• Palma Joy Strand

The Race Story and the Civity Story

Stories matter. Stories do work – they guide what we do. If our stories discount or degrade Others, then our actions exploit and marginalize. If our stories acknowledge the human dignity of Others, then we draw our community lines inclusively so They become part of Us.

The race story in the United States, a story of the first kind, is a story with which we are all too familiar.

The civity story, a story of the second kind, beckons in a different direction.

Two recent explorations of the race story reveal its depth and its staying power.

In the podcast “White Lies,” journalists Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley delve into the question of who killed Jim Reeb, a White Unitarian minister from Boston who went to Selma, Alabama, in 1965 to join the movement for voting rights.

Grace and Brantley are both White and both from Alabama. Their quest for the truth reflects their conviction that the history of race and civil rights is a White story as well as a Black story. They observe that the U.S. has never gone through a truth and reconciliation process to formally acknowledge and come to terms with our history of race. And they refer to Bryan Stevenson’s observation that truth must come before reconciliation.

The story of Jim Reeb’s death unfolds in layers, of which several at the time of this writing have yet to be revealed as the podcast progresses. But the key details of what happened in Selma on March 9, 1965 are clear:

Jim Reeb was hit on the head by one of a group of local White men. Two other White Northern ministers were with Reeb at the time and served as eyewitnesses to the assault and subsequent events of the evening.

Following the assault, Reeb was taken first to a Black medical clinic and then rushed by ambulance to a hospital in Birmingham. He died two days later. Shortly thereafter, President Johnson referred to Reeb’s death when addressing the nation about legislation that became the Voting Rights Act.

At the trial some months later in Selma, the defense cultivated “reasonable doubt” with a story that the initial injury inflicted by the defendants was insufficient to kill Reeb and that in fact Reeb died as a result of actions by his compatriots in the civil rights movement because they needed a White martyr. The all-White jury acquitted all defendants of all charges.

In interviews in 2019, more than half a century later, Grace and Brantley find this same story of movement-created martyrdom flourishing in Selma. The one juror still alive who was willing to talk to them adhered to it. Other White community members repeated it.

In 1965, the race story – the story of the imperative of White Supremacy over Black people and others who would disturb that order – muscled contrary facts into a narrative that justified exoneration of the White assailants and shifted blame to those challenging the status quo.

In Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland (2019), physician Jonathan Metzl presents three different public health trends in three different states. In each, public policies are supported by White citizens despite the harms that those same citizens experience as a result of those policies.

In Missouri, Whites strongly support laws that provide easy access to gun ownership, traditionally a mark of Whiteness and White power. And yet the suicide rate for White men using guns has skyrocketed since gun laws were liberalized.

In Tennessee, White men who themselves suffer from health conditions and inadequate access to health care oppose the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare, because it would benefit “them” – racial and ethnic Others. Metzl writes, “We are the guardians of our own health, the group mentality implied. But socialism and communism undermine us, cost us, and ultimately link us … to them.”

In Kansas, White citizens supported the extreme anti-tax policies initiated by Governor Sam Brownback, “policies that, at their core, limited social mobility…. [They] concentrated wealth at the top of the social pyramid while starving the main conduits through which immigrant, minority, and poor communities mobilized upward.” The cost to White Kansans has been the evisceration of a long-standing tradition of excellent public schools, with languishing educational achievement across the board.

In Missouri, in Tennessee, and in Kansas, White citizens hewed to stories of Whiteness that caused significant harm to their own health and well-being.

Race and racism are anchored and perpetuated by the race story, a story in which White people occupy a place in the world that is apart from and above non-White Others. The story of Jim Reeb and White Selma and the stories of White Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas reveal the potency of the race story. When the race story is calling the shots, preserving the fiction of White apartness and superiority is more important than anything else: The race story demands that all experiences conform to it and that sacrifices be made to preserve it.

The civity story counters the race story directly. In the civity story, everyone – including those who are Other because of whatever difference makes them Other – is interconnected. The civity story summons us to act out of recognition and respect for Others.

Shifting from one story to another doesn’t always come naturally. But naming the story we are acting from makes us aware that we have a choice.

Grace and Brantley in “White Lies” and Metzl in Dying of Whiteness name the race story that saturates the world we live in.

The civity story offers another path. The civity relationships that result when we act from the civity story reinforce the story of connection – and call us to actions that work for all of us.

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