Race

The Persistent Strain

THE WEEK leading up to the Michael Brown non-verdict was one in which race was at the forefront of daily life, at least as much as it was in the ancient days of my Mississippi upbringing.

You could say that week started with President Obama’s executive action on immigration. The next morning, I did household chores and listened to NPR coverage of the often-heated reaction to the president’s speech. The next day, my wife and I drove into Louisville to see Dear White People, Justin Simien’s devastatingly clever and thoughtful take on racism and identity politics among the Obama generation.

The movie made me laugh (at a volume embarrassing to my poor spouse) and even applaud in the middle of a crowded theater. It also left me pondering the persistence of the white supremacist virus in the American body politic. Over the past half-century, the film suggests, it may have evolved into a weaker strain, but it’s still lurking in there, and it can still make us sick.

A few evenings later, at the historically black college where I teach, my “Magazine and Feature Writing” class was discussing “Fear of a Black President,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which appeared in the September 2012 issue of The Atlantic. In his epic essay, Coates takes Obama to task for failing to follow up on his 2008 “Jeremiah Wright” speech in which he seemed poised to lead the U.S. in confronting its racial demons. At the same time, Coates also makes a fairly airtight case that, despite his efforts to not be the “black” president, opposition to Obama and his policies has often been motivated by fear and/or resentment of his race. Coates’ analysis centers especially on the right-wing firestorms that ensued when, in two famous racial-profiling cases, Obama acknowledged that he could identify with the victims because of his own race.

Read the Full Article

​You've reached the end of our free magazine preview. For full digital access to Sojourners articles for as little as $2.95, please subscribe now. Your subscription allows us to pay authors fairly for their terrific work!
Subscribe Now!

A Pastoral Letter to White Americans

Marie Havens / Shutterstock.com

July 14, 2013 protest in Union Square, New York City following the George Zimmerman verdict. Marie Havens / Shutterstock.com

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?

Advent as Protest

a katz / Shutterstock.com

Demonstration in New York City on Dec. 7, protesting the non-indictment in Eric Garner death, a katz / Shutterstock.com

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.

Are We Ready to Listen?

Gajus / Shutterstock.com

Gajus / Shutterstock.com

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.

Listen and Learn

Krasimira Nevenova / Shutterstock.com

Krasimira Nevenova / Shutterstock.com

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.

Thanksgiving and Ferguson: Lost in Translation

Sign on boarded up window in Ferguson on Nov. 25. R. Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com

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.

A Sad Night for America

Ferguson protests Monday night. Photo by Heather Wilson / PICO

Ferguson protests Monday night. Photo by Heather Wilson / PICO

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.

No Indictment in Ferguson Shooting

Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Demonstrators protest the shooting death of Michael Brown Nov. 23, in St. Louis, Mo. Joshua Lott/Getty Images

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. 

Ferguson: Between Jesus and Barabbas

Activists from Take Back the Bronx on Oct. 11, a katz / Shutterstock.com

Activists from Take Back the Bronx on Oct. 11, a katz / Shutterstock.com

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.

Pages

Subscribe