Most Americans see inequality – and the racial habits that give it life – as aberrations, ways we fail to live up to the idea of America. But we’re wrong. Inequality and racial habits are part of the American Idea. They are not symptoms of bad, racist people who fail to live up to pristine ideals. We are, in the end, what we do. And this is the society we have all made. So much so that we have a black man in the White House and nearly one million black men and women in the Big House.
-From the first chapter of Eddie S. Glaude Jr’s new book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. A church member told me about the book yesterday after our service and I picked it up this morning. Glaude has quickly sucked me in- he’s precise and truthful in a way that, as I’m reading, feels notable for how rare such clear writing about our current racial and political moment usually is. Another quote to give you a sense of this:
Opportunity deserts are the racial underside of a society that has turned its back on poor people, especially poor black people. This indifference allows most white Americans to be willfully ignorant of what happens in such places and to ignore the history of racism in this country that has consigned so many black people to poverty with little to no chance of escaping it. Most white Americans never go there – literally or metaphorically – and have a hard time imagining that such places exist.
Last week I had the privilege of joining Dr. Kenya Grooms and Rev. Demetrius Davis on a panel at Progressive Baptist Church. Our topic was “Jesus and Black Lives Matter” and we begin the discussion at 17:50 in the video below. My thanks to Pastor Charlie Dates for making this happen.
He meant for us to be encouraged. It was toward the end of an evening conversation in a neighborhood church where pastors and police leadership had gathered to talk about the recently-resurfaced challenge of police and community relations. The leader (let the reader understand) was talking about stop and frisk, the tactic employed by officers who profile potential mischief-makers. After explaining the advances in technology and data collection that allow officers to better distinguish criminals from citizens, the leader, in his would-be encouraging words, explained that the biggest challenge was educating the targets of these profiling stops. Once they knew how to respond to being profiled and the motives behind these stops he felt certain that any confusion would be cleared up. The officers wouldn’t feel misunderstood about their tactics and the profiled citizens would behave appropriately after being stopped for fitting the data spit out by this ever-improving technology.
As I listened to him talk – to his words and the optimism with which he said them – I thought about the poster than hangs in the lobby of the neighborhood field house where our church meets on Sundays. It’s an older poster that shows Michael Jordan in his car after being pulled over by a police officer. I can’t recall the text precisely, but the gist is that even Jordan, one of the most powerful people on the planet, needs to think about how he behaves – how he can make the officer comfortable – when he is pulled over. The poster’s tone is similar to the leader’s: No need to worry; just do what you’re told and things will be ok. Eventually.
The poster and the police leadership are mute to the fact that stop and frisk is directed almost totally at African Americans. A report released by the ACLU earlier this year showed that in Chicago, “African-Americans were subjected to 182,048 stops, 72 percent of all stops, yet constituted 32 percent of the city’s population.” I say that this racial disparity is left unsaid yet this impolite fact is just barely concealed. There’s a reason it’s Michael Jordan on that poster and not one of his white superstar contemporaries. There’s a reason I was one of the few white faces in the church listening to the leadership talk about data and tactics.
The obscene sense of inevitability behind racial disparity and its accompanying profiling felt especially heavy as the leadership spoke. The pull is strong toward accepting the logic behind the data and technology that spotlights black men while simultaneously making my white body almost invisible. (I was once pulled over for driving noticeably over the speed limit. After being given a warning by the officer and let go, my black friend shouted from the back seat: Are you kidding me?! Until that moment he’d been unaware that “giving a warning” was an option for police officers.) But though the logic may be rational, it isn’t true. There is too much evil it cannot account for, beginning, for example, with the very intentional way our government created the so-called ghettos that are now so heavily policed and profiled.
The obscenity feels heavier when I think about my two sons, beautiful boys whose blood points to ancestors from Africa, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. Lessons, like this video, about what to do when stopped by the police will not be curiosities to them but essential curriculum. The logic articulated by the police leadership in that church is the same that so many citizens around the country accept as a benign necessity. Yet this logic, despite its cloak of legitimate data, is built on centuries of deception and destruction. Agreeing to the pragmatism of stop and frisk is necessarily agreeing to the warped assumptions that make such tactics desirable.
You may choose to accept this country’s logic, but as the father to these particular sons it will never be an option for me.
The challenge isn’t to replace the police’s tactics with better ones. After all, this is why the leadership sounded optimistic that night. They were doing better, even acknowledging past mistakes. Yet the logic remained the same and so the tactics differ only by degree. No, the challenge is deeper than tactics. The challenge is truth. And we will get to the truth only when we make plain the utter absurdity that is this nation’s logic.
Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angels Clippers, has said some despicable things. “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with — walking with black people.” There’s more and if you’ve somehow missed the story you can easily search for more of the man’s ugly opinions. It’s disgusting stuff, made more stark coming from someone who makes money from a team comprising many African American players. The recordings that caught Sterling’s honesty are allegations at this point though they line up well with past comments and sentiments.
The reaction to Sterling’s racist opinions has been swift and satisfying. Aside from a few predictable pundits who’ve attempted to redirect attention to Sterling’s girlfriend, most have come down hard, making it clear that there is no place from him in the NBA. The outrage is palpable. How could this man with these dehumanizing views have been a team owner for the past thirty-odd years?
I wonder, though, if the outrage is sincere; if the anger is righteous.
Sterling has been known for years to be prejudiced in his real estate dealings. He didn’t want to rent to Hispanics because they “smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He opined that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The Department of Justice sued Sterling in 2006, accusing him of housing discrimination. Where was the anger then? Perhaps it’s just easier to direct outrage toward those who make their racism explicit. Prejudiced systems and policies are more complicated, a fuzzier point to rally around. Maybe that’s why Sterling’s implicit racism didn’t elicit calls for his ouster. Or maybe it’s because acknowledging radicalized systems and policies implicates a whole lot of people and not just one, unlikable individual.
Those of us in positions of cultural privilege and power lose nothing when we call for Sterling to step down. It costs us nothing to distance ourselves from his racist language and perspectives on the world. But the same wouldn’t be true were we to call out the underlying racist structures that have made Sterling a very rich man while marginalizing his tenants, employees, and players. Shining a light into these shadows may well mean shining the light on ourselves. Much better, don’t you think, to direct our attention at one pitiful man?
During college, I volunteered for the youth ministry at a church. Every year at the volunteer Christmas party, the two white guys who worked for the ministry dressed up as “black guys from the hood” and performed an entirely unoriginal and unfunny skit that exploited negative black male stereotypes for laughs. I remember looking around the room full of volunteers, seeing the delight in their eyes as they laughed loudly at the racist jokes. I also remember feeling discouraged that a predominantly-white group of Christians (who were supposedly my friends) were laughing at white guys impersonating black guys in extremely unflattering ways. When I asked the pastor (the staff guys’ boss) about the skit, he agreed that it was offensive. But he failed to confront the issue; the skit was performed every year for the multiple years that I served as a volunteer.
The church taught me that racism is acceptable as long as it’s carried out in pursuit of laughs.
I’ve taken a break from a lot of my normal online haunts during Lent and have surely missed a bunch of interesting articles and bits of news, though I’ve not generally been aware of missing anything. Thankfully a friend emailed me Ta-Neshi Coates’ op-ed in The New York Times; I wouldn’t have wanted to miss “The Good, Racist People”. In it, Coates recounts a recent incident that took place in his neighborhood deli during which an employee frisked Forest Witaker after accusing him of shoplifting. There’s nothing uncommon about stop and frisk in New York City where the deli is located but it’s less common that the person being profiled is a world famous actor. After recognizing Witaker the owner apologized. What Coates picks up on in his piece is the same owner’s claim that, “it was a ‘sincere mistake’ made by a ‘decent man’ who was ‘just doing his job.'” According to the owner, the incident wasn’t the result of racial profiling but was the sort of mistake anyone could have made. We white folks often don’t see prejudice and racialized assumptions at work in these sorts of scenarios because of how we think – or don’t – about racism. Coates writes,
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.” A half-century later little had changed. The comedian Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) once yelled at a black heckler from the stage: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Confronted about this, Richards apologized and then said, “I’m not a racist,” and called the claim “insane.”
Racism, for many of us, is localized within an individual and an unsavory, morally corrupt individual at that. Certainly not “decent” people like ourselves. Anyone other than a hooded Klan member who is acting prejudicially probably just misspoke. Or is having a bad day. I’m reminded of a anthropologist friend who avoids the word racist in his classes of mostly white students for fear they will tune out, assuming themselves to be beyond such ugly assumptions and behaviors. Coates goes on, nodding toward the slippery and invisible (to some) forms that racism takes today, forms that are no less destructive for their cultural camouflage.
The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.
On one hand, racism continues to play it’s wicked part within the American story. On the other hand, most of us within the majority culture don’t think we play a part in this story; someone out there may be racist but it’s certainly not me. It’s impossible for both of these to be true.
As a Christian I think about whether American Christians – and I mostly have in mind white American Christians – think any differently about these things than our secular neighbors. Unfortunately, it’s probably a safe assumption that we don’t think differently and more carefully about systemic racism. But it shouldn’t be this way. In fact, there are at least two obvious attributes within Christian belief that can begin forming us into something other than “the good, racist people” of Coates’ op-ed.
First, Christians believe in sin. We really believe in sin, meaning that our rebellion against God plays out in our lives and our neighborhoods; in our hearts and our culture; in the individual and the system that individual functions within. Given the history of our country we shouldn’t be surprised at the ways the sins of racism have been assumed into our cultural assumptions and habits. When we deny the prejudice that flows through the veins of our country and instead limit racial injustice to the occasional despicable individual we betray our too-small view of sin and its prevalence.
Second, Christians believe in grace. We really, really believe in grace. Without grace there is no ground on which the Christian may stand. Our ongoing dependence on God’s grace means that we don’t have to justify ourselves. Specifically, we can readily admit our complicity and corruption within systems and structures that are often in conflict with God’s justice. As a white man who lives by grace, I’m able to acknowledge (when made aware) my blind spots and prejudices. In fact, I need not be surprised by them given the reality of sin in our world. Why wouldn’t I be affected by our injustice world? And why wouldn’t I be glad for every chance to lean again into the grace of God as I repent and am forgiven?
I know firsthand that these two attributes of Christianity are more easily stated than lived. Even so, there seems some reason to hope that the good, racist people Coates has rightly become weary of need not be our default identity.
Pastor Rich Johnson of Sanctuary Columbus Church in Ohio is a friend and partner in multi-ethnic ministry. Beginning in March he and I will begin blogging through this book and we’re inviting our readers to join us. Would you consider borrowing our buying the book and participating in the conversation next month?
Whether or not you’ve even considered the topic of incarceration, I strongly believe you’ll appreciate this book and it’s many implications. In the foreword, Dr. Cornel West writes,
Martin Luther King Jr. called for us to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable. The social movement fanned and fueled by this historic book is a democratic awakening that says we do care, that the racial caste system must be dismantled, that we need a revolution in our warped priorities, a transfer of power from oligarchs to the people—and that we are willing to live and die to make it so!
I hope you’ll pick up the book and join the discussion next month.