(NOTE: This post contains strong opinions and some strong language. Please keep in mind that this is my personal blog, and is not an official expression of my church or denomination. Also, if the language bothers you more than the issues this post addresses, that might in itself be a catalyst for self-reflection . . .)
It was one of the many referrals (charging documents) I received as a Juvenile Probation Officer in the 90’s. The police report said four young men had been walking along a town street and had come upon a kickball in the front yard of a home. One of them had kicked it, and they had proceeded to play with it down the street. The law enforcement officer had apprehended them in the act, returned the ball, and then charged them with theft. It was misdemeanor theft because the value of the stolen property was less than $300. Way less. One dollar and ninety-nine cents to be exact. None of them had previous records.
That same week, a young man in the same town stole a car. He took a joy ride that lasted until he was apprehended in the act. The car was returned to its owner, and the young man was taken into custody because of the seriousness of the offense. I was called because part of my job was to make emergency detention decisions. The young man had no record and his parents agreed to a curfew and other restrictions. So I let him go home and told him we would meet again after I received a referral from the law enforcement agency. A couple of days later I got a call – there would be no referral. The young man’s father was a friend of a law enforcement official, and they had “worked something out.”
Four kids were among those who ended up in the Juvenile Justice system that week. They had to come to my office with their parents over a $1.99 ball. Another kid, who stole a car, had things “worked out.”
You’ve probably already guessed – the kid with the car was white. The four who took the ball were African-American.
Let me be clear up front. I am not accusing any individual of racism. The law enforcement officer who charged the four kids with ball larceny probably did not know about the dropped car-theft charge, and vice-versa. Everyone most likely thought they were just doing their jobs . . . including me when I let the alleged car thief go home. It is not the individual actions and decisions but rather the comparative outcomes that are of concern.
It is the system that is racially rigged. It is our culture that is racially rigged.
Would four white kids kicking a ball down the street elicit a second glance? Perhaps they would even evoke a slight smile.
But four African-American kids in a mostly white neighborhood gets a, “I wonder what they’re up to?”
Getting the car-theft charge “taken care of” benefits everybody, doesn’t it? The kid is kept out of the system, and the system is freed to deal with more serious matters. The law enforcement official vouches for the family and its ability to take care of business without the system’s intervention. Tax money is saved!
This just illustrates the depth of the roots of white privilege. The African-American kids had no such connections, not because of anything they have done or haven’t done but because of a white-dominated power structure that predated their births by generations.
Don’t get too hung up on the specifics of this one incident. I was part of a justice system that then and now arrests and incarcerates people of color at a significantly higher rate than it does white folks. Either you believe non-white folks are inherently more prone to criminal activity than people of European descent, or you acknowledge there is something systemic going on. Either you embrace racism, or you acknowledge systemic racism.
Take a look at the rates of arrest and incarceration for something like pot possession where usage rates are about the same, but where black folks are arrested and imprisoned far more often. Take a look at a for-profit prison system that thrives in a country where people are imprisoned at a proportion among the highest in the developed world and where most of those imprisoned are people of color. How can you not acknowledge there is a systemic cancer in our justice system, and that the cancer is racism?
It is not my intention to get into the specifics of the events surrounding the tragic death (and it is tragic, no matter what actually happened) of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
To focus only on the Brown/Wilson case is to miss the point. To endlessly debate the merits of Officer Wilson’s actions is a failure to listen to what the anger is about. The present incident is only a symbol for the harm done by generations of systemic racism and resulting white privilege in our country.
In my present profession, we sometimes better understand current congregational issues in light of controversies, conflicts, and pastoral improprieties that occurred in the sometimes long-ago past of a church. We talk about patterns that have become part of a church’s “DNA,” even when those who participated in the original incidents have moved on or died off. I was talking to some pastors recently about why it was difficult to get two nearby churches to cooperate – in part it is because of left-over hurt feelings from the founding of the churches decades ago. What it takes for such congregations to begin healing is to name those flaws in the DNA and to acknowledge their rootedness.
We must acknowledge that racism is a flaw in the DNA of this country. Racism is rooted in our power structures and systems.
It is time for those of us who have benefited from that system to listen to those who have been harmed. It is time for us to call out the power structures that have perpetuated the racial divide in our nation. I am reminded of something Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation – “A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it actually is.”
We white folks have to stop our avoidance of calling the things of racism and white privilege what they are. We deflect and deny with our protests of “I’m not prejudiced,” and the pathetic, “But I have black friends.” We claim to be color-blind. Let us call these things what they are. Bull.
The purported color-blindness is particularly problematic. Yes, many white folks are color-blind. We are also color-deaf and color-dumb. We don’t see or hear, and certainly we do not speak up for, those who have been and are harmed by the systems of racism and white power in our country.
We defend Officer Wilson’s actions, but we can’t see why people of color might have reason not to trust law enforcement. We debate the Grand Jury’s decision, but we don’t acknowledge that the secrecy of the grand jury process, rather than an open trial, might concern those who have been failed by the system over and over again. We don’t even understand why it might be problematic for a few KKK members to be part of a police force that patrols a community comprised of a majority of people of color.
The game has been played with loaded dice for many years. Now, we want those who have been bamboozled to forget all that. “Trust us, these are fair dice. I know we’ve said that before, but this time we mean it. . . Let’s roll.”
The more comforting narrative for us white folks is that the problem is not racism, but the behavior of black folks. Oh, not all of them, but certainly the “thugs” that are responsible for the current unrest.
I almost never watch television news, but I tuned in after the Grand Jury’s decision was announced. I switched back and forth between CNN and (God help me) Fox News, and was distressed by the tone of the coverage. Mostly it consisted of back-slapping parties where reporters stood around talking about how scared they were and how the tear gas had been such an ordeal for them. It seemed disappointing that the marchers were non-violent. They finally found some looters on which to focus . . . that certainly made better television than the peaceful marchers and fit the desired narrative.
No time at all was spent talking about why folks might be so outraged. Anger is unexpressed hurt. Decrying theft and destruction – even when it is the exception – is easier than actually dealing with the underlying issues. Sure, looting is wrong. The vast majority of marchers have not been looting. But perhaps we would benefit from some empathetic reflection about what would cause someone to be so bereft of hope that their response to perceived injustice is, “F– it, might as well grab some Stoli.”
I believe it is the same hopelessness that led to a too-common refrain heard from African American young people with whom I worked in my previous profession: “What difference does it make what I do? I’ll be dead or in jail before I’m 25.”
The unremitting hopelessness that pervades the lives of great swaths of our brothers and sisters should concern us; especially us Christians.
But our response too often is that people of color should just “get over it.” Sure, there were problems in the past but we’ve moved beyond all that.
One thing I learned very early in dealing with people who are hurting is that you only provoke anger, not healing, when you tell someone who has suffered a loss to “get over it.”
It is up to victims to decide when to “get over it.”
As a Christian, my faith must inform my response to systemic racism, and especially my response to those who have been, and are, impacted by it. Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus tell anyone in pain to “get over it.” Therefore, I must resist my urge when confronted with something as unpleasant as racism, from which I have undoubtedly benefited, to tell others who have been harmed to “get over it.”
Didn’t Jesus tell us to deal with the log in our own eye rather than the speck in our neighbor’s? The marches – and even the riots – are the speck. The log is racism and white privilege.
We must confess our complicity.
I confess that I have benefited from white privilege. I have benefited from white privilege every time I have walked into a store and not been viewed as a potential thief because of my skin color. I have benefited from white privilege every time my presence on the sidewalk has not been a source of fear for others I approach. I have benefited from white privilege in every interaction with police officers who have not felt the need to search my vehicle or to question my presence in a particular area (or to ask me if I have a right to be in this country).
I’ll close with another story, this one from a little farther back. It’s a small thing, but I would surmise that upon honest reflection most if not all white folks could find some similar examples in their own lives:
I was in a 7th Grade drafting class where we sat on tall metal stools in front of drafting boards. One day a student was crawling around on the floor, just goofing off. He kept shaking my chair while I was trying to use a compass or something. I got frustrated. So I pushed him with my foot. When you’re in 7th Grade sometimes you’re like Superman and don’t know your own strength. I pushed him a lot harder than I intended and he went skidding into the chair next to mine. The kid cut his arm on some sharp screw or whatever.
The commotion got the attention of the teacher. He asked what happened. The kid next to me said I had kicked the kid on the floor. I was clearly in the wrong. The kid on the floor was bleeding. The teacher sent us both to the office.
The Assistant Principal had forearms the size of most peoples’ thighs. The tattoos only made them seem meaner somehow. You didn’t want to get “swats” from Mr. Lomax.
So there I stood with the other kid in front of Mr. Lomax’s desk. Hanging on the wall behind him was his “Board of Education,” with holes drilled through to make it more aerodynamic. Mr. Lomax asked me what happened. I had to think quick – I had never gotten swats in school and didn’t intend to start. But I didn’t have much practice lying to teachers, either. “My foot slipped off the bar at the bottom of the chair. It just slipped – I didn’t know he was there.”
The other kid protested. “He kicked me! Look, I’m bleeding.”
My story was totally preposterous. No way could I have done the damage if my foot had just “slipped.” But Mr. Lomax bought it. “You shouldn’t have been on the floor.”
I watched as the other kid got three swift swats.
I felt victorious. And I had been.
Did it make any difference that the kid I kicked was African-American, and that Mr. Lomax, the drafting teacher – and I – were white?
Of course it did.
When I returned to class, the (white) kid who sat next to me was outraged. Where I saw a victory, he saw injustice. He was willing to call it what it was.
Go and do likewise.
One more confession. I confess that I have no real idea what it is like to be a person of color in this culture. I have no right to speak for anyone else. I hope it is clear in this post that I am writing from my own perspective. If those who read it do nothing else, I hope they will join me in listening to the voices of those who live in and with the consequences of systemic racism.