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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)

Get behind me, white feminism

Today is going to be a day of hot takes on the Oscars and there was plenty to talk about: Neil Patrick Harris’ attempts to gloss over white-washing with failed enlistment of black actors, Sean Penn closing the evening by honoring his “friend” with a racist/xenophobic “green card” joke. I’ll be reading all of those takes and then getting back to my life because culture-making is as important as culture-commenting.

But I needed to say something about that Patricia Arquette speech. After thanking the Academy and all the people for her win, Arquette launched into a brief but emphatic statement about equal pay for women:

“To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

The audience rallied behind her, and this gif was born:

You WILL be seeing this again. I myself will be using it for anything that calls for premature enthusiasm.

You WILL be seeing this again. I myself will be using it for anything that calls for premature enthusiasm.

Now, I’m all for equal pay. Collectively speaking, women are underpaid compared to men. What initially bothered me was how Arquette was tying equality to maternity. And on a night when much had been rightfully made about the overt Academy snubbing of black art, taking the platform to talk about equality without mentioning race at all seemed insensitive and inadequate at best. Unfortunately, it got worse after the show. Arquette went into the press junket and said:

“It’s time for women. Equal means equal. The truth is the older women get, the less money they make. The highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed households. It’s inexcusable that we go around the world and we talk about equal rights for women in other countries and we don’t. One of those superior court justices said two years ago in a law speech at a university that we don’t have equal rights for women in America and we don’t because when they wrote Constitution, they didn’t intend it for women. So the truth is even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America right under the surface there are huge issues at play that really do affect women. It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”

Meryl-Streep-Prada-Glasses

Get out of my office, Patricia.

This is a classic mistake of white feminism. I’ve written before about the historical trespasses of the white women’s movement, so I won’t break into a full-blown recap here. I also have a small child harassing me while I’m writing this, so I will make a few quick points.

  1. The first lie institutional power will sell you is that there isn’t enough porridge, pay, or power to go around for everyone. This scarcity myth compels marginalized people to contend for scraps, and it is an utter distraction from the work of equality. It also reinforces the idea that hierarchies are fair, give turns, and can be trusted to divvy out measures of power and influences as they see fit.
  2. We can resist that scarcity myth and the power that’s using it to oppress folks by centering the needs of the most vulnerable. Calls for “everybody, let’s work together” are most effective when they say, “everybody, let’s work together and get behind this person who’s getting trampled.” While white women are marginalized in a patriarchal society, we cannot continue to build our success on the backs of people of color or anyone who is pushed out farther by institutionalized oppression. We don’t take down white patriarchy to replace it with white matriarchy. The whole dang thing has to come down.
    Master's House, Master's Tools
  3. Equality isn’t about chasing and catching up to white dudes. It’s about dismantling systems that prop up white supremacy, patriarchy, and the like. Again, we need to keep our eyes on the prize, which is full enfranchisement of marginalized people (including men of color who currently make less than white women do).
    wagegapbrokenupbyrace-011
  4. White ladies who aren’t willing to use their prominent platforms to talk about how black lives matter really should never, ever, tell people of color to come work for them. To do so is the height of entitlement and re-enacts dynamics of white supremacy. See point 2.
Back up, Khaleesi.

Get back to wardrobe, Khaleesi. Your privilege is showing.

It’s time for us to understand what Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw described as “intersectionality.” White feminism makes these mistakes time and again precisely because we insist that marginalized people get on board with us rather than doing the work to understand and serve them. As Christians, we are commanded to see and walk with the systematically and personally disenfranchised. Isaiah 58 reminds us that our good intentions and our ritual operations aren’t enough:

‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
    and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
    will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

Let’s stop playing by those old rules and build solidarity by looking at the whole picture and not just the part that affects only us.

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.

Where are my white people?

Like many of you, I’ve been glued to social media this week following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I’ve tried working through some of my emotions and thoughts on the subject in those social forums. Some forums are safer for that kind of thing than others. I’m learning that my safety (emotional or otherwise) is important, but not paramount.

As the details in the case continue to emerge, I have hope that the public will can shift toward justice, but I won’t wait for it. You see, this situation is not new. It’s not even a symptom of something. It’s a script we’ve been playing since this nation was founded. It’s the script of white supremacy.

I know that term is loaded, so I’m going to slow down and say it again so you know I’m saying it on purpose: white supremacy. Most of us are familiar enough with history to associate white supremacy with the past. We know about slavery. We know about Jim Crow. We know about the Klan. We think we can relegate white supremacy to those contexts and thereby keep it out of our house. But I’m telling you, it’s still here.

When I talk to my white friends about what’s gone down so far in Ferguson, I get many of the same kinds of comments I’ve heard before: “Let’s refrain from judgment until the facts are in.” “We don’t know why the cop did what he did, but I think cops are great, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.” “With all that looting, what did you expect the police to do? They have to keep order.”

While many of my friends are unaware of it, all of these comments are racially tinged. Before I get into how that works, let’s start with a summary of the facts from Professor Brittney Cooper:

crunkAll week long, the community of Ferguson and its supporters have been trying to keep the focus of this case on the shooting itself. But thanks to the media, the local police, and others, the story keeps getting muddled by other details. Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous anticipated these distractions in her piece, “6 Things To Stop Being Distracted By When A Black Person Gets Murdered By the Police.” You should really read the whole thing, but here are the highlights:

1. Over-Simplified Talk of “Riots”
According to media outlets and some residents, there’s been rioting in Ferguson since the killing of unarmed teenager Mike Brown. There have been reports of peaceful protests turning less than peaceful, with people confronting cops, throwing things at them, etc. I don’t know if the stories of rioting are true. Most of the video I’ve seen of Ferguson shows the protesters themselves gathered or marching relatively calmly. Angry sometimes, sure. But anger is a perfectly normal response to your unarmed teenage neighbor being gunned down in the street by police (police who have now showed up at your peaceful protest with attack dogs and riot gear).

But let’s get something straight: a community pushing back against a murderous police force that is terrorizing them is not a “riot”. It’s an uprising. It’s a rebellion. It’s a community saying We can’t take this anymore. We won’t take it. It’s people who have been dehumanized to the point of rightful rage. And it happens all over the world. Uprisings and rebellions are necessary and inevitable, locally and globally…

2. Looting
Looting is often part of the “rioting” narrative. Peaceful protests that turn violent are often accompanied by looting. During the first night of the Ferguson protests there was looting reported at various locations nearby. Looting—stealing merchandise from vandalized businesses during a protest—happens separate from the actual protest taking place and its actual organizers and participants in every case I’ve ever heard about, anywhere, ever. Looting is often an opportunists’ game.

Looting, too, is about power. When people have nothing and something happens to remind them, in a big way, that what little they do have can be taken away in an instant, including their lives and the lives of their children, they may reach for any semblance of power or control they can get…

3. Celebrities
Please don’t get distracted by celebrities. At times like this, famous people sometimes say really important, helpful, intelligent things. Other times, they open their mouths and the most ridiculous hot ass-garbage comes pouring out. (I’m looking at you, Morgan Freeman/Bill Cosby/Don Lemon.) Then everyone spends all day talking about the celebrity and what they said rather than talking about the issue…

4. The Murder Victim’s Past
I wish I didn’t have to tell some of you that victim-blaming when a Black person is murdered by police is a huge no. That it doesn’t matter if they were on the honor roll, or smoked weed sometimes, or were going to college, or what brand of hoodie they wore, or even if they spent time in jail at some point. That the right to walk down the street without being a target for murder by the police isn’t a right one should have to prove themselves worthy of. That we should all just have that right by virtue of being human beings…

5. Respectability Politics
Respectability politics is part of almost all of the things I’ve listed here already. It plays its part in most of the ways we get distracted when a Black person is murdered by the police. It’s there in the idea that protests should always be non-violent; it’s there in the idea that looting erases someone’s humanity; it’s there in the idea that the victim’s past, if not squeaky-clean by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’s standards, makes their victimization less valid…

I understand how hard it is to accept that as a Black person your life means so little in this country that you can be killed by police for nothing. That walking down the street while Black can be the only reason your life, or the life of your son or daughter or father or partner or friend, ends. You want there to be another reason, any other reason.

Yesterday on Twitter, @prisonculture wrote, in response to a tweet suggesting Black people can dress better to avoid being murdered by the authorities: “looking the part” doesn’t help you brother…I’m so sorry. I feel so much compassion for you. How do you absorb & internalize that you are killable, always killable? You create your own fictions. To survive, to live. I understand.

I, too, understand that it’s hard. Almost too hard to bear. Who wants to have to carry these things? Especially when you’re young and dreaming of a life without barriers based on your skin color. But pretending we can “respectable” ourselves out of racism is dangerous. And it will not save you.

6. Lies Mainstream Media Tells You
Please understand and remember that MSM chooses what to show you and what not to show you. Remember how that news station I mentioned showed only looting? Well, by accounts of many folks in Ferguson that night, that was happening while the actual protesters were still protesting, their hands in the air, shouting “Don’t shoot!” at police officers in riot gear who were threatening them. Your MSM isn’t likely to show you that part.

Don’t be distracted by the sensationalized version, by the oppressor’s racist-colored lens that only captures nice police officers trying to do their jobs while animalistic Blacks steal TVs and burn shit down. Get your news from sources who stand in solidarity with oppressed people.

Like me, my white friends are struggling to understand all this. For most of us, these incidents of police brutality, or the racialized murder of black people, feels like a scene from the past because it’s not our present reality. We don’t get stopped by police for just driving down the street. The police come when we call them, and they almost always come to help.

unnamedJust because it’s not our experience, doesn’t make it any less true. As I learned this week trying to explain all this to my white children, these scenes rattle our narratives about good guys and bad guys. And when my kids hear “the talk” about race, respectability, and law enforcement, it doesn’t make sense the way it does when black kids hear it from their parents (who they have seen deal with it, even if it wasn’t vocalized).

Half of the white people I’ve talked to or read have been quick to derail or dismiss these events. The other well-meaning half are shocked by them. Both responses are indicative of a white supremacist culture that shields white people from the daily oppressions of people of color. These events remind us white folks of our complicity and beg our attention to problems that we work hard to isolate to the past.

Look, what we’re watching unfold isn’t news. It’s been happening all this time. On our “post-racial” watch. What we saw this week was the unfolding of a supremacy narrative: first, the preemptive militarization of local police out of fear of angry black people who’ve been denied justice. It worked this way during slavery: when preemptive brutality was used to protect the system of slavery, and used again out of fear that plantation owners would be killed in their sleep by those they oppressed. It worked this way under Jim Crow: when black people could be arrested for going about their daily lives, and it intensified when black people organized to take political action or assert their rights. Violence in America has always been heavily one-sided, as has the fear of violence, and black folks weren’t the creators of lynch mob justice.

unnamed2The demands of the people in Ferguson are for orderly justice. It only feels disorderly because it’s disrupting our normalized structures of white supremacy. The media focus on isolated incidents of looting over the numerous peaceful demonstrations reinforces the “fear black people” narrative. The press ate up the fourteen-page police department story of Mike Brown’s “strong-arm robbery” and left the shooting behind, only later to find out that officer Wilson didn’t even know about the robbery when he approached, shot, and killed Mike Brown (as if that would have justified the killing). Even in stories that featured headlines focuses on the shootings, the thumbnail images shown at the side of the article were usually photos from the robbery camera.

This is how white supremacy has always worked:

Systemic oppression of people of color out of fear or for gain -> People of color no longer endure violence and begin to resist oppression (violently or peacefully) -> White power responds with “See! These people are unruly, we gotta keep a lid on that!”  -> Oppression continues, reinforced by the white narrative of fear

We can’t afford to allow distractions in this situation. I’m calling upon my white brothers and sisters in Christ to get on board here. I don’t care if we’re late coming. We need to be here. I realize it’s uncomfortable, but for our sisters and brothers of color, it can be deadly. We don’t get to wuss out on this. We have to do better than the generations before us.

Blogger and racial justice reconciler Austin Channing Brown broke my heart this week with this truth:

…what I found most intriguing is MLK’s response to the question about his mistakes as a civil rights leader. His reply: “Well, the most pervasive mistake I have made was in believing that because our cause was just, we could be sure that the white ministers of the South, once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid. I felt that white ministers would take our cause to the white power structures. I ended up, of course, chastened and disillusioned.”

At this moment in time, I cannot confess to the same shock, disappoint or hurt feelings that MLK describes. I’ve read too much, been at this too long to sincerely claim that I expected the white church to finally get it right in this present moment of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, John Crawford and Michael Brown. The white church doesn’t have a great track record on racial justice, and what’s worse, displays very little shame on the matter…

I am quite used to there not being enough room in the soul of the white church to care about black bodies. There is not enough room in the service, not enough room in the prayers, not enough room in the leadership, not enough room in the values, not enough room in the mission statement, not enough room in political stances, not enough room for lived experiences of African Americans.

I am convinced that the soul of the white church has yet to be ashamed.

I am ashamed. If you’re feeling ashamed at this point, too, let it change you. Repent and come alongside those whose yoke is too burdensome. Stop telling people who are calling for due process to slow down asserting their rights. White churches tried to tell Dr. King and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement the same thing:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

Let’s be different in this generation. Let’s stop telling our brothers and sisters to wait for justice. For the love of Jesus, let’s stop telling them to play things our way.

respectabilityLet’s educate ourselves instead of asking people of color to tell us what racism is or how it works. To that end, I’m going to share a few resources below. Please consider choosing something, one thing, any thing. I do not believe that white people getting on board against racism will save everyone. White people aren’t the saviors. We don’t get cookies for basic human decency. But it’s going to take more of us grappling with the systems of oppression if we’re ever going to topple the thing.
igSo if you’re a pastor, preach on this. If you’re a teacher, study up and teach on it. If you’re a parent, talk to your kids. Get on social media and share articles about Ferguson. Learn how to spot derailments, how not to get caught up in them, and then keep the focus on justice. Sign and share a petition calling for an overhaul of how we police communities of color. Learn about other stories where people of color are being denied justice (it happens to women, too) and read up more stories like Mike Brown’s.

lastwordsWe white people need to go beyond allyship. We need to be accomplices.

This is Kingdom work, y’all. I’m begging my white people: don’t miss it this time.

Resources:

Michelle Alexander The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess
Douglas Blackmon Slavery By Another Name (link is to the PBS documentary, still online, but there is a book as well)
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva Racism Without Racists
Essential reading from Prison Culture
Reading list from Irene’s Daughters
Field trip! Sankofa Journey with the Evangelical Covenant Church

And follow any of the people I’ve linked to or mentioned above on Twitter. Twitter has been instrumental in reporting news out of Ferguson. If you don’t tweet, you can follow some of these writers on Facebook as well.