The Pain of Being Your Own Worst Enemy - Juan Floyd-Thomas
The Pain of Being Your Own Worst Enemy: Race, Religion, and the Spiritual Crisis of White Supremacy in Contemporary America
In the 1990s, a neo-Nazi skinhead named Leo Felton was involved in a failed domestic terrorist plot intended to provoke a “racial holy war.” The police investigation and subsequent arrest of Felton revealed a surprising and uniquely painful personal story that exposes the complicated and perplexing relationship of race, racism, and religion in contemporary America. In the wake of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, VA and its terrible aftermath, Felton’s story enables us to examine how the vicious brand of white supremacy espoused by the growing coalition of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and far right extremists known as the “alt-Right” poses a pervasive and potentially destructive spiritual crisis threatening both the church and society. By examining how the trauma and suffering produced by white supremacy ravages both white and non-white people alike, this presentation offers insights into developing the resistance and resiliency necessary to disrupt and ultimately dismantle white supremacy in our time.
Juan Floyd-Thomas is Associate Professor of African American Religious History at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion. He is author of Origins of Black Humanism (2008) and Liberating Black Church History (2014) as well as co-author of Black Church Studies: An Introduction (2007) and Altars Where We Worship (2016).
I wanted to first say thank you to Evan and the Center for this invitation. Thank you one and all for being here. As a historian it’s oftentimes through moments of challenge that we find the way forward to positive change. So in understanding that sometimes you have to reach through the thorns in order to grab hold of the most beautiful rose. In a similar way the story that I’m to share with you tonight I’m hoping that even in the midst of a hard story we can find God’s glory. On January 28th, 2001 a 30-year-old Neo-Nazi skin head named Leo Felton had been released from prison after serving 11 years of his prison sentence. Felton had been arrested in the early 1990s along with his then girlfriend Erica Chase as part of a conspiracy with a group of fellow white supremacists called Aryan Unit 1. This group was captured and arrested when it was revealed that they were co-conspirators in a planned domestic terrorist plot to bomb various Jewish monuments and museums across the Greater Boston area.
Before their arrests they had even greater schemes of assassinating key public figures such as Jesse Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Al Sharpton and David Geffen among others. He would eventually return to prison in 2002 to serve a 27 year sentence on similar charges. By all reports Felton’s appearance is quite striking upon first glance. He is a tall, lean, olive skinned man with keen facial features with tattoos covering both arms and the word skin head emblazoned onto his shaved head in gothic script. Even the most casual onlooker noticed that Felton carried himself with an intense imposing demeanor. But more than his physical appearance, he had honed and dedicated his razor sharp albeit unstable intellect in order to unleash RAHOWA, an abbreviation in white supremacist circles for Racial Holy War. Against all racial ethnic minorities he would encounter. Although he proudly proclaimed himself to be a diehard racial separatist who was in his own words, 1/4 English and 3/4 Italian, amongst his racist cohorts it was revealed shortly after his arrest that nothing could be farther from the truth.
The police investigation uncovered that this troubled young man had an even deeper secret than anyone ever imagined. Leo Felton, the white supremacist was a black man. Despite his initial claims to the contrary, Felton was born in 1970 as a biracial child of Calvin Felton, a light skinned African American architect and Corine Vasalet a white civil rights activist who was a former Catholic nun with a Jewish grandparent during their short lived marriage. Once his true identity was revealed, Felton recounted that his upbringing in an upscale white suburb in Maryland where in his presence as a biracial young man was quite painful and alienating in nature. Felton’s incredible anger towards his parents was largely based on seeing himself as a living embodiment of “liberal socially progressive views “about race and society,” thus making him a little more than his parents 1960s style idealistic social experiment embodied. As he disclosed to a psychologist prior to his sentencing. He went so far as to actually blame his parents for “contaminating him with black blood.” Time does not permit a full discussion of Felton’s dysfunctional family background but suffice it to say Felton spent much of his adolescent and teen years getting into violent altercations because neighborhood children taunted and brutalized him mercilessly about his family’s complicated profile.
In turn this situation led him from feeling confused and marginalized to demonstrating uncontrollable fits of anger and anti-social behavior that led him to years of incarceration and institutionalization that also made him susceptible to his inconceivable embrace of Neo-Nazism. One could argue that Felton’s obsession with whiteness had literally driven him mad. When asked to reflect upon his own childhood as a formidable proving ground for his racial identity, observers have commented that Felton typically responds in a number of ways. On first glance, his personality profile would suggest that he was becoming a walking worst case scenario of the racial theories of W. B. Dubois and France Fanon in which he felt supremely vexed by a bifurcated reality that could be neither fully reconciled nor renounced. Conversely, philosopher Rudolph Steiner asserts, “A healthy social life is found “only when in the mirror of each soul the whole community “finds its reflection and when in the whole community “the virtue of each one is living.” Yet even as he would later attest to and exceedingly false nature of his genuine racial outlook during his incarceration, he admitted that his romanticized vision of an elusory and elusive whiteness that bordered on pure fantasy was because, in his own words, “The idea of white culture “become symbolic to me. “I mythologized it.”
For Felton his dogged embrace of whiteness, white supremacy arguably was his desperate attempt to escape the years of deep pain and suffering that defined much of his life. Sadly, once the police investigation and subsequent media exposure revealed his true identity, his situation became infinitely worse. In a startling turn of events, as his racial background turned into a media spectacle, not only did this publicity shatter his own self image beyond repair but it also made him a pariah among his fellow inmates, regardless of race. as a result, Felton fell so deeply into a cycle of depression and despair that he became suicidal. Although he survived failed attempts to take his own life, in many ways he was suffering a cruel fate he perceived to be worse than death itself.
The burning question for me and as I might assume and imagine is equally true for many of you is why would a mixed race person become a Neo-Nazi? What degree of traumatic pain and even self-hatred would lead someone to literally become their own worst enemy? Struggling to come to terms with the significance of a bi-racial white supremacist, anthropologist John L. Jackson discusses Felton’s identity crisis as a manifestation of spiritual white supremacy. Despite the seeming absurdity of a black man passing as a Neo-Nazi white supremacist violates every premise of racial identification in our context in North America, Jackson looks beyond racial authenticity towards a more subjective criteria of racial sincerity. Towards this end, Jackson indicates that according to Felton the concept of races does not matter. That is is not reducible to testable materiality. The interiority is not about blood, genes or purely white ancestry, this interiority is predicated on a spiritual connection to race that grounds identity in intention, faith, belief, inclination and commitment. Tearing himself apart from the inside out, Felton’s preoccupation with race as a social construction was purely intent upon destroying and negating the life chances of others rather than demystifying limitations and creating liberating opportunities for him and others in broad terms. Even as he spent much of his adult life obsessed with abomination of blackness and the evils of multiculturalism as symbols of America’s supposed downward spiral as a civilization, his fictitious identity as a poster child for white supremacy did not serve as a beacon of enlightenment or empowerment for him either.
Instead his weaponized hatred towards people of color, even himself, actually diminished Felton transforming him into a person who might have begun his quixotic vision quest as a battle with our society and culture but invariably was waging a war against the grand trajectory of history as well as ultimately fighting a losing battle with himself. Quite simply, he viewed himself as God’s worst mistake. Although Felton’s case might seem extreme, I would contend that his plight is actually symptomatic of a condition both deep and grave that affects us all. In first Thessalonians five, there’s a passage which states, “For you are all “children of light and the children of day. “We are not of the night nor of the darkness.”
By extolling the sobriety, wisdom and all together virtuous nature belonging to the “children of the light.” in juxtaposition to the drunkenness, ignorance and explicitly wanton behavior possessed by the children of darkness, Paul as the writer of this epistle sets forth metaphorical imagery, which in turn serves as an encoded paradigm that has been translated in both literal and figurative manners to be not just an overtly divisive outlook but potentially a toxic and bifurcated world view that’s gone on for over the last two millennia. Without fear of overstatement, the binary distinction reflected in this biblical passage, the ostensible separation of humanity into the children of light and the children of darkness operates both as a central rhetorical trope and theological mechanism leading to division and inequality both within and beyond the church since the dawn of the modern era. Viewing the Bible as a central text of modern culture, historian Colin Kidds’ examination of race in Christian scripture is interesting because unlike many projects that emphasize the encounters white Christians have had with people of color both Christian and non-Christian alike, his efforts focus more intently upon the impulses and imperatives that compel the interpreters and even the original scribes of scripture to frame the sacred text in terms of varying narratives in schema of race. as a result, Kidd poses the crucial assertion that all theories of race are examples of cultural construction superimposed upon arbitrarily selected features of human variation.
All racial taxonomies are the product not of nature, but of the imagination combined with inherited cultural stereotyping as well. as the empirical observation of genuine, those superficial, trivial and inconsequential biological differences. Building upon the consideration that race is a divine manifestation of human difference rather than as artificial markers of deviance and efficiency. The challenge set before us is to reckon with the unequal power dynamics that ensue from modern racial theories and prejudices in both church and society alike resulting in racism functioning as a supreme mode of bad faith. Allow me to explain. While there have been various works that have attempted to explicate the historical and philosophical rise of race as a modern invention, such debates have not been equaled within the ranks of mainline theological discourse. To state this point even more directly, contemporary works on Christian theology and practices by a majority of theologians, religious scholars and faith leaders still find it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible to talk about the meaning of race much less the misery of racism in any deliberate and constructive fashion.
Meanwhile any works that truly address racial antipathy and white supremacy in any substantial and meaningful way authored by marginalized people are typically read and discussed only by marginalized people with only incremental impact upon normative trends in church and society. By example, well over a decade ago pioneering black liberation theologian James Cone’s essay, Theology’s Great Sin, took white theologians very much to task for failing to tackle the matter of racism in their works as well as lacking the moral insight and courage to coax the church universal towards greater levels of racial inclusion and cultural diversity. Regrettably this problem still persists virtually unabated so many years later. On the one hand it has been conventional wisdom way too often that people of color whether as preacher, protestor, professor, performer, pundit or even as President of the United States has had to have the most vested interest in diagnosing white supremacy and therefore somehow become ostensibly responsible for any and all approaches to ending it.
On the other even now, the vast majority of white faith leaders and theological educators, much like their counterparts in other more secular spheres of American public life, rarely engage in critical conversations about racialist thought and racist practices on their own volition and in a fulsome manner, presumably in the farfetched hope that ignoring race and quite possibly the racialized will make such perceived unpleasantness miraculously go away. Having said all that, the church and the larger society will continue to be a faltering facsimile of its true self until it rectifies one of its most grievous concerns. White supremacy as spiritual crisis. For white Christians this issue revolves around not just sheer process of creating and castigating the racial other, but also the ossified albeit paradoxical designation of all that is carnal and sinful being captured in terms of blackness as suggested in the Paulian text mentioned earlier. Conversely, people of color especially those of us who are Christian have to profess and practice an emancipated and decolonized faith that does not frame all virtue and value in human embodiment as a great escape from what the historian W. B. Dubois once called “unforgivable blackness.”
Yet in the wake of Charlottesville, there needs to be the realization that the core of white supremacy is in fact an unattainable whiteness that is ultimately destructive to white and non-white people alike. I would argue that it is this sea change from unforgivable blackness to unattainable whiteness that is the crux of white supremacy as simple spiritual crisis. In the final analysis, when wrestling with the painful life story of Leo Felton, I cannot help but to think that much of the tragic work of spiritual white supremacy at hand in our society today is much closer connected to ultimately Soron Kierkegaard’s concept of the sickness unto death. We merely need to pay attention to some recent incidents of white supremacy as simple pathology rearing its ugly head for quick illustration of this concern. When Dylann Roof can walk into a Wednesday night Bible study at the Mother Emanuel AME church and proceeds to murder black pastor and parishioners in cold blood because he perceived their skin to be a sin, that is sickness unto death. When alt right supporter James Fields willfully drove his car into the crowded streets of Charlottesville to murder Heather Heyer and maim dozens of other innocent bystanders because these counter protestors had the audacity of proclaiming that his participation in the Unite the Right rally was promoting hatred and evil, that is sickness unto death. When white supremacist Christopher Cantwell, the focal point of the Vice News Race and Terror in Charlottesville documentary can openly mock the murder and menace of innocence but then wept like a newborn child when legal authorities issued warrants for his arrest, based on said behavior, that is sickness unto death.
And when the President of the United States named Donald Trump who has repeatedly stated in public that he cannot distinguish between violent racists and non-violent anti-racists, that is sickness unto death. This crisis brings to mind what famed writer and activist Alice Walker must have meant when she wrote these poetic words, “Watching you hold your hatred for so long, I wonder, “isn’t it slippery? “Might you not someday drop it on yourself? “I wonder where does it sleep, “if ever and where do you deposit it “while you feed your children or sit in the lap “of the one who cherishes you? “There is no graceful way to carry hatred. “While hidden, it is everywhere.” But maybe the crux of our current predicament is actually a confusion of terms. For instance for the better part of the past decade too many folks have been eagerly trying to be or become post-racial. But as we have witnessed in so many of these recent events, the true debate should have probably always have been can we make America post-racist? And like fashion the erstwhile phenomenon that gave rise to what mainstream media describes as “white nationalism” should, in my opinion, be more accurately called white neolalism because it has rejected all semblance of what it means to be a citizen in a modern democratic society, especially any religious and moral principles in lieu of a dogged belief that life has become meaningless if one perceives themselves to be powerless.
Yet there is no end in irony in my mind that this wellspring of ill will by white supremacists within our society are folks who are more fixated on validating the Civil War than valuing civil rights or even civil behavior. This speaks volumes to the white neolalism that I’m suggesting especially being critical for white Americans because it is precisely this growing sense of anger, deprivation, ambiguity and insecurity that runs contrary and counter to what whiteness as a collective identity once afforded them less than a generation ago. If racial privilege and the prejudice that protects it becomes what theologian Paul Tillett calls an ultimate concern, it has essentially become your God. Simply put, white supremacy is idolatry because it edges God out of God’s own creation. Therefore we are called as people of true faith and good conscious to confront the biological descendants and behavioral dependence of white supremacy in all its variations and that is a desperate and necessary work of our present era.
It has never been easy to live in accordance to Micah 6:8, Luke 4:18 and Galatians 3 and 28 but it is what is expected of us by God through Christ Jesus. In closing we need to think about a way forward beyond this current state of affairs. In the hope of overcoming white supremacy as a spiritual crisis, there needs to be what I’m calling a concerted effort to envision a new theo-historical sensibility that can bring this spiritual brokenness into a better more beloved wholeness by recognizing not only that God made all of us who we are as we are. But also recognize that God did not somehow make a mistake in making others. in turn this quest for wholeness and human flourishing might find its resolution in the realization that we are all always already children of both light and darkness, whose humanity hinges upon being able to recognize the humanity in others in order to restore the divinity in ourselves rather than becoming our own worst enemies. Thank you. [crowd applauds]