…large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
Martin Luther King
**This post was updated, edited and reposted on December 11 at 12:45pmEST.
Last week, an old friend checked in on me. He’s a kind-hearted, hard-working and sincere follower of Jesus. He sent me a series of texts in light of the Ferguson decision and in response to what I have written about it. Here’s a sample:
I don’t think the thought ever crossed my mind that the life of a person of color was somehow worth less than that of a white person. I doubt very much that is the mindset of many police or judges either. Hard to believe the kid from Ferguson was killed because of that mindset given the facts in that case. Would be interesting to research the number of black people killed by white people vs. black people killed by black people. God dislikes all taking of life from the womb to the point of natural death. #Alllivesmatter
His texts discouraged me, mostly because his mindset mirrors the vast landscape of white suburban & rural America. This is the environment I grew up in, the air I breathed for four decades. It is what I have observed, over and over, and it is basically the way that I used to view the world. My reflections on his texts, in this post, are mostly for white folks who are sincerely attempting to make sense of the onslaught of grief and anger coming from people of color and white allies, in the streets and on social media. I also share to humbly validate this grief and anger.
First of all, notice the personal, defensive tone of the text. Of course, white suburbanites would never consciously think that black lives don’t matter as much as theirs. That would be “racist,” like something from the KKK. The problem is that white suburbanites rarely have to think of black lives at all. White folks simply do not understand that millions of African-Americans are catching hell in desperately poor conditions everyday in America. There is a Suburban Shield, fortified by unacknowledged white privilege and filled with distracting consumer and media choices, family, faith and work obligations and various copings to deal with the anxiety, addiction and alienation that comes with pursuing “the American Dream.”
Second, notice the benefit of the doubt given to police officers and judges in this text. This only makes sense for white people given that cops and magistrates have protected and served and decided on behalf of middle-class white folks for decades. Interesting, too, how people of color in suburban white communities are rarely ever given the benefit of the doubt. When arrests or allegations are made, black people are assumed to be lazy, working the system or thuggish. Again, I can assure you, from observation and experience, this is ingrained in the white suburban psyche.
Third, notice, in this text, how quick the topic gets sidelined, shifting the conversation to how black people are killing each other—justifying police brutality by blaming the victim group. Then, whites cover over the racism and violence with a move to supposed neutrality: all lives matter. This “colorblind” claim is nothing more than pushing aside the real issue. The only thing left, at this point for the suburban white, is to start listing the names of their black friends.
Lastly, the series of texts, as a whole, convey just how tone deaf the suburban white masses can be, while banking on inherited wealth and privilege, self-promoted by claims of work ethic and family values. Besides the socio-economic and political discrimination that persists, the emotional and psychological wounds of the African-American community continue to fester. As Frantz Fanon wrote in the 1961 classic The Wretched of the Earth: The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves. Us white folks have no idea how to begin to comprehend how painful this must be.
The rhetoric used by suburban whites, like my friend, is a tactic, however subconscious, used to erase their own guilt over just how desperately awful conditions are for “the other America.” I continue to hear the words of African-American Bible scholar Obery Hendricks ringing in my ears (from The Politics of Jesus, 2007), on just how demanding Jesus’ teaching on love of neighbor is:
In practical terms this means that when we who claim to know God become aware that any of God’s children are caught in webs of oppression in mind, body, or spirit, it is our divine duty to struggle for the liberation and deliverance of our suffering neighbors in the same way that we would struggle for our own…The only authentic evidence of spirituality is that we have personally sought and struggled for the health, wholeness, and freedom of others.
Unfortunately, the Suburban Shield is a powerful force, rendering the suffering of African-Americans invisible to upwardly-mobile whites. White suburban followers of Jesus, as Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann shared in a post-Ferguson-&-Staten Island community conversation in Detroit two nights ago, are charged with the task of naming this demonic power and undergoing the long, hard process of exorcising it from their lives. I continue to hurry and hobble through this messy process of naming & exorcising all the ways that racism has become embedded in me.
The silence, indifference and/or justification from white people over the ongoing epidemic of police brutalities and fatalities of people of color indicate where they stand on the massive issue of racial injustice today.
Less than three weeks before he was assassinated, Dr. King delivered a speech entitled “The Other America” in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, an all-white suburb just across the eastern border of Detroit, a dozen miles where I write today. He lamented that white folks were far more concerned about order than they were about justice and addressed the embarrassing double standard that persists today:
All too often when there is mass unemployment in the black community, it’s referred to as a social problem and when there is mass unemployment in the white community, it’s referred to as a depression. But there is no basic difference.
And Dr. King went on to confront, head-on, the myth that whites, then and now, propagate all too often “that legislation can’t solve the problem”:
And so while legislation may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men when it’s vigorously enforced and when you change the habits of people pretty soon attitudes begin to be changed and people begin to see that they can do things that fears caused them to feel that they could never do.
This is a watershed moment for white people. Those who have the same skin color as me have vital, historic choices to make. White allies of faith and conscience have a divine duty to learn, listen and use our inherited privilege and resources to advocate for specific policies that will end The New Jim Crow that devastates the communities and psyches of our black brothers and sisters.
Now is the time to take personal inventory of just how much structural racism has plagued us white folks with the disease of denial, entitlement and privilege, stripping us of openheartedness and empathy, blinding us to real life conditions on the ground. Radical discipleship demands that we repent. In the decades to come, we will be inevitably judged on the basis of what we did and didn’t do in regards to these matters. After all, too many of our ancestors look back on the Civil Rights Movement and wish they marched with King. But, for whatever reason, they didn’t.