Before

Before Michael Brown, there were others.

Trayvon Martin, Roger Owensby. Timothy Thomas. Emmett Till. There were so many others.

The black community has been under assault by “law enforcement” for decades, and law enforcement has historically gotten away with it.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian, of whom I am writing an authorized biography, when I asked him how black people are to cope, not just with the murders of unarmed black people, but the lack of justice, and therefore of respect and dignity, said that we have to realize our strength, and realize that white people know that what we as a people suffer is brutal. (my word, “brutal,” not his.) He said, “Most white people realize that they could not live as black people do. They realize they would not be able to handle it.”

I relate to what is going on, and to what has always gone on with sanction in this nation, as a mother of a son. I have a daughter, too, but it is my son that I worry about, just because he is a black male. He does not do drugs. He does not have a criminal record. He knows “how to act” if stopped by police.

But none of that matters.

And that’s what scares me. Black people do not have to have a criminal record or be doing something wrong in order to be gunned down with abandon …by police. White officers and black officers have the same obsession with power, it looks like. They do not like to be challenged or questioned…and they know they have the upper hand. They too often shoot first and ask questions (or make up a story) later. No matter how compelling is the evidence that they are in the wrong, they get off.

That is scary.

The nation, this nation, cannot be “exceptional” so long as such barbarity within the ranks of law enforcement exists, because the actions of those who are supposed to serve and protect are causing a huge swath of parents and loved ones to suffer emotional pain that is ignored and minimized.

Black people have lived on the hope, the faith, that God will make a way …out of this madness caused by the dehumanization of them and their children. But God has been slow. Black parents stand weeping on the banks of “Red Seas,” holding out a metaphorical “rod,” waiting for the sea of injustice to part, but the parting has not happened yet, not after all these years.

The parents and loved ones of all of these unarmed black people are standing on the shore of that sea, waiting for God.

But God has been slow. It feels like God has been absent, actually.

It is horrible that police officers have been randomly killed, but here’s the difference between slain police officers and slain black people. Whomever has killed a police officer will be brought to justice. Most police officers who kill unarmed and many times, innocent black people, even if charged with a crime, will go free. There will be no justice.

That reality is the fuel of the Black Lives Matter movement. The lack of justice speaks to the core belief of this nation that black people do not matter, and never have. The lack of justice undermines the words of the United States Constitution, which black people and those concerned with justice latch onto, “All men are created equal.”

Not so. It wasn’t the case when the Constitution was drafted and it isn’t the case now.

I wonder if any of people who are so quick to blame black people for our lot in life ever stop to think about the effects of being dehumanized. I wonder if they feel it when black mothers cry, when little black kids are put in handcuffs for doing things little kids of all races have always done …because they’re little. I wonder if white mothers feel the pain of the mothers of Trayvon and Michael and Jordan and Roger and TImothy and Renisha and Sandra and Freddie and Sam…and so many. So many…

Please understand. Parents and loved ones feel the pain when black lives are taken by other black people…but the difference is that black people who kill other black people are usually brought to justice and end up in prison. It is small consolation but at least it represents justice.

The cry that some are trying to vilify and call representative of hate is a cry that is filled with anguish about being used, exploited, and then being discarded. American society uses black people (and poor people) for cheap labor, exploits the, unwilling to give them decent wages so they can take care of their families, and then discarding them when they cry out for help as their loved ones are mowed down by state-sanctioned actions of law enforcement officers.

Law enforcement doesn’t care about black lives. The education system doesn’t care about black lives (schools for black children are the worst of all schools). America doesn’t care …about black lives.

Before Michael Brown there were others, so many others…

And we live in a nation that just does not care.

A candid observation

Emmett, Trayvon and Michael

It is a notable fact that in our country, major racial strife and a subsequent movement followed the lynching of young, black men.

That is not to say that black women have not been lynched. In fact, black women’s bodies have been brutalized by whites in this country in a way nobody likes to talk about. It is a great irony that while white men were lynching black men to protect their women from “the black beast,” which they considered black men to be, they were in fact raping black women with abandon. Because white people did not consider black people to be human, what white men did to black women was discarded and considered as a right they had in doing what they wanted to their property.

That’s another piece altogether.

But in thinking about what is going on now in this nation’s Black Lives Matter movement, it is clear that it has been the brutalization, the lynching, of young black men which has periodically set the country on fire. Not only have the murders of the black men been a catalyst for social upheaval, but also the lack of justice in their murders has stoked the fires of resentment and pain carried by black people in this country.

The protest today is centered around the police killings of young black men, but in the cases of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, it has been white vigilantes who have done the killing. In both cases, the murderers were tried and acquitted of wrongdoing. Their lives did not matter; the pain of their parents and loved ones did not matter, either. Emmett Till was killed on August 28, 1955 in Money, Mississippi, yanked from his uncle’s house in Mississippi as he slept because he allegedly winked at a white woman. He was beaten beyond recognition and his body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Emmett’s murderers had a trial but were acquitted after only an hour’s deliberation by the all-white, all-male jury.

We all remember that George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin and Officer Darren Wilson was not even bound over for trial in the killing of Michael Brown.

What struck me as I thought about these three young men was that they were all lynched. No, not in the classic “rope hanging from a tree” sense, but in the sense that their killings were done by white people who believe it is their duty, almost, to rid the world of those whom they deem to be unworthy of living. While Emmett was thrown into the Tallahatchie River, Michael Brown was allowed to lie on the hot pavement of a city street while officers in Ferguson built a case around his not being “a saint.” The murderers of Till tried to hide his body; the murderers of Brown left his body exposed so that the world could see what happened to people who messed with police.  Trayvon was not hidden or left lying exposed like Emmett or Michael, but his body did lie in a morgue for three days, listed as a “John Doe,” though he was killed feet from his father’s residence in a gated community in Florida. Tracy Martin, his father, had been looking for his son since the night he was killed; the morning after he didn’t come home, Martin called the police, looking for Trayvon. It was only then that he found out that his son had lain in the morgue for three days.

Three young men, one 14 years old, one 17 years old and another, 18 years old, were killed because they were black; being black made them “suspect,” and worthy of being brutalized.

None of these young men were treated …like they matter. From being stalked and “looking suspicious” as was the case with Trayvon, to engaging in a youthful flirt with a white woman in the case of Emmett, to refusing to treat a police officer, Darren Wilson, with appropriate deference, these young men lost their lives.

And too few people in the white community care about it.

If it had been my son, gunned down and then left in the street for hours, I would be furious now, just as I would be furious had my son been gunned down because he “looked suspicious.” I would be even more furious, deeply hurt, and probably inconsolable if my son’s killers were acquitted of any crime.

This nation has a plethora of mothers (and fathers) who are carrying the deepest of hurts and grief …and measured fury. The parents and loved ones of Jordan Davis, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and literally hundreds more black people …are carrying hurt, grief …and fury. Their sadness is part of the fabric of this nation; it is an ever-deepening undercurrent of America.

The presidential candidates have, so far, all but ignored the Black Lives Matter movement. The participants in the movement are being cast off as “troublemakers.” They are. There needs to be trouble when injustice keeps on happening. If there is no trouble, nobody will listen.

Mamie Till started this wave of trouble-making when she would not permit the white people who killed her son to keep his death a secret. They thought it was over when they threw him in the river, but Mamie made them look for her son. They thought it was over when they said they would bury her son in Mississippi, but Mamie refused to let them. She took her son home to Chicago and had his horribly destroyed body photographed so that the whole world would see what the white people had done to her son.

Sybrina Martin, Trayvon’s mother, and Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr, the parents of Michael, sought justice for their sons and were deeply disappointed as the justice system refused them. Not only did the lives of their sons not matter, but neither did their lives matter, apparently, as parents seeking justice.

These three young men, robbed of life, clearly did not matter to the men who shot and killed them; they are mentioned here only because their parents  refused to remain silent.  The parents of others robbed of life in this way …are refusing to remain silent. The young people who are marching and chanting and demanding to be heard are marching because they know their own lives are in danger. They know they do not matter much, either. They also know that the only way anyone will listen …is for them to be “troublemakers.”

I think Emmett, Trayvon and Michael …and all of the others who have been gunned down largely because they were black people in America …would like that. I think their deaths ..deserve that. Their lives, and the lives of all the others …mattered.

A candid observation …

The Comfortable and the Disinherited

I struggle with wondering if the races, white and black, can be reconciled in America.

If, or since I believe in an all-good and all-powerful God, I have to believe that it is possible. And …since I believe in crazy faith, I have to believe again that it’s possible.

But the rift between “the comfortable” and the “disinherited” is a big one…and it has been there from the beginning of our history. “The comfortable” seem to think that the cries of “the disinherited” are a lot of noise. “The comfortable” will say that since there is a black man in the White House, then all is well. “The disinherited” ought to be quiet.

But the fact is that “the comfortable” really do not know or care about “the disinherited.” Though many people, black and white, are “pro-life,” “the comfortable” have no idea of what life is for “the disinherited.”  They don’t know about the horrible schools that the children of “the disinherited” have to attend, while they know that “the comfortable” have wonderful, well-equipped schools just minutes away. They don’t know, or don’t care, that even now, urban schools often have the worst teachers, the most outdated books, few if any computers, no air conditioning and/or inadequate heat. They don’t know about how the children of “the disinherited” often do not have coats and gloves and hats and boots in the winter …or if they do know, they don’t care. They do not know, and therefore cannot care, what these horrific schools must do to the psyches of the children of “the disinherited.” In one of Jonathan Kozol’s books, Savage Inequalities,” he writes about a public school in East St. Louis where sewage overflowed into the kitchen. “The school had to be shut down because sewage flowed into the basement, through the floor, then up into the kitchen and into the students’ bathrooms. The backup occurred in food preparation areas.” (p. 23)  Can you imagine what that smelled like? Can you imagine the horror the children of “the disinherited felt? Too many of “the comfortable” cannot. They blame the parents for the plight of the children and they turn their heads.

They don’t know about the concerted efforts today to dismantle the voting rights of “the disinherited,” trying to make it as impossible now for black people to vote as it was 50 years ago, or worse. They do not care that the legacy of law enforcement in this country is that far too often, law enforcement officers took part in lynching, and that the “justice system” was never just for black people. They do not know that for “the disinherited,” there was no such thing as a jury of one’s peers, because black people have been historically tried by all-white juries. They don’t know about the traveling electric chair that was used to execute people in the early 20th century, or about how when one young black man’s execution didn’t work, (there was something wrong with the chair), they put him back in jail and then took him back to that chair after the kinks were worked out. So much for not believing in “cruel and unusual punishment.” (Read The Execution of Willie Francis by Gilbert King)

They don’t know how America’s legacy of slavery and white supremacy has absolutely tarnished the quality of life for black people, even in this, the 21s century. “The comfortable” don’t know about being kept from getting a job until “every white person has a job.” (Read about it in Timothy Egan’s book, The Worst Hard Time). “The comfortable” don’t know about being afraid to look at white people or being accused of doing the same. They do not know about being afraid to change lanes today without using one’s signal (Sandra Bland) or to be stopped for a routine traffic stop (Sam Dubose) or being afraid to carry a toy weapon in an open carry state (John Crawford). They do not know what it is like to know that all an officer has to say is, “I was in fear for my life” to be deemed justified in using lethal force against another human being who…most often …is one of those dang “disinherited.”

The ways of life of “the comfortable” and “the disinherited” are so very different. Can the chasm be crossed, so that “the comfortable” see the plight of “the disinherited?” And, if they see, can anything be done to “tenderize their hearts” so that the lives of “the disinherited” are less traumatic?

One of my friends told me that the term “white supremacy” is insulting. To use it, he said, was insulting. There is no such thing …Another one of my friends said there is no such thing as evil. I said that lynching was evil, and she disagreed. I think she gave me her reason, but I did not hear. I could not hear…

With that kind of separation between these two races can there be racial reconciliation?

If I believe in a good God, and if I believe in crazy faith, then my answer has to be “yes.”

But I am struggling on this one. “The comfortable” will not willingly look and see “the disinherited,” not without something major and traumatic happening to them.

A candid observation …

Policing in America

A friend of mine caught me off guard when he said, out of the blue, “Police here are radicalized.”

It’s not like this guy is a bleeding heart liberal. He’s a middle of the road, sometimes Conservative, sometimes Liberal guy who used to be a police officer. He has been in the military …and he has a lot of soldier and police officer friends. “A lot of those guys are really nice guys,” he said quietly, “but there are a few who have been radicalized.”

I had to ask him what he meant. When we hear the word “radicalized,” we usually think of people who have been snagged by ISIS and trained to be brutes. Radicalized Muslim extremists, if the news is to be believed, are the ones to be aware and be afraid of. They are the ones who bomb buildings and cut peoples’ heads off. They are the ones who do suicide bombings. The way they are described, they are pure evil, worthy of being extinguished from the face of the earth, or at least from the face of America. So, the term “radicalized” caught me off guard.

“What I mean is, these guys have been taught to hate black people. They have been taught that black people are bad and are to be feared. They grow up with that and then they become police officers. It’s perfect for them. They have the law behind them; they are free to kill “the bad guys,” who, in their minds, are often black. They are like the modern KKK. They don’t wear white sheets anymore. They wear blue uniforms and have badges and they carry guns. They are as free to kill black people as was the KKK. Trust and believe me on this one.”

His tone was somber. He was angry but he was serious in his analysis of what is going on in America today. He knows well the line that police say, “I was in fear for my life.” “That’s all you have to say,” he said, “and you are pretty much justified in using your weapon.”

I had to look up the word “radicalization.” According to the National Counterterrorism Center, radicalization is “is a process by which an individual or group comes to adopt increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations that (1) reject or undermine the status quo or (2) reject and/or undermine contemporary ideas and expressions of freedom of choice.”

Is that what happens to people who are taught to hate?

We know that in America, hatred has been the seedbed of white supremacy. In spite of belief in God and claims to be Christian, it has been hatred, not agape love, mercy and forgiveness that have been the central beliefs of those who have killed, maimed and discriminated against people because of their color. That is indisputable.

So, are many white children in America radicalized from an early age?  And is radicalization of a white American who grows up to shoot, lynch, beat and discriminate against people of color any less a threat than is a religious extremist who is involved in ISIS? Is ISIS any better than the Ku Klux Klan?

There is yet another piece to this police issue in America that is problematic. We all remember last year in Ferguson when the people were in the streets, mostly peaceful, and the police came out in full military gear. It was like a war; the police were the “good guys” and the black people protesting the death of Michael Brown and so many other issues, were “the enemy.” It was hard to watch, but it was clear that the police were positioning themselves as those in power. There was nothing the people on the streets could do to beat the tanks and military-style weapons. Ferguson was a war zone …and the police …had the power.

This power issue seems to be at the heart of racism, white supremacy and police brutality. Not all that long ago, it was the power that white people had that made black people afraid and caused the Great Migration. White people knew they could accuse a black person of something and there didn’t even have to be a trial. A black person could be and was killed often on the back of an unsubstantiated accusation. Black people wanting to vote could lose their jobs, their homes …and their lives. It was fear that drove black people ..fear caused by the unrestrained and unharnessed power of white people.

Any challenge to that power – then and now – is deadly. When one looks at the tapes of what happened to Sandra Bland and Sam Dubose, it is clear that it is not only racism that is operating, but a brute show of power. Both officers in both those incidents became incensed when their authority was challenged. Challenging the authority and power of white people has always been dangerous for black people in this nation. Police, it seems, (and this is not just white officers, but officers in general), have been seduced by the power they have, and they do not tolerate being challenged. For many officers, it appears that  the show of power extends into their private lives; study show that officers are two to four times more likely to engage in domestic abuse than the general population.  (http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/09/police-officers-who-hit-their-wives-or-girlfriends/380329/).

It feels like we need to understand the landscape of the issue with which we are dealing if we want to effect change as concerns policing in America. Many of these officers are nice people, that is for sure …but many others are brutes …or thugs ….who do violent things to people – people of color or their own families – because they can. It seems that this systemic violence which is a part of policing in America needs to be studied carefully so that something can be done to stop the tragic deaths of people who have done nothing or, at best, committed some minor traffic infraction.

Just a thought …and a candid observation.

Racism is a Sin

It has always been puzzling to me how any person could be a Christian and be racist. Actually, my puzzlement has extended as I have watched Christians be not only racist but sexist, homophobic and antagonistic toward the poor.

If one considers the Doctrine of Sin, and consider that the most commonly used word for sin is “hamartia,” which means “missing the mark,” and juxtaposes that definition against the “Great Commandment,” which is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind,” it is clear there is a disconnect in what we say believe and how we act. As Jesus gives the first and greatest commandment, he adds  on yet another piece of what is required of us:  ” …Love your neighbor as yourself”  If we consider these commands, and as Christians consider that we are bound to obey them, it becomes clear that racism, spawned by white supremacy, is a sin.

The existence of racism amongst Christians is puzzling to me because there is but one Bible, and one set of words and directions that Jesus gave, unless there is a secret text that I have not seen. When I was a child and saw what white people were doing to black people in Alabama, my mother quickly told me that no matter what I felt about what was going on, that I was to love “even the bad people.” (I said that the white people who were setting dogs on black people were bad.) My mother was adamant: to be a Christian meant you had to be willing to do the hard work of being a Christian, and loving “the bad people” was one of those tasks.

Yet, it has seemed that many white Christians have had no problem in hating black people – for no other reason than they (we) are black. And, while Jesus forthrightly commanded us to take care of “the least of these,” many white Christians seem to turn as far away from the poor and dispossessed as possible; they have no umbrage in charging them more money for lesser quality goods; they are pro-life except that their definition of :”life” seems to end once a fetus is born; the despair of poor children, especially those who are black and brown, is not an issue for them. They seem comfortable and indeed appear self-righteous as they put down African-Americans with abandon. Some of the most rabid racists in our nation have been devout Christians.

I am confused – about how people can be like that.

But I am not confused about my belief that racism is a sin because those who adhere to it are clearly “missing the mark” that God gives in the Hebrew scriptures, and then Jesus repeats in the New Testament: we who call ourselves Christian are to love God with everything we’ve got …and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

It is not happening.

In a nation which calls itself “Christian,” it is not happening.

In addition to the formal doctrine of sin quoted above, I also learned that sin is anything that separates us from God. Surely, the mistreatment of human beings, all of whom God created, does that. We are not only separated from God, but we are rebelling against the way we were created. All of God’s people were created, are wired, to love and to have compassion. I know that because when catastrophes happen, that part which is in all of us kicks in and we move to help people in despair. We are wired to take care of each other. But we rebel against our natural inclinations and the result is that we have the audacity to hate and to oppress those whom God created.

To add insult to injury, those whom God made human …we dehumanize. It helps us stay in our sin. Too many white people have dehumanized black people. The dehumanization was written into our founding documents, and we have built on that. The only reason, the only way a police officer could jump out of a car and within seconds shoot a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun down is because that officer – or officers – did not see that child as a human being. He was just a black object, and in our society, white supremacy teaches us that black objects have no value.

Some would say, “Wait! I’m not racist!” But racism is a part of the American normal. Racism is deeper than mere bigotry and/or prejudice. Racism carries with it the power to oppress people and control them, and that power rests, most often, in economics. It is racism, not bigotry, which is keeping black and brown people in economic servitude and forcing them to live in despair. White supremacists have the money and the position to keep people where they want them. They want black people in prison; it is a form of social control. That is at least one of the reasons that so many black people are in prison for non-violent drug offenses, while white people who have done the same or worse than those incarcerated continue to run free.

The arrogance with which racists move, act and think has to be a barrier between them and God. If there is but one God, and that God demands that we love each other…and racists/white supremacists refuse to do so …then there is between them and God a barrier …which means they are separated from God …which means they are in sin.

If racism is a sin, which I believe it is, then America is living in a state of sin. America’s racism exists on the mainland but has been one of the components of American exceptionalism as well, making white Americans think they have the right to oppress and overtake people of other races in other countries as well. Racism is a sin and it is a disease which spreads; American racism has left spores of contamination all over the world.

If we as Christians believe that Jesus is coming back, that there will be a rapture, and that some of us will be “left behind” while others are allowed into heaven, what kind of “Second Coming” should we expect? Will God forgive the racists, the homophobes, the sexists? Do white racists rejoice on Resurrection Sunday because they are happy Jesus died to save us and that even those who practice the most horrific racism …will ultimately be saved?

Rev. C.T. Vivian, one of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement, said in an interview I had with him (I am writing his biography) that the ministers of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) worked to “redeem America’s soul.” It was a powerful statement that still gives me pause.

I don’t think America’s soul is yet saved. Racism is still too potent, too much front and center, carried on by Christians.

Something is very wrong with this picture.

A candid observation ….