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Knee on My Neck: Slavery’s Ghost


Published in the issue.

Since the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Abery, protests have sprung up across the United States and around the world demanding real change.

Is this the time for that change? Is this the moment to make a lasting difference?

It CAN be.

These atrocities not only represent the effects of personal prejudicial attitudes about race, but are indicative of insidious racist principles that have been embedded from the nation’s inception in the very fabric of many, if not most, American institutions. On the one hand slavery, an institution at the core of national life—both North and South—was viewed as an economic necessity; on the other hand, it was justified by disavowing the humanity of those enslaved. These two principles—economic advantage and dehumanizing the enslaved—have continued throughout the history of the United States to our day, expressed and enforced through various institutions, both governmental and private.

One need not feel personal attitudes of bigotry and racism to participate in perpetuating racist ideas and actions. They are so much a part of the systems and structures of our society that they generally go unnoticed—unless you are personally negatively affected by them. Although racial prejudice is all too often expressed in interpersonal encounters, with Black, Brown, Red, and Yellow people being subjected to demeaning and deadly attitudes and actions based solely on the color of their skin, the problem of racism in the United States is far more pernicious. Beyond such personal expressions of racially based prejudice are laws, policies, and procedures of government and private institutions that favor White people over People of Color – particularly Black and Brown people, as well as Red and Yellow people. The two principles of economic advantage and disavowing the humanity of People of Color for the benefit of Whites continue in today’s American systems and structures. Those who accept and participate in those systems and structures unknowingly (and many knowingly) perpetuate racist ideas and actions that “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”

Currently across the United States and in many parts of the world, the policies and practices of police departments, health care systems, educational systems, the justice system, real estate and lending institutions, and other areas of our common life are being examined and challenged—revealing many policies and practices to be unjust, designed to benefit Whites while disadvantaging People of Color and putting them at risk. The themes of economic advantage and the disavowing of human value persist. The ghost of slavery lurks among us, continuing to oppress.

This is the time for us, people of faith committed to the Way of Jesus and to the vows of the baptismal covenant, to examine how the principles of economic advantage and disavowing the humanity of others go counter to our commitment to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP, p.304). It is time for us to look more keenly at our baptismal covenant to ask how it speaks to the unjust and destructive social, systemic, and structural policies of our time; and to ask what that requires of us—each and all of us—as we persevere in the Way of Jesus, which requires us to love our neighbors as ourselves. What do we notice in the institutions and organizations in our communities that perpetuate discrimination based on color, race, ethnicity? And, since racial discrimination intersects with other unjust discriminatory polices based on the human categories of gender, gender identity, age, and physical challenges, should not such policies ought also be considered targets for reform?

This IS the time for action. Ask

  • What discriminatory policies or practices exist in my parish, my diocese, my neighborhood, the place of my employment, the clubs or other organizations to which I belong?
  • What would the situation look like if the injustices were made right?
  • Who else with whom I can align myself is aware of and desires to address the situation?
  • What resources do we need—e.g., other people, networks, money, technical support—to address the situation?
  • What “seats of power or control” must we make aware of the need for reform?
  • What plan can we create to call the need for reform to the attention of those in power?
  • What steps must we take to engage our plan?

It was in this time of urgency and opportunity that the Reparations Committee of the Diocese of New York and the Rural and Migrant Ministry asked me to design and present a five-part webinar to address the need for racial justice. Knee on My Neck: Slavery’s Ghost was the result, and was presented from June 19 through July 16. The recordings of the five sessions are available to be viewed at www.rootsandbranchesprograms.org.

This is indeed the time to be informed about the need for racial justice (and the reform of all discriminatory policies that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God), to be united with others in the name of the liberating Christ to work for reform, and prayerfully to strategize and engage in actions that realize our prayer that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done, “on earth, as it is in heaven.”