The Rev. William J. Barber II is president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
Following news that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s social life in the mid-1980s included parties where white people dressed in blackface, a stream of offensive photos from fraternity parties in the late 1970s and early 19 80s has emerged, implicating not only a few bad apples but also white elites across social and ideological lines. To African Americans who have survived the status quo of American racism, this is hardly a surprise. But it does raise again in our common life the question of what it means to repent of America’s racist past and pursue a more perfect union.
Like for any African American, this is personal for me. When my father challenged Jim Crow’s inequality in Georgia in the 1950s, a white man put a gun in his mouth and told him what he planned to do to him if he didn’t stop talking. When I was a young man in the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in my uncle’s yard because he had married a white woman. My uncle sent me to the back door with a shotgun and told me to shoot anything that moved. When you know in your body the violent backlash that is inevitable whenever white supremacy is challenged, you cannot take its cultural symbols lightly.
But as angry as I can become at those who mock black people and culture to justify their own sense of superiority, I also know that mockery, fear and hatred of black people are the result of a racial caste system, not its causes. White supremacy did not emerge in the United States because of some innate human understanding that black people are inferior to white people. It was an economic choice that Americans of European descent then created an ideology to explain. “I was taught the popular folktale of racism,” American University scholar Ibram Kendi writes, “that ignorant and hateful people had produced racist ideas, and that these racist people had instituted racist policies. But when I learned the motives behind the production of many of America’s most influentially racist ideas, it became obvious that this folk tale, though sensible, was not based on a firm footing in historical evidence.”
The Bible tells a story about Zacchaeus, a tax collector who participated in the systemic exploitation of people in Palestine. When he met Jesus, he repented of his wrongdoing by committing to pay back the people he had harmed. Whether we are talking about Northam or President Trump — Democrats or Republicans — restitution that addresses systemic harm must be the fruit of true repentance.
If Northam, or any politician who has worn blackface, used the n-word or voted for the agenda of white supremacy, wants to repent, the first question they must ask is “How are the people who have been harmed by my actions asking to change the policies and practices of our society?” In political life, this means committing to expand voting rights, stand with immigrant neighbors, and provide health care and living wages for all people. In Virginia, it means stopping the environmental racism of the pipeline and natural gas compressor station Dominion Energy intends to build in Union Hill, a neighborhood founded by emancipated slaves and other free African Americans.
Scapegoating politicians who are caught in the act of interpersonal racism will not address the fundamental issue of systemic racism. We have to talk about policy. But we also have to talk about trust and power. If white people in political leadership are truly repentant, they will listen to black and other marginalized people in our society. They will confess that they have sinned and demonstrate their willingness to listen and learn by following and supporting the leadership of others. To confess past mistakes while continuing to insist that you are still best suited to lead because of your experience is itself a subtle form of white supremacy.
At the same time, we cannot allow political enemies of Virginia’s governor to call for his resignation over a photo when they continue themselves to vote for the policies of white supremacy. If anyone wants to call for the governor’s resignation, they should also call for the resignation of anyone who has supported racist voter suppression or policies that have a disparate impact on communities of color.
While we must name and resist white supremacy, we can also recall that we are never alone in this work. During the 19th century, there were anti-racist abolitionists — black and white — who worked to subvert and transform a system that considered some people chattel. In the new dawn of Reconstruction, black and white men worked together in statehouses across the South to reimagine democracy. During the 20th century’s movements for labor unions, women’s suffrage, and civil, human and environmental rights, fusion coalitions of black, white, brown, Native and Asian worked together to pursue a more perfect union that both acknowledges our original sin and holds on to the hope that we might yet live up to the better angels of our nature. Whenever we ask what repentance means, we don’t have to start from scratch. We have a long tradition to draw on, full of examples of what true repentance must look like.
In his 20s and 30s, Democrat Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia was a recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan, serving as the exalted cyclops of his local chapter. He continued to support the Klan into the 1940s, but Byrd later said joining the Klan was his greatest mistake. He demonstrated what repentance can look like by working with colleagues in Congress to extend the Voting Rights Act in 2006 and backing Barack Obama as his party’s candidate for president in 2008. “Senator Byrd and I stood together on many issues,” wrote Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who nearly died fighting for voting rights in Selma, Ala. In our present moral crisis, we must remember that real repentance is possible — and it looks like working together to build the multiethnic democracy we’ve never yet been.