“Christian, how should you FEEL about what happened in Ferguson, and what it’s surfaced in our nation? Your Soul Should Be Troubled.”
This recent Facebook post from pastor Leonce Crump describes exactly how I feel about the events that have been taking place in Ferguson, Missouri. I am troubled. I am troubled at the events, at the pain, at what they indicate about our country. I am troubled by many of the responses from fellow white people, responses tacitly or explicitly declaring the inferiority of minorities. Responses seeking to make this simply an issue of an officer’s right to defend himself while ignoring the larger landscape in which the event took place. And I am troubled because entire races of people are subject to injustice and hardship at the hands – intentional or otherwise – of my race.
So I write this as a middle class white American male, maybe the most privileged group in the world. I write it as someone who is not guiltless of prejudice. I write with the sense that you don’t have to have it all figured out to say something that matters; you simply have to have seen enough of the truth to be changed by it. And I write it to fellow white people.
We can no longer refuse to see the bigger racial issue. Whether it is in the shooting of Trayvon Martin or Mike Brown, we cannot write it off as an isolated incident, an unfortunate accident, or something else. The fact that we can move on with life mere hours after such an event is indicative of the privilege we experience as the majority culture. We have the freedom to not care because it doesn’t affect us, we don’t ever face the threat of such violence. And in not caring we perpetuate the larger problem. That problem is systemic injustice toward those with darker skin than our own. It can be seen in the justice system, the school system, and employment opportunities.
If you are inclined to doubt this, to think it’s underprivileged people crying “victim”, to blame the victims for acting or looking or talking a certain way, to think “those people could better their lives if they really wanted to” I suspect that’s because you were raised white. (The alternative is that you were raised white and overtly racist.) You have never had to see the threat or to experience it. You aren’t this way on purpose; it’s your upbringing in the majority culture. The majority culture always gets to set the rules, and we set them to favor ourselves. The rules come so naturally to us we don’t even notice them. Our power begets power, and your perspective is a byproduct of being raised in it.
Minorities point to it. Protestors decry it. Sociology declares it. And if you look, really look, you will see it. Racial inequality is alive and well. Do not refuse to look!
Don’t make Mike Brown’s shooting about one officer pulling the trigger. Our trust is in due process and we are inclined to trust law enforcement. Why? Because they have never wronged us! Most of them don’t seek to wrong anyone. But our inclination to trust makes it too easy to demonize Mike Brown in an effort to exonerate officer Darren Wilson. I believe in due process. I believe in facts and justice. I believe in innocence until proof of guilt and a right to a fair trial. In fact, I believe in this for white and black and brown people alike. But we get too caught up discussions of due process and an officer’s right to defend himself. And we miss the massive forest for one spindly little tree.
Would there be such an outcry over a young man’s death if it was an isolated incident? If there were no writhing worms in the can then what would it matter if the lid was taken off? This kind of pained, angry response harkens back to Birmingham, to sit-ins, to bus boycotts, to a time when an oppressed group of people had no recourse but to take public and drastic action to call for justice. We are the ones they are calling, and they deserve our attention.
They deserve our listening ears. They deserve our caring hearts and open minds. They deserve our respect. They deserve our self-examination. And they deserve us examining our culture to weed out the inequities and injustices.
All this is enough to make a suburban white man like me feel great guilt. Should I? Does my whiteness incriminate me? No! God made me this way. He determined that I be born to a middle-class white family in the Midwest (although I had the chance to grow up in the inner city). I bear no guilt for my upbringing and neither do you.
But we must remember that God made black people, Hispanic people, and Asian people too. He made them that way on purpose, and God makes no mistakes. White folks and non-whites bear the same image, that of a majestic creator. Our respective cultures all reflect His creativity and character. But we all also bear the stains of sin. No one culture is better and no one culture is worse, though we are all inclined to think of our own as the best and to overlook its flaws
While we don’t bear guilt for our whiteness, we do bear responsibility. If the events in Ferguson have accomplished one thing, let be to have awakened us to this fact.We have responsibility as part of the majority culture, the power-bearing culture, the rule-making culture. Our role may be small. It may be non-legislative. But if each of us was to take steps to learn to be aware, to speak up, to reach out to minority cultures what a difference it could make collectively.
We have responsibility as just one of the tribes, tongues, and nations who will one day bow the knee to Jesus Christ. We will be joined on equal ground by all the other cultures before our one king. We cannot spend the time between now and then distancing ourselves, cocooning ourselves in willful ignorance of others’ plights.
And we bear responsibility, as those who have received profound grace, to care for those who need grace. To whom much has been given much will be required. Jesus said that, and I think part of what he was taking about was the responsibility to help those who need it. As white Americans we have been blessed, due to no merit of our own, with cultural cache and leverage. If we had been born in another time or place we could have been the oppressed. That is a gift, but if we hoard that gift instead of seeking to right wrongs and expose injustices we will be no better than the worthless servant in Jesus’ parable.
I welcome your comments and feedback. Please comment. But given the sensitivity of this subject and this post I will not approve any comment that I deem to be racially insensitive or hurtful to others.