White supremacy may have weakened, but it can still make us sick.
The stories of young black men being killed by white police are sparking a national conversation. However, public responses to these painful stories reveal an alarming racial divide. From an unarmed teenager killed in Ferguson, Mo.; to a 12 year-old boy shot dead in Cleveland; to a white police officer on video choking a black man to death in New York City; and a startling series of similar stories from across the country and over many decades — our reactions show great differences in white and black perspectives.
Many white Americans tend to see this problem as unfortunate incidents based on individual circumstances. Black Americans see a system in which their black lives matter less than white lives. That is a fundamental difference of experience between white and black Americans, between black and white parents, even between white and black Christians. The question is: Are we white people going to listen or not?
White Americans talk about how hard and dangerous police work is — that most cops are good and are to be trusted. Black Americans agree that police work is dangerously hard, but also have experienced systemic police abuse of their families. All black people, especially black men, have their own stories. Since there are so many stories, are these really just isolated incidents? We literally have two criminal justice systems in America — one for whites and one for blacks.
Are there police uses of force that are understandable and justifiable? Of course there are. If our society wasn’t steeped in a gun culture, many of these shootings could be avoided. But has excessive, unnecessary, lethal force been used over and over again, all across the country, with white police killing unarmed black civilians? Yes it has, and the evidence is overwhelming. But will we white people listen to it?
At the point of the writing of this article, it has been 124 days since unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot six times and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
Blocks from the spot where Brown lay dead in the tightknit Canfield neighborhood of Ferguson, Mo., protestors filled West Florissant Avenue, where Brown had been only minutes before his death. They were met by the local police force decked out in camouflage and body armor, armed to the gills with military-grade weapons, and rolling around in armored cars. Many commented that the streets of Ferguson looked like Fallujah.
It was both shocking and clarifying at once.
For the first time, Americans witnessed real-time outcomes of the National Defense Authorization Act, which funnels military weapons left over from past wars to local police municipalities across the country — in theory, to fortify local efforts in America’s drug war. Cable news cameras swarmed as wartime weapons, tactics, and protocols were enacted on unarmed, mostly black citizens exercising their First Amendment rights to assemble and exercise free speech.
Here’s the thing about war: There are only enemies and allies. There is no in-between.
The three of us put our cups of coffee on the counter and reached into our pockets for our wallets. The check-out clerk paid no attention to any of us. He seemed to be staring at someone or something in the back of the store.
“We’re ready to pay,” one of us said.
The clerk kept looking at the back of the store. A few seconds went by before he told us what had his attention.
“I’m watching that boy over there to make sure he don’t steal nothing,” the clerk said.
The three of us looked at the back of the store and realized the clerk was talking about our co-worker.
Four of us were carpooling across Florida on a work assignment several years ago. It took several hours to cross the state. We stopped at a place called Yeehaw Junction off Route 60 to use the restroom and get some coffee.
The three of us at the check-out counter were white, like the clerk. The co-worker accompanying us was black. The clerk assumed that because the three of us were white, we would understand and agree with his attitudes and assumptions about our co-worker – that he was dishonest because of the color of his skin. Needed to be watched. Couldn’t be trusted. Too dangerous to let out of his sight.
A few days ago, a friend of mine commented on a picture I posted on Facebook. It captured one of those rare moments in the daily grind of stay-at-home parenting where — in the midst of the diaper changes, meltdowns, and mealtime madness — there is a moment of pure delight. In this case, my two sons were sitting together for the first time in the front of a race car-themed shopping cart. My 3-year-old son was thrilled to have his infant brother “driving” with him. I couldn’t resist snapping a photo and posting it immediately. Having two sons of his own, my friend commented, “2 boys! What a great idea!”
I thought of this comment last Monday night when I heard the painful news of the grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown case, and later when I heard of the same conclusion in the Eric Garner case. Yes, it was a great idea to have boys. My husband and I love them more than anything. They’ve brought more joy into our lives than we could ever have imagined. But, I wondered, how different would our experience be if we were parents of black sons instead of white sons? How much more worry and heartache would we face knowing the cards were stacked against them from birth? What would it be like to have to figure out how and when to have the talk — the one about law enforcement, no second chances and the need to go above and beyond in every situation?
I wasn’t always aware of the vastly different realities for people of color living in this country. My conversion was slow. Not the Damascus Road type of experience where I was blind for three days and then instantly I could see. No, it was and continues to be a long, slow, sometimes painful process of listening and learning.
For me, Thanksgiving was always Christmas’ annoying little sister. Thanksgiving isn’t a festive season spanning three months that warrants its own albums; it’s a day when American gluttony reaches its zenith, and also the Cowboys play. It’s not a holy day of obligation — and in my worst moments, I complain to my preacher husband about the additional service “invading” our holy midweek day off work.
But this year Thanksgiving feels especially out of place — sandwiched between an early winter and the hopelessness of misunderstood lament. I want so badly to be thankful because I truly have so many reasons to fall on my knees in exaltation. But before I count my “blessings” — before the praise hits my lips, it’s strangled by the cry for others whose lots might only be described as cursed.
Adam Ericksen penned a great reflection this morning, saying, “God doesn’t force us to be thankful in times of grief and despair. Rather, God meets us in our honest and raw emotions.”
Bitterness seems all at once selfish and appropriate. I grieve the chasm that has been revealed between brothers and sisters. If there is anything I learned from my Monday night glued to television screens watching my former home of St. Louis in flames it’s that this “conversation” everyone keeps saying we need to have is happening in two different languages.
Many black families woke up this morning knowing that the lives of their children are worth less than the lives of white children in America. The deep distrust of law enforcement in their own communities that so many African Americans feel just got deeper last night — 108 days since the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown — when the prosecuting attorney announced the decision not to subject the police officer who killed Brown to a trial where all the facts could be publically known and examined.
We now all have the chance to examine the evidence — released last night — in the grand jury’s decision not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson, who fired multiple bullets into Michael Brown. But the verdict on America’s criminal justice system is already in for many Americans: guilty, for treating young black men differently than young white men.
A grand jury has found that no probable cause exists to indict Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, on Aug. 9, said St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch on Monday evening.
McCulloch said the grand jury was instructed on the law and presented on five possible indictments. He emphasized that the jurors "are the only people who have heard and examined every witness and every piece of evidence."
Protests throughout the St. Louis metro area — as well as nearly 100 cities across the country — are planned in response to the decision. Last week, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a preemptive state of emergency and activated the National Guard to respond to “any period of unrest that might occur following the grand jury’s decision concerning the investigation into the death of Michael Brown.” Rev. Traci Blackmon, a clergy leader in the St. Louis area, recently told Sojourners that while the city and county police departments have amassed weapons and riot gear to react to the protests, local community leaders and faith groups have been stocking up on bandages and first-aid materials.
Earlier in the day Brown’s family asked for 4.5 minutes of silence this evening before protests begin — a statement on the 4.5 hours Michael Brown’s body was left in a Ferguson street following the shooting.
The Justice Department is conducting its own federal investigation, however recent reports have indicated that it is not likely to result in civil rights charges against Wilson.
Stay tuned to Sojourners for continued updates and analysis.
In an intimate conversation between Jesus and his disciples, just before Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Will you lay down your life for me?” As Jesus’ crucifixion approaches, his question to Peter becomes reality, and the people who know of Jesus or his movement must make a choice — to suffer and die with Jesus, or to slip away in fear and passivity — to welcome Christ, or to reject Christ.
Peter is certainly not the only one to face this decision. Judas must choose to betray Christ or not; the high priests must choose between power and mercy; Pilate must choose the approval of the people or trust his own conscience. These individuals, however, do not stand alone in their decision-making, but among one of the strongest but often overlooked characters in Scripture — the crowd. As Jesus stands before Pilate, it is not Pilate who truly holds power — it is the raging crowd before him that demands for the freedom of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus.
When looking back on the crowd’s decision, it is easy to see how wrong it was until we begin to ask where we stand among the crowd in our time. In the case of Ferguson and the grand jury’s decision on Darren Wilson, most of us stand in the crowd, waiting to see what the grand jury and the state may do while we decide what we must do. All eyes are on the jury, yet many of us who are watching realize that the real power does not reside in Gov. Jay Nixon or the grand jury, but in us. Just as it is the crowd who sways Pilate to crucify Jesus, so it is we who can determine whether justice comes in Ferguson and everywhere where racism exists. As bell hooks writes, “Whether or not any of us become racists is a choice we make. And we are called to choose again and again where we stand on the issue of racism in different moments of our lives.” Today, we have another choice. The grand jury is under the spotlight, but we are all responsible.
One of the greatest sermons I ever heard on the subject of communion was offered by the head pastor of a Christian Missionary Alliance church in Princeton, N.J., back in the late 1980s. This pastor spent most of that sermon talking about the cross and how Jesus’ body was literally broken. I can still hear the crunch of the nails going into Jesus’ wrists that I heard in my mind’s ear that Sunday. And this wasn’t Easter week. It was just a communion Sunday.
Toward the end of his sermon, the pastor brought out a piece of saltine cracker that lay in the communion plate. He cracked it and then he said this: “Every time I take communion I hear the crack of the bread in my mouth and I bite and remember the crack of Jesus’ bones … and I remember that I did that.”
I wept as we took communion that day.
But isn’t that really about dis-union — the dis-union of Christ’s actual physical body? The cracking of his bones, the breaking of his legs, the piercing of his flesh; the cross seems to be more about a breaking apart than a bringing together of Christ’s body.
Right now when I see the lived reality of the church in our world, it seems we are more in a state of dis-union than communion.
Black-ish, the new ABC sitcom created by Kenya Barris, really is one of the funniest shows on TV this season. I laughed my head off watching a marathon run of the first four episodes On Demand. Now it's set to record each week on DVR. One of the things I really appreciate about Black-ish is that it takes universal issues and works them out through a genuinely African-American lens.
For example, in the pilot episode the father, Andre “Dre” Johnson, played by Anthony Anderson, is looking forward to a much deserved promotion to Senior VP at a major marketing firm. He is surprised to find out he’s been promoted to Senior VP of the Urban Division. We can all relate to wanting the promotion, but Anderson’s challenge is one particularly familiar within the black professional class. How do you jump the dreaded, yet anticipated, pigeonholing of your value and worth to an organization as a “black” person? How do you become just Senior VP — not SVP of the “Urban” Division? How do you become human? The way Anderson works out this challenge is hilarious. I rolled with laughter even after the half-hour sitcom had reached its conclusion.
And then there’s last week’s episode when the biracial mother, Rainbow, masterfully played by Tracee Ellis Ross, loses her young son, Jack, while shopping at a department store. It turns out Jack is hiding inside a clothes rack and is eventually found by a sympathetic officer. We can all relate to this situation. Children hide in department stores. I did the exact same thing to my own mother when I was about Jack’s age. I hid between the racks at a Marshalls. But Rainbow and Dre’s conundrum rears its head when they are confronted with the question: Will they spank their son? It seems simple enough, but it’s not. This is not only a question of parenting, it is also a question of tradition and culture.
In fact, each episode presents a universal situation that pushes a particular issue of culture within the African-American community. Ultimately, the situation presses the question: “What does it means to be black?”
I attended Catholic school for one year as a child. My second-grade year in Philadelphia’s St. Athanasius left me with a strong sense of the mystery of the church. The most mysterious space there was the confessional booth. I wasn’t allowed to enter because I wasn’t Catholic, so I just sat and watched others enter with pinched brows. Then they would exit with peace painted over their faces.
There is a scene in the book Blue Like Jazz where author Donald Miller sets up a confessional box in the center of the Reed College campus. But Miller’s confessional worked in reverse. Students of Reed, which is known as the most liberal campus in the country, entered the confessional booth with curiosity, cynicism, skepticism, or worse — to disprove this thing called Christianity. But what they encountered upon entry was disarming — even healing. Rather than prompts to confess their sin, Miller sat on the other side of the veil and confessed of the sins of the church. This was a revolutionary act in the context where, according to Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman’s modern classic, UnChristian, the general consensus about Christians is decidedly negative.
1. Race and America’s Gun Culture
"Whites walking down Main Street with an AK-47 are defenders of American values; a black man doing the same thing is Public Enemy No. 1."
2. Keeping the Faith: How Childhood Influences Churchgoing
From college education to birth order, this article offers all the latest stats on American religiosity.
3. WATCH: British Nurse Who Survived Ebola Will Return to Africa Because ‘There’s Still A Lot of Work to Do’
William Pooley is a volunteer nurse who contracted the disease in Sierra Leone. He plans to return.
4. Dear White People: Art Imitating Life’s Racism
"Simien told The Root he’s not trying to embarrass but instead is trying to open a dialogue through his humor. He wants white filmgoers to know, ‘It’s not an hour-and-a-half indictment of your people.’ Instead it could be taken as a 108-minute indictment of all people."
“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.