Tag: Michael Brown

Macro and Micro-Racism

2014-12-01-16448702mmmainEver since the grand jury in Ferguson, MO failed to indict officer Darrell Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, I’ve been wondering what to say about all of this.  That desire to say something grew this week when another grand jury failed to indict the policeman involved in the death of Eric Garner.

Being an African American male, which seems to be the target of cops these days, I wanted to say something.  I need to say something because this issue involved me.  Eric Garner was only two years younger than me.  That means that it’s not only young black men that can face brutality from police, it could be a middle aged black man like myself.

To put it more starkly, it could be me.  I could be stopped for speeding (as I have been every few years or so) and could face danger from someone that is supposed to keep order.

I’ve been wondering what the response should be to these incidents where black men are being gunned down by the police.  More specifically, I’m wondering what the church’s response should be.  Right now, the options being offered from the left and the right are not the best.

Let’s take what conservatives are saying first.  The response to these cases has been mixed.  Many conservatives tended to look at these issues from a “micro” view, meaning they look at each individual case to determine judgement.  So with the incident involving Michael Brown, they focused on the fact that Brown had stole cigarillos and was responding to Wilson in a way that made Wilson fear for his life.  In the Garner case, there is shared outrage but the reason is different.  Here is what Robert Tracinski said regarding that incident:

…one of the most insidious errors you can make is to turn each case into a symbol of “systemic racism” rather than an individual case to be judged on its own merits.

What did the facts show in the Staten Island case? They don’t show deliberate murder. The video of the police arrest of Eric Garner shows no evidence of malice or specific intent to harm Garner. Rather, it shows a callousness toward his obvious physical distress when the confrontation goes wrong. The killing is less malicious than officious. I mostly agree with Sean Davis, who argues that it was a reckless use of force that caused Garner’s death, which means that there is a good case for prosecuting the policeman responsible on charges of manslaughter.

Despite the damning video that brought the case to national attention, it is not totally cut and dried. The autopsy showed that Garner was already on the run from the grim reaper. The choking action (which may not technically be a “chokehold” but was, er, a hold that choked him) was found to be the primary cause of death, but Garner had major health problems, including asthma. So you could imagine a defense attorney making the case that this just happened to be an unfortunate situation in which a guy resisted arrest and was in such bad shape that he didn’t survive the altercation. There is a conceivable defense that the choking made no difference and Garner would have died anyway just from the stress of resisting arrest. But that’s a defense that ought to be made in court, not pre-emptively endorsed by a grand jury.

That’s why so many on the right have come down on a different side in this case than they did in Ferguson.

For many on the right, each case has to be argued by their own merits.  It makes no sense to look at some “macro” cause like systemic racism.  So, in the Garner case the issue at hand is that the police used excessive force, not racism.

I personally think there is much good to take from this.  The Brown case is different from the Garner case and that should be taken into account.

That said, this view tends to play down more macro-issues like racism to the extent that it’s made to appear that they don’t seem concerned with race or see it as a settled issue, a relic of the 1960s.

But ignoring that race might play a factor (at the very least a hidden factor) is telling a good chunk of the population (African Americans make up about 12% of the US population)  that has had to learn to fear the police that their concerns are silly.  It ignores that there are have been several incidents over the years where black men have faced harrassment from white police.  Here in Minnesota, a black man sitting in a downtown St. Paul skyway waiting for his son to finish school was harrassed and tased by St. Paul police for no apparent reason.

While I don’t think there is some conspiracy, it’s hard not to see a disturbing pattern taking shape.  What conservatives fail to see is that racism isn’t just a bunch of guys wearing bed sheets and standing around a flaming cross.  It can also be a silent bias that people are not even aware of.

If conservatives tend to focus on the micro to the exclusion of the macro, then liberals do the exact opposite.  They are rightly focused on the racism that takes place but sometimes miss the particulars.  They also tend to not really have a realistic way of solving our problems both near term and long term.

Tim Wise is a well-known anti-racism speaker.  In his most recent article he hits the problem (macro) but doesn’t really offer any solutions other than being angry.  Here’s a sample:

Nice people do not protest, angry people do; and right now, I’d trade every nice white person about whom Chris Rock was speaking for 100,000 angry ones. But not those who are angry at black folks or brown immigrants or taxes—we have more than enough of them. I mean 100,000 who are angry enough at a system of racial injustice to throw ourselves upon the gears of the machine, as Mario Savio once insisted. A hundred thousand angry enough to join with our brothers and sisters of color and say enough. A hundred thousand who are tired of silence, tired of collaboration, tired of nice, and ready for justice.

In short, and though I know it won’t strike some folks as particularly, well, nice, it really must be said: fuck nice. And the fact that there are many who would be more disturbed by my language here than by the death of black men at the hands of police, tells us all we need to know about the poison that is niceness, and about the dangerous souls who cling to that self-concept like a badge of honor. They have made clear by virtue of their silence what side they’re on; and that will not, cannot, be forgotten.

Wise has some good points.  But his angry prophet pose doesn’t always help.  Yes, white Americans are somewhat clueless at times about the plight of African Americans.  Sometimes you have to shout at people, but not all the time.  Sometimes yelling at people ends up turning people off instead of allowing them to listen.

Another problem with Wise and other liberals is that they too often are preaching to the choir.  So liberals, especially white liberals can pat themselves on the back, thankful they aren’t like those SOBs who are so blind to racial injustice.

Wise isn’t the only one doing this.  Susan Thistlewaite, the head of Chicago Theological Seminary, has a long piece repeating the problem of white privilege in America, but offers no solution either.  If conservatives can’t see a problem, liberals can’t see a solution.

America has a problem and doesn’t have a solution to racism.

I think the church has to offer an answer that is beyond the conservative and liberal offerings.  As Christians, we have to be committed to diversity and racial reconciliation.  But far too often in my own experience when the church tries to deal with racism, it ends up having blacks talking about being victims and white people being made to feel guilty.

I don’t have a grand theological solution.  What I do think is that during Jesus’ earthly ministry he talked with people.  He invited himself to different tables; tax collectors, religious folk and “sinners.”  I think the way to help at least break down some of the walls is by churches coming together in fellowship.  Maybe predominantly white and black churches could start worshipping together on occassion.

Churches could also focus on solvable solutions instead of dealing with the big macro issue of racism.  Churches should press for reform of local police departments and also pursue changes at the national level.

The church should be able to speak against the macro issue of racism and also work on the micro level for real solutions.

After the last 10 days we have seen that unfortunately we don’t live in a “post-racial society,” at least not yet.  But we can get there. As followers of Jesus we have to work and work on both a macro and a micro level so that one day we won’t hear anymore stories of white policemen harrassing and shooting black men.

We can solve this as long as we have God on our side.


Sermon: Make Me Wanna Holler

Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:2–4 and 3:17–19
First Sunday in Advent
November 30, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

10394468_10152874227258609_1259331830004991987_nMy dad was always concerned whenever I did something with one my white female friends. I never really understood what was the deal. I had no interest in dating them, just hanging out with them. I went to a Catholic high school in Michigan that was predominantly white and it so happened that a lot of the people I knew were white women.

A few years out of high school, I started to understand what Dad was getting at. My friend Cherie and I had both moved to Washington, DC she to go to graduate school and I to an internship and hopefully a future job. We had decided to drive the 12 hours from DC to Flint. Somewhere in Western Maryland was when the muffler decided to give out. We kept going until we crossed over into Pennsylvania to stop at a Chevy dealership to get the muffler replaced. We decided to get something to eat while we waited for the car. As Cherie and I were chatting and eating our lunch, a looked over to an elderly man who was looking at me. He had this scowl on his face like he was disgusted about something. It was then that I realized what my father was talking about. You see, having grown up as he did in Jim Crow Louisiana, he was aware of the dangers of a black man seen in public with a white woman. Now, this wasn’t Louisiana in the 1940s, it was Pennsylvania in the early 90s. I don’t think this man was planning on gathering his neighbors to do something to me. But that scowl reminded me that even though we have made advances in the civil rights, there were still lingering threads of a nightmarish past.

Click here to continue reading. To listen to the sermon podcast, please go here.

Ferguson and Everything After

image-453673840In the Summer of 1992, my parents and I went on vacation to Toronto and Niagara Falls.  On the day that we were on the Canadian side, we decided to drive over to Niagara Falls, NY to see the American Falls.  This meant crossing the border back into the United States.  As we cross the bridge spanning the two nations, we stopped at border crossing welcoming us back into the United States.  We ended up with a white border guard that decided to annoy us.  He asked questions in a tone that bothered us.  Dad was getting more and more agitated, having never been treated this way at the border before.  I was at the driver’s wheel and the guard had me get out of the car to show him what was in our trunk.  I was bothered and quite scared.  Of course there was nothing in the trunk other than things one would see in a car on vacation.  Once the guard was satisfied, he let us go on our way, but it took us a while to forget how we were treated by this man.

This was one of the few times I felt harassed by the police.  It was hard not to conclude that the rough treatment we got was because we were African American.

It’s been almost two weeks since Michael Brown was shot dead by a policeman named Darren Wilson in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.  The death of a young African American by a white policeman is bound to set of a fury of feelings on race in America and the events that happened on August 9 have not disappointed us.  As I said in a recent post, there seems to be a lot of similarities to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman controversy that took place in 2012.  As I said back then, it’s understandable that African Americans would feel this situation deeply-reminding us of some of our past encounters with white Americans.

This situation could be a time to really have that so-called conversation on race.  But like it was two years ago, everyone seems willing to talk, but no seems willing to listen.

First things first: while there is much to be gained talking about how African American men are immediately seen as threats, or about how law enforcement look at African Americans or about how suburban police forces feel the need to ape the US Army, it’s dangerous to hold Darren Wilson up as public enemy number one.  There is much to talk about, but the actual facts of the case still remain murky.  Maybe Wilson shot Brown in cold blood.  Maybe he shot his gun in the fog of war.  Was Brown doing something that warranted guns being drawn?  The fact is, we don’t have the clear picture yet.  While there might be problems with policing in Ferguson, we don’t know what really happened that Saturday night.  As much as I am tempted to view Brown as innocent and Wilson as guilty, we don’t yet have evidence that proves either way.

Even though the incident is being looked at, that doesn’t mean that some of the greivences that have bubbled up to the surface must be ignored.  African American men in our society have always been looked at with a sense of fear.  I know that’s happened to me.  These days it happening earlier and earlier.  A National Public Radio report from March of this year show black preschoolers were suspended at higher rates that white preschoolers. Some experts call this the “school to prison pipeline” where African American children, especially boys, have run-ins with the law early and frequently.

So where does the church fit in all of this?

I think that the response is mixed.  I think that churches need to be able to be a listening ear and a megaphone about how African American men are viewed in our society.  Sadly, there are still too many people who refuse to understand that while official segregation is gone by the wayside, attitudes still remain.  Related to this, I think the church needs to thoughtfully ask whites what is it about black me that scares them.  Part of the problem is that some people are afraid of black men.  It might be irrational, but I think there needs to be space for that question to be asked and answered, as uncomfortable as it might be.  Maybe when we share we can dispel myths or see what needs to be corrected.

But if the church is going to be an agent of reconciliation, to foster dialogue, we have to be thoughtful when we talk about white privilege and racism.  Most whites don’t see themselves as privileged and having a white liberal Christian chastise his fellow whites, many of who are trying to make ends meet of being privileged, don’t expect that they are going to react with open hearts and minds.  Yes, privilege exists, but pointing this out should lead to solutions not blame. Also, calling whites automatically racist is also not going to work.  White folks think racist and they see some guy who decided ruin his wife’s best bedspread to where while setting fire to a cross.  It’s one thing to say that society still benefits whites, its another to basically say they are the Bull Connor of suburbia.

As the African American pastor of a majority white congregation in the suburbs; I wonder if my odd intersection could lead towards some real conversation about how to heal the divisions between law enforcement and black men.  I don’t know if that’s where God is calling me and I don’t think I’m going to make such a big difference, but then you never know.

I just look forward to the day when incidents such as what happened to Michael Brown will be a distant and unpleasant memory.