I intended to spend some time researching and writing about Thanksgiving. I was going to do that last year, but got distracted. Yesterday I planned to take the morning today to research and write about Thanksgiving but it will have to wait because I am distracted again.
Like watching a train wreck is “Ferguson”. It has risen (or has been reduced) to the level of one name status, like Chernobyl or Iwo Jima or Prince. Ferguson has character and personality of its own, and it is ugly.
Life can be ugly. Life can be beautiful too. We can find ugliness and beauty in many places. Sometimes all we see is the ugliness. Sometimes beauty can be seen in the midst of the ugliness, like a line of Ferguson protestors standing guard in front of a business to protect it.
Ferguson is more than an incident that some simply find unfortunate. It is more than an incident that demonstrates over militaristic modern police tactics, the foolishness of brazen, gangsta youth or vestiges of raw racism. Ferguson has reopened the deep wound of centuries of slavery, oppression and injustice. We dare not brush it off.
Consider the now iconic missive: “Can’t we all just get along?” (To be perfectly sardonic)
It is not that simple.
A PEW Research poll reveals a racial divide in our country that still exists. Some would say it is a chasm. I hope it is not.
When asked whether the Michael Brown shooting raises important racial issues, 80% of the black people said, yes, but only 37% of the white people taking the poll agreed. When asked whether respondents were confident in the investigation of the Brown shooting, 52% of whites said they were confident, but only 18% of blacks agreed. (PEW Research statistics) Literally this morning my daughter was engaged in a two hour chat with friends about whether white racism exists. Her black friend says, no; my daughter says, yes. This is a disconnection.
My mother told me when I was young enough to believe her that racism was bad. I remember one encounter with a classmate making a racial remark in kindergarten or 1st grade, and, remembering her words, I called him on it. I cannot recall another obvious incident of racism that I witnessed after that time. In my world racism was over; it no longer existed. I did not feel racist, and I did not see racism around me…. maybe that is because I am white.
I remember the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. I was 8. I was deeply saddened. I could not understand it. I knew about racism growing up, but it seemed distant from me. It existed far away from me. I did not see it where I lived…. maybe that is because I lived in a predominantly white, suburban area.
My happy bubble was burst one day in college. A very erudite, black student lived across the hall. He kept to himself. He was not unfriendly, but he was distant. I am not sure how we got on the topic, but we discussed racism one day. I was taken aback to hear his story. He lived racism and it shaped his life.
I safely tucked that encounter away in the recesses of my memory, but I could not dismiss it.
Another discussion with a well-educated man of color in law school brought that college encounter back to the surface. He had been an educator, an administrator, and he was now adding law to his degrees. He also lived racism. The only example I remember from him is a confrontation he had with a homeless, beggar who sneered at him with racial contempt – this well-educated, successful man was looked down upon by a homeless, beggar because of his color. It would be laughable if not for the vein of inferior feelings that welled up within him – a vein that ran to the depths of this man’s soul and finds its source in all that he is, all that he has inherited from his parents and his forefathers who experienced the injustices in more visceral ways.
Consider the cliché advice: “Can’t we just get over it?” (To be perfectly crass)
It is not that easy.
I remember when black people appeared in commercials for the very first time on the major networks. I was young, but I understood what was going on. I remember when black actors began to appear in television shows and movies. I inwardly cheered. Jackie Robinson was before my time, but the importance of his life and example was not lost on me. Those were baby steps, and they occurred in my lifetime, not in the distant past. Even now, we celebrate the first black president, the first black judge, etc…. and we are still taking those baby steps. Racism is still raw and still part of our present.
There are voices in the black community, voices of hope, voices that encourage throwing off the bonds of racism and rising above it, but those are the fortunate few. In the white community, we think that all people of color should “just get over it”; but that is easy for us to say. We do not live with it, and we do not even see it though the vein of racism is still evident just beneath the surface. Eruptions like Ferguson are volcanic proof.
Have you ever purchased a car because it was novel and different? Then, you begin seeing them everywhere! Or how about naming your child something other than the run-of-the-mill, popular names? We did not know anyone named Nicholas when we named our fourth son. I did not realize how popular that name is! We tend not see or notice things with which we have no personal connection. White people just do not notice racism like black people do.
White people of good will would like the world to be colorblind. I think that is a good ideal. I try to live that way myself, but I am not sure that is really the best way – at least not yet. Black people tend to see the colors distinctly and celebrate their blackness. Perhaps, the celebration is a necessary counterbalance the weight of racism they cannot escape.
When my first born son was very young, maybe 2 or 3, we lived in New Hampshire, not a very diverse state. As we sat watching people coming out of a store, he asked me, “What color are we?” I simply said, “We are white.” After a long, thoughtful pause, he asked, “What color are they?” (referring to a black family coming out of the store). I simply said, “They are black.” After another thoughtful pause, he said with childlike enthusiasm, sincerity and clarity, “Those are my favorite colors!”
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, [there is no black and white] for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) That is the ideal. That is how God sees us. Yet He made us black and white. I could write a whole book on that dichotomy, but allow me just suggest that our challenge is to recognize the differences and to love each other for those differences and in spite of those differences.
This love that we are called to requires us to stop looking at ourselves and what is convenient, safe, familiar and personal to us and to consider others. In fact, we are called to “regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
I am coming to the conclusion that we can not and should not be color blind. When we are colorblind we also tend to be blind to injustice. I know, because I have been guilty of not seeing injustice. Just because I do not personally feel prejudiced or see racism in my life does not mean it does not exist and is not experienced in others’ lives – like the cars I did not notice before I purchased mine or the names I did not realize were so popular until I called my child by that name. We need to buy into what our black brothers and sisters are saying to be able to see what they see. We need to call it what it is to be able to consider that they live.
We are called to “do justice”. (Micah 6:8) It is not enough that we refrain from being racist and go about our lives; we need to do something. I have argued with others that the opportunities exist in this country for anyone, literally anyone, to succeed. I think that is true. Barriers that existed in the past have been removed. Laws prohibit discrimination…. But, the effects of institutional oppression still exist, the vein still runs through the soil of our current world, and the thistles of racism still grow out of that soil all around us.
My father was the first in his family to go to college. His father before him began as an office boy and worked his way up to the chief inside auditor position of what was once the largest furniture manufacturer in the country. His father before that owned a coal and grain business, and their ancestors were farmers who were frugal, bought land and worked the soil. They worked through the common obstacles of life to achieve success.
In that same time period, my black friends’ ancestors were slaves. They lived through the Jim Crow era, segregation, the reality of lynchings, sitting in the back of the bus, white only restaurants, bathrooms and water fountains, race riots, the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and more. They did not have the same opportunities. The barriers of institutional oppression have only been removed by law in my lifetime, but the affects still linger, running just below the surface.
Yes, we do not all have the good fortune of family wealth and privilege, and there are many obstacles and injustices that have stood in the way of good fortune for our ancestors and ourselves. For people of color, however, the obstacles and injustices find their source in racial discrimination, and the vein runs just barely beneath the surface of today’s soil. The obstacle of racial injustice is compounded exponentially by the common obstacles that we all face. They are not the benefactors of generations of opportunity. The seeds are there, but they are planted in the shallow ground that was only recently broken in my lifetime; and the weeds remain that threaten to choke the new fruit of opportunity.
I only scratch the surface. In the end, we must not be dismissive; we must listen and look through the lens of our black brothers and sisters to understand what they experience; we must do something to help. As we climb the obstacles in our lives, we must reach our arms back and offer a helping hand.
When my second son was very young, in kindergarten, he came home one day talking about a friend he just made. He said that he had a Cubs hat, and he likes the Cubs, and he rattled off a list of things they had in common, and he said, “his name is Tyler just like me!” Tyler did not mention that his little friend was black. Oh, he knew it! He did not have to mention it, because that was the whole point! The difference in skin color was obvious, but he found common ground beneath the surface.
We need to dig down and find the common ground. At the same time, we need to dig up and remove the vein of racial injustice. We have a lot of work left to do. We can not rest and declare that racism no longer exists. It may be officially declared dead, but the influences and repercussions of endemic and sanctioned racial injustice continue today. The past is still too present. The wound is too raw and has not yet healed. We need to recognize that and work actively to heal that wound by listening instead of talking, sympathizing and empathizing instead of moralizing, loving instead of judging.
We who are white are in no position to tell the people who have suffered the effects of racial injustice how to feel and act and be. We are the wrong color to be painting that picture as long as we live comfortably in our familiar and safe, colorblind worlds. We do not have the credibility needed to address these things.
We must not dismiss the reactions of the black community to Ferguson. Regardless of the “justice” that was done there, Ferguson demonstrates for us that we have a long way to go to put racial injustice behind us. We dare not see Ferguson as an aberration. We must go beyond our own selves and work to understand why the emotion is so raw, why the anger still burns so hot. We need to work to find the common ground and reach out helping hands with understanding hearts. We need to embrace our black brothers and sisters where they are and celebrate our favorite colors.
For my black brothers and sisters, please talk to us. Help us to understand. Do not let us dismiss you, But, understand this: it is not that we are necessarily racist; we we may just be be colorblind.