Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Race in America

So, I'm the least capable person to talk about race in America, but I do have thoughts that need an outlet somewhere. I've been really shaken in recent weeks - a little different than I've been shaken in the past. I've found great sorrow and solidarity with people like Eric Garner, because I've witnessed, first hand, the kind of unfair, prejudicial treatment that often stems from police towards black men in America. Philando Castile was different - not because I can ever claim to "know" what it's like to be black at a traffic stop, but because I've got a four year old and I've been pulled over for having a tail light out. The disparity between what happened to him and what happened to me is just a chasm too broad for my mind to even attempt to bridge.

But it touched something deeper inside of me - real grieving - something beyond just sympathy or sorrow or regret. It hurt. Deep down. It's why I wanted my daughter to be a part of our local rally for peace on Thursday. We couldn't stay the whole time and I doubt she'll even remember what happened, but she saw and heard perhaps the most racially diverse religious gathering in the history of this town. She was there and that's important to me.

Now I'm scared this will sound callous, but, amazingly, the events of the last two weeks have given me some measure of hope. Obviously a lot of people have lost lives - far too many - but the reality is that terrible violence has been done to black people in this country since even before it was a country. We can lament over the loss of life - any life; and we can lament over the slow pace of progress. No but - we can and should lament. Things look really bad.

I have some hope, though, because from my perspective, this time is different. TIME magazine reports that 61% of white people think racial equality is a real issue - a sadly low number, but the highest it's ever been. Further, white people, especially young white people, have been the majority of those engaged in protest following the most recent spate of events. So long as white people remain the majority in this country and control the levers of power and influence, white people need to be on board with solving racial inequality. It's been the indifference of me and people like me over the past 400 years that have left us at this point.

Maybe the perspective of black Americans in black neighborhoods is far from optimistic, but from my perspective, I've never seen so many white people engaged, willing to listen, and seeking to understand. I haven't felt my speaking up about my experiences, witnessing racially disparate treatment by police against black people, as being rejected or unwelcome. That's a first.

I've felt slightly emboldened, but mostly challenged by Rembert Browne in this piece from the New York Times - he calls on white people to speak up to other white people - to come out as sympathetic towards the plight of African-Americans. As much as I hate to admit it, he nails white culture pretty well (and, having gone to Dartmouth, the guy is in a pretty good position to really understand white culture from the outside). The strange thing, though, is that it doesn't feel difficult or unwelcome anymore. Yes, there were a few of the typical retorts, trying to explain away these police killings by impugning the victim, but those faded pretty quickly (at least more quickly than they have in the past). Shoot, freaking Newt Gingrich came out with a strong statement:

It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years to get a sense of this. If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.

Newt Gingrich! There's some hope when an issue like this has moved from a partisan issue, to one infecting the "other" side in profound ways, it has to be seen as progress. The progress is embarrassingly slow. It's unacceptable that we've gotten to this point, but gotten to this point we have, and wringing our hands over it will not solve anything.

We have to avoid saying, "yeah, us; we care now," as that's beyond patronizing; it's insulting. I can't be the white guy saying, "hold on, we'll get there." That might be the only thing we can say, but it's as helpful as saying "All Lives Matter" at this point. Frankly, I'm not sure we have the right to claim any life matters until we can show that literally any life matters.

I'm particularly broken by the claim, oft repeated this week, that we've left too many problems for the police to solve. I hear the same complaint from school teachers, literally almost every day. The problems of our society are our problems, even if we've segregated ourselves in communities where we're insulated and isolated from those issues we rue. It's not somebody else's problem and it's not somebody else's fault. I can clearly say no one's done as much as they can to make the world a better place - save for those who've literally given their lives on the altar of our societal shortcomings.

Yes, do something rather than nothing, but do more than some thing, commit. Be a difference in your community - and that might just mean getting out of your community and into one you wish were better, not telling "them" how to be, but becoming "us" in the midst of the mess. We won't overcome our fear and obsession with safety until we have a world that's fear-free and safe for all. We can't look at a gash on our arm and say, "that's my arm's problem." My arm's problem is my problem; black America's problem is America's problem. I think more white people are starting to see this. I think that's a droplet of good news in a flood of bad, but it's enough for me to keep going and I pray its enough for others, for those really hurting in the midst of this outrageous reality, to keep going too.

1 comment:

Nick said...

Thank you.