Barbadian pop star Rihanna’s big concert in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv had
one very brief, strangely political moment. When performing the song “Pour it
Up,” according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz,
she substituted the lyric “All I see is dollar signs” with the phrase “All I
see is Palestine.”
switch-up generated controversy and discussion on the Israeli Web and in somesegments of the Arab press. It was picked up by lots of American aggregators.
The choice of words seemed not just political but deeply provocative.
it turns out that it didn’t really happen.
here’s why it was controversial. It wasn’t clear whether the lyric was meant as
simply a generic nod to Palestinians, perhaps a subtle suggestion that Rihanna’s
audience of some 50,000 think about the Palestinian territories and Israeli
policy toward them, or whether it meant something more.
the online discussion focused on the fact that Rihanna apparently did not say
the word “Israel” during her performance and had come under pressure to cancel
her show from some pro-Palestinian groups that support boycotting Israel. In
singing “all I see is Palestine” in the middle of Tel Aviv, was Rihanna
suggesting that the city should be considered not part of Israel, but part of a
single Palestinian state? Didn’t that sound uncomfortably close to the rhetoric
of anti-Israeli groups that insist the entire country is illegitimate and
should be dissolved?
these sound like overwrought questions to you, then it turns out that you are
correct. Simone Wilson, a writer at the site JewishJournal.com who has been
impressively persistent in covering this story, got ahold of a cellphone video recorded by a fan at the concert. And it turns out, as best one can tell from
watching the video, that Rihanna used the normal lyrics. She didn’t mention
Palestine at all. Wilson also noted that a Jerusalem
Post reporter had expressed earlier skepticism about the controversial
lyrics, pointing out that no other Israeli journalist at the concert had heard “all
I see is Palestine.”
whole episode was pretty silly. So why are you reading about it? Because this
is a reminder of how remarkably sensitive the politics of the
Israel-Palestinian conflict can get, and indeed always are. The mere hint of a
one-word political statement by a 25-year-old Barbadian pop star, during a
highly non-political event, was enough to generate controversy and debate in
fight over symbolism can sometimes feel almost as vicious as the fight for
territory; recall the endless rounds of controversy and allegation and
conspiracy-theorizing over the photos of children who were killed or wounded
during the November clashes between Israel and Gaza. The difference, of course,
is that what Rihanna said, or in this case didn’t say, is of next-to-zero
actual significance. What is of significance is that both parties tothe Israel-Palestinian conflict are so primed
for controversy and outrage, so hawkishly ever-alert for the slightest
indication of someone taking sides, that this incident would become a story at
United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the
genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.
such a statement today is to be immediately accused of being rhetorical or,
worse yet, of being “reminiscent of the ’60s.” The reaction is instructive and
revealing. The historical record of how white Europeans conquered North America
by destroying the native population and how they then built their new nation’s
economy on the backs of kidnapped Africans who had been turned into chattel are
facts that can hardly be denied. Yet to speak honestly of such historical facts
is to be charged with being polemical or out of date. Why?
reason is that racism is no longer a hot topic. After the brief “racial crisis”
of the ’60s, white America, including many of those involved in the civil
rights movement, has gone on to other concerns. Also, the legal victories of
black Americans in that period, as far as most white Americans are concerned,
have settled the issue and even left many asking, “What more do blacks want?”
courts have recently interpreted civil rights legislation—originally designed
to redress discrimination against black people—as applying to the grievances of
whites who believe affirmative action programs have “gone too far.” In addition,
popular racial attitudes have changed, attested to by the opinion polls and the
increased number of black faces appearing in the world of sports,
entertainment, the mass media, and even politics. After all, The Cosby Show is the highest-rated TV
series in the country, and Jesse Jackson is running for president.
in the two decades since the passage of momentous civil rights legislation,
some things have changed and some things haven’t. What has changed is the
personal racial attitudes of many white Americans and the opportunities for
some black Americans to enter the middle levels of society. (The word “middle”
is key here, insofar as blacks have yet to be allowed into the upper echelons
and decision-making positions of business, the professions, the media, or even
the fields of sports and entertainment where black “progress” has so often been
celebrated.) Legal segregation has been lifted off the backs of black people
with the consequent expansion of social interchange and voting rights, and that
itself has led to changes in white attitudes.
has not changed is the systematic and pervasive character of racism in the
United States and the condition of life for the majority of black people. In
fact, those conditions have gotten worse.
originates in domination and provides the social rationale and philosophical
justification for debasing, degrading, and doing violence to people on the
basis of color. Many have pointed out how racism is sustained by both personal
attitudes and structural forces. Racism can be brutally overt or invisibly
institutional, or both. Its scope extends to every level and area of human
psychology, society, and culture.
may be a universal human sin, but racism is more than an inevitable consequence
of human nature or social accident. Rather, racism is a system of oppression
for a social purpose.
United States, the original purpose of racism was to justify slavery and its
enormous economic benefit. The particular form of racism, inherited from the
English to justify their own slave trade, was especially venal, for it defined
the slave not merely as an unfortunate victim of bad circumstances, war, or
social dislocation but rather as less than human, as a thing, an animal, a
piece of property to be bought and sold, used and abused.
slave did not have to be treated with any human consideration whatsoever. Even
in the founding document of our nation, the famous constitutional compromise
defined the slave as only three-fifths of a person. The professed high ideals
of Anglo-Western society could exist side by side with the profitable
institution of slavery only if the humanity of the slave was denied and
heart of racism was and is economic, though its roots and results are also deeply
cultural, psychological, sexual, even religious, and, of course, political. Due
to 200 years of brutal slavery and 100 more of legal segregation and
discrimination, no area of the relationship between black and white people in
the United States is free from the legacy of racism.
SPIRITUAL AND BIBLICAL terms, racism is a perverse sin that cuts to the core of
the gospel message. Put simply, racism negates the reason for which Christ
died—the reconciling work of the cross. It denies the purpose of the church:
to bring together, in Christ, those who have been divided from one another,
particularly in the early church's case, Jew and Gentile—a division based on
is only one remedy for such a sin and that is repentance, which, if genuine,
will always bear fruit in concrete forms of conversion, changed behavior, and
reparation. While the United States may have changed in regard to some of its
racial attitudes and allowed some of its black citizens into the middle class,
white America has yet to recognize the extent of its racism—that we are and
have always been a racist society—much less to repent of its racial sins.
because of that lack of repentance and, indeed, because of the economic,
social, and political purposes still served by the oppression of black people,
systematic racism continues to be pervasive in American life. While constantly
denied by white social commentators and the media, evidence of the persistent
and endemic character of American racism abounds.
. . . .
STRATEGIES FOR HOW black people must confront and finally overcome the
ever-changing face of white racism in America must always originate within the
black community itself. White allies have and can continue to play a
significant role in the struggle against racism when black autonomy and
leadership are sufficiently present to make possible a genuine partnership. But
an even more important task for white Americans is to examine ourselves, our
relationships, our institutions, and our society for the ugly plague of racism.
in America must admit the reality and begin to operate on the assumption that
theirs is a racist society. Positive individual attitudes are simply not
enough, for, as we have seen, racism is more than just personal.
white people in the United States have benefited from the structure of racism,
whether or not they have ever committed a racist act, uttered a racist word, or
had a racist thought (as unlikely as that is). Just as surely as blacks suffer
in a white society because they are black, whites benefit because they are
white. And if whites have profited from a racist structure, they must try to
benefit from domination is to be responsible for it. Merely to keep personally
free of the taint of racist attitudes is both illusory and inadequate. Just to
go along with a racist social structure, to accept the economic order as it is,
just to do one's job within impersonal institutions is to participate in racism
in the ’80s.
has to do with the power to dominate and enforce oppression, and that power in
America is in white hands. Therefore, while there are instances of black racial
prejudice against whites in the United States today (often in reaction to white
racism), there is no such thing as black racism. Black people in America do not
have the power to enforce that prejudice.
racism in white institutions must be eradicated by white people and not just
black people. In fact, white racism is primarily a white responsibility.
not give in to the popular temptation to believe that racism existed mostly in
the Old South or before the 1960s or, today, in South Africa. Neither can any
of our other struggles against the arms race, war in Central America, hunger,
homelessness, or sexism be separated from the reality of racism.
church must, of course, get its own house in order. It is still riddled with
racism and segregation. The exemplary role of the black church in the struggle
against racism offers a sharp indictment to white churches, which still mostly
reflect the racial structures around them.
church still has the capacity to be the much-needed prophetic interrogater of a
system that has always depended upon racial oppression. The gospel remains
clear. The church still should and can be a spiritual and social community
where the ugly barriers of race are finally torn down to reveal the
possibilities of a different American future.
Wallis’s article is another left-wing
diatribe against Jacksonian America as irredeemably racist, sexist, homophobic,
and xenophobic. A classic example of liberal exploitation of white guilt. While
Wallis is right about the central role of white supremacy in much of American
history, he indulges in left-wing demagoguery when he accuses all white
Americans, simply by being white Americans, of perpetrating racism, exploiting
minorities, and benefiting from structures of racial domination. He is
obliviously to the desperate situation of the white Jacksonian working and
middle classes. Wallis wrote this article in 1987. In 2010 he accused the Tea
Party of racism, saying it was driven by “an undercurrent of white resentment.”