Brown Faces, White Spaces by Latasha Morrison

Summary: A survey of systems that perpetuate disparity, inequity, or racism in various areas of society.

One of the aspects that is most frustrating to me within the church is the controversy that is liberation. Some people and parts of the church do not believe that liberation is a significant theme of what the church should be doing. There are various reasons for that. Some believe that liberation will only occur at the second coming of Christ, and some of those believe that working toward liberation will actually prolong Christ’s return. Some do not believe that the church’s work should involve physical realities and that the only liberation that should occur is spiritual liberation. So, it is not surprising that Latasha Morrison opens with a chapter on liberation, grounding the book in her survey of the themes of liberation found throughout the Bible. But honestly, the chapter just made me mad. I was angry not at what she said, but that she has to actually argue that liberation is something that the church should be involved in. This is such a central theme to both scripture and historic Christian theology that no book should need to make the case that liberation is something that we need to do.

The rest of the book is framed around nine areas of society where liberation needs to occur. She sets up a simple framework of Preparation, Dedication, and Liberation. Preparation is learning about and understanding society’s problems so we can correctly address them. Dedication is the steps that we take to address those issues while girding ourselves for long-term efforts. And that is done with the goal of liberation for all people. Morrison is addressing these areas because they are areas that have been traditionally seen as “White Spaces” and they have a legacy of systemic inequality or discrimination.

This framing reminds me of Kevin Kruse’s book White Flight, which is about the history of White Flight in Atlanta. One of the main points that Kruse makes in the book is that White people saw segregated spaces (parks, schools, transportation, etc.) as white spaces before desegregation. However, after integration, due to their cultural belief in white racial hierarchy, the spaces did not become shared spaces where all people had equal access, but as Black spaces where White people were no longer given priority. Kruse’s thesis is that this view of public space is a significant impetus for the rise of political libertarianism and decreased investment in public goods. If public spaces no longer privileged White use, and White people did not “feel comfortable” in shared spaces, and White people began to use private spaces that were economically or geographically segregated as a proxy for racial segregation, then White people would stop supporting the use of tax funds on shared public goods that they had previously supported. Michelle McGhee has a similar approach in her book Sum of Us, where she tries to get White people to see that racial equity is not a zero-sum game.

The book opens with a history of educational segregation and the long-term impacts of that segregation, as well as the ways that disparity continues to exist within education. This is an area where I have both professional backgrounds (I am a program evaluator for an after-school program primarily working with minority students), and I have a personal connection to education with my wife as a teacher, and my mother-in-law was a principal in the district where my children attend elementary school. My wife and I intentionally enrolled our children in the school where she works because it is a school with a high minority population. The school is 90% racial minorities (mostly Black or Hispanic) and 70% low-income. A half mile from the school is another elementary school in the same district, which is 11% Black or Hispanic and 7% low-income. There are many historical and zoning reasons for the disparity. Still, it would be entirely possible to redesign the school boundaries so that both schools were equitable in income and racial diversity. But the divide remains. The school board itself is split between four White board members and three Black board members, although the student population has been predominately minority for over a decade. The racial acrimony on the board (race is a proxy for a political party) triggered an accreditation review with recommendations to be performed. Late last year, a judge threw out the district map for board members as an illegal gerrymander designed to maintain a White majority on the board.

The school my kids will attend for high school if they continue progressing with the students in their current school was opened in 1965, the year the district integrated. It was named for a Confederate general. In 2020, right before the election, the school board agreed to form a commission to review the naming of that high school and other schools in the district. After the election (where a predominately White and GOP board member was maintained), the school board dissolved the commission before its first meeting. When my wife and I were looking for a house, we looked at an open house where the seller’s realtor toured us around the home. But he suggested that he take us to other homes in the area because the elementary school where that home was zone had a high rate of minority and immigrant children, and he didn’t think that the school was very good. (My mother-in-law was the principal of that elementary school at the time, and it was one of the best in the district.) Most of the issues discussed in the chapter on education in Brown Faces White Spaces have local examples within my school district.

Other issues that are addressed are medical inequity, the criminal justice system and policing, minority double consciousness as a result of workplace discrimination and business practices, the military as an integrated and segregated space, land ownership, Black appropriation within entertainment and the interaction of sports and protest. All of these are handled well, focusing on revealing racial disparity and asking the reader to reflect on how the status quo systems maintain inequity even if it is not always a desired outcome.

One of the editorial decisions that some will disagree with is the widespread use of both Brown and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) to mean all racial minorities in the US. There are a number of Black people in the US that have spoken out again BIPOC as a blanket term for all racial minorities when what is meant is Black. The lack of specificity is what is usually objected to, but in this case, she is using BIPOC inclusively, not as a way not to say Black. Similarly, there is a history of using the term Brown to be inclusive, but there is some objection to the term. Morrison is being inclusive in using Brown and BIPOC, but there will be some complaints about that choice.

Conservatives who object to discussing racial issues will still object to any discussion of the systemic nature of racism, even as she gives many examples of their systemic nature. Georgia and a few other states have passed laws banning the teaching of about systemic racism in public schools. The objection is that all discussion of systemic racism is rooted in Marxism and critical theory. Any who say that are ignoring the long history of objections to racial categories and hierarchy from the Black and Indigenous Christian communities that predated Marx. However, those objections will continue because they are not rooted in getting to the truth but were a means of dismissing racial concerns.

I think this survey is an excellent next book for Morrison because her focus is education, and one of the weaknesses of the Be The Bridge model is that it can be reduced to White consumption for pain for the purpose of White education. I don’t think that is the intent, but White ignorance of racial issues and resistance to the idea that White people can be ignorant of racial issues often means that White skepticism asks for more and more trauma to be revealed as proof of the problem. This is what Esau McCaulley is addressing in his How Far to the Promised Land when he shares the story about being asked, “What is the most racist thing you have ever experienced?” at a panel discussion.

A survey book like this, which is filled with a balance of stories and facts, will give a jumping off point for groups to have a discussion, and relate personal experiences, while not requiring members of the group to reveal their own pain and trauma, which they may not be ready to reveal to a group that has not yet proven itself safe.

I mostly listened to this as an audiobook. I am familiar with Latasha Morrison’s voice from her podcast and hearing her in-person at events where she spoke. I know her voice and her capabilities as a speaker. The editing and engineering of the audiobook were not up to the quality that I would generally expect. The audiobook is not so bad that I would not recommend it. But it is choppy, and the editing is not great. Some portions should be re-recorded and re-edited, and I guess the deadlines did not allow enough time for this to happen. I know Morrison is a good speaker, and I even went to a book launch where she read a portion of the book, which was clear and well-narrated. But the editing was mediocre. Again, I don’t think this is a matter of her skill; it is a matter of editing or a compressed schedule. I hope that the audiobook is re-edited to make it better. That being said, I did listen to almost all of the book on audiobook and it is certainly not the worst audiobooks I have listened to, there are a number that I stopped listening to because they were so bad. This is a case where I think it should have been better, but I am disappointed that it wasn’t better because I think it is crucial that authors read their content as much as possible.

I have read widely on racial issues, both historic and current. Many of the chapters included details I was familiar with, and in a number of cases, I have read multiple books on a subject that was covered here in a chapter. There will always be editorial choices about what to include or not include and how much data to present versus how much story to tell. Brown Faces, White Spaces framed these discussions with nuance and skill, including a significant level of detail, while not getting bogged down for readers with less background. There are questions at the end of each chapter, as well as footnotes and suggested readings for those who do want more details.

Brown Faces, White Spaces: Confronting Systemic Racism to Bring Healing and Restoration by Latasha Morrison Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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