His name is Charlie, and he might be a racist.
The night he first drove his truck the half-hour from his home in Norman through a predominantly black neighborhood on the way to Trinity Presbyterian, he admits he was a little nervous. He’d just heard on the news that Magdiel Sanchez, a deaf Latino man, had been shot. The neighborhood of Creston Hills is a case study in white flight—its elementary school was one of nine in the area that reverted to virtually all-black enrollment once the Supreme Court ended mandatory busing in the ‘90s. So Charlie, a 66-year-old engineer from Alabama, got to wondering if that’s where the shooting had been, and “if there was gonna be people marching in the streets, and protests, and police—barricades, and all that,” he says. (There weren’t.)
Her name is Sarah, and she’s not a racist, but she’s angry: at being looked down upon for marrying a black man; at worrying what the cops might do to her 19-year-old son out in the cornfields of Oklahoma, away from home for the first time at college; at the one-up-manship of oppression, where slights are pinged back and forth and she can’t ever admit to having it hard, because of her race. “Not all whites are racist,” she says, “and just by the color of your skin, it’s like, you must have voted for Trump.”
And she’s furious at the investigator who won’t go into the black neighborhood where her son, who would have been 29 this month, was killed in 2012, at the fact that “they viewed him as a statistic” and never solved the case. She’s still haunted by the lady on the radio who said the only reason the case was getting attention in the first place is because Sarah is white.
His name is Pastor Richard Mize, and he’s a recovering racist, a former Baptist and self-proclaimed redneck who found God again somewhere between the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina. The first time he heard the term “white supremacy” a few years ago, it was a “hard pill.” As a white person in America, “you can sense something’s wrong, but until you have the words for it, you can’t learn.”
So when Mize started his weekly Racists Anonymous meeting at Trinity Presbyterian around Easter this year, he was fairly ignorant about racism in the institutional sense: “Three degrees and 52 years of living, and I just didn’t get it.” During some of these meetings he’s offended people he considered friends. But when you’re “being audaciously gracious with one another,” he believes transformation can be achieved.
Six months after the first Wednesday night meeting, the group is called “Facing Racism and Racists Anonymous.” About 20 people attend, most of them around middle age. A handful are white, the rest black or brown, and like most places in America it’s as if there were an invisible line drawn down the middle of the room. The meeting opens with the Serenity Prayer.
Lately, progressive churches have been invoking the Christian origins of the Civil Rights Movement with more frequency, choosing from a menu of scriptural lessons to expel the demon of bigotry from their congregations once and for all. A study in August found that almost half of surveyed church leaders from across the United States had preached specifically on racial reconciliation in the last couple of months.
For some churches, that means taking Jesus as an example of a political dissident, or teaching God’s “limited forgiveness” in a state that kills black men over and over again. For others, empathy and divine love may be enough to pave the way towards a harmonious, multicultural country. “Racism is ultimately a spiritual problem,” a Arkansas pastor recently told ThinkProgress around the time his church organized a diversity conference. “You can’t legislate that out of people.”
In the days before this particular meeting, the pastor sends out readings: a psalm from Genesis, an Ibram Kendi quote about white-self interest, a Drive-By Truckers song about police brutality: “We can shrug and let it happen,” the alt-country band sings, “without asking what it means.”
The Presbyterian Church, of which this congregation is a member, publicly repented in 2016 for failing to “lovingly confront our brothers and sisters concerning racial sins” during the Civil Rights era. During Wednesday night’s meeting the pastor reads from a pamphlet on white supremacy produced by the church last year:
“A spiritual dimension of racism that we are just beginning to understand is the degree to which power and privilege becomes addictive. Addiction means to be gripped by a compulsion, a craving, or a dependency that is strong and deeply embedded in the subconscious; and it is difficult to stop doing even though you realize that what you are doing is wrong.”
“Denial is one of the more common expressions,” of addiction to supremacy, the pamphlet said. And while not everyone here is a self-described privilege junkie, they say they’re trying like hell to cure a national disease.
In the summer of 1938, back when the compulsion to drink was generally regarded as a moral failing and not an illness, a man named Bill Wilson wrote down the 12 steps to overcoming addiction in a half-hour burst of divine inspiration. A year later, when he published the book Alcoholics Anonymous, he elaborated on how his program delivered, by way of divine surrender: “Remember that we deal with alcohol,” he wrote. “Cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all the power.”
Over the next several decades, Americans would find that many demons could be exorcised, once they were separated from the self and cleansed, one step at a time.
Clutterers and under-earners and love addicts, as well as millions of alcoholics, would all come to anonymously admit they had a problem in America’s church basements, placing their trouble in God’s hands. And nearly 80 years after Wilson wrote those 12 steps, in January of 2016, a black pastor named Ron Buford, something of a progressive idol in the United Church of Christ, happened to overhear an AA meeting in his own mostly white California church as he was locking up for the night. An epiphany hit.
“Racism in the world is real,” he later explained. “We should stop being in denial about it, the way an alcoholic is in denial about alcoholism.”
Buford started thinking “in the AA way”: Racism is an “addiction,” a “sickness.” (Cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us.) This gospel spread: Churches across the country started to adopt Buford’s program. “Before you spoke, you’d say, ‘I’m Laurie, and I’m a racist,’” another pastor at a church in Coral Gables, Florida, told me. “It’s very difficult for folks.”
There are now a handful of Racist Anonymous chapters across the country, and a spin-off group in Oklahoma City, where Mize, a pastor-slash-newspaperman and former member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, holds a meeting once a week in a tiny, low-slung church right off the I-35. Flyers advertising the group are taped to Trinity Presbyterian’s door, multiracial clip art faces smiling angelically at the highway.
On a recent Wednesday evening Mize greeted me at the church, which shares a parking lot with the In & Out Tires next door. A week before, Magdiel Sanchez had become the 712th person killed by police this year, a couple miles south of where we stood.
Mize is a large, ponytailed man of barrel-chested, Midwestern stock, with a body ill-suited to navigating the church’s low ceilings and small vinyl-upholstered chairs. The last time someone redecorated around here, the court was ordering Oklahoma City to desegregate its schools. Mize, who is also the real estate editor at the local paper, has applied to have this building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but certainly not for its architectural beauty: It was the first formally integrated church in the state.
Mize knew that history when he came to the church in the winter of 2016. “This is my calling,” he says. “Borders, race. Trying to get us to tear those sonbitches down.” Mize grew up a “farm boy country kid” on the Arkansas border. After college he worked as a beat reporter in Wichita Falls, working overnights, snapping pictures of wrecked cars while people died inside. “I was galvanized to the reality of human pain,” he says.
Then, “one day the sky rolled back.” He came back to theology later in life, triggered after years of numbness by a single aerial image on TV of Hurricane Katrina’s long, apocalyptic tail. (“I wept, for 20 years of self-protection. And I repented.”) When Mize read about what Buford was doing out there in California, he was drawn to the idea of treating racism as a “spiritual problem.”
Mize had experienced Al-Anon 20 years ago when he was in love with an addict, so he knows how “powerful” certain aspects of 12-step programs can be. But since he started the groups with his predominantly black congregation last year, he’s made some adjustments, nixing the “I’m a racist” first-stepping, yet maintaining other memorable AA traditions, like “H-O-W: Honesty, Openness, and Willingness,” he says. Like turning oneself over to a higher power to deal with a subject as insidious as race: “There’s gotta be something that’s bigger than me, that gets all my attention off of me, so I can experience and feel and hear others.”
Her name is Lola, and she’s not racist, but boy does she know something about it, having grown up a black woman in a town that put state troopers at the entrances to white schools into the ‘70s to keep out the so-called “wrong kind.” When Lola was a student teacher at a white school in the late ‘60s, a “little blue-haired counselor,” worried by all this news of pending integration, called Lola down to the office and asked her why exactly her kind didn’t like to be called that word.
“White people who are around black people get a whole different perspective,” Lola says. And in the part of the meeting where the real consciousness-raising happens, after we read portions of Genesis and agree that racism is against the will of God, once Pastor Mize reminds us to be mindful of the dangerous waters we could be wading into, we practice mostly the Christian values of empathy and understanding. We talk about why you’ll never see a black person run out of a grocery store, how members of the group are enraged by Facebook posts opposing kneeling athletes.
Towards the end of the hour and 15 minutes, a white man who’s attending the meeting with his wife tells us about a Bret Stephens New York Times article he read recently on the subject of understanding. “We don’t disagree,” he says. “We argue…whites talk to whites, blacks talk to blacks.” His wife invokes Martin Luther King, Jr. in the spirit of understanding. The white board behind us says, “Now is the time—again!” and “We’re all in this together.” The meeting closes, like AA, with the Lord’s Prayer.
“I’m very familiar with that material,” says Charlie, who is also an alcoholic. Charlie is a Republican, and a fan of the police. (“Bad apples, all that, how many cliches can I hit you with?”) He’s lived all over the South, in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina. One of his earliest memories is watching the news coverage of the Montgomery church bombing from his home in Birmingham some 80 miles away. He was 12. He says he cried. “And this sounds like a very white thing to say, but I’ve had black friends all my life.”
Yet in the last four or five years, Charlie says, something has changed: “This business of white privilege has kind of slapped me in the face.” His children have tried explaining it to him. He’s realizing “a lot of folks just literally live their lives in fear…I probably spent a lot of my adult life thinking if you work hard you can be whatever you want to be. Well you know, some people can’t.”
So when he read about Racists Anonymous in the paper (he can’t remember which one) he Googled it to see if there was a chapter near him.
“To be honest, I don’t even know what white privilege is,” he says. “I mean, I understand it conceptually. It’s like you always have to be on guard [if you’re not white.]. But is that really all it is? Or is it something bigger and broader? I need, like, a remedial course.”
Pastor Mize drives a big white truck. Mardi Gras beads swing from the rearview mirror and there’s a cowboy hat on the dash. When we meet for the second time he flashes a peace sign from the cab, which accommodates his size far better than the rooms of Trinity Presbyterian. We go inside quickly, though, to avoid the stray dogs: Pastor Mize is a little nervous around them, he admits.
It’s the middle of the day and he’s just come from reporting on a construction site. Going out on assignment, his photographer rides on the flatbed in the back. He lets me take some photographs—I’m particularly interested in the painting of black Jesus—and gives me a tour of the building. We chat for a bit, then it’s back to the office for Mize. He’s got a stack of property listings to go through this afternoon.
After the meeting, I stick around with a small group of older black locals, most of whom worship elsewhere in Oklahoma City. “If the preacher here was black, I probably wouldn’t have come,” a woman named Paulette tells me. “But I find out he’s in the hood? And he wants to do this? I wanted to support the effort.”
What’s Oklahoma City like? I ask. “Racist,” she answers. She and her companions talk to me about how public housing is established in areas that don’t have public transportation. Lola tells me: “They’re going to condemn the inner city…and then let the whites come back in, with their high rise apartment complexes.”
Paulette talks me about Bricktown, where a relative used to own real estate. “But now they’re making it real fancy. A tourist attraction, with lofts.” They hope more Racists Anonymous groups will spread after I publish my article—and that the churches in neighborhoods with million-dollar houses will be having a forum like this.
Mize has been meditating on his aspirations for the group recently, too. If the same 15 people come every week, and then they do the whole thing again next year, and maybe the year after that, what difference will it have made? “About as much difference as the fact that there are however many AA meetings going on in this city, for anybody that needs them, if they need them,” he says. “Whatever happens in somebody’s life where they realize they could really stand to talk about this, or to learn, or to share, it’ll be there.”
Basically: Whatever’s cunning, baffling, and powerful about racism can be soothed through the grace of God—and without help it will be too much for us. But when the congregation at Trinity recounts this building’s past and its storied place in history as the first integrated church in the state, they talk about two segregated churches merging to become what a history of the Presbytery calls “an example of cooperation” and “a symbol of the broader cause of civil rights.” And it’s true that once the church was integrated, it became a destination for progressives as the battles of the ‘60s raged on.
But no one I spoke to, in my two days in Oklahoma City, mentioned that the white church had applied to relocate instead of integrate, only sticking around because the national church ordered it to. Or that the pastor quit and was replaced by another shortly after. In this integration story, there was no voluntary reconciliation through the grace of God.
For all its focus on the devil that insidiously resides within the nation’s institutions, for all its facilitated discussions on incarceration rates and redlining, not too many of this group’s members have a clear idea of how to make the jump from empathy to action. Which is a shame, since treating racism as a sickness rather than an individual moral problem seems applicable to a systemic analysis beyond personal reconciliation. After the meeting, two people get into an argument about whether the Quran is anything like the Bible—”That’s what they’re basing their killing us on,” says one woman. “Well, what’s Christianity, then?” counters an older man, rhetorically. As if slavery hadn’t once been justified as an “institution of God.”
But for now, in its relative infancy, the group shares Bible passages and articles about empathy. Members tell stories about their experience of America, hoping to open each other’s eyes.
“Communities, followers of Jesus, come together in support, to lean on each other,” Mize says. “It’s them against the devil, whatever that may be.”
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