America's Atonement

Racial Pain, Recovery Rhetoric, and the Pedagogy of Healing -- 2nd Edition

by Aaron David Gresson III (Author)
Textbook XXIV, 286 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 34


The second edition of America’s Atonement: Racial Pain, Recovery Rhetoric, and the Pedagogy of Healing argues that racial pain is a driving force in contemporary race relations and is especially prevalent in social discourses on identity, fairness, and social justice. Despite its importance, racial pain is too often glossed over as mundane or disingenuous. For this reason, social justice activism and education are in danger of undermining the needs and opportunities to more effectively convey what has been called «difficult knowledge». This book highlights emergent examples of psychic and relational healing.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • A Personal Preface: The Dance of Agency in the 21st Century
  • Preface to the Second Edition
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part One. Racial Pain and its Discontents
  • Chapter 1. Introduction: America’s “Atonement” and the Right to a Non-Spoiled Identity
  • Chapter 2. Racial Pain in the 21st Century: Spoiled Identities and Traumatized Relations
  • Part Two. White Pain and the Dance of Agency
  • Chapter 3. Narcissism and White Pain: The White Male and the Masculinity Crisis—Again
  • Chapter 4. White Studies and Racial Pain in the Academy: The Plight of the Neo-Liberal Agenda in the Existential Moment
  • Chapter 5. Mediating White Pain: Ritual Recovery, Yellow Ribbons, and Patriotic Wars
  • Part Three. The Pedagogy of Healing
  • Chapter 6. Multiculturalism and Social Justice: White Pain and the Search for a Non-Oppressive Cultural Turn
  • Chapter 7. Toward a Psychopedagogy of Healing: Mourning and Mending Difference in the New Millennium
  • Chapter 8. Postscript: Relational Justice and the Pedagogy of the Wounded Healer
  • Notes
  • References
  • About the Author
  • Index
  • Series index


The Dance of Agency in the 21st Century

USA—God Bless Her… We’ll Defend Her.

Anonymous 9/11 slogan

What does agency mean? What is its relevance for the new century in American society? These questions are at the core of this book. But because the subject matter—race, identity, power, and healing—is not immediately understood in terms of agency, I want to use this preface to introduce both the subject matter and the intention of America’s Atonement.

Simply put, agency is the primal cry I am somebody! Look up the term in, say, Webster’s II New World College Dictionary, and you will see that the word comes from the Latin, agens, and means “effective,” “action,” “power.” The difference between my simple definition and the more official idea is important: my own, which hints at Jesse Jackson’s mantra for black Americans of another generation, represents a recent effort by some in American society to insist that the average person, Everyman, has a voice and a personal motive and agenda. The dictionary term harks back to when one acted on behalf of another in whom power and authority resided.

The difference between these two understandings is critical, as they represent two sides of the human condition in which one is either passive or active, ← xi | xii → giving or taking, losing or winning. Although life is often depicted as either one or the other, we recognize that a truer, less Manichean view depicts us as moving back and forth between these two circumstances. This is why I refer to the dance of agency. But why do I suggest that this dance has some special importance in contemporary America?

I began America’s Atonement in the mid-1990s shortly after the publication of my The Recovery of Race in America. Encouraged by the apparent success of this work—it received both national and international honors—I began where this work left off, arguing that a racial recovery was occurring and that we must closely monitor and manage it lest we return to the racist past. But there was an irony in my thesis: if I were correct, there was a good chance that my own work would become problematic and thus marginalized. This occurred when the publisher, having fired its minority acquisitions editor, decided to let my book go out of print despite its relative success.

The firing of my editor was part of a major debate carried in The Chronicle of Higher Education.1 Although he had claimed racism toward himself and other minorities in publishing who did not follow the party line, the University of Minnesota Press “found no evidence of racial discrimination.” I felt both guilty and powerless as a result of these events. I felt guilty because ← xii | xiii → I had unfairly and unfeelingly accused my editor of abandoning me when the publisher had tried to suppress my title’s message: racialism continues in America. I felt powerless because I could help neither my editor nor myself. Indeed, under new leadership in late 1999, the press dropped my book from its list without explanation or encouragement.

What is the point of this story? By 1999, I had been working on this book for nearly four years. Most of the material was collected and drafts had been rewritten. But I could not finish or release what I had already written. Not even the kind, persistent chiding of my friends and editors, Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kincheloe, or the fact that my publisher repeatedly promised on Amazon.com a forthcoming volume gave me the energy and motivation to finish this work. Even my headlong rush toward a broken contract—anathema to a serious author—could not move me. I was deeply wounded and silenced by the fate of my editor at Minnesota and my award-winning book’s short life in print.

My writing and publishing a critique of racial relations in the late 20th century had been an act of agency. The silencing of my work seemed to me an act of counteragency. Both acts imply power. My act represented a belief that I had come far from the Old South where I rode on the back of the bus; called all whites “sir” and “ma’am”; shined shoes for poor, white sailors outside the segregated USO in Norfolk, Virginia; and dreamed of nothing much at all. I confess that I have sometimes said and written things that I would not have done had it not been for the radical 1960s. Like so many, I had found in that decade a burst of freedom, a new voice.

Whatever its motive, the publisher’s actions had the effect of reminding me of where I had come from and where I really stood. Sending my work into out-of-print status was for me a renewal of the older meaning of agency, for the press effectively acted on the behalf of powerful others who would rather not have such ideas circulating in society. (In Chapter 2, I present material indicating how certain “blind reviewers” of a textbook that I was commissioned to write attempted to suppress my voice by reducing my work to “white man bashing.”) Together, my and my publisher’s actions constitute a dance of agency.

Recent events, including a resurgence of racial discord at my alma mater and employer, Penn State University, have renewed my sense of agency. The recovery of race I foretold in my Recovery of Race in America has become the recovery of racism. The concerns I had when writing America’s Atonement have come of age. But as some have noted, the swinging back of the pendulum from racial consciousness and conscience to the other side does not mean the same old racism. On the contrary, something decisive has occurred, partly because of the mass media and the global political economy and the resulting global cultural condition.

This is a more complex America we now live in: we are unified but complicatedly so, and our relations both at home and around the world are a dance of agency. The dominant television media—CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News—daily play out the nuances of this dance. The written media also reflect this dance. For instance, on December 22, 2001, the (Baltimore) Afro-American reported the federal government’s filing of a $100 million lawsuit against the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain, under charges of systematic racial discrimination in 175 cities and 30 states. But in the same edition of this paper, we learn that Richard D. Parsons, a black liberal Republican, protégé of former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, now controls the media conglomerate AOL Time Warner.

The contemporary racial context is indeed complex. This global cultural condition underpins how we Americans seek to fuse power and pragmatism in the 21st century. It is symbolized by the triad of George W. Bush/Dick ← xiii | xiv → Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin L. Powell. It does not allow for slogans and declarations of either “the end of racism” or “a renewed runaway racist assault.” Rather, we are fed a diet of accommodation and annihilation.

September 11, 2001, and the resulting “war on terrorism” are perhaps the best illustrations of this dance of accommodation and annihilation. There are many “sidebars” to the war on terrorism:

Muslims as targets of “patriotic anger”

The national debate about ID cards and privacy

Mourning antiwar marchers

The minority presence in the antiwar effort

Rising unemployment

Stock market agitation

Erosion of the national surplus

Executive encroachment on congressional powers

Whatever we understand and feel regarding the attack on our country and the destruction of human life on September 11, it is clear that some people feel terrorism is essential to relieve perceived wrongs and that others feel that it is never acceptable. Clearly terrorism, while unquestionably extreme and perverse, is the birthright of humans and is not unknown in this country: think of the bombings of abortion clinics, Oklahoma City, and so on. But it is perhaps in the war-on-terrorism discourse that we can best see the complex unfolding of the Us/Them mentality underpinning racism and so many other forms of human oppressiveness. The actions taken to remove terrorism from the planet have stimulated a series of “dances,” such as the simultaneous dropping of bombs and care packages on Afghanistan.

Death and dying may or may not change human nature. I have known people whose sickness and imminent death gave them deeper wisdom, compassion, and serenity. And I have seen—even among these individuals—occasions when the darker side seemed to dominate. Nations are much like individuals in this regard. On September 11, 2001, numerous stories of heroism among the victims, their families, and fellow citizens surfaced. Then there were the scandals: some people received more relief money than others; some received none; some people scammed, trying to get money they didn’t deserve; the Red Cross itself came under fire and had to apologize for mishandling funds. Nor did the matter of racism escape all reference during this time. For instance, plans to erect a tribute to the heroism associated with September 11 resulted in the so-called Firefighters’ Memorial scandal.

← xiv | xv → There is a broader significance to this debate over who should be memorialized. In Chapters 3 and 4, I elaborate on similar dramas, especially over the Vietnam and Vietnam Women’s memorials. Here my point is to note that September 11 exposed not only the positives of our national character but also the negatives. The healing, the reach for a higher plane, is often compromised by past tendencies and conflictive propensities. For instance, consider the so-called psychological warfare in Afghanistan. The Bush administration has been accused of lacking cultural sensitivity because of the “doctored” photo of bin Laden on the leaflets dropped into that country after the bombing. Even retired general Wesley Clark questioned the thinking and wisdom of this strategy. More recently, President Bush’s labeling of three foreign countries as forming an “axis of evil” led to similar doubts. Former president Jimmy Carter described Bush’s “mantra” as “over-simplistic, counter-productive,… [an action] that will take years to correct.”

These cases hint at the complex role of agency and counteragency regarding racial and related matters of social justice sparked by September 11. What they seem to share is an undercurrent of pain, which I focus on in America’s Atonement. It is because the pain generated by September 11 fuses so often with the pain traditionally associated with racial and social justice issues that I have completed this work. I have come to believe that my silence—my refusal to complete this book—represents a loss. All is not well and no amount of chanting “United We Stand!” can long conceal the many divisions within, divisions our enemies correctly apprehend, even if they fail to understand how we “dismiss” such differences when under siege.

The slogan opening this preface announces the tension and the challenge taken up in this book. We say God is the “first cause” and “final solution” to matters such as “blessing” our nation, but we recognize the need for personal action. This is agency. This is the human condition. This is the dialectical. This book is a refusal to be silent; it is a celebration of hope based on evidence of the possibility for both personal and social growth, even as we surrender to the reactionary and destructive moments marking one side of the dance of agency.← xv | xvi →


In the winter of 2013 I met up with Chris Myers, managing director of Peter Lang (USA), at one of the national education conferences. At this time he encouraged me to consider a second edition of America’s Atonement. I was especially enthusiastic about the invitation because I was just about to visit the University of Virginia to speak with students who were studying the book. Later, Chris further enhanced my growing enthusiasm with an observation: “The world is such that your argument about the state of things is well supported by reality.” I agreed with him. But what of it? What might be said that has not; and to whom might it be directed? These two questions have figured greatly in the revisions and expansions made to this second edition.

In the first edition of America’s Atonement, I focused on racial pain, its rhetorical expressions, and some of the opportunities they provided for racial healing. I paid particular attention to white racial pain both because of its under-examination and centrality to any comprehensive and meaningful movement toward greater social justice. I therefore looked at the objective and subjective character of white racial pain across several settings, notably academia and the multicultural classroom. I further examined popular cultural expressions of efforts to recover from this massively felt psychomoral pain through the cinema and cultural movements. By turning a critical lens on these phenomena, I hoped to further what I termed a “pedagogy of healing,” ← xvii | xviii → a compassionate invitation to participate in the furtherance of greater social justice for both self and other.

In the first edition, I also argued that a dance of agency animates racial relations in contemporary race relations in the United States. I suggested white pain is a critical though inadequately examined facet of this dance of agency, especially among proponents of multiculturalism and social justice pedagogy. White pain continues to be an organizing concept for the book. But through my experience at the University of Virginia in 2013, I recognized the need to give a more complete statement of racial pain in general: some students wondered if blacks and other minorities felt “racial pain.”

The greater necessity for this enlarged discussion of racial pain is due, however, to a newer, more insistent “atonement” attitude in the contemporary United States. I call it the “non-apology” white identity discourse. It embraces but transcends white pain as a motive for maintaining and, in some instances, regaining the white supremacist past. Although a new urgency characterizes this attitude, it is not a really new idea. James Owens (1999) echoed its central vision shortly before the new millennium:

The Euro-white race, with its unparalleled achievements of mind and innovation throughout history, still contains the unmatched capability to preserve its race and culture—if the will for it can be revived. But, by pathological apathy and altruism, whites are fast abandoning that essential will. And, as all history proves, that is the ultimate determinant for survival—in war or peace.


XXIV, 286
ISBN (Softcover)
nation values movies Identities Non-Spoiled White male Masculinity Crisis

Biographical notes

Aaron David Gresson III (Author)

Aaron David Gresson III is Professor Emeritus of Education and Human Development at The Pennsylvania State University. Trained in both sociology and psychology, he is the author of several books including The Recovery of Race in America and The Dialectics of Betrayal: Sacrifice, Violation, and the Oppressed. He previously taught at Brandeis, Colby, Brown, Hershey Medical School, and the State University of New York. Gresson is currently a psychotherapist in Baltimore and teaches at Morgan State University.


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314 pages