The decision not to indict the officer who shot and killed the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown has had the predictable effect: Those who identify with Michael and his family are hurt and angry, let down once again by a country that promises they were created equal. Many of those whose reality is very different from Michael’s, who live in That Other America where the police are always your friends, scratch their heads and wonder why this has to be about race. Why can’t we just evaluate this situation by the evidence, every case on its own merits?
If you’ve ever had a fight with a partner in a long-term relationship, you know that there are no “isolated incidents.” There is no way to not have a history with someone you have a history with, and no fight is only about the occasion that immediately precipitated it. It’s always about every other time that issue has come up between you.
Race relations in America are the same way. The broadcast media do us no favors here, because airtime is costly and what gets reported are the events, not the long and complex history of insecurity, injustice and frustration that led up to the events. The resulting impression is that “those people” are chronic complainers, spoiling for a fight. They drag out the race card when cooler heads would realize it’s a matter of evidence, or police procedure, or the law. Or anything but race.
The thing is, everything is about race. Race affects everything in our lives: the neighborhoods we live in, our friendships and intimate relationships, the quality and quantity of education we get, how we vote and where we worship. More, race profoundly shapes the way we see the world, since the view naturally depends on where we’re looking from. Black and brown people in this country have an especially keen eye for racism; they have to, since life forces us all to be vigilant against things that are likely to cause us harm.
White people who claim to be color blind have a point: they are indeed blind to the way our color also shapes our life experience and resulting view of the world. Even some of the educated among us still have the capacity to believe in a coin with only one side: a world in which racism causes disadvantage to people of color, but does not bring advantages to Whites. If we gave it any real thought, we’d see our error. But we, too, are vigilant against things that are likely to hurt us, and copping to racial privilege hurts.
At least, it hurts until you do a couple of things that are pretty simple, if not necessarily easy. First, just admit it: Lay down your defenses, and admit that we live in a world that gives good things to us that it denies to our neighbors, simply because we are White. We didn’t set this system in motion, so nobody really expects us to take the blame for it.
But we do need to take responsibility for what we do about it, and this is the second piece. Christians, I’m talking to you. Re-read Matthew 25. Your Savior is saying, “I was denied justice, I mourned for those I loved who were denied justice, and you blew me off.” If you cannot see Christ in Michael Brown and in those protesting his death, you are not getting it. By “it,” I mean the Christian faith.
Yes, we need to see Christ in the face of Darren Wilson, too, and in everyone who didn’t bring him to court. But love and respect basically boil down to taking people seriously, and any parent could tell you that does not include permitting people to do evil and avoid the consequences.
The great conflict studies scholar Johan Galtung spoke of a “violence triangle,” in which direct (physical) violence is only the most obvious form. There’s also structural violence, where social arrangements prevent people from realizing their full potential, and cultural violence, where stereotypes demean and diminish the Other. All three angles are mutually reinforcing, so when we “end violence” without taking meaningful steps to create peace, we are kidding ourselves, taking a breather while we gear up for the next round.
That’s why nothing that happened in Ferguson should surprise us. And the next Ferguson and the next will surely come if we do nothing to address the structural and cultural violence our society levels against black and brown people every day God sends. A white friend asks, “What do I do with my grief?” I believe the answer is to take responsibility for addressing some piece of the triangle, in any way you can.
If we’re not willing to do this, my brothers and sisters, there will surely come a time when we will have to explain to a righteous Judge why we failed to recognize our own God.