We Have to Let White Supremacy Die in Order to Truly Live

In a climate of white supremacist violence and blatant contempt for a robust democratic vision — where distrust, deception and unabashed lying run thick in the halls of power — Lindsay Graham and other Trump enablers are rubbing salt in the wound by calling on people to simply “move on.”

To truly move forward, however, we will need a form of accountability that is oriented toward social transformation, rather than “reconciliation” or “unity.” And those of us who are working to resist the poison of white supremacy will need to ground our actions in revolutionary love.

In the Truthout interview that follows, David Kyuman Kim, the founding director of the Graduate Theological Union’s Center for Values, Ethics, and Culture, contends that in these perilous times, we must center our deep-seated love of humanity — love is one of the things that separates us from the fascists.

A philosopher of religion and scholar of radical love and multiracial democracy and widely published author and editor, Kim has held appointments at Stanford University, Connecticut College, Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Harvard, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Social Science Research Council. His current book project is The Public Life of Love.

George Yancy: Let’s start with the political divisiveness that we are currently experiencing in this country, though, as we know, the U.S. has always been internally divisive. How do we prevent this country from crossing the brink into a civil war, especially given the violence that took place on January 6?

David Kyuman Kim: I had previously been reticent to use the language of “civil war” to describe what is taking place in America. Regrettably, it feels irresponsible to deny how deep and extreme the divisions are in our country. The presidential election revealed that nearly half of the electorate –– some 70 million Americans –– voted to keep a white supremacist with deep fascist tendencies in office. And for those who are in denial that we are on the brink of civil war, the violent attack by Trump’s supporters on the Capitol in D.C. and in state capitals in Washington, Kansas and Georgia should be evidence enough that the war is upon us.

Elected officials and pundits claiming that the white supremacist mob that sieged the Capitol recently “is not America” are in a serious state of denial. The mob does not speak for all of us, but it does represent a longstanding strain of the American spirit.

The divisiveness in the country is surely a fight for the character and spirit of the nation. Are we a democracy? Are we willing and able to realize forms of democracy that have been, frankly, under-developed and unrealized? The civil war at hand is not simply between the left and the right, or between Trump supporters and the rest of us.

The persistence of white supremacy in the American experiment has shown that the civil war is also within us, inside of us. The storming of the Capitol was horrifying but also inevitable. White supremacy will not be contained or restrained until all of us are willing to let its hold on us die. Diversity training isn’t going to save us from what George Lipsitz calls the possessive investment in whiteness.

White supremacy is as American as apple pie. The basic tenet of radical love is an unflagging commitment to the idea that we have to let basic things in us die –– white supremacy included –– in order to truly live. This includes the uninterrogated conceit that the police will, unfailingly, protect all of us. The footage of the Capitol Police standing aside and allowing the mob to enter the Capitol without resistance speaks to this directly.

The calls to “move on” by Lindsay Graham and other Trump enablers don’t recognize that moving on and moving forward will require accountability. This is more than just punishment; it’s holding ourselves to a standard of justice that says we love ourselves and our own enough to protect and preserve, to stand for the best in us rather than our basest nature.

Watching Trump give the lightest of pleas to the mob to stop and then to conclude by telling them, “We love you,” is a perversion of the notion of love. Obviously, he has affection for the right-wing mob, as they do for him. But the tie that binds them is not consonant with the kind of love that insists on justice for the least amongst us — it’s at odds with the love that sacrifices comfort for the sake of the good. Trump’s love is a love of whiteness and power, a love of tyranny. Trump has committed all sorts of crimes over the past five years; now it seems like he is even corrupting the quality of public love.

Despite the despair, I still hold out hope. As you can probably tell, I believe that hope and love are twinned principles of our fate. Black Lives Matter, multiracial solidarity are signs of hope for our democracy in this American winter of hate. The love of (and for) people of color is a bulwark against America’s commitment to white supremacy and racism. Love is an underutilized natural resource for our democracy. None of us can afford to give up on that.

David, what has impressed me about your work and praxis is your emphasis on love, on its public expression. There are many who will say that love has no place in the public sphere. How do you respond to such a claim?

Folks who object that love has no place in the public sphere effectively uphold a vision of our common lives that’s devoid of the very thing that makes us human. Relationships. The ties that bind. The bonds that make our lives meaningful. Even if that relationship is to oneself.

Let’s extend the logic of a public sphere or public life that is devoid of love or in which love is forbidden/prohibited, as it were. This is a world and a worldview whose structure of feeling devolves from indifference and cruelty. This is how we find ourselves suffocating under a politics of cruelty rather than a politics of compassion, or what I call love-driven politics.

We are barely emerging from the bitter and exceptionally cruel Trump era –– an age marked by state-sanctioned violence, the unwarranted ripping apart and separation of families, the [ongoing] caging of children, the deepening exploitation of the environment, and of course the blithe indifference to our collective and public health in the face of a global pandemic. The stoking of violent insurgence against the state. Can we really afford to back away from love in such hate-filled times?

I consider literary figure James Baldwin to be a prophet of love. He links love to the process of removing the figurative masks that we are afraid to live without. In our contemporary moment, with the rise of the “alt-right” and white supremacist groups, those masks of which Baldwin spoke appear to be indelibly fixed. In fact, we seem to have little space for mutual giving, mutual sharing of generosity, and the recognition of a sense of connectedness in this country. Why is this?

I absolutely agree with you about Baldwin. He is our great secular gospel writer. The searing truth of the Gospel of Love according to Baldwin –– whether we’re talking about Giovanni’s Room or Go Tell it on the Mountain, and of course The Fire Next Time –– is his consistent testimony to the necessity of truth-telling to the work of realizing love. We can only survive the violence of racism, of white supremacy if we commit ourselves to loving ourselves, as Baldwin wrote over and over again. For people of color, for the severely marginalized and colonized, this commitment to loving oneself involves risk. It takes courage in the face of fear of harm. I would argue that Baldwin’s interrogation was deeper than the donning of masks. Like Frantz Fanon and Audre Lorde, Baldwin was deeply concerned with the insidious ways the legacy of white supremacy has found its way into our very DNA.

And yet despite his assessment that white supremacy resides deep in our consciousness and spirits, Baldwin always held out for the possibility that love would and will prevail. This speaks to his genuine prophetic power. There was nothing Pollyannish about Baldwin’s prophetic witness. He was unstinting in his capacity to reveal hard truths about himself as well as others. He insisted that the only path to realizing redemptive love is through truth-telling. For Baldwin, what I’m calling redemptive love comes into being not by forgetting the past, but rather is forged by wrestling with the harm and suffering exacted. We survive and thrive in light of a tragic past, not despite it.

Regarding your question about the paucity of mutual giving, genuine generosity and the resistance to acknowledging connection in our country, in my estimation, this has everything to do with the widespread reluctance to follow the example of love warriors like Baldwin. Redemptive love is hard. Most of us would rather avoid and evade, rather than come to terms with a devastating past. Most of us would rather condemn than attend to what we can do constructively.

Personally, and I’m sure this is true for many others, there are times when optimism feels like a burden — meaningless, perhaps even Sisyphean. What can you share that might help people who continue to experience profound states of uncertainty and dread regarding the continuation of this global pandemic and the murders of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor and others, the resulting protests last summer, global warming, etc.?

2020 was a terrible year, for all of the reasons you mention. Uncertainty and dread are pervasive moods, as are the relentless stress and anxiety most of us have been enduring. These are not conditions for optimism. Even with Biden’s election victory — and Kamala Harris’s nomination as the first Asian American and African American vice president — optimism is hardly the prevailing mood of the day. Truthfully, I’ve never been an optimist. My orientation has always been toward hope. To put it plainly, optimism has always struck me as marked by a willful forgetting and denial of suffering and despair. Hope, in contrast, is that light that arises not in denial of a dark and difficult past and present, but rather because of it. Hope is about possibility rather than concession, about living through challenges not despite them.

Let me be clear, there have been signs of hope. Look at the protests that we witnessed in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. These were massive expressions of multiracial solidarity. Look at the timeless work Nikole Hannah-Jones curated with The New York Times’ 1619 Project. It’s an extraordinary gift to our culture that is one part curriculum, one part living monument, all parts necessary. Look at the heroic efforts of women of color to secure our democracy from the stranglehold of Trump and the Republicans. Regarding your question about the public, all of these signs of hope are saturated with commitments of love. Each are bold statements that we have to love ourselves enough to be a part of something bigger than ourselves: untold histories; racial justice; a democracy not fully realized.

The U.S. was founded upon the genocide of Indigenous people and the backs of enslaved Black people. Racism in this country didn’t begin with Trump. So, it has a history, a longevity coextensive with this country’s origins. Philosopher Cornel West talks about death as a form of learning or even of kenosis (emptying) as a form critical reflection. How do we empty ourselves of the racist poisoning in this country?

Well, the first step is to make sure that this kenosis is a comprehensive acknowledgement that the poison is, in fact, poisonous. There’s a prevailing consensus that the summer protests in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (as well as the other souls murdered by police violence) are indices of a racial reckoning in America. To be honest, I’m not sure I agree with that. What do we do if white supremacists and racists not only refuse their terrorist past but double down and embrace and celebrate that legacy of evil?

A genuine racial reckoning, in my view, would involve a pervasive recognition and acknowledgment that the American experiment has been defined by an unstinting identification with white supremacy. This is hardly a novel insight. Nevertheless, it’s also not a view that one would call paradigmatic for American culture.

We are not yet a nation that says that there is no justice unless there is racial justice. To your question about kenosis, while there has been progress, I’m not convinced that there is a collective will amongst white folks to let their commitment to white supremacy die in order for the nation to live. That would require them, and frankly all of us, to abide by radical love. It also would mean rethinking and re-feeling what we mean by justice.

The work that lies before us isn’t so much about reconciliation or unity but rather the hard terrain of renewal and revival, of revitalization. It’s a path that keeps the past, history very much in mind and structures a future in direct response to that past. It means holding all accountable for the sins of our past. It means taking the leap of faith that says we have to let that past die in us before we can live a better future.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.