Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Christian Hope In A World of Injustice

In Minneapolis, protests continue over the police killing of Jamar Clark, an unarmed Black man police claim scuffled with officers but some witnesses claim was handcuffed when shot.

In Cleveland, citizens await the near-certain exoneration of Officer Timothy Loehmann, the murderer of Tamir Rice. Having upheld the principle that police officers are entitled to different grand jury proceedings than ordinary citizens, prosecutor Timothy McGinty's sympathies are clear.

In Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, the officer who killed Corey Jones after Jones' car broke down on the highway has been fired. His arrest is far from assured.

In Wilmington, Delaware, there are still few answers for why police shot and killed Jeremy McDole, a wheelchair-bound man in clear distress. The video looks damning. It is not known whether a serious investigation is being conducted.

In Chicago, people are on edge as they prepare for today's release of the video of the shooting of seventeen-year old boy Laquan McDonald. Officer Jesse Van Dyke shot him sixteen times. The city paid out a five million dollar settlement as part of its efforts to keep the video under wraps. Now a judge has ordered the city to release the video. In a remarkable "coincidence", Van Dyke will reportedly be charged with first degree murder today.

I'll stop there.

What are we supposed to do with this information? I'm not sure.

I've been thinking about the popular American notion of "the rule of law." We've all heard this. America is a nation of laws, we're told. We're governed not by the whims of people but by the dictates of law. This ideal is important, and it has made a material difference in the lives of millions of Americans. It has given us a standard to which we can appeal. It is also, in a more basic sense, an obvious fiction. From the founding of the country on stolen land and labor to Prosecutor McGinty's depraved behavior, we've operated by the dictates of cold and cruel power.

And it's worse than that. For injustice often comes not through flouting the law, but enforcing it. What are we to do when the law is not designed to do justice?  Prosecutor McGinty is not doing anything illegal. Nor did officer Loehmann when he shot Tamir, our legal system will soon declare. What are Black Americans to do when the law has never, and does not now, contain the protections necessary for full citizenship in a racist society?

One of the oddest characteristics of much American Christianity is that we don't think of our country as a place where oppression occurs in any serious way. We read in the Bible about oppression and injustice but we don't make the obvious connection. This is in part because so many American Christians are nationalists at heart. Nationalism is not a Christian value, but many have made it an integral part of their faith, bolstered by the false and offensive myth that this country is or ever was a Christian nation. Our failure to apply Christian notions of oppression to an American context also has a lot to do with our Whiteness. But many Christians are so invested in it they don't even know it's important to them. They just think it's "Christianity."

I've been thinking a lot about Tamir. We already know how this is going to go. The grand jury will decline to recommend charges. If by some miracle they do favor a lesser charge, he will not be convicted at trial. This is not fatalism. Remember, America is a place of oppression. I've been wondering what Tamir might have been thinking as he bled out on the ground. Did he wonder why no one was helping him? Was he conscious of his sister's screams as the officers tacked and handcuffed her? Was he hoping he would see his mom again?

And I've been thinking a lot about my childhood. To put it more precisely, I've been thinking not only about Tamir's murder, but about the likelihood that it was always going to be him and not me.

Tamir had a toy gun. The orange tip was off. From a distance, it looked real. I've been thinking about the toy gun my brother had. It shot little plastic BBs. It didn't have an orange tip in the first place. It was all black. Sleek. Looked like the real thing.

Tamir seemed to point his toy gun at some passersby.  I've been thinking about all the times my brothers and I must have pointed that gun at each other even though we were told not to. It was so cool. Looked so real. It was a fun game to play.

A man called the police about Tamir, but noted that the gun was probably fake. Tamir was in a public park across the street from his house. It was his front yard. I've been thinking about all the crazy stuff we did in our "public park," our expansive yard in rural Western Maryland. There was no one there to see us. No one called 911.

It's not hard to understand why Tamir, a Black boy, played with his toy gun in a public park in a decaying rust belt city with an oppressive police force while I, a White boy, played with mine in a bucolic rural setting where police were unknown. But people don't want to understand.

I know many people will seek to justify Tamir's murder, or at least soften the blow by noting, like the experts' reports, that the shooting was "lawful." As if what is legal has a good track record in American history. For Christians, such reasoning is an abdication of our responsibility. This is another oddity of American Christianity: many of us think we can have conventional White American opinions about racial issues and be faithful to Christ at the same time. We're deluding ourselves.

I've also been thinking back to the day a jury acquitted George Zimmerman. I remember how people defended him. Some of us, a little less entranced by racist tropes and pro-gun mania, had always regarded Zimmerman's poor character with relative certainty, a judgment that has been borne out in his subsequent behavior. Though I had not expected a conviction, the weight of the acquittal hit me with unexpected force. And I remember it very well, because I had what I guess I would describe as a nearly mystical experience. I did not feel self-righteous, looking down my nose in anger at the jury members or the people defending Zimmerman. I just felt an incredible sense of grief, a grief that encompassed not only everything outside me but everything within me as well. In other words, I lamented my own injustice. Yet at the same time, I felt a bizarre sense of closeness to God, as though the sadness I felt was a taste of what he feels in every moment. It was as though God himself pulled up a chair and said, "Here, Jesse, let me show you something."

I know this all sounds incredibly odd to those of you who have different beliefs. But there it is. And it brings me to what I suppose is my final point: Christian hope. What are we to do with the injustices above? One popular answer, masquerading as the Christian answer, is to emphasize the positive. Keep a good attitude! Stay positive! Look at that police officer hugging that cute child! That's often little more than an attempt to change the subject. Christian hope is something else. It allows us to face injustice without looking away. It allows us to fight it without despairing. And it allows us, as I knew for at least one night in my life, to stand against injustice without believing we're really any better than the evil we face.

There's a psalm that says, "I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." That's not an opiate. That's strength to stay in the fight. Because we will see his goodness one day. American lawlessness will not have the last word. No American court will give the last word on the value of Tamir's life. 

Christian hope is the understanding that there is a place for the wrath of God, however archaic that concept sounds in our culture. We can fight injustice without giving in to vengeance and violence because we know that God will repay. I know this sounds naive to many who have different beliefs, and even to many Christians it is just an abstraction. But ask some Black Christians about it. They tend to know more than we do about Christian hope. 

The 59th chapter of Isaiah's prophecy presents an image of Yahweh as a warrior-God preparing for battle against injustice. I've shared it many times in the past few years, but it's worth sharing again.

The Lord looked and was displeased
    that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no one,
    he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm achieved salvation for him,
    and his own righteousness sustained him.
He put on righteousness as his breastplate,
    and the helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on the garments of vengeance
    and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.
According to what they have done,
    so will he repay
wrath to his enemies
    and retribution to his foes;
    he will repay the islands their due.
From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord,
    and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory.
For he will come like a pent-up flood
    that the breath of the Lord drives along.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Don't Be A Clueless White Person

Before those of us who are White form any opinions about racial matters, it is useful to be aware of our majority status and our racial isolation. All of us are in the majority, and most of us are isolated, which is to say we spend most of our time in largely White contexts. Combining majority status with racial isolation is a recipe for ignorance and lack of empathy. The best solution is to simply change the very structures of our life so that we are less isolated. But many of us do not have the opportunity to do that in a substantial way. The good news is that there is a shortcut that should help us at least a little bit. So, I have a list of questions below to help us think about what it actually means to be a racial majority. If you're White, have opinions about race, but have not seriously meditated on these questions and others like them, you're in dangerous waters.

How often have you been the only White person in a room? How did you feel? Do you believe this affected your behavior or the behavior of others? (The latter two questions can be asked of each of the questions below).

How often have you been the only White person in a classroom?

How often have you been the only White person on your dorm floor?

How often have you received an important grade from a professor of a different race?

How often have you been the only White person in a place of worship?

How often have you received religious instruction from a person of a different race?

How often have you been the only White person in the room during a job interview?

How often have you received an employment evaluation from a supervisor of a different race?

How often has your loan application been decided by a person of a different race?

How often have you rented an apartment from a person of a different race?

How often have you sent your children to a school where most students were of a different race?

How often does the color of your skin make you stand out in your own neighborhood?

How often have most of the police officers in your town been of a different race?

How often have you been the only White person in a store?

How often have you been the only White person on a sports team?

You can think of your own questions too. Obviously, the point here is to think about what it's like to be a racial minority. But we're not done! Indeed, I haven't yet mentioned the most important part of this exercise. Consider this: even if you, as a White individual, leave your White world and answer "lots of times!" to all these questions, your experience will still be distinct from people of color. You'll still be living in a society where power operates along a racial hierarchy and stereotypes run in specific directions. Let me show you what I mean.

Alicia and I have been in many situations where our race really stood out. It can be uncomfortable. It can change the way others treat you. It can even change very concrete outcomes like employment and housing. But here's the thing: for Alicia and I, the stereotypes and assumptions are almost universally positive. People have assumed I am more competent than I am. They've assumed I'm wealthier than I am. They've assumed I'm not a criminal even when I matched the description! They've treated me with extra deference. All because of my race. Heck, our race appears to have been a factor in allowing us to secure our current house on favorable terms. For people of color, these assumptions work in exactly the opposite direction. They're alone in the room (literally or metaphorically) and instead of the positive stereotypes that have worked in my favor, they are often assumed to be less competent, poorer, criminal.

So don't be a clueless White person! Think about this. We shouldn't feel ashamed to admit that we are isolated and ignorant. Instead, we should be a lot more embarrassed to have opinions about things we haven't actually thought about.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Colorblind Racism

Last night at the University of Missouri someone vandalized the Black Culture Center sign, spray-painting over the word Black.
It's important to think about the nature of this vandalism. There are no epithets or crude expressions here. Instead, there is simply negation of identity. This is vandalism motivated by colorblindness.

For many of us, "colorblindness" conjures inspiring visions of a world where the inherent worth and dignity of all people is affirmed and there is no racial hierarchy or discrimination. I like that vision as much as the next person, but if you think that is how colorblindness has actually been operating in the United States, you haven't been paying attention.

In practice, colorblindness is the dominant form of White racism in the contemporary United States. This is a different colorblindness than the vision sketched above, though it appropriates its language. Proponents of colorblindness fail to recognize their own Whiteness and the White spaces they inhabit. They falsely label these identities and spaces as non-racial. In effect, they demand that others adapt to White norms, values, and practices. Instead of working hard to undo racial hierarchies, they unilaterally declare their irrelevance. The effect is not to dismantle racism, but to hide it. Like the vandal, proponents of colorblindness then take offense when Black people respond to this oppression by seeking to make space for themselves and speak of race in explicit terms.

If you would never dream of vandalizing a sign, but you think we should all be quiet about race, you're part of the problem.

If you would never dream of vandalizing a sign, but you think your responsibility is simply to be kind in your interpersonal relationships, you're part of the problem.

If you would never dream of vandalizing a sign, but you don't support legal and institutional reforms, you're part of the problem.

If you would never dream of vandalizing a sign, but you don't understand that White Americans gain specific advantages because of their race, you're part of the problem.

If you would never dream of vandalizing a sign, but you insist on forgetting American history, you're part of the problem.

If you would never dream of vandalizing a sign, but refuse to let the experiences of others shape your perceptions, you're part of the problem.

If you would never dream of vandalizing a sign, but you're a Christian who thinks your faith teaches you to be colorblind, you're part of the problem.

We must be willing to examine not only the superficial rhetoric of colorblindness that sounds so nice, but the actual purposes for which it is deployed. Colorblindness negates identities, silences protest, and affirms the legitimacy of an unjust society.