During the past six months, our country has witnessed multiple deaths of Black men and women on our media platforms. One on a jog killed by a white father and son. Another having his neck held down while in police custody with three other police officers watching. A Black man was shot seven times in the back by a police officer and is paralyzed. A Black woman was killed when officers entered her home with a no knock warrant. These are just three recent events, lest we forget Ferguson, Chicago, Baltimore, New York City, et cetera, et cetera. In response, we have seen peaceful protests turn into riots across our nation from New York City all the way to Grand Rapids, Michigan.
While I recognize that many white Americans are outraged about police violence against Black Americans, I also hear many white people criticizing the protests in response to the violence. Questions and comments such as:
- I do not understand. Why are they protesting? Why are there riots? Most police officers are good people.
- Protests and riots do not accomplish anything. It just destroys property and makes people mad. Things are better than they used to be. This does not help.
And most of us have heard what President Trump relayed to Governors across America earlier this year: ‘If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate.’ And after Kenosha, the President also compared shooting a Black man seven times in the back to a professional golfer choking on a three-foot putt.
For me, these horrific events and comments are part of a much larger race relations problem in America beyond law enforcement, and makes me sympathize with the Black protesters. Consider this data:
- Birth outcomes are racialized. White babies are more likely to survive to their first birthday.
- Educational outcomes are racialized. White students do better on standardized tests.
- Health outcomes are racialized. White people live longer and have less chronic disease.
- Incarceration rates are racialized. White people do not go to prison as much and serve less time when they do.
- Wealth and income distribution are racialized. White people have larger bank accounts and higher incomes.
My conclusion: Systemic racism is alive and well in the United States because there is no way that birth, education, health, incarceration, wealth and income outcomes can be like they are without a system that perpetuates it.
I wrote in the ‘About’ section, that faith was important part of my life growing up. So here is a bias…As a Christian, white guy who grew up in the traditional family, homogeneous, reformed church and attended multi-cultural public schools, who worked in public policy, I look around and think: ‘My LORD, white America, and especially white evangelical Christian America are asking the wrong questions. Making the wrong comments. We are doing the exact opposite of how to move toward peace and wholeness.’
Instead I wonder:
- How come it has taken so long to get to this point?
- Why haven’t we heard and responded to the prophets of our generations…people like Martin Luther King or John Perkins?
- When are we going to fulfill the Greatest Commandment to Love our Neighbor like ourselves? When are we going to live like what is described in Acts with Christians sharing everything among themselves? When are we going to live out the Old Testament Jubilee, and take care of those that do not have food and return property to original owners? When oh LORD are we going to reconcile our sin and behavior like Paul describes?
- Where are the leaders you are calling? Where are your followers in all of this?
I would ask my white friends and colleagues, especially those who claim to be brothers and sisters in Christ, to contemplate the following:
- If we knew that our children were less likely to have a first birthday; or were less likely to receive a quality education than their peers, how would we respond?
- If we knew our parents were more likely to have heart disease and diabetes and/or die earlier what would we do (especially in this COVID-19 era)?
- If we knew our sons and daughters were more likely to receive a longer prison term if they committed a crime, would we stand for that?
- And what if we knew that our young adults were less likely to have a job, or a job that could sustain their family how would we cry out? What would we do?
From our nation’s beginning, we have thought of ourselves as a Christian nation. We celebrate the Pilgrims leaving Europe for religious freedom. We call ourselves blessed by God because we are the richest nation in the world. We remind ourselves that Christian abolitionists helped end slavery 150 years ago. We hail the role of the church in the Civil Rights movement that led to the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the Voting Rights Act and many decisions of the Supreme Court that outlawed ‘separate but equal.’ Yet here we are in 2020, and the data tells me we are not progressing nearly as much as we might think we are. We are not loving our neighbor as ourselves. We are not creating heaven on earth. Our Black brothers and sisters are suffering and have been for years. Clearly, something is wrong.
But how do we change this direction? How do we move forward? What is the next best move to help create a ‘good life’ (or some heaven on earth) in this pluralistic, multi-cultural, small ‘d’ American democracy we live in? Let me try to offer some solutions or Ideas to Consider:
Learn history. White America needs to learn about the history of Black America and its impact on today. Look beyond the obvious sins of slavery, Jim Crow segregation laws, and the poll taxes. Learn about the connection between the Great Migration, the Depression, and the wealth of African Americans today. Learn about the eruption of ‘local school districts’ and its correlation of funding schools by property tax after Brown vs Board of Education, and what that did to impact education outcomes. Learn about the GI Bill, mortgage underwriting, red lining and local zoning laws impacts on wealth creation, and ensuring segregation at the same time. And then, consider the trauma and toxic stress these historical events, policies, and decisions have had on generation after generation of African Americans. Pulling yourself up by the boot strap certainly gets harder with an extra 100 pounds of stones in your boot.
Dedicate ourselves to improved communication. Most people would suggest that white America needs to listen to the stories and experiences of Black American in a new way so we can build our empathetic skills. I would offer that white America needs to improve its communication skills with Black America. Communication includes listening, but is so much more. While we listen, we need to be aware that our body language, our tone of voice, our facial expressions and our words either begin to build trust or diminish it. We cannot get away from it. The small nod of the head. The raised eyebrow. An inquisitive eye. They can show our heart in a flash. Are we leaning in, committed to learn and understand? Or are we going through the motions? Will we change our behavior or continue to accept what is?
Practice empathy. When you google ‘empathy definition’ this is what comes up first: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another (Oxford). Simple. Straightforward. And oh, so hard. This is a journey that requires intentionality and commitment. And it requires to step out of our comfort zones, visit new places, experience new things. But so often we do not want to do that because we like it our way.
But just like when we are learning to play an instrument, shooting a basket, or hitting a ball, we need to practice empathy in order to become good at it. And when we do get good at a new skill, it feels good and allows us to participate in the orchestra, band or game in a more impactful manner. Changing the racialized outcomes throughout the United States does not seem possible unless we better understand and share the feelings of Black America. We need to start practicing our empathy skills if we believe in the Great Commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Intervene at a community level, not an individual one. Attempting to change one life at a time is futile in a country as large as ours. Attempting to create uniform, national change is futile in a country as large as ours. Local communities have different needs embedded within different cultures.
As an example, health outcomes are unlikely to change in rural areas if a physician is not available to diagnose ailments. Yet, an urban neighbor may be surrounded by physicians but unable to get a needed appointment because their insurance does not pay enough. To address this type of problem and others, it is imperative that the interventions need to be tailored to local and state dynamics. Large scale bureaucracies and one size fits all policies cannot improve racialized outcomes. Finding community-based solutions that match local need allows local communities to own their future.
In my view, Christian communities can play a significant role in this by living out Biblical commands in the workplace with Christian business owners creating policies such as paying higher wages or increased retirement match opportunities, granting post-secondary scholarships and/or down-payment assistance for homeownership options, creating equity options for all employees, et cetera. Churches can create non-profit organizations to meet basic needs. Christians can organize and work together to influence and/or create and pass local and state policies that reflect Biblical values rather than secular ones designed to benefit those in power. This is but a short list of options and the ideas can be endless, only limited by one’s imagination.
Recognize that there is not a silver bullet to any social problem. Too often, I hear people say, ‘If they just did this, everything would be better.’ Or ‘If we did this, that would solve the problem.’ People are too complex. The economy and capitalism are too complex. Government is too complex. Also, we need to remember that small ‘d’ American democracy is not designed for quick change. That is why the private sector – businesses, philanthropy, churches, healthcare and/or education – need to lead the way and engage government to change how it spends its resources.
We also need to remember that there is hope because we have seen slavery end. We have recently seen criminal justice and prison reform take center stage, with new laws passed that reduce sentences. We have seen African American infant mortality rates drop in parts of the country. Is there work to be done? Of course – lots of it. But we have hope because we know change is possible when we work hard to create it.
Reprioritize our labels. Last – but so important. We need to reprioritize our labels, and identify ourselves as humans first. Not Republicans. Not Democrats. Not Conservative, progressive, and/or liberal. Not White, Black, Asian, Latinx. But people who care about our neighbors because it is good for us as individuals to see them prosper too.
Postscript – There is one last thing I want to share with my friends that identify as Christians, especially those who call themselves Evangelical Christians.
No single political party, philosophy, ethnicity and/or race has a hold on what the Bible says or how the Holy Spirit moves today. No President has been or ever will be perfect. Some of us would be wise to learn from how the Millennial generation seems to live out their understanding of Christian creation care which transcends any one political label. If we identify ourselves as Christians first, we will be compelled to live out the Jubilee, the story of the Good Samaritan, the return of the prodigal son, the communal practices of the first Christian communities.
I have attended, participated in, and observed the workings of many different types of protestant churches. Large churches, multi-racial churches, medium-size churches, highly liturgical churches, charismatic churches, dying churches, leaderless churches, healthy churches. All kinds of churches. Church seems to work when people are willing to get in the trenches, to get dirty, be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit, and respond to the BIG issues of the day. When churches look inward or try to maintain the status quo they struggle and disappear.
Today, there is not a bigger issue in my mind than the racialized outcomes within our country, the hurt they cause, and the fear demonstrated by those thinking they could lose power. So much so they are willing to go as far as to kill unarmed people. Yet, many Christians and the church in general seem to turn our back from standing up and addressing these systematic sins because solving them would require us to move beyond our comfort zones, challenge our conventional thinking, surrender some comforts and change our behavior.
Friends, the reckoning is here. Will Christians and churches stand up to influence our world and create the ‘good life’ for all of God’s children? Will we help to create heaven on earth that brings God’s peace? Or will we continue to stay in the background and see our nation continue its march toward the religious affiliation of ‘None.’ Time to decide.