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Not Guilty, Just Responsible

By July 15, 2016 22 Comments

I was asked to speak this week at a teach-in addressing the latest spate of racially charged killings involving police—killings by police and killings of police. Those events involve ultimate stakes, human life. And the emotions that go into the larger conversation shouting-match that characterizes American public ‘discourse’ on the subject are super-charged as well. In closer-up meetings things might go more politely, but the underlying dynamic is probably much the same. The (accurate) litany of black oppression proceeds; the wall of white anxiety and denial goes up. In my experience—that is, observations of myself and of others—the black litany registers in white ears as an indictment placing blame and inducing guilt. It is not meant that way but that’s often how it’s taken. And as we know from one-on-one exchanges in our families and friendships, blame and guilt trigger defensiveness and denial, shutting down the conversation before it gets past square one.

How then to proceed in some sort of constructive manner without denying the truth? That is, how to get white people in the audience to listen—and hear? The other night I offered a concept that’s been very helpful for me personally, so helpful that I wrote it out and taped to my desk at work. It’s a quotation from Abraham Joshua Heschel, a professor at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century. Heschel was also deeply involved in the civil rights movement. It was in connection with that activism that he uttered the line that has become my mantra: “In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.”

This has a way of addressing the answer many white people give to assertions about the legacy of slavery and institutional racism. “Hey, I know blacks suffered under slavery and that was a terrible thing, but my ancestors arrived in America long after the Civil War was over. They didn’t have a part in slavery, they wouldn’t have approved slavery, they met a lot of crap in making their way in this country, and they finally got through by means of their own hard work. We’ve earned everything we got.”

It’s important to listen to this seriously, because a lot of that statement is true. The median date at which Euro-American forebears first arrived in the United States is about 1890—well after the Emancipation Proclamation. Many of those ancestors met fierce prejudice. A lot of them, demeaned or not, worked really hard for long years in making and maintaining a stake in this land. The thing is, so did African Americans—and for a much longer time. Their median ancestral arrival date was about 1780. So the white excuse of a later arrival, long after slavery’s demise, ironically turns into the question of whose country, by tenure and service, the United States really is.

I can offer my own family’s saga as a case in point. My great-grandfather Hero Bratt (the name is Norwegian, originally, and—so the family joke goes—asserts in words what is, ummm, lacking in deeds) arrived here in 1867, buying 40 acres of Ottawa County Michigan muck to farm next to his brother’s similar patch. He worked hard, did great-grandpa Hero; worked himself to death, in fact. His many sons also worked hard—on farms, in factories, one to seminary and a career as a preacher. Their sons and daughters worked hard too. More of them followed the 20th century’s broadening pathway to higher education and became teachers and doctors as well as ministers. Some served in World War II and received the GI Bill’s boost to education and home-ownership. And so it has gone on with the next generation, and the next. A hard-working, respectable lot, all in all. Decent achievement; low on dysfunction, high on service.

It’s essential to note the roles played in this saga by elements besides hard work and duty, by human and social capital and government benefits and a growing, broadening economy. Essential because just here—not in hard work or dutifulness—lie the chief points of contrast between Hero et al. and their African American counterparts. Hero was educated and literate; the vast majority of African Americans of his generation had been forbidden to become so. He and Jan had enough financial savings to buy land in America; the vast majority of African Americans of his generation had been denied that, had in fact been expropriated of due compensation back all the generations to their ancestors’ arrival. Then there’s that date when Hero and Jan came ashore—1867. The era of Reconstruction. A vast body of black workers in the South yearned for a new start after slavery. With them the nation had a deep connection. To them the nation owed a great deal, in money, in suffering, and in justice denied. With Hero and Jan it had no connection; to them it owed nothing. So who was welcomed in and given a good deal on West Michigan land? Where did the millions come from in the fifty years after the Civil War to get in on the opportunities—harsh as they could be—of the expanding Northern economy? From Europe. What about the millions of blacks long trapped in Southern slavery? By policy and brute force, they were kept in the South, falling behind every year sharecropping in a style of agriculture that had no future in the twentieth century.

This history could go on to recount who was cut in, and cut out, from the GI Bill. Who were and were not offered access to quality schools. Who was, and was not, forced to pay a premium—higher prices for lower-quality houses—via real-estate redlining. Who was and was not, therefore, taxed on the twin building blocks of middle-class status—education and home-ownership. Whose hard work got due reward, and whose did not.

Hero and his children and his children’s children did not institute these laws, practices, and policies. Had they been asked, they probably would have admitted that it was all pretty unfair. Most of them probably didn’t ask. But the record is clear nonetheless. They were admitted—largely welcomed—to the first floor of the American house. It rested on foundations whose concrete and mortar were mixed—to use the abolitionists’ term—with “Negro blood.” People who had been here, exploited, much longer than my forebears were kept in the basement, staring at those foundations. To use another metaphor, my family was grafted pretty painlessly into the tree of American life. But that tree was first planted in the soil of slave labor and fed over long generations by the racism invented to excuse the same. The grafted branches do pick up those nutrients, willy-nilly.

In a free society, not everyone is guilty but everyone is responsible. My forebears were not guilty, but the latter generations acquired responsibility. To me, the moral of the story—and the way to de-tox the anxiety in the room when discussing race—is for white people not to take things personally right away. It’s not our fault, it’s a situation we’ve all inherited. So don’t take it personally. Just take it very seriously.

The apostle who used the illustration of grafting to explain the Gentiles’ part in God’s plan of salvation used another history lesson that’s apropos here. I did not know sin until I knew the law, said Paul. So we too, coming into knowledge, bear increased responsibility. If we ignore it, then we do take on guilt. If we take this seriously, we will—sooner or later—have to take it personally.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Sue says:

    You present a perspective I had not considered. While others are suffering there is always responsibility to help, a more direct reason for responsibility was not all that clear in my mind. Thank you for that.

  • Ron calsbeek says:

    Thanks Jim. White privilege is real even if it is enjoyed in ignorance. You have cleanly hit the nail that so many of us have either ignored or swung at and missed.

  • Thank you. Very perceptive and very helpful

  • Lee Collins says:

    Very thoughtful piece. Well said.

  • June Huissen says:

    Thank you brother Jim. Well said.

  • Amory Jewett says:

    Thank you for this articulate piece, sir. I take my responsibility seriously in a personal way.

  • Respectfully challenging without the threatening that alienates. Applied grace expressed in “black and white.” Beautiful Jim.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Excellent, excellent piece, sharp, economical, piercing.

  • Bruce Keuning says:

    Thank you for your clarity of a concern that we all struggle with at this time of history. Appreciate your willingness to share with us!

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Thanks for this helpful blog, Jim.

  • Jeanne Engelhard says:

    Thanks you ! Wonderful insight. So helpful to me.

  • Ann Weller says:

    Thank you for this. It saddens me, though, that we have to continually protect/take into account the feelings of white people and understand their reluctance, even denial…yet blacks and other people of color are continually expected to be the ones working for unity, assembling peaceably, protesting in polite ways, and just “getting over it.”

    • Jim says:

      Yup. But this is the base-line from which the conversation has to start. Hope that after the first round we can get to your next level.

      • Ann Weller says:

        We’ve had this “conversation” for years and years and years. Judging from the current state of race relations in the U.S., we are going backward, not forward. I’m tired of coddling white people. Society sure expects far more restraint from people of color than it does from whites.

  • Dan Knauss says:

    Dig a little deeper in the extended family, the old country history, the community, the original inhabitants of the muck. You’ll find the guilt.

  • Jerilyn Bell says:

    Not everyone’s history is either black or white. I have ancestors that were black, Native American, Swedish, English and French Canadian. I look white but have relatives that look Native American. I was raised in foster homes and life has been a long struggle just to get to where I am today. I am a grandmother and have grandchildren that are mixed also. The only respondsibility I feel is teaching them that life is a struggle for everyone and the best way to lead is by example.

    • Jim says:

      A great beginning. If they follow your guide a lot of good will be accomplished. But people with greater assets and a smoother path than yours also need to pay attention to the larger social system that they’re part of–and that they have some power to change.

  • Caleb Lagerwey says:

    Well said, both on here and at the Teach-In. Thank you for sharing!

  • Thank you Jim for giving voice and clarify to what I have found difficult to say to white people.

  • Steve Ebels says:

    One thing not mentioned was decades of welfare and “assistance” that basically enables and indeed in some cases, encourages practices which are counterproductive to say the least. These have led to the great majority of the recent generation of children growing up in homes with no father. There is no stability, no responsibility, no respect taught in the “home” if one could call it that.
    How are these kids supposed to learn or know how to live?

    • Hanna says:

      Mr. Ebels, “the decades of welfare and assistance” you mention are just one example of the unjust systemic issue that has pervaded our society for so long to keep the so-called beneficiaries of it where they are at on every level. If that “assistance” or opportunity was what it needed to be from the get go and African Americans were given equal opportunity to everything that was accessible to their counterparts, we would not be talking about this issue now, would we? Blame shifting does not take one’s responsibility away. As the writer of this great piece put it, our ignorance of the real issue moves us from responsibility only to guilty as well.

  • Amory Jewett says:

    Steve, Sir, The things that you mention are not the root cause of black poverty. The fact is that black people, as a minority in the United States, have for a great many years been discriminated against in every possible way. Black people have not had access to good education, good jobs, good houses and neighborhoods, etc., etc. This is the root of the problem in so many black communities. White people who are in the majority and have privileges, like myself, must come to see and acknowledge this. God’s righteousness and his justice demands this of us. To cite just two examples in the Holy Scriptures when Israel completely lost sight of God’s righteousness and his justice: Micah 6:8, and Amos 5:24. The consequences of not demonstrating justice then, as now in 21st Century America, are truly dire. Indeed, today we are seeing the consequences of injustice–at times violent–in the United States of America our beloved country. May God have mercy on us.

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