Our nation has a problem. It is not a “black” problem or a “white” problem, but a “human” problem that we all succumb to — and have the power to change. Our beloved nation was NOT “conceived in liberty” OR “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” despite President Lincoln’s well-intentioned words. That was the hope, but it has never been the reality.
Many of my African-American sisters and brothers are furious. Yet another child has been felled. The challenge is this — if a tree falls in the forest and white folks don’t hear it, does it make a noise? Many of us who are white do not have the contextual experience or the “ears to hear” to understand the fear and the fury.
More than a decade ago, I pastored in a community that was predominately African American. It grew from 72 percent to 98 percent black in just seven years as a result of “white flight.” In the course of this time, the police force struggled because it didn’t listen to the people. Most of the officers were white and could legally live up to 30 miles away; as a result many (including the chief) lived in another state.
At one heated meeting, the police chief informed us what we “could” and “could not” do as we discussed community initiatives that included the older white and adolescent black residents in conversation and collaboration. Finally, as the pastor of one of the larger churches in town, I stood up and said, “Chief, please understand that we are not asking for your permission. We are telling you what we, as citizens of this town, are going to do. Now we need to know — are you with us? Or not?” The African-American residents stood and clapped loudly. I felt their pain and the reason for what some perceived as “paranoia,” but what I knew to be legitimate fury.
A study came out recently saying that millennials (a category that I apparently fit into) consider ourselves the “post-racial” generation. By and large, young adults think they are the ones who have moved past racism.
Except, that’s not true. Racism is alive and well.
Here at Sojourners I’m privileged to be a part of enlightening conversations about diversity, racism, sexism, and a whole host of other injustices. This makes it all the more frustrating when I try and continue those conversations outside the Sojourners community, and I’m met with resistance. Most of my friends are extremely uncomfortable discussing race. And not just because it’s a taboo subject; this is D.C., after all, and politics are always fair game in friendly discussion. Instead, I’ve found that my friends are so unsettled by the subject that they either try and change it, or they tell me it’s not about race, it’s about income inequality. Those arguments, which I follow up with “where do you think the income inequality came from?,” are still met with resistance, and arguments that if we could just bring people out of poverty, the racial disparities would vanish.
Except they wouldn’t.
Over the past three weeks there have been four separate incidents that have led to the deaths of four unarmed black men at the hands of police. For many black people, myself included, the moments following these tragic events are filled with despair, sorrow, anger, and frustration. Each incident serves as a reminder that as a black man in America, my life holds little to no value in the eyes of the general public. To be young and black in the United States means to live under constant pressure, something most non-black American citizens know nothing about.
For the majority of black people, the police do not represent protection or safety, rather they are a menacing force that terrorize those they are supposed to serve. I have never felt safe in the presence of law enforcement. In fact, whenever police are in close proximity to me, I feel in danger. Whenever a cop drives behind me or beside me I feel anxious, not protected.
Is my paranoia justified?
Not long ago, I visited Topeka, Kan., to teach at one of those grand old mainline churches that got caught in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education.
The Supreme Court agreed and, in 1954, struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that had allowed segregation in public schools. That decision set in motion the mass exodus of whites from urban neighborhoods.
So-called “white flight” suburbs sprang up just outside the borders of newly integrated school districts. New schools went up to attract white families, as did housing developments promising a better way of life, code for “whites-only.”
In one of the screen-saved memories cataloged from my childhood, I sit in the living room, cross-legged, chin supported by two fists, staring up at moving pictures flashing across a small screen. On network television — because we didn’t have cable back then — Moses (aka Charlton Heston) led thousands of his people out of captivity. They just walked out of Egypt — streams of them. And then they reached the Red Sea.
The Egyptian army was at their back, pressing in. In that moment, though they had left captivity, freedom was not a done deal. They still had to cross over. They were still at war. They still had to outrun an army trained to kill or enslave them again.
Heston — I mean Moses — stood straight-backed on the bank of the Red Sea. He lifted his staff and put it down at the edge of the water, and a miracle took place in living rooms across America. The sea parted. I’ll never forget that moment. This moment was crafted before the digital era — before Disney’s Prince of Egypt, even before Star Wars, and yet it was still awe-inspiring. My eyes focused like lasers watching whole families cross a sea on foot.
Moses led. He was not a king. He was a foster child. He was not from the dominant culture. He was from an enslaved people. He was not a great orator. He stuttered, but he led anyway. He said “Yes” to God’s call and leaned into it. And because he did, the people were set free.
Does Jesus love African-American males? Then why aren’t we telling them so?!
I recently held a Town Hall Meeting at my church in my hometown of Madison, Wis., regarding the blaring racial disparity between whites and African Americans. This gathering attracted about 650 people who wanted to hear my thoughts after reading my "Justified Anger ” cover essay in a local newspaper. It appears that when one considers the economic, academic, arrest and incarceration disparities between African Americans and whites in Madison (and surrounding Dane County), there is no bleaker place for African Americans to be in the entire country than Madison. Although Madison — with its great university, beautiful lakes, bike paths, and educated residents — typically receives high marks as being among the best mid-sized American cities in which to live, it is now developing a different reputation about life here. Sadly, our community has been nationally deemed as ground zero for the disintegration of African-American males!
Our fearless driver, Jacque, is a security guard. He speaks with an eloquent French accent. His words are few, but every now and then he’ll tell us a pertinent and profound fact as we drive. The tone of his voice perfectly narrates our scenic drive — whether we’re driving along the backroads of Rwanda’s hills, cruising peacefully through Kigali, or chasing elephants.
His story comes out in pieces:
When the genocide hit in 1994, Jacque was in high school studying in Kibeho, a beautiful village known for apparitions of the virgin Mary. He fled for another town to find safety with his family. The first time he’s been back to Kibeho was 20 years later, with us.
His son is now in high school at a boarding school. On our way from Kibeho, we stopped to say hello so that Jacque could give him money. Jacque was beaming with pride when he introduced us to his son.
Jacque also has a 3-year-old daughter — she’s the cutest thing.
When we visited Kigali’s Genocide memorial, Jacque stayed in the car. We found out later that the bodies of his wife’s parents are buried in the mass graves there.
His wife barely escaped death herself. When she was just 9 years old, her village was raided by the interahamwe who savagely hacked apart bodies, her parents’ included. As the genociders were merely Hutu youth who knew little about taking one’s life, victims were left beaten, mutilated, bleeding profusely — left to die. Thinking they had finished the job, the interahamwe threw all of the “dead” Tutsi bodies into a pile and moved on to the next village. She was one of the bodies — broken, but not dead. She was just a little girl — her body thrown into darkness among hundreds of other broken, bloody, and hacked-apart bodies.
When the interahamwe left, her classmate, neighbor, and friend, a Hutu, went back. She couldn’t bear the thought of losing any more of her friends to the blood-stained hands of her tribe members. She went back to dig through the piles of bodies — desperately searching for any semblance of life from the friends she held most dear. There, she found her dear friend, still grasping for breath, clinging to life, refusing to be consumed. In that moment, I can only imagine the overwhelming relief as the pendulum swung from sorrow to joy as they looked into each other’s eyes and identified with each other — literally finding life in death and hope in the midst of pain. Jacque’s wife survived only by the hopeful expectancy of a friend who intentionally went back into the destruction to pull out the life within.
Dear White People,
We need to take a long, painful look in the mirror. The image we see will make us uncomfortable, but, tragically, it is us.
The image staring you back at you is the image of Donald Sterling.
We have found a new sense of self-righteousness by uniting against Sterling for his racist comments. All of us white people can agree that Sterling is a despicable human being and he deserved to be banned from the NBA for life and to be fined.
We are morally outraged. We hate Sterling with a united and perfect hatred.
But make no mistake, we are Donald Sterling.
I almost felt sorry for Donald Sterling when I listened to the original recording of an alleged argument between him and his ex-girlfriend, V. Stiviano, released by TMZ Sports on Saturday. The argument centers around Stivianio’s friendship with black and Hispanic people. The desperation in Sterling’s alleged voice is palpable as he tries to scurry like a cockroach exposed by the light, but doesn’t get away.
The day after TMZ released the recording, Deadspin released an extended version of the tiff with transcript included. In this recording, the cockroach is caught for examination under the proverbial glass. From the Deadspin report:
V: I don't understand. I don't see your views. I wasn't raised the way you were raised.
DS: Well then, if you don't feel—don't come to my games. Don't bring black people, and don't come.
V: Do you know that you have a whole team that's black, that plays for you?
DS: You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?...
Sterling does not “support them.” He pays them for work. He does not “give them food.” He gives them a wage for employment. He does not give his players “clothes, and cars, and houses.” The Clippers Corporation signs a paycheck, made possible by advertising dollars and ticket sales attracted by the highly skilled labor of the mostly black and brown Clippers players themselves.
I have a vivid memory of my first visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Some young inmates were reading my book, The Soul of Politics, as part of a seminary program in the infamous prison, and they invited me to come discuss it with them. The warden gave me and about 50 young men several hours together, and I will never forget the comment one of them made: “Jim, most of us here are from just five or six neighborhoods in New York City. It’s like a train that starts in my neighborhood, and you get on when you are 9 or 10 years old. The train ends up here at Sing Sing.” But then he said, “Some of us have been converted, and when we get out, we’re going to go back and stop that train.”
That’s exactly what President Obama’s launch of “My Brother’s Keeper” is calling us to do: to stop the train that is taking young men of color from broken economies, schools, families, and lives into despair, anger, disengagement, trouble, violence, crime, prison, and even death at an early age. This is an urgent and long-overdue moral call that must supersede all our political differences.
While the president’s agenda has always included goals intended to help all Americans, this launch was painfully, powerfully, and prophetically specific.
“Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” -Psalm 68:31
The Bible is a multicultural book. This statement may sound controversial but archeology, history, and the text prove it to be true. In 2013 this controversy played out in the media when viewers of The Bible miniseries were upset that Samson was played by a black man. A second controversy occurred when a Fox News broadcaster confidently declared that Santa Claus and Jesus were white, yet when people researched original depictions of Saint Nicolas, they found pictures of a dark brown man. It appears that our faith has been distorted. As we celebrate Black History Month and prepare for Lent, how can uncovering the black presence in the Bible aid us in mourning against the sin of racism? One of the effects of racism is the whitewashing of history and sadly this has taken place even in our biblical studies.
The Roman Catacombs show biblical scenes painted by first- and second-century persecuted Christians, and their paintings clearly show people of color. What would Roman Christians gain from painting these characters black? What did these early Christians know and accept that seems unbelievable today?
"I bet if I were white then I'd be better off … Isn’t that true?” - Idris
A 9-year-old African-American boy lay on the couch, rubbing his head, and told his dad that if he just went to another school, life would be better. If he were just white, life would be better. He clarified, “I’m not saying I want to … but isn’t that right? That’s what everyone else is saying.”
When a 9-year-old boy can see the sad reality of white privilege and understand that the color of your skin is what defines you in our society, we have a serious problem. We can talk about the progress we have made to move civil rights forward over the past 50 years, and many in my generation are grateful for this movement, but we have a long, long way to go.
According to the Black Boys Report, the high school graduation rate for black males is at 52 percent, while white students graduate at a rate of 78 percent. As a nation, we are proud of our success and power, yet our education statistics do not predict the kind of achievement that we expect for the future of our society. In the midst of a major demographics shift, our nation can no longer afford to accept the growing education gap that has become normative in recent years.
American Promise is a documentary following the lives of two African-American boys from kindergarten through high school. The boys attend Dalton, a private school in the upper east side of Manhattan. As Idris and Seun make their way through years of schooling, the film chronicles the truths of our education system and the lack of social and emotional support offered to students of color in America’s schools. The filmmakers, Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster, are the parents of Idris. Through their son’s journey, the hardships of being an African-American boy growing up in today’s society are documented, and struggles of parenting are examined through an entirely new lens.
The problem is the systemic injustice inherent in Stand Your Ground laws: just feeling like you are being threatened can justify your response in “self-defense.” Under Florida self-defense laws now, someone can use even lethal force if they “reasonably believe” it is necessary to defend their lives or avoid great harm. How does a jury decide what a “reasonable person” would do under all the circumstances? Even if Dunn really believed there was a gun in the black teenagers’ car and there wasn’t one, he could still be justified in shooting into the car according to Stand Your Ground. The New York Times quoted Mary Anne Franks, an associate law professor at the University of Miami saying, “This trial is indicative of how much of a problem Stand Your Ground laws really do create … By the time you have an incident like this and ask a jury to look at the facts, it’s difficult to re-create the situation and determine the reasonableness of a defendant’s fear.” And unfortunately, the law creates an opportunity for racial factors — whether they’re conscious or not — to trump facts when even one juror who is sympathetic to a defendant’s “reasonable” fear can prevent prosecution.
I stepped off the elevator and was greeted by three men with hoodies in church yesterday. My shoulders tensed for a few moments. Growing up in New York City, I’ve been groomed in paranoia and 20/20 peripheral eyesight. Yet after taking a second look, I smiled as I admired the theater props: Three hooded figures containing the faces of Hillary Clinton, Jay Z, and Trayvon Martin, with a caption reading, “We are Trayvon Martin.”
Metro Hope Church meets weekly at Harlem’s National Black Theater, so our church gatherings can often be a dance in improvisation as we’re frequently welcomed by new sets. One summer we were greeted by a gigantic “tree” protruding from center stage. It made this preacher’s imagination run vivid with all sorts of sermon possibilities.
But the hooded figures that greeted me last Sunday were a tribute to Trayvon Martin called, Facing our Truth: 10 Minute Plays on Race and Privilege. This month also happens to be the month that Trayvon Martin was born, and a month for celebration of Black History. These convergences do not escape me, nor does the distinct mission of our church in Harlem.
No stranger to dialogue on race and privilege, our church will often reflect on Dr. King who once lamented, “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America … 11:00 on Sunday morning …we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”