A number of people I know (and love), as well as several folks who have commented either on my blog or my Facebook page, have recently said something to the effect of “You know I’m not racist, but…”
Let’s stop right there and think about this.
On the positive side, yes: I am certain all of these people view themselves as not racist, and try hard to not act toward people of color (or think of them) in ways that are racist or uncaring. This is a good thing. (And frankly, if they did otherwise, we wouldn’t be friends! ) But, as with all things, how we define our terms really matters. And so, are we all using the word “Racist” in the same way?
The answer is “No, we’re not.”
Now I could give you a long dissertation as to why I myself am not racist. I certainly have many reasons to consider myself better informed and sensitive to this issue than many of not most of those who share my skin color are.
Unfortunately, the reverse is true: all those years of experience and introspection have taught me that I truly am racist – and here’s why…
Years ago, as a naive but well meaning 30-something, I was walking and talking with a Black woman in her neighborhood, one of the poorest in Tidewater Virginia. When she mentioned some recent problems with crime in the area, I asked why she didn’t call the police. She snorted and said, “They are not our friends” and then went on to explain why.
Her words shocked me, but I also learned something: not all Police see themselves as public servants. Some see themselves as an occupying force: “Us vs. Them.” And, just like in any war zone, that breeds fear and hate. Occupiers are not granted trust or respect.
With my eyes opened to this reality, it is distressing – and angering – to see just how prevalent this is in communities all over the country. I am not at all surprised to see this anger boiling over now, it’s been a long time coming.
The past is the framework upon which our present is built. So, by appropriating the past of another for ourselves, we are often stealing or destroying their future.
For the last several years my alma mater, Andover Newton, has been wrestling with the issue of repatriation of the significant collection Native American Artifacts it has accumulated over the last two hundred (or so) years. The process has been heavily criticized by many because it has been extremely slow, with little apparent progress to outside observers.
And yet, as my fellow alumnus, friend (and awesome minister) Rev. Virginia Child pointed out recently: the reality is that the effort to restore even a single artifact to its rightful present day caretakers is a far more challenging and convoluted process than it would seem. While we usually know where an artifact came from and who originally gave it to the school, identifying who should be the caretaker can be quite a challenge, as this article about a controversy over the repatriation of the remains of an ancient Wampanoag leader demonstrates.
So, while it is frustratingly slow, Andover Newton’s determination to be careful and sensitive in the repatriation of each of these artifacts is to its credit. It would be much easier to simply hand them to the first group that shows up with something resembling a valid claim. But, such an approach would only continue and aggravate the long ago injustices that created the present situation.
This same type of controversy is an often intractable aspect of far larger conflicts we see in so many places: Israel/Palestine; the Progressive/Conservative battles in the US and elsewhere; the tensions between China and many of its neighbors; North Korea; Black Lives Matter; the controversies in many of our Southern states right now over flying the Confederate flag and the placement of statues and memorials venerating Confederate heroes and events; and the representations of Native Americans in sports team names and logos. In each case, tensions focus on questions of “Who owns our past?” And, “Who has control over the narrative of what our past means?”
The above video from Prager University provides a really good overview of the issue of Slavery and the Civil War.
A question to ask: many in the South at the time claimed they would be more supportive of Emancipation if it weren’t for the economic cost of giving up their slaves. So, what would have happened if the North had paid for freeing the slaves? The cost of doing so was said to be far too high at the time, but I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t have been as costly as the war that resulted.
“…whether Women or Blacks or Jews or Japanese or Gays or Muslims or Hispanics or Native Americans are human is not the issue. They are, obviously. The real question is: are we?”
One point I was hoping to make with the “Hope” video I was going to show at the beginning of today’s service was that the “Women’s Marches” around the country on the day after the inauguration were not “Protests.”
Now, a “Protest” is where you stand against something – some event or social ill or person. And, certainly this was an impetus to the creation and organization of those demonstrations; but to “Protest” is not what I saw when I was there: it was not why millions of us came together.
We came to be with each other! We knew it was important to show through our physical presence, that we will support those who are being marginalized. We came because we care. We came because we will no longer stand by while our neighbors are being silenced and oppressed. We gathered together out of love, not out of hate.
Now, clearly the school’s decision is very controversial, given the incoming administration’s abysmal track record (to date) when it comes to social justice issues and policies. However, Talladega College’s President, Dr. Billy C. Hawkins, defended the school’s decision saying: “We respect and appreciate how our students and alumni feel about our participation in this parade, … As many of those who chose to participate in the parade have said, we feel the inauguration of a new president is not a political event but a civil ceremony celebrating the transfer of power.”
In response to the college’s announcement, the leadership of the United Church of Christ, my own denomination, and which has been a supporter of Talladega College, sent a letter to the school questioning this decision and asking that they reconsider. Several alumni of the school have expressed similar concerns.
This is an old, old argument: a new phase in the long battle between those in the Black Community who advocate a more accommodating approach in confronting racism and injustice in this country; and those who favor a more confrontive approach. Both approaches are valid, and are part of a toolkit that encompasses a wide range of possible responses to racism and injustice that can (and should) be deployed. (Though which is most appropriate depends upon the particular situation.)
I cannot speak to the specifics of this situation: I was not party to the decision process at Talladega, and have not seen the text of the UCC’s letter to the school. However, I am deeply concerned by the UCC’s actions here. What I do know is that Dr. Hawkins is no lightweight, and no stranger to tough challenges; and that we cannot dismiss his school’s decision, or reasoning, lightly.
I like this meme by John Pavlovitz: It gets to the heart of something that always troubles me when I’m labelled as an ally of one group or another…
It is true that we are called by our faith to make a special effort to support those who are not empowered, no matter who they are. And, this is a central concept within my own ministry and in my day to day existence.
But the problem has always been that people tend to view someone who is “for” some group or cause as being against something else. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Claiming that our Christian faith is strong is a lie unless we put into action our belief that this nation must embody Christian principles in the governance of its people. Providing subsidies to help those who do not have the resources to begin building a good life for themselves on their own is a good place to start. Likewise, those who claim that this is a “Christian Nation” are deluding themselves if they allow our leaders to ignore and even demonize those in need.
In a recent Op-Ed piece entitled “The Crisis of Minority Employment,” the New York Times Editors make it clear that Congress’s abandonment of subsidized work programs for minorities is not only a threat to the economic viability of our cities, but is also shortsighted – sacrificing the long term economic and social wellbeing of a large segments of our population with the excuse that we can’t afford it. “…Getting jobless young people into the world of work is valuable in itself. Work reduces alienation, gives people a stake in society and allows children in poor communities to absorb the ethic they need to be successful.”
And they are correct: by shutting down such programs, Congress is abandoning its responsibility to provide for the common good – of all, not just for some.
The common complaint we hear from many – both in and out of Congress – who reject the idea of providing help to the poor in any form is that all “they” want is a handout. The thinking is that somehow (because of the stereotype we have created in our own minds that they are uneducated druggies and street criminals) minority youth do not deserve our help.
#BlackLivesMatter helps us see a universal truth: that unless we start treating all people as human beings, we will all loose our humanity. We may not die, but we will no longer live. … We must invest in each other if we are to succeed. Defeating those who oppose us only means we’ve defeated ourselves. The battle is within us, not against us, and not against them. To overcome the challenges we all face requires that we all change.
For decades the Brazilian government refused to extend utilities, sanitation, roads or even law enforcement into these slums. Ultimately, they moved their Capitol elsewhere, escaping the angry vigilance of the poor looking down upon them from the hills above. They are still there: filled with suffering and the anger of a people left behind, cast aside as worthless. We see in the video that their anger is powerful.
At this point in time, Michael Jackson was the object of tabloid ridicule and accusations of child molestation, strange behavior and weird habits. He’d been sued; arrested; strip searched. I am sure he identified with the people in these slums because he felt abandoned and alone, he was struggling to not die, just like them. But, not dying is not the same thing as living. Life is more than merely existence continued.
Much of what the “Black Lives Matter” movement is doing makes us uncomfortable, particularly those of us who are white. This is as it should be. If we’re comfortable where we are “at”, we won’t move, we won’t improve, we won’t change. If the injustices that exist are to be righted, we must be made uncomfortable. We must be made to see those things which are invisible to us because they’ve “always been that way” – working well for us, and so we ignore them or are unaware that they operate in our favor: that’s the very definition of “structural racism.” Yet, these same structural prejudices that are so deeply intertwined within our society and legal system do not work so favorably for others.
As this St Louis Bookstore owner says, “Black Lives Matter does not mean White People are Bad. It never did. Saying someone matters does not mean that nobody else matters. It just says to someone who feels invisible, ‘I see you and I value you.'”
Yesterday, we received an anonymous letter in response to this window display commemorating the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting:
There was no return address, and it wasn’t signed. It was a very short message on a note card telling us that we had lost a customer. In it, the person said we stoked the flames of enmity between races and promoted division. The person asked us why we insisted upon doing that.
It’s hard to know how to respond. What I want to do is call up the customer and chat. I want to take him or her out for coffee and talk about what those three words mean and why I and our store feel compelled to repeat them in a window along a busy street in what seems to some to be an act of ill will.