By Marv Knox
White superiority is one of the root causes of poverty in America, and white Americans must be responsible for cleaning up their “mess,” rural poverty fighter Jason Coker told participants at the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) annual meeting in early October.
Poverty not only is an economic condition, but also a social situation, explained Coker, national director of Together for Hope, a rural development coalition that focuses on the 301 U.S. counties afflicted with persistent rural poverty. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship launched Together for Hope nearly 20 years ago, and it focuses on four “priorities of hope”—education, health and nutrition, housing and environment, and social enterprise, he noted.
Together for Hope practices asset-based community development, identifying the strengths already present in impoverished communities and building on them to transform the lives of residents. “We spend a lot of time talking about how to reframe poverty, since poverty isn’t an asset,” Coker acknowledged. “Poverty is a lack, a deficiency, a need.”
And the root of poverty isn’t exclusively economic, but also social, he said. “There is a poverty of trust, poverty of hope, poverty of love that is much more devastating than economic poverty.” So, the opposite of poverty—which engages relationships as much as it encompasses finances—is “peace, well-being, wholeness, shalom,” he insisted.
“How do we participate in peace-building that creates wholeness and well-being? … What are our cultural assumptions that have created the predicament we are in?” he asked.
The economy is based upon the foundation of society—what people believe about how they should treat each other. Consequently, laws and institutions create and maintain the conditions that form the society and shape the economy, he noted. This enables the society to perpetuate what it believes is important. For example, if the prevailing culture values education, it will provide public education.
“One of the foundational cultural assumptions that has created so much poverty for so long is white superiority,” Coker insisted. “This ideology made slavery and the genocide of Native people not just possible, but inevitable. It operates—still—at a deep, embedded cultural level.”
Even though many Americans would say white superiority is wrong, “this overarching cultural assumption still is operable,” he said. “Everybody has a role to play in overthrowing the cultural assumption of white superiority, but none more than white people.”
That cultural assumption has not only impoverished people of color, but it also has made a mess of American society, he stressed. Recalling his mother always taught him his responsibility “to clean up my own mess,” he said: “Our black and brown neighbors have told us this for years as they’ve been trying to clean up our mess. Maybe a good starting place for us white people is to start listening to and believing them, then work from a place of solidarity and find ways to collaboratively undo white superiority.”
The burden to educate people about the wrongness of white superiority should be lifted from the nonwhite communities and carried by whites, Coker said.
“Let’s face it: Nonwhites did not create the system of white superiority, White people did—and a certain economical kind of white people did,” he said. “If we made the mess, then we ought to be the first ones to clean it up. White superiority is the cultural legacy of whiteness and white people. White superiority is what we inherit, and we have to be on the front lines of fighting it.”
Building a foundation for peace and wholeness is the starting point for creating a healthy society, Coker stressed, noting the process can begin by taking simple, direct action.
To illustrate, he told about a white friend who had worked as a chaplain for a major hospital almost two decades. His friend is white, as were the people in the two positions above him. When he was proposed for a promotion, he turned it down, saying he would refuse a promotion and salary increase until the hospital hired a person of color to fill a position higher than his.
“That’s just a small, individual example of how to resist and dismantle white superiority,” Coker said. “This is the work we’ve got to do. Morally, I believe God will judge us for it. It’s our work to do because people who look just like us created it. And when we do nothing or say nothing or remain inactive in dismantling white superiority, we are actively taking advantage of it as a default.… This system was created by and for people like us, and we have an integral part in repair and healing.”
While white people can’t help that they were born white, they must do something about dismantling the system that gives them privilege, he insisted. “Don’t be so fragile as to be defensive. Be motivated to make a difference. And if you’re making a difference now, then keep going. … It’s a matter of life and death. This isn’t about white guilt; this is about God’s peace, wholeness and well-being—for all of us.”
Marv Knox serves as the field coordinator for Fellowship Southwest.