—often have conflicted with their actions. The institution of slavery with its biblical justification by white Christians perhaps is the most prominent example of this mismatch, with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan being another extreme instance of the merger between Protestant Christianity and anti-blackness. More subtly but often just as harmful, the development of black codes and Jim Crow segregation took place among self-proclaimed Christians who attended church services regularly while maintaining a culture of segregation in both the North and the South. Mainstream (white) Christianity is fundamentally marked by a disconnection between its claims of equality and the brotherhood of all believers, on the one hand, and the culture of white privilege, on the other. This claim is as true today as it was in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.
Equally true today is the complementary claim that white class privilege and white supremacy in the United States are sustained by religion, and Christianity in particular. Whether consciously or unconsciously enacted, religious rituals often support and renew insidious forms of whiteness. Our goal has not been to examine all Christian rituals and their possible relationships to anti-black racism, nor to claim that all Christian rituals are infused with white class privilege. Our aim instead has been to show the role that religion plays in mundane forms of contemporary white class privilege, using the aftermath of the Scott shooting as a lens with which to do so. Critical scholars of race are missing something important if they omit religion from their analyses of race and racism in contemporary white America. Much like centuries ago, religious rituals of white privilege function today to create white worlds in which black suffering has been erased.47 [End Page 52]
Julia Robinson Moore is an associate professor of African American religions and religions of the African diaspora in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Charlotte. She is the author of Race, Religion, and the Pulpit: The Life of Reverend Robert L. Bradby and the Making of Urban Detroit (Wayne State University Press, 2015). She has lectured on racial and religious violence in Canada, Ghana, Germany, Italy, Japan, and in England at Oxford University.
Shannon Sullivan is the chair of philosophy and a professor of philosophy and health psychology at UNC Charlotte. Her recent publications include Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism (SUNY, 2014), The Physiology of Sexist and Racist Oppression (Oxford, 2015), and Feminist Interpretations of Williams James, coedited with Erin C. Tarver (Penn State, 2015).
1. "Religion & Public Life," Pew Research Center, accessed June 5, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/.
2. "Religion & Public Life", Pew Research Center, accessed June 5, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/evangelical-protestant/.
3. On the alleged postracial nature of contemporary America, see Alfred Frankowski, The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization: Toward a Political Sense of Mourning (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015).
4. See, e.g., Kelly J. Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK's Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011); and Juan O. Sanchez, Religion and the Ku Klux Klan: Biblical Appropriation in their Literature and Songs (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016).
5. Shannon Sullivan, "The Secularity of Philosophy: Race, Religion, and the Silence of Exclusion," in The Center Must Not Hold: White Women on the Whiteness of Philosophy, ed. George Yancy (Lanham, MD: Lexington Press, 2010), 152-66.
6. Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 7-8.
7. Ibid., 7, 8, 20, 106.
8. Ibid., 8.
9. Ibid., 48.
10. Ibid., 8, 28, 31 (quotes).
11. Ibid., 204.
13. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 68.
14. Ibid., 110-12.
15. Ibid., 80. Italics in original.
16. Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
17. Ibid., 23.
18. On multiple worlds and world-traveling, see Maria Lugones, "Playfulness, 'World'-Travelling, and Loving Perception," Hypatia 2, no. 2 (1997): 3-19.
19. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 17.
20. Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America 1890-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 48. While Wood focuses on white southerners' relationship to (black) suffering and death, we would argue that her analysis also is relevant to white northerners, albeit in different ways. We unfortunately do not have space here to discuss regional differences in depth.
21. Ibid., 64.
22. Arkansas was the topmost state, with a staggering 491 lynchings. See Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, 2nd ed. (Montgomery. AL: Equal Justice Initiative, 2015), 16.
23. Jane Porter, "Family of Lennon Lacy Request Federal Investigation into Suspicious Death," INDY Week News, November 18, 2014, accessed May 24, 2017, http://www.indyweek.com/news/archives/2014/ll/18/family-of-lennon-lacy-requests-federal-investigation-into-suspicious-death.
25. Yanan Wang, "Four White Men Ordered to Pay $840,000 for Jim Crow-Style Lynching of Mississippi Black Man," Washington Post, March 1, 2016, accessed June 8, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/03/01/four-white-men-ordered-to-pay-840000-for-jim-crow-style-lynching-of-mississippi-black-man/?utm_term=.dbc45184c720.
26. See, e.g., Chauncey Devega, "Modern Day Lynching: Why I Will Not Watch the Video of Alton Sterling Being Killed by Baton Route Police," Salon, July 7, 2016, accessed June 24, 2017, http://www.salon.com/2016/07/07/a_modern_day_lynching_why_i_will_not_watch_the_video_of_alton_sterling_being_killed_by_baton_rouge_police/.
27. "Religions Adherents in 2010," in "Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (NC) Religion Statistics Profile," Data File, City-Data, accessed June 1, 2017, http://www.city-data.com/county/religion/Mecklenburg-County-NC.html.
28. Janette Thomas Greenwood, Presbyterian Hospital: The Spirit of Caring, 1903-1985, 1st ed. (Dallas, TX: Taylor, 1991), 159.
29. Ibid., 161.
30. Ibid., 159.
31. "Black Code # 36", in Slaves and Free Persons of Color: An Act Concerning Slaves and Free Persons: Revised Code. No. 105 (North Carolina General Assembly, 1831), electronic ed., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, accessed July 6, 2017, http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/slavesfree/slavesfree.html.
32. The white chaplain's relationship to this ritual is complicated in ways that we unfortunately do not have space to discuss fully here. While she was not the ritualistic actor who transformed the prayer vigil into a possible riot, her ambivalence and anxiety about hosting black people in the hospital was palpable and enabled the administrators' actions, which would place her in the capacity of the ritual enabler. Her case demonstrates the fluidity of ritualistic parties; on this point, see also note 36 below.
33. Shannon Sullivan, Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2014).
34. John A. Buehrens and Forrest Church, A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998); David E. Bumbaugh, Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History (Chicago: Meadville Lombard Press, 2000); Mark Morrison-Reed, "Handout 3: Characteristics of Racially Integrated Unitarian Universalists Congregations," accessed May 19,2017, http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/resistance/workshopl2/182678.shtml; Christopher L. Walton, "Racial and Ethnic Diversity of Unitarian Universalists" (2010), accessed May 19,2017, http://www.uuworld.org/articles/racial-ethnic-diversity-unitarian-universalists.
35. Rakeiya Scott's two and a half minute cellphone video can be viewed and heard online: Richard Fausset and Yamiche Alcindor, "Video by Wife of Keith Scott Shows Her Pleas to Police," New York Times, September 23,2016, accessed June 22,2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/24/us/charlotte-keith-scott-shooting-video.html?mcubz=0&_r=0.
36. Sullivan's question to Ann about why Rakeyia's cursing was relevant might have had the potential to help the workshop attendees resist or at least interrupt the ritual. However, her asking the question in a very nonconfrontational (read: classed and gendered) manner also could be seen as enabling the ritual to continue. On the fluidity of ritual parties (especially in the case of white middle-class women), see also note 32 above.
37. J. Napolin, "Scenes of Subjection: Women's Voices Narrating Black Death," Sounding Out! (2016), accessed March 27, 2017, https://soundstudiesblog.com/2016/12/19/sciences-of-subjection-womens-voices-narrating-black-death/. Emphasis in original.
38. Brittney Cooper, "She Was Guilty of Being a Black Girl: The Mundane Terror of Police Violence in American Schools," Salon, October 28, 2015, accessed April 5, 2017, http:llwww.salon.com/2015/10/28/she_was_guilty_of_being_a_black_girl_the_mimdane_terror_of_police_violence_in_american_schoolsl.
39. ABC News, "Police, Relatives at Odds over Sandra Bland's Jail 'Suicide,'" July 17, 2015. accessed June 24, 2017, http:llabcnews.go.com/USIpolice-relatives-disagree-sandra-blands-jail-deathlstory?id=32512851.
40. Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 3. Stoever's work on the listening ear and the sonic color line is relevant to the case of Rekeyia Scott beyond what we have space to analyze here.
41. Buehrens and Church, Chosen Faith, 114.
42. Bumbaugh, Unitarian Universalism, 200.
43. Peter Morales, ed., The Unitarian Universalist Pocket Guide, 5th ed. (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2012), 59-73.
44. As Universalist Unitarians John Buehrens and Forrest Church note, the UU church has a strong record of affirming gay and lesbian rights and ministering to people with AIDS, but their "record is spotty. . . . Those most vulnerable to injustice in our society—the poor and people of color—have every reason to say of us, as George Templeton Strong once said of many nineteenth century Unitarians: 'They are sensible, plausible, candid, subtle, and original in discussing any social evil or abuse. But somehow they don't get at it'" (Chosen Faith, 54, emphasis in original).
45. Eliade, Sacred and the Profane, 80.
46. Ibid., 17.
47. We would like to thank audience members for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this paper presented at the June 2017 meeting of IARPT.