I admit to being late to the revelation. I had no idea the racial tensions and the oppression that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ were feeling and experiencing. Here’s who I blame for my ignorance:
I never had a history class go past World War II. I promise, I’m not kidding. I never learned anything about the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, or anything else past VJ-Day. In Februaries I learned about the inventor of Peanut Butter, George Washington Carver (and then later learned he didn’t invent Peanut Butter but was still great). I heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. Everybody is down with that masterpiece. Then I vaguely remember that the guy who invented traffic lights was black too. Neat-o. I guess I’m thankful I wasn’t taught any blatant lies like Calvin Candy’s explanation of why “the blacks” are more submissive (Django Unchained reference.) But I was grossly under-informed on any post-slavery struggles of African-Americans. Shame on you schools. Shame on you.
I have never seen a positive portrayal of the Black Panthers (not talking comics fan boys.) I think the only neutral portrayal was when Forest Gump was sorry for ruining one of their “parties.” I was asked somewhat recently to explain the difference between the NRA and the Black Panthers of the 60’s and 70’s. Was their message not one of “we have a right to protect ourselves?” In the instances where members of the Black Panthers did commit crimes, how many of them were instigated, how many were mis-reported, and how many were just rogue individuals? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. I have no idea. Movies have very clearly convinced me of the horrors of slavery. I am firm in the camp of that was evil. I was obviously touched by Denzel’s performance in Glory. But then, I got to flash-forward to Wesley Snipe in White Men Can’t Jump to get the next somewhat real portrayal for life in America for the non-token black guy. (Now I’m sure there were other movies that better exemplified life in America for African-American’s but obviously nothing that set off my radar that there was a huge problem. Even American History X is a beautiful drama of an errant racist who comes to grip with the error of his ways, how touching.)
I think television did better than most mediums. I clearly knew racism was wrong because of The X-Men. A story about a wonderful group of people who although they are faster, stronger, and dress differently than the rest of the population, they are oppressed for being different (despite saving the world from Apocalypse and Mr. Sinister.) Then the Fresh Prince and the Huxtable’s occasionally brought out episodes that showed there are still racists out there, even for rich and famous black people. It solidified my belief that there were lone-wolf racist jerks out there. What a shame they are not as enlightened as myself and my friends. Secretly, I thought it was just a waiting game. I knew that if Kunta Kinte could be the Chief Engineer of a Star Ship, that by the next generation we would all be united (or at least not divided by race any more.) I believed that if everyone just watched In Living Color like I did, we could speed this process up.
I watched the News (and not just ESPN.) And I watch a variety of news programs from all political spectrums. I consume tons of information, and it is not until very recently that I was made aware of all that is going on and how people of color feel about the police, about systematic racism built in to the fabric of society, the intense biases that are experienced in almost every arena. I always just thought America was pretty fair, that anyone can make it. And while I agree anyone can, the challenges for some groups to escape where they started in life is extraordinarily more difficult than it is for someone with my amount of melanin. This phenomenon was explained to me by having me imagine life as a video game. Yes, we all have to play the same level, but I get to play it on the beginner level – being a white, protestant, male. On the other hand, someone who might not fit that description has so many more potential potholes, walls, enemies, and challenges. Completing the same level on “expert” mode is tremendously more difficult. It wasn’t until pretty recently that stories of injustice and how many black people felt unfairly targeted by the entire justice system were brought to the mainstream. But I think the way it got there was through newer forms of media. You can’t tell me that the public simply wasn’t interested in these stories. NBC can make me have all sorts of feels when profiling different Olympic athletes. You help me connect with my fellow Americans. That’s the power of stories. Tell me a story media! There were plenty of instances to do it and you totally dropped the ball for the first 30 years of my life.
I don’t even know where to begin here. I hate politics. Instead of me bringing up 50,000 things let me just bring up 3. Before I even get started, I want you politicians to know that it took you all WAY too long to do the right thing and apply the Constitution to every human living in America. So you get ZERO credit for getting closer. 1) Somewhere along the line, prisons became a business. There are far too many people incarcerated for offenses that carried way too harsh a punishment. There was a shift somewhere in recent times where politics took up the rhetoric of cleaning-up the streets! Every politician tried to one-up each other until we got to, “My opponent is too soft on crime. If elected, I would impose mandatory life sentences for removing the tag from the pillow!” I think this led to more confrontation with police as well, but I’m still working my thoughts through on all that. I know I don’t want the police shooting citizens they are sworn to protect unless it’s the absolute last resort. I have no basis of understanding on where that line is, but I know I don’t want anyone shooting anyone. But however they get there, too many people are going to prison. We have too many fathers away from their kids for far too long and creating cycles that could have been broken. I don’t have time to explain all the ways that people of color face the undo brunt of some of the more superfluous laws in this country. Yes, it’s easy to say, “Just stop committing crimes.” Well, first of all, there’s a lot of root causes we need to deal with first. Second, people who aren’t wealthy cannot hire a good lawyer to prove they are innocent (or get more reasonable sentences.) If you do not have a good lawyer, you are screwed when facing an opponent who gets elected on whether or not they can get a conviction on you. This is not a black or white issue, but black people seem to face undo prejudices from far too many people, and just overall, second chances are far more rare for a person of color. Finally, we also have such weak concepts of rehabilitation, and I DO NOT hear my conservative people calling for better resource allocating on that issue. (There’s so much more to say here, but need to collect my thoughts more.) 2) In my most controversial statements, I personally view the politicization of abortion in its early incarnation as a way of legally killing black people and other disenfranchised demographics in America. The liberal hero Margaret Sanger is quoted with saying that exact thing. Now, instead of the dehumanizing of black babies, a generation later there is still a dehumanizing of black adults. Imagine all the millions more black people who would be standing-up and marching that have been killed (or incarcerated.) The demographics in this country would be different and we might be further along in this process. 3) Finally, we have got to come to some new conclusions on how to help communities of color change the trajectory we are on. This is partly repurposing welfare money to be more effective (because poverty is getting worse and not better with welfare, but we can’t get rid of the aid to those in need), partly bringing better education into low-income communities (using test scores to determine funding is asinine), and partly creating more community, commerce, and training centers to help those who truly want to make something of themselves have more unimpeded opportunities. But none of this happens without all politicians everywhere to stop caring about getting re-elected and start caring about the people they were elected to represent. Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath on this happening soon.
I certainly blame the churches I have been in (including the ones I have pastored) and the past tradition of the churches in America. I have never been in a church that actually represented the 5 miles radius of the community where it was located. We just never really strategically tried to be (and I am somewhat at a loss with how to get to there.) Many churches during the time of slavery were advocates of abolition. That’s awesome, the problem was once slavery ended, not enough abolitionists said, “Now come worship with me.” More often than not, little churches were built for “them.” Oh, how nice. Gosh, I still think we are dealing with the ramifications of that 150 years later. Until every Christian wants “my” church to become “our” church, then we are not living out the Gospel the way it was intended, and thus we are failing.
My Black Friends
Yeah, I blame you. I know not all of you feel the oppression I’m referencing, but I know some of you do, and you didn’t take the time years ago to help me understand. I would have been an advocate sooner and not a bystander for so long.
But I suppose I put off some sort of vibe or said something without thinking that led my friends to not trust me enough to open up to me. Seeing the Social Media reaction, I can only conclude that I was just blind to it for many years. I knew I had no ill-will. So I was good. Anyone I heard say something overtly racist, I confronted. So I was already a hero in my own mind. But there are so many subtle-racist statements that I did not confront in retrospect. I didn’t even recognize them. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do differently now. Be quicker to speak out maybe? Be ready to jump in and help if the occasion arises? To my students I will say, please let me help if I can. If you experience injustice in any way, would you give me a chance to try to make it right? To my friends I will say, please let me help if I can. If I need to stand beside you or in front of you, let me know. But I’m sorry for not doing enough. And I’ll start working on what “enough” will look like.
I want you to do more. Because whatever we are doing, it’s not enough. Let’s get out of the superficial pleasantries and start developing real relationships with people of different races and cultures. This crisis is a personal one and not a digital one. However, on social media, let’s be slow to speak, quick to listen, and slow to anger. Let’s mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep. Finally, let’s stop and take a moment and picture Jesus as a different race then yourself. (I personally think He contains all races within himself. See my crazy rantings here) But more than likely, Jesus didn’t look like you. I think of Matthew 25:34-40. “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” Let’s remember that many of the heroes of our faith have been to jail at some point in their life. I’m sure there were many in Paul’s day who blamed him for “showing up” Festus. We don’t have to solve all the world’s problems, but we have to do more to unite God’s Kingdom here on earth.