The sad irony is that, by virtue of the many friends and allies I have who are white and who understand the racial injustice involved in the whole Ferguson saga, that this article will probably be shared a lot — but probably not by the people who need to read it most.
But I’m writing anyway, in part because I’ve received valuable confirmation, in the form of several friends and allies confiding that my articles on the subject have helped them to initiate conversations with friends and family members who don’t get what all the controversy is about. To these folks — and you know who you are — I say wholeheartedly: thank you. I write with the same conviction that many tent-revival evangelists had back in the day: if it makes a difference, even for just one, then it’ll be worth it.
In the response to the many articles about the travesty that unfolded in Ferguson, I’ve seen certain trends in the comment sections. Particularly in the ones written by and toward evangelicals, like this excellent guest-blog series facilitated by Ed Stetzer on Christianity Today, the sentiments of (presumably white) dissenters usually include one or several of three common responses aimed at African-Americans or other people of color (paraphrased, but only slightly):
- Regarding the “militarized” police response: with all the rioting and looting, what did they expect would happen?
- Regarding protest: why don’t they protest the black-on-black violence in Chicago every weekend?
- Regarding the shooting itself: We shouldn’t pass judgment if we don’t know all the facts.
These ideas are as ubiquitous as they are problematic. And they all stem from three problems that, by and large, are preventing more black and white people from establishing common ground in the wake of this tragedy.
This common ground thing is key, by the way. Because if we can’t establish common ground, we can’t move forward in any meaningful way, in our local communities, or as a nation — which, believe it or not — is what I think we all want. I know that there are plenty of white people who would rather spend their time thinking and talking about other subjects, and to that sentiment I give a hearty amen, ’cause this isn’t fun for me, either. If I had the power to broker a deal that would ensure silence on this topic, it would read something like this: I promise to stop making noise about black men being profiled, terrorized, assaulted and killed by police, if you’ll stop local police forces from profiling, terrorizing, assaulting and killing black men.
But I digress.
The three things that these ill-informed comments have in common are factual ignorance, emotional distance, and fear.
It is emotional distance that causes someone to selectively condemn the lawbreaking of outraged protesters, while de-emphasizing the violent shooting that precipitated the outrage in the first place. It’s also a shameful form of victim-blaming, particularly unbecoming from people who profess to follow a man who once chastised the religious community of his day for straining out a gnat in order to swallow a whole camel.
It’s factual ignorance that assumes that black people are too consumed with blaming white police forces to speak up about our own cultural ills that contribute to violence in our communities, and emotional distance that prevents someone who’s already made that assumption from even bothering to check its veracity. Remember ignorance is not just a lack of knowledge, but a lack of willful pursuit of the truth. It’s not just not knowing what’s true, but not caring enough to try to find out.
(PRO-TIP: We’re not talking about a journalistic exposé here, just ask an actual black person. No, really. Say the words, “so… do black people care when their young men shoot each other, or what?” and then see what happens. Or, if you’re really lazy, just watch this Daily Show segment.)
The “knowing the facts” thing I sort of understand, because in general sense, it’s good to resist rushing to judgment before knowing all the facts. But to anyone — particularly any white person — who trotted that one out in the immediate aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing, let me ask a few hypothetical questions:
- Do you think smoking cigarettes are healthy? What about e-cigs and vaping? What about marijuana?
- Do you watch professional or college football? What about the issue of student-athlete compensation? Or what about the NFL’s problem with domestic violence? Or what about new developments in brain injuries?
With complicated issues like these, one never has ALL the facts. New stories, new issues, new developments pop up all the time. But what most people do is take their knowledge of the established facts, and to the best of their ability, draw conclusions about the issues and then conduct themselves in accordance with those conclusions.
Here’s what I don’t see people do. I’ve never seen someone standing in an enclosed indoor space, with secondhand smoke wafting in their immediate vicinity, decide not to do anything about it because they’re still waiting for all the facts about lung cancer or other respiratory illnesses to come in. I’ve also never seen anyone at an informal gathering witness a football game on the TV, and decide to avoid deciding about whether to watch because they don’t have enough facts about CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
No, they put up with it, or they don’t. They decide to watch it, or they decide not to watch it.
And this is what we do about things that kill people slowly.
But when it comes to the violent death of another young black man at the hands of police who are ostensibly committed to protect and serve, all the sudden we need to have all the facts before we’re comfortable drawing any conclusions.
Here are the facts that we have, most of which were widely available within the first few days of the shooting that sparked the demonstrations.
- Michael Brown was black.
- Officer Darren Wilson is white.
- Michael Brown was unarmed.
- Darren Wilson was armed with a state-sanctioned firearm.
- All five eyewitnesses to the scene gave statements supporting the narrative that Michael Brown was shot while either retreating or surrendering.
- The only account that depicts Brown as behaving aggressively immediately prior to the second round of shots fired came from the local law enforcement representative.
- Brown’s body was left on the ground for several hours, and in the immediate aftermath of his death, his parents were denied any meaningful information about how or why it happened.
- Officer Wilson is alive and can, if he so chooses, testify in court about his conduct on that fateful afternoon.
- Michael Brown is dead, and therefore, cannot.
And those are just the facts about the shooting itself. There are many more facts regarding lack of diversity in the Ferguson police force and city council, the amount of money that Ferguson derives from fines related to low-level offenses, the disproportionate impact those fines have on the African-American community, et cetera.
And guess what, folks? I don’t have some special search engine only accessible to journalists and law enforcement types. My Google searches work the same as anyone else’s. So why is it that, with all these available facts, there are still white people who are unwilling to draw any conclusions about this tragedy?
My guess? It’s fear.
Fear of what, exactly? I dunno… being wrong? Fear of dealing with reality? Fear of retribution? Fear of black people saying “I told you so?” Fear of recognition that, in light of this information, it might be prudent to go back and re-evaluate situations and decisions and scenarios that you were convinced were one thing but now might be something else entirely?
These fears are understandable, but they are impeding our collective ability to see this tragedy for what it is — another example of racialized hostility by law enforcement against black men.
This is tragic in its own right, and it needs to change.
And if I all I was doing was writing as a concerned American citizen, I would wrap this up in about thirty more words, and we’d be done here.
But I’m not just an American citizen. I am also a Christian.
And when I read my Bible, I read about an upside-down kingdom that supersedes the dominant empire. This is a kingdom where there is good news for the poor, for the broken, for the cast aside, the forgotten.
But if you’re part of the dominant culture in America, understanding that can be difficult, problematic even.
The fact is, since Adam and Eve, we’ve all been born into sin. We all have a level of brokenness that is an indelible part of the human experience. These areas of brokenness help shape our view of ourselves and others around us. And it’s part of human nature for people who share many of the same areas of brokenness to group together and share common meals, foods, living spaces, and adopt common rules. These groups are called communities, and these activities are what culture is made of.
But our cultural perspectives create blind spots. We all have them. This is why two people can look at the same incident, armed with the same facts, and come to totally different conclusions. As we experience things, we use the facts to create stories in our minds, subconsciously filling in the gaps with the assumptions that come from our cultural values. Sometimes these stories are accurate, and sometimes they’re not.
As a middle-class African-American straight male, I have blind spots in my understanding about what drives feminists, GLBT activists, or certain Tea Party or open-carry activists. All of them are pretty separate from me, have very different identities than the one I have.
But what I try not to do is make sweeping generalizations or grand pronouncements about what “those people” oughta be doing, based solely on my limited perspective. To the best that I can, I listen, I read, I watch, I talk to people… and then, after all of that, I begin to draw conclusions.
Now, there’s a practical reason for that — because I live in Portland, where plenty of feminist, gay, lesbian and transgender people live and work around me every day (some of whom might actually vote Republican and/or be gun enthusiasts), and I try to abide by Paul’s admonition to the Roman church to generally live at peace with people when it’s possible to do so. I don’t go around picking fights with people just because I can. Unless you’re a talk radio host, being an arrogant blowhard is usually bad for business, and mine is no exception.
But there’s also a personal reason — I actually know personally several people who identify with those groups, and I respect the fact that their lives are different than mine in some really important ways. It doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree with them or stay in lockstep regarding all of their political or personal stances. But it means that I behave differently because my relationships have made me personally invested in the issue.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating — one of the insidious features of white privilege is that it’s usually invisible. No one comes to the house of white parents and says, “okay, here are the list of benefits you can expect your white baby to have.” There’s no card, no way to manually re-up your membership.
But the fact is, with few exceptions, white people usually have the option of dealing with their whiteness, when they want to, on their own terms. They can choose to engage the topic of race, or they can choose to avoid it altogether. It’s not something that is usually thrust onto them without their active consent.
But this Ferguson thing is different. Seeing so many police and public servants huddle up, eliminate or minimize accountability for their actions, double down on their denial, and make one bad decision after another has thrust a whole bunch of issues into public discussion, and at the top of the list is an albatross labeled “RACIAL PREJUDICE.” It’s gotten so serious, even Fox News’ Megyn Kelly is starting to recognize white privilege.
So if you’re white, and you’re emotionally distant to the issues, or factually ignorant of them, or if you’re afraid to broach the topic because you don’t want to offend someone or be called a racist, or because you’re generally intimidated when people talk about race, then I have a challenge for you.
Think about how uncomfortable it is for you to talk about it, and then try to imagine what it might feel like having to live it out, every single day. Better yet, don’t just imagine it — talk to someone who does live it out. Ask how they feel. Don’t just cast judgment from the sidelines, get emotionally invested. Don’t just parrot what you hear other people say, but find out for yourself. Do it in person, and do it online.
After all, if Megyn Kelly can do it, you can too.
And when you do it, don’t just beeline for the person who thinks just like you and already has all your same cultural values. Find someone who you respect, who’s different than you, but who makes you a little nervous. Practice listening without getting defensive, and then ask them how this Ferguson thing has impacted them. Ask them what they think. Be willing to ask hard questions, and prepare yourself to receive their answers. Let their words pierce your veil of ignorance like a thousand bullet casings.
And if you need a handy gimmick for social media, call it the Truth-Bucket Challenge.
I nominate you.