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The Death of Respectability Politics

This weekend was the anniversary of the murder of Mike Brown.  A year has passed and the country has borne witness to countless uprisings and interruptions. The white left is losing its mind over protestors who dare to disrupt white political saviors with the message that “black lives matter.” The white right reflects on this anniversary with the same mantra they had a year ago: Mike Brown “was no angel.” Everywhere along the political spectrum comes critique of black voices: slow down, wait until the facts are in.

The only facts in my mind this weekend have been these:

mike1 mike2mike3 mike4 mike5 mike6 At the heart of all this commentary about how black voices should respond to black deaths are the unwritten rules of respectability guided by the cultural principles of white fragility. White fragility demands that any challenge to power come forward with respect and deference to whiteness. Dr. Robin Diangelo writes:

The Rules of Engagement

After years of working with my fellow whites, I have found that the only way to give feedback correctly is not to give it at all. Thus, the first rule is cardinal:

1. Do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances.

If you do, you break the cardinal rule:

2. Proper tone is crucial – feedback must be given calmly. If there is any emotion in the feedback, the feedback is invalid and does not have to be considered.

3. There must be trust between us. You must trust that I am in no way racist before you can give me feedback on my racism.

4. Our relationship must be issue-free – If there are issues between us, you cannot give me feedback on racism.

5. Feedback must be given immediately, otherwise it will be discounted because it was not given sooner.

6. You must give feedback privately, regardless of whether the incident occurred in front of other people. To give feedback in front of anyone else—even those involved in the situation—is to commit a serious social transgression. The feedback is thus invalid.

7. You must be as indirect as possible. To be direct is to be insensitive and will invalidate the feedback and require repair.

8. As a white person I must feel completely safe during any discussion of race. Giving me any feedback on my racism will cause me to feel unsafe, so you will need to rebuild my trust by never giving me feedback again. Point of clarification: when I say “safe” what I really mean is “comfortable.”

9. Giving me feedback on my racial privilege invalidates the form of oppression that I experience (i.e. classism, sexism, heterosexism). We will then need to focus on how you oppressed me.

10. You must focus on my intentions, which cancel out the impact of my behavior.

11. To suggest my behavior had a racist impact is to have misunderstood me. You will need to allow me to explain until you can acknowledge that it was your misunderstanding.

This isn’t new. The Civil Rights movement had his own set of respectability expectations. This is why we all know who Rosa Parks is, but Claudette Colvin, the pregnant teen that months before Parks’ defiance refused to give up her seat on a bus, remains obscured by Parks’ respectable image. This is why King himself and many others frequently marched in suits. But Dr. King knew as well as any black person in America today know, respectability won’t save you.

FullSizeRenderThe only way to challenge systems of white supremacy is to challenge the political structures that give it cover, which can be messy. It can appear rude and it will be out of order. These young organizers know that. And so, for their banner, they’ve chosen to honor Mike Brown. Not because he makes a pristine poster child, but because he was a human being gunned down in the street without dignity. They choose Eric Garner whose petty crime of selling loose cigarettes was met with punishment so disproportionately brutal that thousands would take to the streets singing, “I can hear my neighbor crying saying I can’t breathe. Now I’m in the struggle and I can’t leave.”

They choose women like Natasha McKenna, who contended with mental illness and violent policing until the latter did her in by covering her face, shackling her hands, and tasing her until she died. This movement isn’t playing by respectability rules. I have to say, as a white Christian, I’m here for it.

The cross tells us all we need to know about respectability politics. You don’t get more respectable than the holy, sinless, Son of God. Rome was known for its cruelty, for its arbitrary justice and unmatched power. Yet there amid empire approached a young carpenter whose days and nights were spent with the poor, those who made their living from the land and sea, the politically disenfranchised, the zealots, harlots, and yes, even turncoats who once extracted payment from their own kin for the sake of the empire. He called them to Himself, and He went into their homes in pursuit of them. The company He kept alone could have sent Jesus to the cross.

Jesus dwelled among the radicals because in loving Him, one could not help but be made radicalized. Jesus’ challenge to empirical power was not a direct one. He led no military, He told men to put their swords away when they had opportunity to strike. Yet He confronted power at every turn. He denounced the legitimacy of entrenched institutional power: religious and secular. He stood captive before both the Sanhedrin and Pilate and in those crucial moments before power, as author-pastor Mark Buchanan writes,

Jesus is silent and He commands silence when speaking would gain the most attention, applause, financial support, adulation, self-protection. But He speaks when it costs Him the most.

I thought about Jesus’ silence this week when I saw a video of a young mother refusing to give her full information to the police that were forcefully interrogating her in front of her kids. I thought about Jesus’ speaking and table-tossing when I saw a pair of black women take a Seattle stage set for Bernie Sanders. I saw it when Sandra Bland refused to leave her car and persistently articulated her rights. Everywhere I look in this movement for liberation, I see Christ.

You see, Mike Brown may have been “no angel.” He didn’t need to be. He was a human person like you or I, full of sin and yet made a saint in Christ. Like the alleged criminal on the cross next to Christ, Mike, Eric, Sandra, Natasha…they all suffered punishments that weren’t meant to bring justice. Their deaths were meant to send the same warning to the populace the thief’s crucifixion would have sent: don’t mess with Rome. Rome wins at all costs.

Jesus looked at the thief at His side and promised paradise. He gave the man hope of a place where justice actually would be just, where the meek would reign instead of being rained down upon by the powerful and privileged. In going to the cross and identifying with those He met there, Jesus demonstrated the injustice, utter brutality, and callousness of Roman culture. His death indicted that system the way Mike Brown’s death indicts ours, perhaps not in a temporal sin-fraught court, but in an eternal one that regards black life as sacred, and the marginalization of black lives a systemic sin of great proportion. It is from this place I hear echoes of the refrain, “black lives matter!” It is in those courts that like Isaiah, I say to the Lord, confessing my white fragility and renouncing my own desires for respectable confrontation:

Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

It’s not an easy to thing to do racial justice work as a white person. There are times when we will feel burned by our own legacy. Solidarity often has a sting like death. Will we open our mouths to relieve this commission?

In the book Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism, Curtiss DeYoung writes:

Unjust systems appear normal to those in power, and any change will produce feelings of loss. True reconciliation, through the cross of Jesus, will affect the lives of the privileged. The colonizer has to completely leave the confines of power and privilege and join with those who are colonized. Of the colonizer, Memmi declared, ‘let him adopt the colonized people and be adopted by them; let him be a turncoat.’

This is exactly what protestors have been challenging us to do since Ferguson when they disrupted an orchestral concert singing a requiem for Mike Brown: “Which side are you on, brother, which side are you on?”

Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross doesn’t give us a free pass to continue to cooperate with systemic evil. We must speak out about these black deaths, respectability be damned. It is time to work out our salvation here, white folks. This week as I reflect on all that has happened this last year, I want my white friends to count the cost of doing this work well. How freely do we give up space? How quickly do we make demands based on our own entitlement? Are we willing to take on burdens that aren’t our own and become turncoats? What are we willing to risk for solidarity and liberation?

Will we be humble enough to receive correction or will we defensively respond with our “good white person” resume? There’s only one Savior, and it’s certainly not us. White folks, do we truly want us all to be saved from white supremacy?

Captain Irony S. Lostonme: pretending systemic racism doesn't exist since 1992 (or longer)

Captain Irony S. Lostonme: pretending systemic racism doesn’t exist since 1992 (or longer)

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Media smarts

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. -Philippians 1:9-10 ESV

This week, I’ve been reminded of how important it is to be media literate. A recent New York Times story on the white supremacist history of lynching came under fire for neglecting to speak specifically about who was doing the lynching, Professor Angus Johnston tweeted: “The word “white” only appears in the article to describe women and girls the lynched men were accused of attacking.” By erasing the white actors from history, the Times made the systematic, premeditated, persistent perpetration of violence against black people seem inevitable, and it rendered the white killers invisible and unaccountable for their crimes.

The hoods hid them from the camera. We still hide them today.

The hoods hid them from the camera. We still hide them today.

This kind of skewed reporting isn’t limited to historical events. It happens frequently in how crime and violence are reported, and how the media talks about issues related to race, class, and gender. According to a survey of media studies conducted by Robert M. Entman and Kimberly A. Gross

1. Blacks and Latinos are more likely than whites to appear as lawbreakers in news—particularly when the news is focusing on violent crime. Blacks and Latinos are more likely to appear as perpetrators than victims. Blacks are overrepresented as perpetrators of violent crime when news coverage is compared with arrest rates. Work that engages in “inter-reality” comparisons suggests the media portrayal is somewhat less distorted than the comparison of the number of black, white, and Latino perpetrators might imply. Nonetheless, the picture is troubling, suggesting that news cultivates the perception of blacks and Latinos as lawbreakers.

2. In contrast, whites are overrepresented as victims of violence and as law-enforcers, while blacks are underrepresented in these sympathetic roles.

3. These patterns are more disturbing when one considers that blacks and Latinos may not appear as frequently as whites outside the crime-news context. Because of the values that define the newsworthy, blacks in criminal roles tend to outnumber blacks in socially positive roles in newscasts and daily newspapers. In some areas, at least, Latinos may receive even worse treatment than blacks. Chiricos and Eschholz examined three weeks of local-news programming in Orlando and found that one in twenty whites appearing on the local television news was a criminal suspect compared with one in eight blacks and one in four Latinos.

4. Studies of local news in Chicago and elsewhere suggest that depictions of black suspects (mostly young men) tend to be more symbolically threatening than those of whites accused of similar crimes. Black defendants in one study were more likely to be shown in mug shots. In the ubiquitous “perp walks,” blacks were twice as likely as whites to be shown under some form of physical restraint by police—although all were accused of scary and generally violent crimes. In some notorious, highly publicized crimes—such as the 1989 alleged rape of a wealthy, young white woman in Central Park by a “gang” of Latino and black young men—young men of color appear particularly susceptible to portrayals that associate them with extreme threat and less-than-human traits. Narratives routinely used such words as “savage” and “wild.”

5. Violence and youth, especially male youth, are closely linked: most stories that feature young people on local news depict violence they commit or suffer, and in those stories, older white men are the dominant speakers. Local news does not often portray young persons as positively contributing to society.

6. People of color are more likely to be subjected to negative pretrial publicity. One study found that black and Latino defendants are twice as likely as white defendants to be subjected to negative pretrial publicity and that defendants who victimized whites were more likely to have prejudicial information broadcast about them than defendants who victimized nonwhites.

7. Several studies show that black victims are less likely to be covered than white victims in newspaper coverage of crime. But unlike studies focused on local television, studies of newspapers do not indicate that minorities are overrepresented as perpetrators. Newspaper coverage is somewhat better than local television news on some dimensions, if only because it does not follow the “if it bleeds it leads” norm and devotes much less of its news space to crime. Stories themselves are often longer and, on average, perhaps more likely to contain more context than TV. On the other hand, the additional words devoted to crime by newspapers might yield a greater net volume of negative pretrial information.

8. Aside from crime, perhaps the most frequent and disproportionate association made with persons of color in the news media is poverty. In stories featuring poverty as a topic, newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek overrepresent blacks, while underrepresenting whites, Latinos, and Asians. At the same time, the magazines overrepresent the nonworking poor and the urban poor in their illustrations of poverty. In this way, not only do media encode poverty as an especially black trait, but they undermine potential sympathy, especially among the white majority, for antipoverty programs. Poverty can be portrayed as a condition that merits sympathy, but it more often appears associated with threats in the form of crime, violence, drugs, gangs, and aimless activity.

Such messages not only stereotype the blacks and Latinos who are featured in them, but also contribute to a stereotypical association between blacks, criminality, and guilt that can influence evaluations and behavior. These messages also reinforce negative emotions and a sense of social distance that may promote a belief in inherent group conflict between blacks or Latinos and whites. Moreover, these stereotypes arise not merely from the news, but from TV and film entertainment, advertising, and sports programming as well.

In an age where we are inundated with information, we have to be vigilant in what we consume and how we receive it. When we are reading headlines or watching local news, here are some elements to keep in mind about the portrayals of marginalized people (this is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination):

  • Violence in marginalized communities is usually written about in terms that make it sound random or commonplace: “Teen shot in Somewhere.” Communities responding to the violence (looking for information, comforting family members, or waiting to answer police questions) are portrayed as chaotic mobs, “crowds gathered” or “residents stood in the street.” Context, including events leading up to and following the crime, is not given.
  • Victims’ names are buried until the end of the story. Perpetrators aren’t named at all.
  • Race, religion, sexuality, gender is only mentioned if the person isn’t white, Christian (or atheist/agnostic), or heterosexual/cisgender. Transgender people are often misgendered. If a person is white, whiteness isn’t mentioned.
  • When the victim is a person of color, media choose photos or background details about the victim that implicate the victim in their own demise (see the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown for examples of how this works).

It’s important that we become media savvy if we are to advocate for justice, contend for truth, and love our neighbors well. Jesus told his disciples that they were to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves” as they navigated their communities and culture. For more ways you can consume media more critically, visit Fair.org.

From a new video game developed to draw attention to disparities in media coverage (story linked in photo)

From a new video game developed to draw attention to disparities in media coverage (story linked in photo)

One of the good ones

This weekend, I went to a DC Black Lives Matter training called, “Dear White Allies.” The training was created because of the hurt that some of the white protestors have caused protestors of color at local actions. Friends, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve messed up as an ally.

There comes a point when as an ally of marginalized folks, you’re tested. Truth be told, many of us will fail these tests. Some of us learn from failure, apologize, and pick up again, better allies for the lesson in humility. Those lessons are important, but we shouldn’t be cavalier about our learning curve: “I’m just going to keep showing up [and being abusive and checked for it] because that’s how I learn, through experience.” Nope. A big part of being an ally is learning that when we fail in these ways, we hurt people.

Even the most well-intentioned ally can stumble. After a while of doing this work, we begin to think we’ve arrived. We get comfortable with what we know and how trusted we’ve become. We may even get a little famous for it in our communities (or on the internet).

Unfortunately, not enough of us are...yet.

Unfortunately, not enough of us are…yet.

Calling our own people out becomes a way of distancing ourselves from the “us,” and makes us allies feel like the good guys. We’re the white hat deputies in the fight against injustice, don’t you know?

symbolsYet inevitably, as professing allies, we’ll say or do something downright stupid. We might have our act together on the outside, but our inconsistencies and personal prejudices will start to show. Our ignorance will prevail upon an unsuspecting victim. If we’re vigilant, these mistakes can create an important time of pruning for us. If we’re in loving relationships, someone who cares will point these things out to us.

But many of us buck against the critique when it comes. We do all the things we fuss at our own folks for: we reject critique because of tone, we deliver our ally resume and dismiss those we deem less-qualified to speak, we pick up our ball and go home. We complain that we are untrusted, persecuted, all the while losing sight of the fact that the folks we say we’re standing with of face that kind of scrutiny and skepticism daily. Sometimes seemingly “unfair” scrutiny is the price of solidarity. Good allies are willing to take that kind of heat.

Hours before they all run for the hills.

Hours before they all run for the hills.

We ignore the fact that our failure hurts folks and instead of centering the concerns of our friends, the stakes become about us and our reputations: “Y’all make me look like a bad ally. I look like one of *those* people we’re all against.” We make the mistake of thinking that allyship is about our heroism, our ability to be the exemplars, the shiny contrast among our kind. We forget how easy it is to betray our friends and their cause. We get offended that people are injured by our offenses, so we put up barriers for self-preservation, even obstructing the progress we once supported.

The Most Rebuked Apostle

The Most Rebuked Apostle

Being a good ally begins with centering the concerns of others. Remaining a good ally depends upon the same. Ally work isn’t about reinforcing “us versus them” by merely switching teams. This is humanity we’re talking about. Not some (albeit awesome) dualistic sci-fi adventure.

Sweet! Team Blue Swords

Sweet! Team Blue Swords

Allies fail when we get confused and think a good ally is one of “us” joining “them” in the fight against “us.” Ally work involves navigating both spaces: “us” and “them.” Allies help the rest of “us” shed personal prejudices and join the work to undo power structures that keep “them” oppressed by everything involved in the “versus.” We do oppose our own folks from time to time, but with the clear vision that our enemy is bigger and more insidious than the individuals in front of us:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)

Allies who trade difficult navigation work for self-congratulatory gate-keeping will fail every time. That’s not our role. Our desperation to preserve appearances and maintain our post at the gate can quickly become an idol. Let’s keep ourselves humble, listening to and weighing critique when we receive it. Let’s never let our reputations as allies become more important to us than the people we’re standing with in solidarity.

I began this post saying I’ve messed this up big time as an ally. I still do. As a disabled woman, I’ve also learned to forgive equally epic failures. Building a beloved, just community is hard work. Humility, empathy, and quick repentance are required. If you’ve messed up, confess it. Do the work in you and then get to dismantling structures of oppression (even those you’ve helped to build).

That’s the work of an ally. No gate-keepers need apply.

Sunday Meditations: Time to turn up the heat

It’s Martin Luther King weekend and there are a number of celebrations of his life and legacy happening around the country. My hope this weekend is that we let the truth in his words teach us, even when they condemn us.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

Austin Channing wrote powerfully this week about what she learned from Selma about the ways in which black women, in particular, are silenced. She encourages us to recognize the influence of evil when it comes against us and gives us wise ways to resist:

Ava let me watch MLK resist taking on responsibility for the deaths of civilians and hand it back to a government who refused to demand police protection over police brutality. Ava let me watch MLK remind the white power structure that the subject of the conversation was not the noise of the demonstrations but the lack of action on their part. Ava let me watch MLK strategically reframe every “legitimate” reason to stop. Ava let me watch MLK remain resistant not just in the big ways- huge demonstrations and soaring speeches. She let me see him on the phone, in meetings, in small rooms, in one-on-one conversations. She let me see him where I live my life, where I love the Church.

As you participate in holy resistance, I hope you, too, will be invigorated by these small but signifcant scenes. I hope you will see your role as quite political. I hope you will see yourself as capable of strategizing and reframing. I hope that you will own your power to see clearly. I hope that you will speak truth to power, fully embodied in who you are and what you have been called to do. I hope you let your little light shine.

It’s been a cold, hard winter so far for a lot of folks. And some of us are still sitting idly by, settling for passivity instead of intentional, active engagement.

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

-Revelation 3:15-16

Let’s do the work of a thermostat and turn up the heat this week by working for justice. Go here to learn more about the work and demands of organizers and how you can help, join, and support them.

Clergy on Twitter are showing solidarity tweeting pictures of themselves with the hashtag #usemeinstead in response to this story about Florida cops using images of incarcerated black men as target practice.

My friend Caris put together some images of MLK quotes you can use on social media, too. Check them out.

Thanks, Caris!

Thanks, Caris!

White lies: they won’t kill you if you’re peaceful

A lot of people I talk to about police brutality ask me, “Why don’t black folks just submit to cops and cooperate?” It’s a seemingly reasonable question, but it makes a couple of important assumptions: 1) black folks aren’t cooperative with or appropriately respectful of police in the first place, and 2) brutality and harassment are in some way the responsibility of the victim, and not the perpetrator. The idea that black folks can perform for their own humanity is downright offensive.

This concept is called “respectability politics.” A quick primer from Gradient Lair:

The politics of respectability originated as cultural, sexual, domestic, employment and artistic “guidelines” or “rules” for racially marginalized groups to follow in the effort to be viewed as “human” in a White supremacist society and by individual Whites. Some of the most noticeable manifestations of the politics of respectability occurs among Black people because of the history dehumanization because of slavery.

The politics of respectability implies that recognition of Black humanity has to be “earned” by Black people by engaging in puritanical behavior as approved by White supremacy…behaviors that Whites themselves don’t have to engage in to “prove” humanity because of White privilege; they’re always viewed as “the default human.”

During the post-Civil War era and early-mid 20th century, the politics of respectability was viewed as a source of power or galvanization of Black middle class society, and a way to combat White supremacist myths of automatic Black inferiority associated with poverty and degradation. (There are arguments to be made that this helped the women’s club movement among Black women’s anti-racism, womanist work in the early 20th century). However, what it ended up doing in many cases was fragmenting the Black working class/poor from the Black middle class, who despite performing respectability to spec, were often still alienated from the Whites they sought approval from. (Where do you think “uppity Negro” comes from? This.) And Black people regardless of class were (and still are) targets of racism.

Today, the politics of respectability is forcefully injected into any conversation about race by both Black and White people. Bill Cosby and Don Lemon are examples. And anytime they shame and scold fellow Black people (as the President has done sometimes too) Whites applaud because once again, they have ZERO accountability for racism.

This myth that White-approved performance (versus actually living) will eradicate racism because Whites will finally “like” Black people is ludicrous and is pushed by those who engage in victim blaming, since it’s easier than admitting the truth about racism.

Black people are human and shouldn’t have to “audition” for humanity based on clothing, speech style, neighborhood lived in, educational level etc. These rules are meant to dehumanize and justify oppression. And if the President of the United States was asked “papers please?” then obviously resume, grooming, education, and even power is irrelevant in a Black body; obviously the politics of respectability won’t save.

When we white folks argue that black folks should just cooperate with dehumanization, we are ignoring the fact that black parents have been giving de-escalation advice to their children for centuries. Giving children counsel on how to show deference to dangerous white folks is such a common conversation that it has come to be known as “The Talk.”

In a country where respected black men like LeVar Burton can be pulled over without cause or men like professor Henry Louis Gates can be arrested for “breaking into” their own homes, attempts at de-escalation by black folks is certainly not guaranteed to be effective.

During the prosecution of Jordan Davis’ killer, Davis’ mother, Lucia McBath, talked with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates about the uncertainty that the killer, who had been let off by a hung jury in his first trial, would see justice:

I am disheartened that as far as we’ve come it doesn’t matter that we have a black president. It doesn’t matter how educated we’ve become. It doesn’t matter because there still is an issue of race in this country. No, we have not really arrived. If something like this can happen, we have not arrived.

Jordan Davis, like so many of his peers, was raised in a loving home, by parents that taught him to respect authority and be above reproach under scrutiny, even though they knew it might not be able to save his life. Respectability doesn’t consistently win the day. Davis’ family finally saw a conviction of his killer, but for many others, their deaths go unpunished. Coates writes elsewhere, speaking of white parents who discover the dangers their black children face:

This scenario is almost indistinguishable from any black parent forced to confront the future of their child in this country. The heart of the problem is that the mother’s child has been kicked out the dome and thrown into the wiles where—like all of us—her child stands a not-insignificant chance of becoming Jordan Davis.

And [2014] was the summer of Jordan Davises, the summer of bodies when every day, a black parent could log on to the Internet and see the bodies of black people choked into oblivion, beaten on the side of the road, stalked and raped, tased for straying too long, pistol-whipped for running too fast, shot down for mental illness, shot down for cos-play, shot down for allegedly ignoring orders, shot down for too quickly obeying orders.

Respectability is not the answer. Respectability interrogates the wrong actor and puts the responsibility for not-being-killed on the victim rather than the person who is abusing power or perpetrating the crime. We casually tell young black people that if they just cooperate with abusive systems, they will be fine. They might get arrested, but they won’t be killed. They can get a lawyer and live to fight another day.

But that advice ignores the disparities that we have in the racialized justice system. Racist policing might be one of the first threats, but it’s certainly not the only one. It often gets worse after the arrest. Jonathan Rapping writes:

We have accepted a criminal-justice narrative that lumps the world into categories of villains and heroes. Police and prosecutors are good guys in white hats. The communities they police—particularly poor and minority communities—are presumed dangerous. It is this dehumanization that lulls us into complacency, suppressing our outrage over the fact that 2.2 million, almost exclusively poor people are warehoused in conditions so deplorable that some would rather die than live in them (consider the sixty-day hunger strike last year at Pelican Bay State Prison protesting inhumane living conditions). It allows us to remain blind to the fact that the vast majority of people in the criminal-justice system are processed from arrest to conviction with only an overwhelmed and under resourced public defender to try to get them justice. It enables us to accept a system which disproportionately punishes people based on race. It enables us to become completely detached from the people and families destroyed by our indifference, and to accept “tough on crime” policies that destroy America’s most vulnerable communities.

The battle for equal justice will only be won when we demand equal treatment in every aspect of our justice system. We must muster outrage over the routine dehumanization that happens in our criminal-justice system, rather than reserve it for the most extraordinary instances of injustice, if we are to maintain a movement for change.

As Christians, it’s even more imperative that we reject respectability politics. We have to start asking ourselves, why do we only value human life when it is respectable? Is that attitude consistent with the gospel of human life that we preach? Did Christ die for the respectable? When He walked the earth, did Christ live among the respectable? Was He Himself “respectable“?

Jesus challenged evil in the authorities and principalities of his day. Does He still not challenge the evil in ours? We should join Him there and stand in solidarity with the marginalized instead of blaming them for their oppression. After all, He is the prince of peace, and they killed Him, too.

FullSizeRender

Don’t buy the lies of white supremacy. Black lives matter.

Recognizing Systems of Racial Oppression

All week I have been thinking about our recent national election. We saw a shift in power from Democrats to Republicans, but today I’m more interested in looking at a shift we did not see. The Washington Post worked up some interactive graphics on the make-up of the new Senate, and it’s worth a hop to go play around and learn. Not counting a few pending race results, we still have only 20 women holding Senate seats. It doesn’t take a math genius to realize that 1 in 5 seats in a body that holds 100 is not an accurate representation of male to female ratio in America, but I digress on the gender questions (for now). What I want to look at here is this: “About 62 percent of Americans are white, but today more than 90 percent of senators are white. Only 27 racial and ethnic minorities have ever served in the Senate. All of the new senators elected in 2014 are white.”

We could attempt to draw conclusions about which party benefits from the whitening of the Senate, but the truth is, the Senate has long been pretty white, regardless of which party had a majority. So we see that in the halls of power in America, white people hold most of the positions. But let’s put a pin in that for a moment and look at the least powerful people in our society for a moment: the incarcerated.

incarc rate by race & gender - webLooking at this data, we see that the least powerful people in our societythose who have been stripped of their vote, their freedom to walk about and raise their familiesthe incarcerated, are overwhelmingly and disproportionately people of color (and more specifically, black or latin@).

But these disparities are not limited to these spheres, we find them in education, health care, income, housing (including renting), to name a few. All of this is what racial justice advocates call “systemic” injustice. Systemic injustices produce consistently unjust outcomes for people of color in and through institutions (authoritative bodies: churches, government, corporations, etc.) and structures (social systems: criminal justice, education, social welfare).

In the U.S., our conversations about race tend to be about the individualized racism that occurs among individuals or small groups of people (this is one of the reasons we white people are all so terrified to admit we have biases). We are reluctant to zoom out and see the big picture forces at play. But in ignoring systemic racism, we dupe ourselves into thinking we’ve isolated racism and its effects to a few rogue individuals.

And like that systemic racism is gone

And like that systemic racism is gone.

The Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley says this about our hyper-focus on individualized racism:

Given the choice, I prefer a racist (prejudiced person) over a racist system 7 days a week! I can eventually find commonality with a racist on a human level and maybe even cause them to like or admire something about me. A racist system though, prevents equal opportunities on a grand scale for generations to come and it leaves the historic wrongs of the past undone. A racist system makes it seem normal to dehumanize the other. Once that happens, you can think or do anything to that person or group and justify it.

 Allen Mitsuo Wakabayashi argues in his book, Kingdom Come, that American Christians, in particular, have fallen prey to the idol of individualism:

As a boy, I was once told to insert my name in John 3:16 in the place of the word world. So John 3:16 says to me, ‘For God so loved Allen that he gave his only Son, so that if Allen believes in him Allen may not perish but have eternal life.’ While this wonderfully expresses God’s love for me, it distorts the true focus of the verse. God didn’t send Jesus to save just me. He sent Jesus to save the whole world…[The] tradition of the Western church, steeped in this individualism, has stamped its approval on narrow conceptions of the gospel that leave us living in ways that do little to change the society around us. Like my childhood rendition of John 3:16, our conceptions of the gospel have been infected by individualism.
When we see the Gospel as a purely individualized interaction, we see the problem of the sin of racism the same way. Michael Emerson and Christian Smith describe this in their book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America:
White evangelicals, without any necessary intent, help to buttress the racialized society. Like their forebears during the Jim Crow segregation, who prescribed kindness toward people of other races and getting to know people across races, but did not challenge the Jim Crow system, present-day white evangelicals attempt to solve the race problem without shaking the foundations on which racialization is built. As long as they do not see or acknowledge the structures of racialization, the inadvertently contribute to them.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to address both the individual sin of racism as well as the collective, systemic injustices in which we live. Not only is this denial harmful to brothers and sisters of color, it prevents white people from living out and experiencing the fullness of the Gospel. Christena Cleveland writes:

[Many] of us who identify with privileged groups exclusively process information about Jesus in relation to our privileged self, our privileged experiences and our privileged social location. It’s no wonder that many privileged Christians wrongly believe that our understanding of Jesus needn’t heavily rely on oppressed people’s understanding of Jesus.  We’ve think we’ve pretty much got Jesus all figured out.

Further, we place a premium on voices that offer information about Jesus that we can easily process as self-relevant and that is easily integrated into our pre-existing knowledge of the world. And we naturally silence the voices offer perspectives on Jesus that challenge our worldview. We like going to conferences, schools and churches that cater to privileged folks. Privileged folks don’t like it when oppressed people get up front and make prophetic statements that threaten our privileged status.  Like the Pharisees in [John 9], the privileged are often blinded by a commitment to an unequal social order and unable to hear from the voices that are needed most.

So how do we move forward as Christians in pursuit of a holistic vision of the justice Jesus commanded in the Gospels? Drew Hart, writing at the Christian Century, shares a re-imagining of church and cultural life:

[It] is pretty evident that Jesus’ kingdom can be known by the manifestation of a community where the poor, lame, sick, and outcasts of society are centralized as honored guests. That is usually the meaning of Jesus’ frequent talk about the banquet table. James understood this as well, arguing that God chose the poor of the world to be heirs of the kingdom (James 2:5). So even when the kingdom of God is found and identified among a particular people gathered around Jesus, we know it is truly so when the last of society are now first. This means that Christian communities in the United States that always privilege white male, wealthy, or educated people hegemonically and hierarchically from the top-down, then they reflect communities in which the reign of God is being rejected for something more akin to the current oppressive social order. The eruption of the kingdom of God concretely in society is clearly tied to the socially marginalized being restored and honored at the center of the community, if we are to take Jesus seriously. Repentance is walking away from participating in the old social order and voluntarily embodying the life of Jesus and participating in the kingdom of God. That requires being in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ and reconfiguring our social relationships according to his life and teachings, a radical vision of a reconfigured social arrangement.

This is tough work for people who have, heretofore, preserved systems of inequality through their denial, inaction, or outright complicity. But the hope of Christ can transform us and give us new direction. Christena Cleveland again:

But those of us who check our egocentric (and privileged) bias at the door and look closely at Scripture will see that oppressed folks have an epistemological advantage. We’ll see that the so-called “theologies of the oppressed” that are often relegated to the margins should actually be front and center in our conversations about Jesus. We’ll conclude that the people in our society with the most power are perhaps the least qualified to talk about Jesus. We’ll see that if we truly want to participate in this new, equitable reality that Jesus is creating, we need to allow Jesus to disrupt our inequitable systems that value privileged voices and ignore oppressed voices.

If we’re going to see God’s kingdom manifested in these ways, we first have to commit ourselves to seeing the fullness of the need by recognizing structures of oppression, and then bringing the fullness of the Gospel to bear in all aspects of our communities. It’s my prayer that those of us who are “colorblind” (and those of us who think God is colorblind) will have our sight restored by the power of Christ.

Thirty Seconds or Less

That’s all it takes to make a statement about justice:

It doesn’t take much more time than that to offer a prayer for Marissa Alexander, a survivor of domestic violence currently facing an extensive sentence for non-lethal self-defense. It doesn’t take much longer than thirty seconds to give to her legal defense fund.

December 8th, Marissa's retrial

December 8th, Marissa’s retrial

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free. -Luke 4:18