The sociopolitical unrest over the death of unarmed black man George Floyd at the hands (or, rather, knee) of a Minneapolis Police Department officer has reached a rolling boil after several days of protests and riots. I guess I don’t need to tell you that, though – you’ve probably been involved in at least one and more likely a number of Facebook skirmishes about why you’re wrong. I’ve lost a couple family members and probably a few friends over this nonsense (more on that later), but I’ve never had to worry about losing my own life because of the color of my skin. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in his National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me. “It is heritage.”
America’s original sin of racism has never truly been reckoned with. From chattel slavery to separate-but-equal to redlining, this is not simply the result of, as some have been suggesting, a “bad apple;” this is the culmination of nearly half a millennium of systemic injustice.
A few nights ago, I watched as the President of the United States, in response to the anger and unease, threatened to use military force on his own citizens before police attacked peaceful protestors with tear gas, clearing the way for the president to pose in front of a church with a Bible – not “the” Bible, certainly not “his” Bible (which he clarified himself). The public relations stunt wasn’t shocking. It’s par for the course with Mr. Trump, whose vulgarity and coopting of Christianity knows no bounds, who has never asked forgiveness, who mocks prayer, who calls himself the chosen one.
These are facts.
My twin brother and I couldn’t have been more than 5 years old when our favorite uncle – the fun one, the exciting one, the hilarious one – taught us a new word while we were playing the board game Guess Who. When he called one of the characters in the game the N-word, it sounded funny to my tiny ears. I laughed. I didn’t know any better at the time, so I laughed. My Nana, who passed away from cancer a couple years earlier, loved to sing to us: “Be careful little ears what you hear.” It’s a lovely sentiment, but (as I’m learning in my fatherhood journey), it’s impossible to protect children all the time. Unfortunately, that word that I heard was the first time I was ever confronted with this thing called racism.
That introduction set the stage for decades of overt and covert racism within me. I can’t blame anyone but myself for the times I used the word, knowing full well the damage and pain it historically caused. Can’t blame anyone but myself for not standing up when I heard other people use the word or others like it. For years, I was complicit in maintaining white supremacy in this country: my list of sins is too long to list here, and I have no one to blame but myself.
It’s a difficult and uncomfortable process, to be sure: examining oneself for flaws and defects is never a particularly enjoyable endeavor. I will never, ever be all the way there. Neither will you. That’s why it’s so important to remain vigilant, to ask questions, to learn, and to listen.
I grew up relatively privileged. My father retired a couple years ago from the Pennsylvania State Police, where he lasted his entire 30-year career without even pulling his gun. I met plenty of cops who were “good people.” Had dinner at their houses. Made friends with their kids. Look, that is certainly bound to ruffle some feathers, but I can’t speak to their character when they were out at a domestic or on patrol. What I saw was compassionate, caring people who truly wanted to “protect and serve.”
This is a key point: my positive experience does not negate the multitude of police violence against black and brown bodies.
There’s a lot of rhetoric swirling about protests, looting, and violence. The line goes like this: “I support peaceful demonstrations, but violence has no place in this conversation.” I don’t want to contribute to a lack of context where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is concerned, but I find these 50-year-old words do a much better job than I do of explaining the twisted logic behind this method of thinking:
“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
Let me be frank: I don’t get to tell my black and brown brothers and sisters what an appropriate form of protest is. I don’t have the right to tell marginalized people that they’re “doing it wrong.” It is my responsibility to listen to pain and hurt, to mourn with those who mourn, to amplify other voices, and to stay out of the way.
Speaking of “rights,” white American Christians seemingly have a lot to say about the subject: it was just a few weeks ago that many evangelicals were clamoring about their right to attend church in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic. As a Christian, my “rights” have been completely abrogated before the cross and are utterly secondary to the service of the Gospel. For sure, it’s painstakingly human to want all of the advantages and privileges due us, but Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 are pretty clear that Christians’ rights are conditional and temporary:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
White Christian Americans, particularly the men: our rights – the fair things we deserve, that are “owed” to us – are completely beside the point in Jesus’ calculus. I can already hear protestations from evangelical types that the looters and rioters aren’t turning the other cheek. For one thing, showing up to a display of militarized force with a raised fist and a few harsh words isn’t exactly turnabout, and I’d rather like someone to explain to me by what measure rioting is as “bad” as the systemic murder of people of color by armed agents. Nevertheless, and once again, we don’t get to tell our marginalized brothers and sisters who have suffered 400 years of oppression how to react to violence.
On the subject of violence, President Trump has only stoked the flames of racial disharmony in this nation, from his rampant both-side-ism and calling Nazis “very fine people” to his insistence on the guilt of the Central Park Five. “No president has done more for black people,” say his supporters, but his own words and actions complete a different picture, and even members of his own party are sickened by his crackdown on peaceful – and largely nonwhite – protestors.
“It is a strength when protesters, protected by responsible law enforcement, march for a better future,” reflected President George W. Bush. “This tragedy – in a long series of similar tragedies – raises a long overdue question: How do we end systemic racism in our society?”
“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” said Trump, threatening Americans.
“The only way to see ourselves in a true light is to listen to the voices of so many who are hurting and grieving,” Bush said. “Those who set out to silence those voices do not understand the meaning of America — or how it becomes a better place,” Bush wrote.
“As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property,” said Trump.
You will know them by their fruits.
“It’s time to take out the trash,” said my uncle – yes, that one – when he saw a video of my little brother protesting on Facebook. “F—ing trash!” he called him, before unleashing a tirade of profanity and vitriol about his own family. It was hardly surprising. It’s the same rhetoric his president uses, the language of marginalization and contempt for anyone who has the audacity to protest injustice or disagree.
Yes, my brother was swearing at a cop in the video. I don’t generally condone bad language, but I’d probably swear at someone too if they teargassed me while I was peacefully protesting. Here’s my problem: if the protests and violence bother you more than the systemic racism and injustice that has led to them, you are implicitly contributing to the maintenance of the existing hegemony. Full stop.
I’m probably not invited to any extended family Thanksgivings any time soon, but I tell you these things in service of a larger point: compared to the black and brown lives that have been lost to this civil rights struggle, offending some people’s white fragility is a relatively minor sacrifice. We would do well to recognize that years of social conditioning and well-meaning but backwards notions of colorblindness aren’t going to simply slip quietly into the night: it takes a lot to unlearn! It’s why speaking up is important – to uplift the downtrodden, yes, but also to educate and inform, always in love.
But I know it can be a bit confusing to navigate this sociopolitical landscape. I’m writing mostly for myself – to try to sort out my feelings – but I also think it’s important for our black and brown family and friends to hear our voices of support and compassion. I know there’s an opportunity cost to this, and I don’t want to take away from voices more important than my own, so here are some resources that you may be able to use in the fight against racism and police brutality.
I wish I could end this dispatch with some encouragement or good news. I can’t, and I won’t. Let’s all sit in the discomfort and lament.