The Role Of Church In The Fire Next Time

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Before reflecting on my own experiences, I did not really think much of my white racial identity. I grew up in a predominantly white community where I never thought to use the color of my skin to differentiate myself from others, but now have learned that my race is a very defining aspect of my appearance in today’s society. Children are being indirectly racially socialized growing up, before even understanding what race is. In my personal experience, I remember my parents taking extra precaution in poorer black communities. Although they just did this to keep me safe, they indirectly established the idea that black people are dangerous. I have realized white privilege affects me in many aspects of my life, including having a positive relationship with the police, seeing media blatantly biased towards my race, and escaping violent stereotypes associated with my race. These are just a few examples of the great amount of white privilege seen today.

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In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin begins his story with a letter to his fifteen-year-old nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of the emancipation. He writes about how American white society has unintentionally “caused you to be born under conditions not very far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago… But I am writing this letter to you, to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist” (Baldwin 6). He explains how the majority of Americans are “innocent” to the way things are that they are not even aware that African Americans exist. This ties into the white privilege that so many experience on a daily basis without even realizing it. He makes another interesting point, that “you were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason (Baldwin 7)”. This was very shocking to me and opened my eyes that although slavery is abolished in the US, blacks still face discrimination socially, internally, and in every aspect of life to this day. Like Baldwin mentions, blacks are born into a society believed to be inferior to whites, their life is in a way subconsciously predetermined, to a point where they are “expected to make peace with mediocrity”. African Americans are born into a society in which they believe they should become more like white people, that they should try to be accepted by whites, rather than accepting them.

In the section of his book “Down at the Cross”, Baldwin speaks about the humiliation and oppression faced by blacks during school, at the workplace, and in life in general. Another way in which blacks were and still are oppressed is through police brutality. Baldwin recounts one of his own run-ins when he was thirteen and crossing Fifth Avenue on his way to the Forty-second Street library when the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” (Baldwin 19) Another instance was when he was just ten years old, when “two policeman amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots” (Baldwin 20). This shows just how big of an impact your race can have on how you are treated in society. If the men were white, due to the white privilege in America they probably would have never experienced the oppression and discrimination Baldwin had to face. This is seen today where because of the racist stereotypes and prejudices towards African Americans, so many innocent men are killed. One example is a recent case from 2018, where a white cop, Amber Guyger, was convicted of killing an innocent black man. This police officer shot an innocent man sitting on the couch eating ice cream in his own home after mistaking his apartment for her own. This is just one of many cases where an officer saw a black man and shot, without reason and without justification. Despite murdering an innocent man, she was only sentenced to 10 years in prison and was hugged by the judge after the trial. This brings up the controversy of whether a black defendant would have been shown the same compassion, as African-Americans are much more likely than white people to be arrested, convicted, and given stiff sentences. I believe due to white privilege and the face that the victim was black, that this played a role in determining her sentence and the compassion that was shown towards her.

Lastly, Baldwin writes about how the church helped him avoid crime, which all of the sudden presented itself “not as a possibility but as the possibility”. The overwhelming reality seemed to be that nobody could overcome oppression by working and playing by the rules; rather, the ability to inspire fear in others was the only thing that might keep a black person safe. The fact that crime presented itself as a primary possibility in Baldwin’s life shows the narrow scope of what is made available to black people in America. For the majority of white Americans, this idea may have not even crossed their mind. It’s due to white privilege that many whites don’t have to even think about this same possibility, many are even ignorant to what blacks have to go through. Later in the chapter, Baldwin writes how “Neither civilized reason nor Christain love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or to seem to do it, which as (and is) good enough” (Baldwin 21). Though white people may not believe that these are the conditions under which black people really live, Baldwin maintains that it is overwhelmingly clear for someone like him who has experienced such oppression that whites do not treat blacks as they would like to be treated themselves. 

29 April 2022

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