Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Can I Get a Witness?: Who's Really Getting Screwed in the Black Church

Several years back a close black clergy friend of mine was having marital problems. He discovered that his wife was having an affair and was struggling to reconcile the relationship.

In need of spiritual counsel, he sought out the advice of several of his clergy colleagues. To a man, he was advised to seek out the “sexual comfort” of his flock. Take the edge off, so to speak, and even the score with his wife.

Once the deed was done, the thinking went, he would be of a mind to return to his wife and reconcile the marriage. Though my clergy friend was acutely aware of the abuses of patriarchal leadership in the black church, even he was taken aback by the perverse level of male entitlement and sexual exploitation.

I was reminded of this situation when the story broke recently regarding Rev. Eddie Long’s alleged sexual affairs with several young men in his congregation. Long is accused of using his money, power, and station to manipulate these men into sexual encounters. Long has categorically denied the charges, arguing via his attorney that he is the victim of a calculated shake down and that his accusers—most of whom have criminal records—are not to be trusted.

My concern here is not with Long’s case per se. Given the intensified interest of the media, my guess is that we will find out sooner rather than later about what really happened in this case. More pressing for me is what this issues highlights about the predatory nature of many black male clergymen and, more generally, the collusion by the black church at large in covering up and, indeed, enabling their misdeeds.

The truth of the matter is had Long’s accusers been women this story would have quickly lost its legs. At least insofar as the black community is concerned. This is not to say that ALL black churches are guilty of these abuses or condone this behavior. That said, the problem is not so much the individuals abusers as much as the institutionalized patriarchal thinking which inform how many, if not most, of these religious institutions operate.

The clergymen that counseled my friend in crisis clearly felt entitled as men and religious leaders to use the women in the congregation as objects of sexual gratification. Their comfort level in offering this advice was no doubt a reflection of the confidence they had in both the complicity of their sexual targets and that of their congregation, the bulk of whom are women. How can this be? How can women tolerate such treatment.

Scholar Terry Eagleton rightly notes that dominant power is able to stay dominant by getting those it exploits to collude with it. This collusion does not necessarily have to entail incentives or “bribes” of a material nature. The invention of “whiteness” by the elite European classes during the colonial period in the U.S. is a salient case in point. Grossly outnumbered and in need of a servant class to act as bodyguards against “Native American insurgency,” the elites devised a rather brilliant plan. In short, they gave indentured European servants (which, for all intents and purposes, were little more than slaves) the cultural gift of “whiteness” and, by extension, the legal “privilege” of being exempt from slavery and the stigma of blackness.

As we see by the racial tensions and prejudices that persist even to this day, this dastardly strategy of control has worked rather successfully, pitting similar exploited working class groups against each other time and again and, in so doing, assuring that those in power remain in power. Patriarchy is the weapon of choice in the black church power hierarchy. Operating similar to the cultural capital of “whiteness,” it gets black women to collude with it in the name of supporting black men and, by default, the health and survival of black communities at large.

In exchange for their cultural loyalty to black men, black women attain the cultural status of belonging, of being “good black women.” In an atmosphere wherein black women are blamed within and outside black communities for the failures of the black family and black men in particular (check out the notorious “Moynihan Report”), the importance of such a cultural identification becomes clear. The black church—which remains the most influential institution in African American life, especially for black women—relies on this political calculus to maintain the male hierarchy of power.

Granted, as Eddie Long’s controversy is bringing to light, there are boys and, in some cases, men that fall victim to this power equation as well. But the bigger story, the one that rarely makes the headlines, is the pervasive and longstanding pattern of exploiting women sexually in the black church. Can I get a witness? Ya’ll don’t hear me though.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


--George White

On Saturday, Right-wing television commentator Glenn Beck held a rally on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Beck claimed that – after having changed the date of the rally to August 28th – he had no idea his rally would fall on the 47th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, keynoted by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have Dream” speech.

Whether we take Beck at his word is irrelevant. What is most significant about the “Restoring Honor” rally is its proof of the continuing resiliency of White Privilege in America.

Once questioned by media about the timing of the rally, Beck dismissed any concerns by claiming that his rally would “reclaim the civil rights movement.”

During a segment on his radio show, Beck reiterated that notion and added that he and his fellow conservatives were entitled to “take back” the civil rights movement because “damn it…we were the people who did it in the first place!”

Beck has never explained who took the civil rights movement and where they went with it. Nor did he acknowledge that it was America’s political, social, and Christian conservatives who rallied massive resistance – using federal, state, and local power, counter-protests mobs, and vigilante violence – against the likes of Dr. King, SNCC, the SCLC, and others.

I never heard Beck describe how he was going to honor King’s legacy when King was the type of “social justice” minister Beck rails against daily. Then it occurred to me that none of this was central to his cause; truth and accuracy have never been his forte. What is absolutely critical for Beck is the ability to name the world in any way he sees fit, whether or not the definitions match reality.

Beck’s rally – like the rest of his political theater – seemed scattershot and ill-conceived. Over the past few months, the theme of the rally changed more than the date, moving from a book launch, to an explication of his supposedly divinely-inspired “plan,” to a celebration of America’s soldiers. It’s difficult to imagine a similarly situated entertainer-of-color putting together such a confused and confusing demonstration and have the entire nation take her/him seriously. Nonetheless, what we should take seriously is the pattern highlighted by the demonstration.

Beck has made quite a name for himself with acts like his campaign against Van Jones, as well as by stating that President Obama was a racist with a “deep-seated hatred of White people.” He has demonized community organizers, unions, and social justice churches. He constantly demonstrates religious intolerance and xenophobia. The only thing he has in common with Dr. King is that each of their last names has four letters and a “k.”

The post-rally news coverage also was troubling because reporters and observers, at best, merely hinted at the glaring contradictions. The media’s response simply augmented the spectacle by focusing on Beck-the-celebrity, his guests, and the crowd, absent any analysis of what actually happened. This isn’t about how many people showed up, whether the crowd was racially diverse, or whether the rally demonstrated that we live in a divided country. It’s about White privilege and its tremendous, ongoing costs.

Don’t get me wrong; Beck is dangerous. He is the latest opportunist to package the old wine (or is it “whine”) of White fear, paranoia, and self-pity into a new bottle of “aw shucks” folksiness. His discourse is hate speech with a smile, faux sincerity, and the occasional, well-timed tear. Yet, what is most dangerous is the ability of White Privilege to define America (and the globe) with little, if any, factual support.

White Privilege is dangerous because it makes the absurd seem commonplace, the indefensible suddenly appropriate. It is dangerous because the attitudes, ideas, and actions that emerge from it appear to be “natural” and “normal” rather than the hideous social deformity that they are. In Beck’s world of privilege, “little Black boys and little Black girls” only play with “little White boys and little White girls” if they are all Communists bent on the destruction of America.

The toll of White Privilege is high and the meter continues to run. There will be lots of Glenn Becks and Sarah Palins; there always have been and neither is particularly original. Let us seize our power and call them what they are. Let us “refudiate” their naming. Humanity can no longer afford silence.