REFLECTION: Ferguson – Reflections on race and racism in America

Scott WrightBy Scott Wright, Former PCUSA National Council member & member of Pax Christi Metro D.C.-Baltimore

On August 9, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by six bullets fired at close range by a white Ferguson, Missouri police officer.

His death sparked outrage in this black suburb of St. Louis, and led to weeks of nightly protests in the streets where black residents faced off with a militarized white police force ready to turn on U.S. citizens as though they were enemy combatants.

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It was a familiar story, but something seemed different this time. The police response to the protests looked like they were prepared to invade a village in Iraq or Afghanistan. Black protesters, hands in the air, carried signs with the message: “Hands up, don’t shoot!” What happened?

I remembered last summer, when thousands of people – black and white – returned to the site of the 1963 March of Washington on the 50th anniversary to remember and recommit themselves to work for racial justice in our nation. Then, the mood was festive, though Martin Luther King III reminded the crowd: “Our task is still not done, the journey is not over,” and Congressman John Lewis issued a challenge: “We cannot go back. We cannot wait. We want jobs and freedom.”

This summer, on the eve of the anniversary of the March on Washington, we were reminded by the events in Ferguson of all that has not changed in our country these past fifty years.

Some Are Guilty, All Are Responsible

A few weeks ago, I participated in “A National Service of Mourning in remembrance of those who have died in Palestine and Israel.” Again, a familiar story, but something – the overwhelming use of violence and the media coverage of it – seemed different this time. The BBC reported that 2,104 Palestinians, of whom 1,451 were civilians, were killed in the Israeli airstrikes over Gaza; by contrast, 66 Israeli soldiers and 7 Israeli citizens were killed in the conflict.

The interfaith service began on a note of lamentation and confession, and included voices of Palestinians who had lost family members in Gaza, and an Israeli conscientious objector who refused to fight. I was intensely aware that it mattered whether we came to the service as Christians, Jews or Muslims, because in real life it matters, and we must acknowledge the violence for which each of us is responsible. It mattered and it didn’t matter, because we were joined by our common humanity and mourning for the loss of innocent life, as well as by a common dream for peace. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Some are guilty, all are responsible.”

Prior to and after the service, my thoughts returned to the events in Ferguson, Missouri. I thought, too, that it matters whether we approach Ferguson as whites or as blacks, because, in Dr. Martin Luther King’s words, “Racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame.” It mattered and it didn’t matter, because, again in Dr. King’s words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Two Societies: One Black, One White – Separate and Unequal

I came of age in the 1960s, and still remember the vivid media images of riots in the streets of major cities across the United States. I remember the night in 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King was killed, and joined my first protest with blacks and whites on a southern university campus. My roommate was African American, from a poor family in Richmond, Virginia. We watched with horror the scenes on TV of U.S. soldiers with machine-guns on the steps of the U. S. Capitol, and then joined hundreds of fellow protesters, locking arms and singing together, “We Shall Overcome.” I was 18 years old, and became aware for the first time that I had a new identity. I was “white,” and I had just received notice to register for the draft.

These were turbulent times. Even “official” voices declared we were living in “a system of apartheid” in our major cities, and “Our nation was moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” That was the conclusion of the Kerner Report, which was commissioned by President Johnson in 1967 after three years and 24 racial riots in 23 cities between 1964 and 1967.

The commission asked: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?” And it put the blame squarely on white racism: “What white Americans have never fully understood – but what blacks can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Why did it happen? The report concluded: “Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.” Specifically, “pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of blacks from the benefits of economic progress.” And for many blacks, the police “have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.”

Powerful words, and a powerful indictment from fifty years ago. How much has changed? The roots of white racism are deep, and go beyond laws that discriminate. White racism is still institutionalized in employment, education and health care, housing and criminal justice practices that exclude great numbers of blacks from the benefits and opportunities of a dignified life with hope for the future.

What Happened in Ferguson?

Two recent articles from The Washington Post, one optimistic and one pessimistic, both by African American professors, are instructive.

The first article (by Fredrick Harris, August 24) asks, “Will Michael Brown Become Emmett Till?” Emmett Till was the black teenager from Chicago who was viciously lynched in Mississippi in 1955 and whose family spoke at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, standing next to the parents of Trayvon Martin, the black youth killed in 2012 by a white man “standing his ground” in Florida. The article’s optimistic conclusion is “no,” things are different now: The cumulative effect of police misconduct against black people has exposed the reality of police brutality; there has been a backlash against rhetoric that blames poor black youth; innovative protest tactics like the ones used in Ferguson have been effective in attracting media attention; and the support of allies demanding justice and reforms in policing is important.

The second article (by Carol Anderson, August 31) says: “Ferguson Isn’t about Black Rage,” it’s about white rage and fear, particularly in light of the changing demographics and predictions that whites will be a minority by the year 2050. Today, the picture is not as hopeful as that painted by the previous article: There is a rash of voter-suppression legislation, a rise in stand-your-ground laws and continuing police brutality, a foreclosure crisis that stripped blacks of half of their wealth, and the mass incarceration of black youth that is depriving an entire generation of hope.

The Problem Not Talked About

Recently, a friend of mine shared an observation she learned as a social worker: “The only problems that can’t be solved are those that aren’t talked about.” That’s seems to fit the current situation of white racism in America.

Why is it so difficult to engage with one another in a national conversation about racism, or to strategize together – black and white – about how to combat institutional racism? Especially when our friends and our children’s friends, our co-workers and fellow parishioners, are often of another race?

Rev. Bryan Massingale, a priest of the Milwaukee diocese, moral theologian at Marquette University and convener of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium, has addressed many of these concerns in his book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. His words, I believe, speak to the reality we face, as Americans, as people of faith, and as Catholics:

“Today the continuing resistance to racial equality, despite undeniable progress, can be largely explained by a fundamental ambivalence on the part of the majority of white Americans: their desire to denounce blatant racial injustices, and yet preserve a situation of white social dominance and privilege. To say it plainly, most Americans are committed to both interpersonal decency and systemic inequality.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said something similar in 1967, in words which still ring true: “White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap [of inequality] – essentially it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects to retain it. . . . The great majority of Americans are suspended between . . . opposing attitudes. They are uneasy with [racial] injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.”

Only One Third of the Dream?

What would Dr. King say today to his white brothers and sisters regarding our response to the events in Ferguson, and beyond Ferguson to the plight of our African American sisters and brothers in America today? What the Kerner Commission characterized as “a system of apartheid” is still true if we look at the levels of poverty, unemployment, incarceration, access to education and health care along racial lines today.

Perhaps Dr. King would say what he did in his letter fifty years ago from Birmingham Jail:

“I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. . . I  came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause, and with deep moral concern, serve as the channel through which our just grievances would get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.”

Yet he would, perhaps, also express his disappointment with love and with hope: “In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. . . . Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all of their scintillating beauty.”

The recent events in Ferguson challenge us – black and white – to a conversation about race and effective action to end the violence of institutionalized racism. Dr. Martin Luther King’s challenge to eliminate the “giant triplets” of poverty, racism and war inspires us to work for such a magnificent dream. With a little imagination and re-engagement we – and here I express a hope for all of us, black and white – can see the wisdom of Dr. King’s vision to include all three: “A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth and with righteous indignation say: ‘This is not just.’” . . . A true revolution of values will strive “to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation. . . Racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame.” . . . A true revolution of values “will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’”

It was the struggle of African Americans for racial justice and Dr. King’s Vietnam address at Riverside Church in 1967 that helped turn the tide against the war in Vietnam; and it was the Poor People’s March in 1968 that brought the national disgrace of poverty in the U.S. to the gates of the White House and demanded a reordering of our national priorities to promote justice at home, not war in some distant land. It will take all of us – black and white, immigrant and native-born, Muslim, Christian and Jew – to build an effective movement for justice and peace that can challenge the violence of racism, poverty, and war.

Today we are, in Dr. King’s words, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. . . .” “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

A Word of Caution from the Past

A few months ago – before Ferguson – I visited the American History museum in Washington D.C. and the exhibit on the March on Washington. In its film recollection, you can hear the voices of A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, and many others, as well as the dramatic address of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fifty years later, the words are inspiring – and challenging. The one speech that challenged me the most, however, was given by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who offered a word of caution to the nation on that day in 1963. He said:

“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

All life is precious, and the destruction of any life – black or white, Muslim, Christian, or Jew – is a grave violation of the common humanity and Abrahamic heritage we share. May we not be silent in the face of any violence – be that the institutional violence of poverty, racism or war – but instead work for that day when Dr. King’s Gospel dream of a beloved community may become a reality.

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