TUBA CITY, Ariz. (RNS) As I pass through the Navajo Nation on my 4,000-mile drive across America, I catch a disturbing glimpse of a white-power insurgency happening in all regions.
White settlement of the Southwest meant dislodging the native population at gunpoint. U.S. Army troops slaughtered the Navajo at will. Whites broke one treaty after another, then forced the Navajo in 1864 onto a “Long Walk” of 300 miles away from their tribal lands. When a pregnant Navajo woman came to childbirth, an impatient Army soldier simply shot her.
The Navajo were allowed to return four years later to a much-diminished territory set aside for them. Today the Navajo Nation is the largest tribal reservation in the U.S. It has significant autonomy, including its own judicial, law enforcement and social service systems. But the Navajo remain under Washington’s thumb. Poverty is everywhere.
I read the history and feel shame and compassion. The “cowboys and Indians” games we played as children in Indiana, informed by TV shows like “The Lone Ranger,” now seem utterly ignorant. The real story was gruesome and unjust.
I had a similar reaction when I moved to the South and discovered how whites there had savaged Native Americans, enslaved millions of Africans, then terrorized former slaves and their descendants for over a century.
Hearing those stories and seeing daily evidence that, as Faulkner said of the South, “the past isn’t even past,” forced me to see my life up North differently. I grew up benefiting from segregation in Indiana. I never questioned why my city had an all-black high school, or why the clubs and honors at my integrated high school were reserved for whites.
Not long ago I drove through Topeka, Kan., which gave us Brown v. Board of Education, and heard on public radio a supposedly learned conversation about the possible overturning of Brown v. Board and a resumption of legal segregation.
No wonder the politics of Kansas are so ugly and the Christian fundamentalism so virulent. So are the politics and religion of the South, of Arizona and across the country. In some places, whites seem to be on a mission to preserve the benefits of white privilege, even if that means gun violence, police brutality, unfair sentencing, and the languishing of urban schools.
They treat immigrants of color as if they were indolent invaders intent on destroying the “American way of life,” rather than the latest to believe the promise of liberty and opportunity.
Like a white government breaking promises to Native Americans, politicians serving angry whites chip away at the job gains of blacks and Hispanics, shred a social safety net that benefits people of color, cripple immigration and systematically deny voting rights to nonwhites.
They call it “shrinking” a bloated government and combating “welfare fraud” and “voter fraud,” but the targets are nonwhites, not cheaters.
There is no comparable zeal for taking white-led corporations off the federal dole or curbing their cheating. Cutting taxes on the rich and raising them on the poor are all about race. So is Christian right-wing alarm over Islam in the U.S.
Right-wing politicians and clerics dismiss concern about this white-power insurgency as soft-minded “liberal guilt” and anti-American. In fact, it’s basic justice; it’s the soul of America at stake here.
A nation that allows war on people of color risks descending into the same evil that shot a pregnant Navajo woman when a white government wanted her tribe’s land.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
YS/MG END EHRICH