Race

Engaging Ferguson's Youth with Humility and Repentance

Photo by Heather Wilson/PICO

Moral Monday march Oct. 13. in Ferguson, Mo. Photo by Heather Wilson/PICO

“Get the word out. Teach all these things. And don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity.” –1 Timothy 4:12 (The Message)

In our recent book Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, Mae Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Soong-Chan Rah, and I call the American church to a posture of repentance due to all the times we have not only been on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of God.

As an organizer and director of the AMOS Project in Cincinnati, I’ve discovered that a humble spirit of repentance is critical to powerful work around racial and economic justice. There can be a strong temptation to replay colonialism by having all the answers and believing we are God’s gift to the oppressed. We white evangelicals are particularly susceptible to this arrogant path. Humility and a repentant spirit are key to a healthy engagement and partnership in our work.

Racial Justice: Our Divine Duty

R. Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com

Men praying in Ferguson, Mo., at the site of the burned down QuickTrip on Aug. 15. R. Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com

If, as many of the religions of the world affirm, there is a profound equality of dignity and worth between all human beings by virtue of their humanity alone, then what are we to make of a nation and its citizens who allow an entire group of people, a people once brutally enslaved and still actively oppressed, to continue to be stigmatized in ways that implicitly affirm their inferiority as a group and so allow too many of them to experience the devastating consequences of entrenched racial inequality? That nation and its citizens would stand accused of the greatest of injustices. That nation and its citizens would have a divine duty to end that injustice. The United States and we its citizens stand so accused today. Until we understand the imperative to eliminate racial inequality as an obligation grounded in ultimate reality, we will fail to understand the magnitude of our responsibility.

Whether the issue is wealth, health, incarceration, employment, or education, blacks as a group experience significantly disproportionate negative outcomes compared to whites. What accounts for this difference? Only two options are available. Significant racial inequality over time is explained either by forces external to the lives of black individuals (e.g., economic, legal, and social forces), or by the aggregate consequences of choices made by these individuals. Unless one concludes that racial inequality is entirely explained by forces external to the lives of black people, one is forced to conclude that there is something inferior about blacks as a group that causes them persistently to make more bad life choices than whites as a group.

At this point, some will object that some black people do indeed make bad choices that lead to bad outcomes. But so do some white people. The question is what accounts for the differences in the proportion of bad outcomes? 

How Lecrae Mixed Rap and Theology to Find Huge, Mainstream Success

Lecrae’s album “Church Clothes” cover photo. Photo courtesy of www.lecrae.com/RNS.

He’s been crowned the “new hip-hop king” and his newest album, “Anomaly,” topped iTunes and Amazon charts the day of its Sept. 9 release. He’s been invited to birthday parties for both Billy Graham and Michael Jordan and riffed on NBC’s “Tonight Show” with host Jimmy Fallon.

It’s the kind of mainstream success that has eluded most Christian rappers. Then again, some people are still trying to decide if hip-hop star Lecrae is a Christian rapper, or a rapper who happens to be Christian.

It depends who you ask, including Lecrae himself.

“God has also raised up lowly, kind of insignificant individuals to do miraculous and incredible things,” Lecrae, 34, said in an interview. “We’re the Gideons, we’re the Davids. Even Jesus himself made himself of no reputation. It’s when you can link it back to God doing it, I think that’s what he loves. He’s not a megalomaniac, he’s deserving of glory and honor, and to use individuals that demonstrate that it was him, and him alone, it accomplishes his mission and that’s success.”

11 Miles Backward?

Joyce Vincent / Shutterstock.com

'We can refuse to walk 11 miles backward.' Joyce Vincent / Shutterstock.com

Just two days ago at this hour, I was in the midst of an 11-mile journey for John Crawford. Led by young people of color, 85 of us marched through suburban and rural Greene County, Ohio from the Beavercreak Wal-Mart, the site of John Crawford’s death at the hands of police, to Xenia, Ohio, where the special grand jury would consider an indictment of the officers. What was Crawford’s “crime?” Carrying a toy gun around Wal-Mart while talking on a cell phone.

During the march, there were moments when I felt like we had gone back in time, to days of struggle in the rural South, pushing for black lives to matter in this country, from accommodations to the ballot box. Things were different, I thought. Fifty years ago, marchers had a legitimate fear of sniper fire. Buses carrying freedom riders were attacked and firebombed with impunity. Surely times have changed.

Today the grand jury in Ohio announced there will be no indictment of the officers. (The Justice Department later announced it is launching an investigation into the shooting.) The Wal-Mart surveillance video is now public, and it reveals how quickly Crawford’s life was taken. The special prosecutor, in quotes about the case, seems to have not pushed very hard for an indictment. So another black life is lost under absurd circumstances, and the system communicates yet again that black lives don’t matter.

A Nonviolent Uprising

Ferguson protests, via Light Brigading / Flickr.com

Dr. King said: a “riot is the language of the unheard.”

What happens when folks do not feel like their voices are being heard?

They shout louder.

Rioting is what almost happened in Ferguson, and all of us who live in fragile neighborhoods with a backdrop of deep racial injustice need to pay attention.

In Ferguson, a close-knit community was devastated by yet another injustice. They wanted to be heard. But as peaceful marches began, they were met with unprecedented force.

Tears were met with teargas.

It was as if authorities were putting their hands up over their ears. So the people shouted louder – and the world began to pay attention.

At a fragile moment when emotions were running high, the people of Ferguson had to choose between rioting and nonviolent direct action in the streets. A very small group (many of them arguably out-of-state activists) resorted to some forms of property damage. And it caught the media’s attention.

Some might say it hijacked the headlines.

But that is not how I will remember Ferguson.

The Image of God vs. The School-to-Prison Pipeline

Atomazul / Shutterstock.com

Atomazul / Shutterstock.com

I walked across the school yard and through the ominous painted doors of St. Athanasius Elementary School for the first time. My mother and I had walked hand in hand the long city block from home to the school, across the school yard, through the entrance, down the hallway, heels now echoing against linoleum and lockers as the smell of chalk and mimeographed copies wafted from each classroom we passed.

We entered my second-grade classroom where I was greeted by the teacher who told me to take my seat four heads from the front. That seat was my second home for half of every day for a year.

I had high hopes for second grade. At the very least, I hoped it would be safe. It wasn’t.

The girl who sat behind me demanded 25 cents per day to be my friend — or else. But worse, the white woman charged with teaching our classroom full of African-American children ruled us as if we were in her military camp … or worse… prison.

My teacher once punched me in the back because I forgot to hand in an assignment — in second grade.

Now take that single act of aggression and magnify it: a punch in the back becomes a suspension, an expulsion, or an arrest. Then systematize it. Call it a “Zero Tolerance” policy and spread it across 90 percent of schools in the United States. Then apply the policy inequitably, such that African-American children are punished at higher rates and more severely than white children. That is what happened when the culture of severe punishment promoted by the Tough on Crime movement permeated education systems throughout the 1990s.

The Blood Did It: Why Michael Brown's Death Was Different

Demonstration in New York on Aug. 14. a katz / Shutterstock.com

Demonstration in New York on Aug. 14. a katz / Shutterstock.com

One month ago, the city of Ferguson, Mo., was violently shaken by the shooting death of an unarmed black man whose name is Michael Brown, Jr.

This is not the first time we’ve stood in this place. Michael Brown has been added to the roll call of unarmed black people killed by those hired to protect and to serve. His name joins the names of:

John Crawford , an unarmed Ohio man gunned down inside of a Walmart while examining a toy gun sold in the store.

Eric Garner , an unarmed New York man killed, after stating several times that he was having difficulty breathing, by an officer using an illegal choke hold.

Sean Bell , an unarmed New York man shot multiple times outside of the venue for his bachelor party the night before his wedding.

Oscar Grant , an unarmed Oakland man who was handcuffed, face down, before he was fatally shot.

And so many more black lives, both male and female, ended by the reflexes of a legal system designed to police some and protect others.

So why did the killing of Michael Brown, Jr. ignite such a firestorm of rage in a region and a nation where slain black bodies are commonplace?

This is not one of those neighborhoods that cause political analysts to pontificate over “how something so tragic could happen here.”

These are not deaths that leave communities and congregations struggling to find deeper meaning and psychological factors that might have contributed to the tragic loss of life.

As a matter of fact, since the death of Michael Brown, there have been two killings of black men with documented mental challenges, Ezell Ford of Los Angeles and Kajieme Powell, killed only a few miles from the site of Michael Brown’s death. Yet there have been no roundtable discussions of the role of mental illness in our society sparked by these deaths.

What made Michael Brown’s death different?

Ferguson and America’s Love Affair with Violence

tlegend / Shutterstock.com

tlegend / Shutterstock.com

In Ferguson, an unarmed black teenager was killed by police. In reaction, thousands took to the streets in protest. However, rather than attempting to listen, the heavily militarized police immediately made a show of force with armored vehicles, assault rifles, riot gear, and tear gas. People tweeted photos and videos more reminiscent of scenes from Baghdad or Fallujah than of a little Midwestern suburb in America.

Tear gas and rubber bullets were fired into the crowd of peaceful protestors. Multiple reporters were assaulted and arrested. One cop was caught on video screaming “Bring it, all you f---ing animals! Bring it!” Another appeared to be indiscriminately pointing his rifle in people’s faces and yelling “I will f---ing kill you!”

This raises the question: Is what we saw night after night in Ferguson simply a matter of a few “bad apple” cops, a local isolated problem? Or is it indicative of a wider attitude of the police in relation to the use of violence and force? Is it an anomaly, or is this what police in fact consider normal and right? In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, a 17-year veteran of the LAPD gives us what he believes to be good advice from the perspective of a cop:

“If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me ... and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. ”

In one sense he is of course right. If a guy has a gun at your head you should definitely not argue, and just do what he says. But one is led to ask how this reasoning is substantially different from saying to a child, “Honey, when dad is drunk and gets mad, don’t talk back, just be real quiet.” That’s probably sound advice, too, but it begs the question: Is this the world we want to live in? Is that as good as we can do?

Michael Brown's Funeral Echoes with Cries for Justice

Photo by Christian Gooden, courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Rev. Al Sharpton speaks at Greater Grace Church in Florissant. Photo by Christian Gooden, courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — Justice was a recurring theme as thousands of mourners packed the mammoth Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church on Monday for the funeral of Michael Brown, a black teen whose fatal shooting following a confrontation with a white police officer set off weeks of sometimes violent protests.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, among the speakers, called for a “fair and impartial investigation” into the shooting.

“We are not anti-police, we respect police,” Sharpton said. “But those police that are wrong need to be dealt with just like those in our community who are wrong need to be dealt with.”

Benjamin Crump, a lawyer representing Brown’s family, alluded to the “three-fifths” clause in the Constitution for counting slaves (which actually was an anti-slavery clause) and demanded that Brown get “full justice, not three-fifths justice.”

Brown’s body was being laid to rest, but the controversy surrounding the Aug. 9 shooting was far from over. Prosecutors have not determined whether the Ferguson police officer, 28-year-old Darren Wilson, will face charges in Brown’s death.

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