One for the history books
To say that this season in world history has been one for the history books is an understatement. Although our world was facing deeply complex and challenging events before we entered 2020, nothing could have prepared us (or at least for many of us) for what has occurred within the last six months. The incredible rise in death rate due to Covid-19, massive job loss with over hundred thousand small business closures in the US alone, social distancing and home isolation, and the incredible strain all of this has had on hundreds of thousands of communities in our nation and around the world has broached a breaking point.
And yet, even as the effects of a worldwide pandemic has been incredibly straining on all of us to one degree or another, something strangely good has happened. We have been given a gift. The gift of time. Time to stop doing what we normally do. Time to think about things we probably should have been thinking about more but hadn’t (or at least, not enough). Time to hold close our relationships with family and friends. Time to regret and grieve past decisions. Time to take the necessary grown up steps to make things right: as individuals, in our families, as a nation, and as a global society.
Regret and grief, and at times even outrage. These three human emotions have the power to bring us to our senses. To our knees if necessary.
And that is what they have done for many of us around the nation and around the world.
The murder of George Floyd
If there is one thing that Americans have needed to be brought to our knees about, it has been systemic racism. While a large number of white people in America widely assume that systemic racism is a thing of the past, this assumption simply does not line up with the data.
For people of color, our world has not been a safe place historically when it comes to social acceptance, economic opportunity and equal protection under law. Let’s take a look at each of these.
First of all, being a person of color means experiencing far more social challenges within the broader US society in comparison to white people (especially if one is black). It’s not that people of color are never accepted or don’t have tight knit quality friendships. They do. It’s that they often have to go through many more social hurdles in order to experience social acceptance by the larger white community within our nation and around the world. There are of course exceptions to this. In plenty of communities and pockets within the US and around the world, people of color experience social acceptance with minimal prejudice and discrimination.
Secondly, statistically and historically speaking, economic prosperity and opportunity has been much more limited for people of color (again, especially if one is black). This does not mean there are not successful people of color; there are. In fact, there are some places and regions in the US where equal opportunity is such a standard practice that to suggest this is not a standard practice everywhere might come as a shock to some people. “Surely, not in America. Isn’t that a thing of the past?” Again, based on statistical data, people of color have had to work much harder, are judged more severely and have had to overcome much more prejudice and discrimination than white people on a grand scale in the workplace (even in recent history).
Thirdly, in addition to economic disparities, statistical data also reveal that people of color do not experience equal protection under law. While that might sound absurd to some white people (and I’m sure it will), it has been the case that since the Civil War, the black community and other communities of color have not experienced equal protection under law. How? Take for instance how the black community is treated. Black people in particular experience a much higher likelihood of being pulled over by law enforcement, and black men have a higher likelihood of experiencing police brutality (including murder) than any other race, white or otherwise in America. In addition to this, our prisons are disproportionately filled with black and brown individuals when compared to white individuals.
The question is “why?”
The data strongly suggests that prejudices on the part of white law enforcement determine or guide how they respond to situations that involve people of color. This (of course) does not or should not mean all white police officers are racist; it does however suggest that there is a large enough number of white law enforcement officers across the nation that do carry varying degrees of prejudices and racism, and consequently people of color experience the fallout by not receiving equal protection under law.
More recently, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and now George Floyd are just the latest string of racially charged murders (Floyd’s by the knee of a police officer) that have been caught on camera over the last ten years, but why have their deaths led to such a dramatic response in the last few weeks by a renewed an invigorated Black Lives Matter movement around the US and around the world?
The perfect storm
Why now? Why George Floyd?
There’s many factors here for sure. The bottom line is that systemic racism never stopped post Civil War. While “slavery” technically stopped, systems remained both in the south and north that kept black people from achieving economic success and stability (call it a new kind of slavery). From ongoing lynchings of black people, a corrupt voting system and Jim Crow in the south to Redlining, bad loans and racially charged police brutality in major cities in the north, it is quite clear that white people with power and influence have taken advantage of black families for over the last one hundred and fifty years. The reason “poor and black” and “black crime” has become stereotypical of black communities in the inner cities is because of systemic causation, not because of an inherent lack of trying to be successful. In addition, in many of our cities in the US, blacks and other people of color have been targeted by police. Racial profiling is a reality. The reason for the outcry “equal justice” is that our law enforcement and legal system has not served the black community equally. They have abundant reason to claim there are two justice systems at work: one for blacks and one for whites.
Add to this, over the last three and half years, Americans have experienced political leadership at the highest level that has consistently used racially charged rhetoric that is both inflammatory and hostile toward Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and African Americans. If there was ever a time for a climate of systemic racism to be nurtured and excused, it would be now.
Another layer to this is, of course, the global pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been out of work or forced to work from home. Perhaps millions of people around the world have been out of work. Which means that more people have opportunity to watch videos on their television, Smartphones and other devices. What is one of the things people have been watching more of?
So when the initial cell-phone video recording of George Floyd’s murder was uploaded to YouTube and other social media platforms, the world was watching.
We watched as Floyd cried out, “I can’t breathe.” For eight minutes and forty-six minutes, officer Derek Chauvin had his knee to the neck of George Floyd. And something broke in the hearts of people around the world. Empathy began forming in us. For others, outrage. Something had to be done.
Coming off the heels of numerous race related murders over the last ten years, some by regular citizens and some by police, including Ahmaud Arbery and the more recent murder of Breonna Taylor by police acting on a no-knock warrant, America was in a listening posture. Followers of Jesus were also in a listening posture. The stage was set so that by the time we watched Floyd’s murder caught by a cell phone camera, we were gripped by both the inhumanity and the possibility that police brutality and systemic racism toward the black community was much more common than we had realized.
For such a time as this
It’s sometimes bewildering to hear the conspiracy theories surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic and that people I know give them serious attention. It’s equally bewildering that the reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement has been cast aside merely as the most recent leftist move to oust the president (as if that was the point of the movement!).
For followers of Jesus, it’s time to be careful about what we listen to and how much credence we give to conspiracies. Jesus has called us to stand with the least of these. To stand with those who have been marginalized in society. It’s time to do that now. Not tomorrow. It’s time to stop taking offense at the possibility that our country is a lot more racist than you had hoped or had come to believe. It’s time to start being people who are humble enough to receive criticism and correction.
And it’s time to show the fruit of repentance by standing with our black brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, children and youth.
It’s time to stop ignoring the very things Jesus told us to do.
Start by listening to the stories of people of color, including your friends, family and colleagues who have experienced individual and systemic racism. Let your full self show up when you listen. Look them in they eye. Attempt to put yourself in their shoes. Imagine what it must have been like to experience the racism they have experienced…to be part of a race or nationality that is more likely to experience racism than you are. If you feel like crying, cry. If you are outraged, be outraged. If you don’t know what to say, just listen. No matter what you are feeling when you listen, consider responding with something like, “I am so sorry this has happened to you. No one should have to experience those things.” If that feels too rehearsed, just listen. If you don’t know what to do or say, just listen.
As you do listen, you are dignifying them as human beings. And as you become persuaded that the horrors of individual and systemic racism exist, begin to speak out when you hear racist comments. Speak truth to power instead of being silent. If you are afraid, pray God gives you the courage and the strength.
The time is now.
“If we claim to know him, we need to live in the way of Jesus.” 1 John 3:16
Resources that have informed Peter’s thinking on race relations and systemic racism in America:
A people and a nation (2007)
Created Equal: A history of the United States (2009)
World Book Encyclopedia & Encyclopedia Brittanica articles on various topics in US History and the History of Western Civilization
Books (historical-research based)
Savage inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (1991) by Jonathon Kozol
We can’t teach what we don’t know: White teachers, Multi-racial schools (1999) by Gary R. Howard
Cold new world: Growing up in a harder country (1999) by William Finnegan
The myth of equality: Uncovering the roots of injustice and privilege (2017) by Ken Wytsma
Books by Christians (historical-research based)
Jesus wants to save Christians: A manifesto for the church in exile (2008) by Rob Bell & Don Golden
A new kind of Christianity: 10 questions that are transforming the faith (2010) by Brian D. McLaren
The great spiritual migration: How the world’s largest religion is seeking a better way to be Christian (2016) by Brian D. McLaren
The myth of equality: Uncovering the roots of injustice and privilege (2017) by Ken Wytsma
Conversations with people of color
Conversations with friends and colleagues (who are people of color) over the last twenty years have put flesh and bones to this conversation. You can do all the research in the world but until you listen to someone’s experiences with racism, this topic remains impersonal.