JET: What role do white Christians play in justice for African Americans?
Pastor Daniel: That’s a question that I regularly ask my African American friends, co-workers and mentors. And it’s a question that we as white Christians should pay close attention to when answers are proposed. One thing I do feel clearly convicted of is the need for white Christians to actively and collectively repent for our complicity in the creation of our racist landscape. While I’m grateful for the exceptions that have stood in solidarity with the oppressed, the overwhelming history of our country reveals a picture of white Christians standing on the wrong side of justice, and often serving as the ones to perpetuate injustice. So there is much to repent for.
–Daniel Hill is a friend and pastor here in Chicago. He participated in the prayer vigil on Monday and his prayer of repentance on behalf of white people caught the attention of CNN and Jet magazine. If you read the entire interview you’ll know why Daniel has become a good friend and trusted guide in matters of reconciliation and the multi-ethnic church. I’m sad for the ugly response by some to his honesty but I’m incredibly grateful that so many are benefitting from his witness.
After the release of the video documenting Laquan McDonald’s murder by a Chicago police officer, some clergy friends and I worked to pull together a prayer vigil at police headquarters. It was amazing to see hundreds of faith leaders and community members come out on a rainy night to pray for justice. The top photo is my friend Pastor Chris Harris and below is Michelle Dodson, our church’s associate pastor who prayed a powerful lament over our city.
I remember the days following September 11, 2001 more vividly than I do the infamous day itself. Or that’s how it seems to me now, a couple of days after the terrorist attacks in Paris. I read the columns and the memories and emotions of that other fall day come rushing back. I hear President François call the attacks an act of war, I hear him promise a merciless fight, and I can hear my own president then describing the attacks in Manhattan with similarly confident adjectives.
Tonight, waiting to board my flight just 48 hours after the Paris attacks, I read the first reports of the French warplanes that are now bombing Syrian villages. I remember watching the televised reports about my country’s similar retaliation in Afghanistan and wondering what I was supposed to feel as this ravaged country became the target of our collective wrath. I’m sitting on this plane, flying east over darkness broken regularly by small midwestern towns and I’m thinking about those warplanes, raining down fire on a similarly darkened landscape.
Right now. It’s happening right now.
In Lebanon families and friends are grieving their murdered loved ones, victims of a massive suicide attack the day before the attacks in Paris. There were not, as far as I can tell, any American skyscrapers or public monuments lit up in the colors of Lebanon’s flag in the days following the attack. Yet the French red, white, and blue were everywhere, a global response appropriate to our president’s assessment that the tragedy in Paris was an attack on the civilized world. Lebanon, it would seem, is not civilized enough to warrant our sympathetic outpouring. Or, more likely, we don’t see the Lebanese women and men who now grieve as being like us; we believe them to be different enough that our emotional response is categorically different. We ignore them.
This too feels eerily familiar. Almost 15 years ago we began preparing for two wars -wars that have never really ceased – because the victims of the September attacks warranted an unequivocal and ruthless response. We may not have initially known it, but it became clear as time passed that we were willing for tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis to die. For what? This has never been adequately explained to me.
Today, as in 2011, there are loud, powerful voices who demand vengeance. We are told that the only appropriate and honorable response is to make our enemies suffer. But can this be right? I’ve been to some funerals lately for young men in our city who were gunned down. At these funerals there are calls for justice and for peace, but there is something else too. There is grief, mourning, even wailing. There is lament and repentance for whatever role our own selfish apathy played in these horrible deaths.
A funeral deserve a dirge but it would appear that, once again, we’re opting for the drumbeat of war.
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.
This morning NPR featured a story from Chicago about police becoming more cautious as a result of increased public scrutiny. The idea here is that post-Ferguson, when it has become common for police misconduct to be captured on video, police are less likely to get involved in situations that could turn ugly. Our mayor has recently advanced this same theory to explain the rise in gun violence our city is experiencing.
In other words, the reason certain communities are suffering increased violence is because those same communities are looking for ways to protect themselves from violence. This, as best I can tell, is the logic.
About halfway through the story a former Chicago police officer is interviewed. This officer remembers a time when community policing was a priority, when neighbors knew and respected their beat cop. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard similar things from neighbors and community leaders. But community policing programs are no longer a priority, ostensibly because they cost too much and our city is too broke. In place of officer-community relationships that were built over time, Chicago, like so many cities, now relies on big data to fight crime. Our mayor and police superintendent praise the ability of data to predict crime and stop it preemptively. Stop-and-frisk is viewed as a reasonable and even necessary tactic within the logic of big data, despite its inherently discriminatory nature.
Old-school community policing is never mentioned by our city leaders as a realistic response to violence despite the benefits to those who suffer the most from our city’s violence. Why? Because our city, like most of us, have believed the lies promised by technology. Technology, in the form of data-driven policing strategies, promises to save us money because software and a few number-crunchers are cheaper than employing trusted women and men to police specific neighborhoods. Technology has also promised to do the hard work of policing better with machines than can be done by people.
But these are lies and we’ve believed them because technology is our beloved idol. The data does save the city money, but the cost is passed on exponentially to the communities that are suffering violence. And data does allow the police department to operate efficiently on paper, but this efficiency is unjust and harmful to those who are sliced, diced, and generalized, to those whose experience of the data is not efficient but discriminatory.
It’s not surprising that the communities suffering violence are being blamed for this year’s increased shootings and murder. It’s not surprising but neither is it true. And only by worshipping at technology’s altar could we believe that those suffering our city’s violence can also be blamed for it.
There is a connection between two people who have recently dominated headlines and news feeds: Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal. It’s not the false equivalency between a transgender person and Ms Dolezal’s wrong-headed idea that she, a white woman, can identify as African American. Rather, the similarity that interests me is how these two individuals and their decisions have become the stories that matter.
In Ms Jenner’s case the narrative has generally been one of bravery, honesty, and even heroism. In contrast, Ms Dolezal has been portrayed as the villain: deceitful, manipulative, and potentially mentally unstable. Whiteness is what connects these two as their stories are elevated and made important by a predominately white media. In Ms Jenner the media found a privileged person whose radical decisions demand nothing of the beneficiaries of white supremacy. And in Ms Dolezal the media have the convenient opposite- a white person whose sins seem so strange and obvious that the ensuing reprimands risk no actual association. This particular white person can be ridiculed endlessly, her story deemed worthy of repeated news cycles because there is no concern that whiteness itself will be taken to task.
And so, in recent weeks, these two white people have been made ubiquitous as their stories seemingly require the media’s full attention and analysis. Ms Jenner became our example of bravery, a move which allows us to ignore that in America courage is most evident and most often required among those without the so-called privilege of white skin. With Ms Jenner as our hero we don’t have to consider how our own implicit biases and oppressive power are the reasons so many must be courageous in ways that will never be noticed or legitimized by our media. And with Ms Dolezal as our scapegoat we are off the hook for our less obvious racial sins. In contrast to her strange deception, our homogenous neighborhoods, segregated churches, and polite prejudices seem hardly worth acknowledging, much less confessing.
I don’t mean to imply that the issues raised by these two women’s decisions aren’t worth considering. Their public decisions are important and deserve compassionate critique. I doubt, however, that they are the issues most deserving of our attention and whether the ways which our white media frames these issues are legitimate and just. But should we expect anything different? Our white-washed society has always made it clear whose stories are worth knowing and whose need not be told. By accepting that these two people represent the most important stories of the moment, my own white life is made simpler, easier. And once again, black and brown people are made invisible, their stories of heroism and suffering deemed unimportant by a society and its media that care only for its(white)self.
Fear. This is what I saw in the video from McKinney, TX. Yes, fear in the eyes of the young women and men as the police arrived but, most evidently, fear in the police. Those with the badges and guns, with the authority of the state to justify their actions and cover their tracks- it was their voices and body language that betrayed the fear most plainly.
The police were afraid of these young women and men and they chased their black and brown bodies into the ground. It makes no sense. What can this be other than a sickness of spirit? What must be projected onto these children to justify such terror?
And then there is the young woman, pinned to the ground, the officer’s knee grinding into her back as his hand repeatedly forces her face into the grass. Surely she too feels fear; how could she not? But there is something else that comes through more clearly. There is defiance in her voice, courage in her body. She does not lay limp beneath this abusive power. She resists. She is brave.
This holy defiance is as old as this country. It is necessary because of this country.
The police officer’s fear is contagious. For many of us it is genetic, seemingly woven into the fabric of our white skin and privileged minds. We ignore it most of the time, telling ourselves that we are somehow uniquely immune to this country’s racist air. But it’s a lie and anything less than telling the truth about our complicity means that we are this brutal officer’s enablers.
We cannot be delicate about this.
The young woman’ defiance points the way forward. We hear it in her voice. We’ve seen it in the eyes of so many other young women and men. Fear need not have the final word. A mustard seed’s worth of faith is our starting point- the conviction that this will not be the end, that Justice himself will prevail.