Last modified: Aug 2, 2020

Growing up in The Bronx doesn’t make me qualified to write about any of the following. I’m not Black, and I cannot understand what my Black friends, brothers, and sisters are feeling when they see the contrived features of this nation dressed up as coincidental bugs.

But when I saw the government giving permission to local police to use tear gas on citizens (to make their breathing uncomfortable) who are out protesting a man whom a police officer suffocated to death (as he cried out I can’t breathe) smack dab in the middle of a global pandemic (that severely impacts the respiratory system)… my brain couldn’t quite process the compelling irony.

Taking a step back and being quiet so we can ask the right questions, explore real history, listen to learn, and find how to serve the Black community can help all of us — not just today in 2020, but in perpetuity. It’s helping me.

Here’s what I’m learning, and here’s what I think Christians need to know.


Validity

In America, we can’t have a conversation about racism without somebody eventually changing the subject.

When a professional athlete peacefully takes a knee — after consulting a military veteran — on national TV to raise awareness for America’s deep-seated dual problems of systemic oppression and police brutality, the conversation shifts: Should they be disrespecting the flag?

When a pop culture icon peacefully makes a symbolic statement from an award show stage to throw a spotlight on injustice in America, the conversation shifts: Is hip-hop poisoning our youth?

When people organize protests and take part in civic rebellions to disrupt the status quo and raise the profile of the glaring need for social justice for Black lives, the conversation shifts: Can’t you just do all of this peacefully?

Peacefully? You mean like… taking a knee during an anthem or putting on a high-production musical performance dripping with flashing lights and symbolism?

hamster running on wheel

I’ll admit the news of looting and destruction — especially by opportunistic and insincere co-opters of the cause — is troubling, but to panic over the property damage is to distract from and minimize the actual, deep-seated, uniquely American problem stemming from systems that are designed to carry out and perpetuate racial inequity and injustice. To put it bluntly: we should collectively be more upset about the way Black people are treated in America than about the protests carried out by Black people and allies because of how Black people are treated in America.

We find ourselves in the middle of A Moment.

While the catalyst for this Moment may have been a series of tragedies, the inciting event was perhaps the singular violent one that has become ingrained in our minds both here and abroad: a video of a Black man being choked out by a white cop during a simple/petty arrest while gasping for air with pleads of #ICantBreathe rolling from his throat and into the ether. The other events were equally troubling: the slaying of a Black person while they sat in their home, and the slaying of a Black person while they were taking a stroll out in their neighborhood.

Maybe you thought I was talking about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

Maybe. Or I could have been talking about Eric Garner, Botham Jean, and Trayvon Martin — the last time we learned about a video of a choke-out death and #ICantBreathe, a home slaying, and a neighborhood slaying.

Maybe. Or I could be speaking, with a heavy sense of dread, in advance of the next time it happens all over again. Because, in America, it’s inevitable we’ll see history repeat itself in this way or some similar iteration.

It feels like we are always in A Moment.

And that’s because, in America, we kinda are:

 

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That timeline is absurd to look at because we’re still living right in the middle of what feels like an endless loop. Of violence, of discrimination, of injustice, of inequality. Of Moments.

In a country built, on the one hand, on the pretentious piety of “All men are created equal” and, on the other hand, on the blood, sweat, tears, and deaths of those considered property under the inhumanity of chattel slavery (and all the various adaptations of slavery since), the reality is that racism bleeds through the threads of the fabrics of this nation — a more persistent and prevalent crisis than any novel coronavirus for which we can at least plan toward a remedy. Any attempts to sever those fibers will and, frankly, ought to feel uncomfortable.

I acknowledge the validity of the righteous indignation, anger, and grief of the Black community.

I generally don’t operate under the impression that most people are sinister or evil. However, I have to admit the obvious incongruences I notice whenever I see the fence-straddlers use carefully curated Bible verses or Insta-quotes from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to call for peace and plead for deferring outrage until some phantom more appropriate time and place can be determined. People didn’t generally like Jesus or Dr. King much when they were alive, and they were both killed for, at the very least, their influence on the trajectory of social justice in their eras. If you’re not okay sitting in the necessary discomfort of seeking better justice today, I can assure you you wouldn’t have been too fond of either Christ or Dr. King then.

If Christians and the collective Church don’t have it in them to chip away at or rip away the roots of racial division in this country, then the rebellion should continue to be televised.

And tweeted.

And live streamed.

mount rushmore

Power

To understand all of the complex layers in the Black American relationship with policy and local law enforcement, we have to tie the present with the past. While racialization is the begetter of much of this tension, it’s necessary to explore how (mostly White) America’s baffling love affair with law and order and the military collides with the collective Black experience under White American hegemony.

Last Resort

When President Trump referred to the (mostly White) protesters — who stormed into the Michigan Capitol in May 2020, armed to the teeth — as “very good people,” it echoed similar sentiments he shared about White Nationalists (i.e. “very fine people”) in August 2017.

In that same May tweet, he urged Michigan’s governor should “make a deal” with them, because he felt in his heart “these [mostly White protestors with guns] are very good people, but they are angry.”

Keep this in mind: those (mostly White) people with guns storming the Capitol were literally up in arms because they wanted to go get haircuts and do other super-essential life things in the middle of a real-life global pandemic.

After George Floyd’s slaying — caught on video — led to protests from good, but angry, Black people, here’s what Trump had to say:

Good, but angry, people vs. thugs.

Very good people vs. “very bad” people.

Make a deal vs. shoot.

White vs. Black.

The immediate pushback against any reasonable criticism of Trump is that surely a handful of tweets can’t make somebody racist. I’ll argue later on here — as many others have: you’re either racist or you’re actively antiracist; there’s no in-between. Trump is a racist. Trump’s stoking of racial tensions in this country may have felt like they began with his reality TV-era Birtherism campaign aimed at dimming the hope of American progress under its first Black President, but he’s got a lengthy track record of employing racist business practices, saying racist things, and doing racist things.

Trump’s racist tweets aren’t just blips on the radar; his racism is the whole damn internal circuitry of the radar.

You’ll find a vile hypocrisy if you begin digging into America’s origin story (circa the mid-18th century) and try to reconcile the righteous indignation of those early (mostly White) American revolutionaries with the righteous indignation of today’s Black rebellers. The only differences between the two groups? The color of their skin and about 250 years in between them.

The booming criticism of today’s unified Black rage against the system centers around violence and property damage, which is an unusual hill for critics to die on because of how those early rabble-rousers operated. The Sons of Liberty (including Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and John Hancock) became famous for grandstanding their opposition to colonial oppression by tarring-and-feathering (and bullying) their opponents and sycophants, and razing property. The Boston Tea Party is what made their legend stick; close to 50 of these White men, dressed to look like “Aboriginal Natives from the complexion”, dumped 342 barrels of Darjeeling tea into the Boston Harbor, the act of which served as a catalytic event both politically (i.e. it set in motion the wheels of war for independence from British control) and economically (i.e. it helped to send the juggernaut East India Company’s profits plummeting).

All the while, hypocrisy was brewing. Historian and author, Ibram X. Kendi writes in his book, Stamped from the Beginning, that when Benjamin Franklin lobbied the crown to ease up its colonial policies, he argued England was “enslaving Americans, and regularly using the analogy that England was making ‘American whites black.'” Buoyed by the racist undertow of the Age of Enlightenment — where major White thinkers were starting to put into words what enlightened racialization methodology and tactics ought to look like (e.g. bringing European “light” to the “dark” places of the world in both a metaphorical and an imperial sense) — American colonists like Franklin were willing to “inflame public sentiment against England and dismiss their own atrocities against enslaved Africans.” In fact, we’re still not entirely sure if Thomas Jefferson was oblivious to the irony he baked into the Declaration of Independence, tying together “liberty” and “inalienable right” while unrepentantly holding over 200 slaves himself.

It was during this time that Samuel Johnson, a British writer and moralist (who Franklin and Jefferson both idolized), wrote to inspire both enslaved Americans and those abolitionists who had the power to arm them so they could rebel against White colonist hypocrisy (i.e. the absurdity of “the drivers of negroes” beckoning for their own freedom from the crown). Jefferson responded with a draft of the Declaration of Independence, in which he included a section scolding the crown for “exciting those very people to rise in arms among us.” For context, Jefferson was using this opportunity to blame the crown for forcing slavery on the colonies, a claim laughable because… the bulk of the colonies seemed pretty fine with what Kendi refers to as the “lucrative commerce in human beings.” Essentially, this was Jefferson’s way of saying, How dare you give those people hope when it was really all your fault?

ice cube looking frustrated at the world

In American history books, we learn only about the heroic (mostly White) tea barrel ransackers whose boldness helped usher in this equally bold, new American experiment. While American school systems have largely indoctrinated us into looking at these (mostly White) men as heroes of a certain ilk, the reality is that they viewed Black people as profitable pawns amidst the back-and-forth of the crumbling diplomacy between the crown and colonies.

Future second President, John Adams, shared his appreciation of these heroes, saying, “There is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity, in this last effort of the patriots that I greatly admire.”

He’s not alone. The Boston Gazette, considered one of the most influential publications in American history, celebrated the “brave and resolute men, determined to do all in their power to save their country…” and added that their actions were met with near-universal acclaim in the colonies.

“Violence was not necessarily accepted as a regular feature of politics, but there was an understanding that it might be part of politics as a last resort.”
Benjamin L. Carp, Historian at Brooklyn College

Last effort. Last resort.

While (mostly White) colonists had the luxury of a last resort to push them over the edge, to be Black in America has meant a pernicious stay on that edge — every new rebellion, every new Moment, a necessary response to systems meant to keep them there. To be Black in America means having to deal with mounting atrocities and waiting until you’re told how to feel about it.

If the worst thing that happened to the colonists was being denied their representation, it still pales in comparison to Black Americans being denied their humanity.

Institutional racism, in particular, has especially inhibited the trajectory of collective Black success in this country. Forget last effort; centuries of the ebbing and flowing of explicit dehumanization and implicit bias have shaped and weathered the collective Black experience. That collective experience includes the compounding generational consequences stemming from slavery, the Black Codes, Jim Crow, civil rights violations, the Southern Strategy, the war on drugs, redlining, racial profiling… and everything in between.

In 2014, Harvard gave some students a copy of the 1964 Louisiana Literacy Test, which was a common sight in Southern states, designed to restrict (mostly Black) residents in the South from voting. If those residents couldn’t pass the test, they couldn’t prove at least a fifth-grade education, and that means they wouldn’t be allowed to vote. The test was rigged from the get-go, with test-takers receiving an immediate failing grade for even a single wrong answer; they were required to complete all 30 tasks correctly in 10 minutes for a chance to head to the polls.

All the Harvard students who took the test failed.

Louisiana is just one state, and 1964 is just one year. This cavalcade of contempt runs deep and wide, manifested in the scores of examples of policymaking from local, state, and federal leaders since this nation’s founding that has aimed to limit the opportunities and success of Black Americans.

James Baldwin once said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

Sometimes, good, but angry, people need to be allowed the space to deal with their anger toward a world that ought to look a lot different than it does. And why shouldn’t they be angry?

head of lettuce from salinas

Another Name

My wife and I first got to Austin in late 2019. I remember it vividly for three major reasons.

First, we came with New York City biases for what we expected winter ought to feel like in our bones; October Central Texas heat made us realize (a) we were incredibly unprepared for the weather here and (b) we were wimps because operating in temperatures hovering around the high 80s deep into winter is laughably ordinary to those who call this place home.

Second, two days before we planned on making the drive across the country from New York to Texas, I badly sprained my ankle in a pickup basketball game. We drove here anyway. She has not let me live that down.

Here’s an actual clip from the game:
man passing basketball to dog for the dunk

Third, we got here right in the middle of a very real E. coli scare. Local groceries — both here and elsewhere — were cordoning off huge chunks of their produce aisles because batches of contaminated romaine lettuce from Salinas, California, started making people really sick. (It was part of a larger national health scare, but Austin grocers got hit especially hard because of this bad seasonal batch.)

Man, those aisles filled with pre-made salad packs and heads of lettuce were relative ghost towns for a good few weeks. Nobody wanted to deal with lettuce or anything lettuce-adjacent. That’s not to say all lettuce being trucked around the country at the time was contaminated or bad in some way; however, enough batches of lettuce were questionable that it made grocers and consumers rightfully wary.

When people react to police brutality — especially when it involves the direct or indirect slaying of a Black person at the hands of a White cop — with a measly Not all cops are bad or There are so many more good cops than bad cops, I think back to the Great Lettuce Crisis of 2019 (trademark pending) and ask myself whether or not dinner guests would have been comfortable in our home if I had made similar excuses just so we could show off our chicken lettuce wrap du jour. Not all lettuce is bad. There’s so much more good spinach than bad spinach. (Hint: they wouldn’t have been comfortable.)

Bringing up critiques of policing in America is a very complex affair because the hero-worship of law enforcement and the military is a strangely sacrosanct American construct. A 2017 Gallup poll found Americans’ trust in the military exceeds their trust in any other institution. In some circles, it is deemed “highly inappropriate” to even nebulously challenge the opinions of military veterans — especially those in positions of power. That last bit is a recurring theme in Trump’s White House messaging.

It’s politically expedient, however, to push the myth of the inscrutable war hero on the masses because — let’s face it — we’re all, in one way or another, suckers for our heroes. From comic books, to action figures, to films, the stories around us are littered with bold and daring exemplars who challenge us to be better versions of our selves. The original term hero is something we credit to the ancient Greeks, and it didn’t necessarily have the same tinge of morality that we immediately associate with the modern-day hero paradigm. Instead of morality, the ancient Greeks were fascinated by possibility, vaunting heroism that pushed the limits of human aspiration.

Bringing up critiques of policing in America is a very complex affair because the hero-worship of law enforcement and the military is a strangely sacrosanct American construct.Click To Tweet

Today, that distinction has more or less blurred. Gandhi, Jesus, Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Kendrick Lamar, local firefighters. In a single breath, they could each be personal heroes — and for vastly different reasons.

However, in America, military heroes exist in a different atmosphere entirely. They’re true heroes, capable of not only good things but also big things. It’s a formula that works, first, on a basic economic level: American sporting events, for example, are saturated with advertising expressing gratitude to those currently deployed. They’re good guys who are taking down bad guys, and if you subtly tug on enough heartstrings with that messaging, you can sell anybody some beers.

It works, additionally, on a political level: it’s a popular American political strategy, for example, to regularly prop up military personnel as heroes to implicitly suggest civilians should reprioritize their belief systems around the idea that war and dialing up war spending are necessary and should go unquestioned. The logic goes: the wars must be important if the good guys feel like they need to go out and fight them. The irony, however, is that the majority opinion of veterans (including those who lean toward the Democratic or Republican Party) is that the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan were not worth fighting. While civilians are expected to never openly question military opinion, there is “no mainstream bloc among politicians of any party that seems interested in heeding that majority opinion.” If the veterans really matter and they’re really heroes, why aren’t our nation’s leaders listening to them?

This isn’t to say the military doesn’t deserve our respect; that couldn’t be further from the point. Rather, I’d posit we’re all getting duped by messaging that distracts us from rightfully criticizing dreams of unchecked imperialism.

The hero construct is especially fascinating when we turn our attention to local law enforcement. The aphorism, that law enforcement exists to “protect and serve,” is as cogent as Silicon Valley startups that try to tell us all they’re making the world a better place.

silicon valley gavin belson talking about making the world a better place

Not only do local police departments operate under different banners or slogans, they’re not obligated in any way to stick to a motto’s implicit or explicit promises. That should be more obvious than it is.

The history of American policing is a complicated one, no matter what motto is printed on the side of patrol vehicles — especially when we explore how it’s largely shaped the Black American experience.

Southern states instituted the Slave Codes because the effectiveness of policing directly affected the incredibly “lucrative commerce” in Black humans. Influential plantation owners depended on effective slave policing for their livelihoods, so slave patrols were established — basically just a hodgepodge of local White male volunteers, who felt up to the task of keeping tabs on slaves. They patrolled at night, traveling from plantation to plantation, and stopped, searched, and whipped whoever they pleased — especially if a slave was “caught traveling without a written pass.” Southern states gradually extended the authority of these slave patrols through legislation aimed at protecting their way of life; free labor was critical to their success.

In the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War, the disbanding of slavery helped evolve the mostly ad hoc Slave Codes into the more sophisticated Black Codes. With Black slaves now free, White men in the American South became sharper about leveraging “criminal justice as a means of racial control” of their workforce; cheap labor was critical to their success. This new era of policing led to what amounted to a new form of slavery: the expanding imprisonment of Black people in America — for crimes like vagrancy or hanging out after sunset — drove them into forced labor and absurd convict leasing systems (what has since been dubbed “slavery by another name”), the progenitor of today’s controversial forced penal labor policies.

“Historically, the relationship between Blacks and police has been tempestuous at best as policing was used as a means of social control and protector of the interest of the wealthy.”
Michael A. Robinson, Social Work Professor at the University of Georgia

The Jim Crow era, despite having had deeper informal roots in the South for decades at that point, followed Reconstruction in a more blatant and overt way — aimed at capping and rolling back any of the meager political and economic gains Black Americans made during Reconstruction. The Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson “effectively sanctioned discriminatory state legislation.” The Court decided that racial segregation did not violate the Constitution (a doctrine dubbed “separate but equal”), and it effectively rubber-stamped the proliferation of further Jim Crow laws in the South. It took almost 70 more years for the country to overturn these laws, and even in 2020, we’re still seeing the long-term impact of that era’s gall for backwardness.

All the while, American policing was maturing — at least technologically. New technology like the automobile and two-way radio in the early 20th century allowed fledgling police departments to be more organized but didn’t necessarily make police better people. Crime and corruption were rampant in upstart police departments across the country, and the melding of police and politics was rooted in reciprocality: local politicians made police staffing decisions to protect their political power, and police officers returned the favor by encouraging (or bullying) citizens to vote for them.

Whether we want to admit it or not, all of this history sheds light on some of the more troubling data we see around modern American policing and its connection to deeper racial biases.

Research shows unarmed Black men killed by police in 15 former slave-holding states represent 41% of all unarmed individuals killed by police across the US:

Number of Unarmed Men Killed per 100,000
Source: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk

Maryland and Virginia, the two states that originated Slave Codes, have the highest percentage of Black men killed by police:

Former Slave Holding States with the Highest Number of Killings of Unarmed African American Men by Police in 2015
Source: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk

Those numbers are only so stark when we add a layer for clarity: Black men make up only 7% of the entire US population.

Blacks, Hispanics make up larger shares of prisoners than of U.S. population
Source: Pew Research Center

Persistent racial discrimination and profiling has perpetuated racial discrimination and inequality. In essence, they’re just slavery by yet another name. NYC’s Stop-and-Frisk program is a great example of law enforcement strategy that illegitimately and disproportionately impacts Black people and their communities. Since 2002, Black people have accounted for over 53% of all interrogation stops (59% in 2019) — during that same time period, 90% of all those stopped have been completely innocent.

In 2016, Harper’s Magazine talked to John Ehrlichman, who served as President Nixon’s Domestic Policy Advisor. He played a role in the administration’s second most popular news story: launching the controversial and highly punitive “war on drugs,” which has continued to this day despite so few successes… on paper. He nonchalantly revealed, in shocking fashion, what the “war” was actually about:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

A decade before Nixon ran the country and got himself impeached, it was Barry Goldwater, a Republican from Arizona, who had his crosshairs set on the Oval Office. He decided to anchor his 1964 Presidential campaign to “directly and aggressively championing his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act” to win the allegiance of racist Whites in the Deep South. The “Southern Strategy,” which his campaign originally dubbed “Operation Dixie,” crashed and burned; the overt racism cost him the general election in a landslide — but he won those Deep South states for future generations. (To get an idea for how publicly incendiary Goldwater was, look no further than Trump; for as nationally unpopular as he was, Goldwater’s message crept through the cracks in the South, setting the stage for Nixon’s next decade and, really, the future of the American conservative movement.)

Nixon’s Presidential campaign was smarter and more strategic; they took learnings from Goldwater’s Southern Strategy playbook, codified racial messaging as dog-whistles to acknowledge and embolden Deep South Whites and Confederate sympathizers, and, ultimately, won the Presidency in 1968. A frequent dog-whistle during his term was his call to restoring law and order, which he used to convey his loathing of protests and boycotts. (Trump may be incendiary, but he’s not an absolute buffoon.)

“Racism in the criminal justice system is inherent and undeniable.”
Elizabeth Hinton, Assistant Professor in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University

All of this information should worry us, but the critics, instead, focus on the tired arguments of Not all cops are bad or There are so many more good cops than bad cops. Often, we know enough of the good guys to sweep under the rug the necessary critical thinking required around law enforcement training and accountability.

Corruption and lack of oversight within local power structures are what allows evils like the broad-daylight slaying of Ahmaud Arbery to go two months without any kind of legal urgency despite the fact the news of this despicable crime was in the atmosphere at different levels of the local government.

In America, we expect more accountability from spinach manufacturers than police departments.

Trevor Noah makes a great point about how America has repeatedly and tragically let down its Black citizens:

Rebellion is the only reasonable response to the complete and total letdown.

Something’s gotta give, right?

How We Can Help

The important thing to keep in mind is that, despite the redundancy of racism in America — the rinse-and-repeat of Black turmoil that takes on new shapes but ultimately retains its dark soul — we must always make room for an impulse for hope. Hope is the inextinguishable flame necessary to persist despite.

Despite discrimination.

Despite dishonor.

Despite disgust.

Despite death.

“No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.
Nelson Mandela

But here’s the dirty little secret about hope: it’s what keeps those in power up at night, fearing what a certain stripe of the powerless could do if there was even a glimmer of it. Thomas Jefferson conceded as much when he reprimanded the crown for stoking hope of rebellion in “those very people.” Those who perpetuate (or have perpetuated) racial discrimination in its various iterations know this, too. It’s why protests, social grandstanding, and uprisings work on an intrinsic level: they amplify a collective hope whose sum is great and its individual parts are great, too.

Fellow Americans, fellow men, fellow women, fellow sons, fellow daughters, fellow brothers, fellow sisters, fellow fathers, fellow mothers. We are all fellow people, and it’s our duty to support Black Americans with real, unmitigated, unfiltered hope.

And this should be the obvious path forward for Christians who desire to be true allies and to stand in the gaps between unreasonable power and our reeling Black brothers and sisters. Like the Christ who stepped between the maelstrom of enraged stone-throwers and the scared, condemned woman — if we take pride in calling ourselves followers of Christ, then standing in those gaps where stones may be hurled is the least we can do.

Here’s how we do it.

dog listening to conversation

Listen to Learn

The whole of the Black American experience is wrought with incalculable trauma, and that’s why the rest of us need to stop and listen to their journey stories. Whether from the pain and sorrow or from the strength and resolve, there are volumes we can learn from just widening and deepening the relationships we have with Black people in our lives.

Beyond that, there’s no excuse not to do your research to help break down both the ignorances we may internally carry and any misinformation our education journeys have poisoned us with. The data alone is proof we have much to learn about each other:

  • 76% of Black Americans say they’ve experienced discrimination or have been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity on occasion. 67% of White Americans say they have never experienced this.
  • 53% of Black Americans say they have not much or no confidence in their local police treating Blacks and Whites equally. Compare that to 18% of White Americans who answered the same way.

Don’t be like NFL superstar Drew Brees when he told reporters this week that he will “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.” He was rightly crushed for these comments online by other athletes, politicians, influential people… and regular ol’ people like the rest of us. Forget the obvious jab at Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests (which I mentioned earlier was something he began doing after consulting a white military veteran). A simple Google search could get you to the real history behind the pretense of pre-game patriotism, which Congress has labeled “paid patriotism.”

While Brees has since apologized for the gaffe, it’s a great example of why it pays to be quiet in moments like this. This is an especially important thing for White people to remember: you don’t need to share your “light” every time you see the “darkness” in racism. Not every Moment requires insight from a White person — or non-Black person of color for that matter. Listening to learn — instead of listening to interject or impose or instigate — is an important step toward making sure we have fewer Moments in the future and start seeing positive change.

Immerse yourself, especially, in studying the long-term impact of slavery (in all its forms) on Black communities in America. For example, read the literature on generational poverty and how “children from the poorest southern White families could expect, on average, to be better off as adults than children from even the best off Black families” in the 20th century. Research how real economic gaps explode even wider over generations, as White families grew their wealth and Black families tried to keep up even as compounding interest (and buying power and influence that wealth affords) left them no real chance.

The best thing we all can do to be better allies is learn.

Listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, or read literature that expounds on these conversations with the nuance we wouldn’t necessarily see ourselves. Some great places to start:

Be Antiracist

I’ve written about this before: Christians must be consumed by social justice because Christ was consumed by it. The church and social justice should be tied at the hip simply because Christ’s own biographers told us how he spent his time hanging “out with the dregs of society — tax collectors, adulterers, and traitorous sycophants — because that’s whom he came for.”

In Old Testament scripture, the writers used two words in particular that provide the framework for Christ’s motivations generations later: mishpat and tzedakah.

The former is something we’d liken to a rectifying form of justice (i.e. punishing those who do wrong and taking care of the victims of injustice). To put it frankly: give people their rights. Throughout the Old Testament, writers use mishpat to describe advocating for widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor.

The latter is something we’d liken to a universal form of justice (i.e. if everybody carried themselves this way, rectifying justice wouldn’t even be necessary.) To put it frankly: we should strive for a world where everybody looks out for the good of other people. The use of tzedakah in scripture refers to living every single day by conducting every relationship you come across — in family, among friends, across society — with fairness, generosity, and equity.

At the risk of oversimplifying the nuance of the original text, one way to look at both terms is to frame them within vernacular we use regularly today. Mishpat is essentially justice, while tzedakah is essentially peace. If peace is the goal, justice must be the prerequisite that gets us there.

The pursuit of justice is also a Biblical mandate; mishpat is the word used in Isaiah 1:17 when God literally directs his people to seek justice, attaching to it a certain sense of active urgency.

Christians must be consumed by social justice because Christ was consumed by it.Click To Tweet

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously noted the biggest stumbling block to Black progress (and seeking better justice) in America is the moderate voice (he specifically called out the “White moderate” voice), who he believed was “more devoted to order than to justice.” The Biblical lukewarmness of playing things safe, staying out of the conversation, and not fighting for social justice ought to feel wretched from deep in our bones. King concluded those moderates preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice,” praising the virtuous goals of social justice on the one hand but not supporting any of the work it takes to reach them on the other.

It’s a fitting admonition; the sterility of the static middle ground runs counter to the salience of any progressive terminus. There is no “more convenient season,” King says; the work of humanity toward social progress is ongoing and evolving, and it must, most of all, be active. I alluded earlier to “sitting in the necessary discomfort of seeking better justice today,” and it’s important to acknowledge that standing for something will naturally feel incredibly uncomfortable. And it should feel that way: centuries of scars and trauma can’t be masked by cute star-shaped bandages. The healing takes genuine work. Genuine mishpat. It’s a kind of grating, cloying everyday work we must do until we see a world ruled by tzedakah.

If peace is the goal, justice must be the prerequisite that gets us there.Click To Tweet

In the same vein, you’re either a racist or you’re actively not-racist. There is no middle ground to it. There’s no real space between justice and oppression, no real chasm between discrimination and equality; there are only those microscopic cracks, defenseless to racism as it inevitably bleeds right through. American writer Ijeoma Oluo writes, “whenever you decide that you have the power to slow or stop justice and equality for others — you are immediately ensuring the continuation of injustice and inequality by placing yourself above those seeking justice and equality.”

This rings no more truer than for the church, which often tries to take a back seat to matters that can stoke political tensions. But there is nothing political about racism and injustice.

Reverend Esau McCaulley describes a scene in scripture where the chief priests and elders question Jesus’ authority in the temple. Christ responds with a question, “John’s baptism — where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” After the elders mull it over amongst themselves, they come up with a safe, middle-of-the-road option: “We don’t know.”

“Left without a response that doesn’t cost them something, they choose silence.”
Reverend Esau McCaulley

Instead of choosing between one answer (and being forced to grapple with their own hypocrisy) and the other (and being forced to face the wrath of the Pro-John crowd), they carved out a place for themselves in the middle. Jesus dropped the mic on them.

We can’t just care about racism and injustice. We can’t just post quotes and follow the right influencers. Our slacktivism and virtue signaling don’t move the needle of progress.

Being actively antiracist requires action. Here are great places to move away from the middle and become a change-maker:

  • “How to Be an Antiracist”, by Ibram X. Kendi — I quote him often, and this book is a good reason why: Kendi’s ability to blend history, memoir, and social commentary together makes this a powerful playbook for understanding racism through an intellectual lens. There’s a podcast episode with Brené Brown that’s worth checking out, too
  • “The 1619 Project”, by The New York Times — An incredibly moving visual storytelling of the 400 years since the first Black slaves landed on American soil
  • “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism”, by Robin DiAngelo — Read about the nuances of White fragility, written by an antiracist educator who respectfully explores the complexities of complicity in the conversations about race in America
  • “Just Mercy” [FILM] — Starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, it’s a film based on the life work of civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson. The movie is available to stream on all digital platforms in the U.S. for the entire month of June

Demand Better Policing

Even as I write this piece, I’m anticipating this will be the most sensitive section to a lot of readers — and it really shouldn’t be. I’ve already called us all out for demanding more accountability from our spinach manufacturers than our local law enforcement, which should, quite frankly, be jarring enough. The challenge is that most of us know somebody who’s a decent cop. I have cop friends from school, from church, from life; the vast majority of them are people most of us would trust to protect and serve our communities.

They have to repair community trust first. A 2016 study found the impact police brutality has on communities is powerful: even a year removed from the incident (even if the culprits were punished), people in Black neighborhoods call 911 less frequently. In many cases, they take matters in their own hands if they don’t feel like they can trust law enforcement to do it for them.

cops in riot gear at black lives matter protest

I’ll be careful to admit: not all cops are bad people. But enough are bad that we must hold them accountable. And there are enough bad cops across America that it should alarm us.

There is no middle ground for injustice. Too many police officers choose the “blue wall of silence” over engaging in weeding out corruption and misconduct within their agencies. Sometimes, there are entire criminal enterprises that control police departments, silencing dissenters, covering up for the bad apples, and ignoring whatever they could get away with not having to explain. To be fair, a lot of this is the fault of ultra-powerful labor unions that use their influence deep within the government to pull strings and push their agendas. If there’s any sort of lack of oversight, chances are the labor union knows and they plan on doing nothing about it.

The hero-worship and deflection doesn’t help. There’s a popular meme that spreads like wildfire online anytime we’re confronted as a society with legitimate criminal negligence from cops. The formula is something like this:

  • There’s a white cop
  • He does something nice (e.g. bring candy)
  • He does it for a sympathetic group (e.g. for urban kids)
  • He does this regularly (e.g. every day)

That’s basically it. Officer Joe Blow, who happens to be white, brings candy to urban kids every day after his shift. We share it online in an attempt to let the entire world know Not all cops are bad and There are so many more good cops than bad cops. Not only is this probably just a form of pretentious virtue signaling, it’s also something that’s not moving the needle forward on justice and progress. But it sure does help you feel good, though.

Littering social media feeds with feel-good memes of cops doing their job well is like sharing photos of people driving their cars soberly from Point A to Point B. The loved ones of those killed by drunk drivers, on average, every 50 minutes in the United States don’t need to be reminded there are good drivers who know how to operate a vehicle responsibly. It doesn’t communicate anything substantial to either (1) those friends who shouldn’t let friends drink and drive, or (2) those who believe they can operate heavy machinery after consuming alcohol.

Similarly, to the Black community, those feel-good memes only serve to minimize the very heavy reality that bad cops do exist and that Black families can and should be enraged over gross miscarriages of justice. Furthermore, the good-cop messaging doesn’t communicate anything substantial to either (1) the people and systems that ignore, co-sign, or perpetuate police brutality, or (2) the cops that believe they should continue in deleterious behavior and face no real consequences.

In the words of my friend, Paul Varghese:

“Where’s the media coverage for the good cops? In the same bucket of stories of the pilots that land and the priests that don’t abuse kids. That isn’t news. That’s their job.”

It feels perhaps a bit pessimistic to not heed Fred Rogers’ advice to “look for the helpers” or trust Abraham Lincoln when he referred to the “better angels of our nature” out there (i.e. there are always some really good guys). But what good are 95 good cops if they collectively ignore, make excuses for, support, or the reckless or irresponsible behavior of 5 bad cops? It just means there are 100 bad cops.

Some people have shared videos and photos of cops joining in Black-led protests across the country. On the one hand, it’s troubling because, like lawyer and activist Derecka Purnell writes: “Cops who turn marches against police violence into parades don’t actually want substantial changes to policing.” Her logic is sound:

“Yet history and my spirit tell me that the police who stand with us today will not sacrifice anything to end police violence tomorrow. Will any of them agree to firing police officers en masse? Will they march to cut their multimillion- and multibillion-dollar budgets and urge city councils to invest in Black communities? Will those officers conduct sit-ins to build more schools than cop academies and jails? Will they call on their police unions to retract their endorsements of President Trump? Will they refuse to enforce laws that criminalize poverty, Blackness, and sexual orientation? And will these officers demand that their departments release disciplinary records and disclose complaints against them and their colleagues? No to all of the above.

On the other hand, stories like this — of unity between combatants in the fight against injustice — feel so incredibly good. They’re shareable. They get our blood pumping. They make people smile. (If somebody’s praying in the video, then forget about it. Your Christian friends on social media are gonna be talking about this for the next week.) And, fundamentally, that’s our aim anyway, right? Isn’t that the tzedakah we want to see in the world?

Not if we’re not all engaged in the grittier, tougher, contentious, high-stakes fight for mishpat.

Much of the unity hullabaloo rings hollow because of the valid questions Purnell raises. Much also rings hollow for another reason: police reform isn’t some pie-in-the-sky, we’ll-all-sing-kumbaya-together-until-we-can-get-real-solutions-up-in-our-departments-because-we-tried-everything sort of idea. It actually works. There’s essentially a playbook for this.

Want to know how long 8:46 lasts? Too long to not choose right from wrong.

Bodycams should be turned on so we can especially see how cops are handling de-escalation during tense encounters.

We shouldn’t have to get into the pros and cons of driving a police car directly into protestors.

A common argument is that even if there are bad cops, they don’t exclusively target Black people — as if bad cops hurting and killing anybody at all is a good thing.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One worthwhile solution is to defund local police departments and redirect those funds to other important areas like health care, education, and local business.

Los Angeles is already on board.

Minneapolis’ police department is on the doorstep of a transformational moment:

 

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LOOK AT WHAT’S POSSIBLE. That is the President of the Minneapolis City Council. Every city in America needs to follow suit.

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Politicians are pushing the conversation to the forefront:

The old adage goes: Don’t fix what ain’t broken. America’s local law enforcement is broken. It’s time to fix it — or tear it down with an imagination for something that actually works this time.

Here are two organizations you should consider supporting:

  • Black Lives Matter — Whether you support every single tentpole of this organization, it would be a tremendous missed opportunity to not leverage the resources they’ve put together around the ongoing fight to end white supremacy and legitimizing people who find themselves relegated to the margins
  • Campaign Zero — They are putting together some of the best, most practical content online — to put pressure on local, state, and federal officials with actionable decisions they can make today to end police violence
  • Grassroots Law Project — Shaun King and Lee Merritt are powerhouses in the conversation around race and social justice, and their project aims “to do the complex legal work, advocacy and research” it takes to end state-sanctioned racial violence in America
  • “Incarceration as Incapacitation: An Intellectual History” from American Affairs — A deep dive from Tim Crimmins on how America’s huge problem with mass incarceration got to where we are today
  • “What Exactly Does It Mean to Defund the Police?” from The Cut — A great explanation from Amanda Arnold on the movement to defund American police departments, what it’s trying to accomplish, and what it’s not necessarily trying to do
  • “Racism in America: A History in Three Acts” [VIDEO], from Goucher College — James Dator, a Professor of History, explores the macro and micro details of how the origins, causes, and manifestations of racism and race in the U.S. has changed since 1619

Leave Room for Pain

Somebody asked me the other day if sharing feel-good memes (like that Officer Joe Blow stuff) help at all. I responded:

“Who are you trying to help — Black people who are grieving or yourself?

Ultimately, those memes aren’t helping if we’re not considering the audience, their emotions, and the space they need to process their emotions.

Think about it this way. I could send videos of robot arms doing real cool things in controlled environments to little Timmy, who just had his arm amputated 15 minutes ago — so I can let him know things are gonna be alright. Or I can let him come to terms with the new reality he’s living in and communicate I’ll be here for him whenever he needs it. The former only makes me feel good; it takes into consideration nothing of Timmy’s state or psychie. The latter allows Timmy the room to cope and grieve in the ways he needs.

For Black people in America, high exposure to racial discrimination in social media or other forms of media is a legitimate mental health concern. Not only is there real posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) inducing trauma out there, but Black Americans also carry in their hearts the constant fear of being dismissed by people around them. April Reigns writes in The Washington Post: “To watch videos of people who look like me being killed only increases my fear that someone I know may be next.”

Race also muddies how media networks choose to disseminate information. In Reigns’ piece, she openly questions why media networks chose not to show the 2015 shooting of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward (who were killed on live TV). There was no sick voyeurism coded in Reigns’ question; rather, it was to get to the deeper problem of the media readily broadcasting videos of Black people dying violent deaths with not as much as a question regarding the appropriateness of such a decision.

As Christians — and just fellow human beings who also process hurt — we must acknowledge the pain our Black brothers and sisters feel, and give them the space they need to process that pain. Conversations that include mental health and the church are complicated because many Christians lock in on the stigma of the disease. But mental illness is every bit as real and pressing as physical illness, and churches can be a powerful place where healing starts.

“Sometimes, God hides healing in relationships.”
Pastor Michael Signorelli, V1 Church

This is especially relevant when we take a step back and look at the collective trauma the Black community faces around us. Relationships are forged in the empathetic act of leaning in to listen. Fundamentally — as psychologist Daniel Goleman says — “a prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain.”

We don’t need to have all the answers, or the perfect memes, or the examples of disavowing racism in the Bible to share at a moment’s notice. Can we be good friends? Brothers? Sisters? Often, that’s the start.

rolls of toilet paper

Confront Your Biases

There’s never enough to go around, so take what you can get.

I know that sounds like the opening line from a film set in some bleak dystopian future, but it also encapsulates the mantra of the scarcity mindset my parents raised me and my sisters in. This framework kept reminding us there were limited resources, and the sooner we got what we wanted, the sooner nobody could take that away from us. I’m convinced this is why Indian people obsess over Costco and spelling bees; the former allows them to hoarde stuff (e.g. 36-roll toilet paper) in case supplies ever got scarce, and the latter allows them to push their kids into something that only a limited number of people could ever even win (e.g. that’s scarce, baby!).

Get in, take what you can get, let to the door close behind you… and that’s that.

But then we really let the door close behind us. We already got through and succeeded, all the others be damned.

And that only really happened because Asian-Americans anchored to the scarcity mindset and then amplified it some more by buying into the preposterous fiction of the “Model Minority” myth, perpetuated by White America to remind Black people, See? All it takes is hard work, doing well in school, and working really hard. The Asians did it, and you can, too!… all the while, smiling through gritted teeth, and perpetuating systems of injustice and oppression against Black people.

To paraphrase Malcolm X, that’s not a chip on Black shoulders, that’s a foot on their necks.

That quote and the image it conveys are more resonant (and more incendiary) today after the slaying of George Floyd. If it feels like there’s a general Black skepticism of both power and non-Black people in America, that’s because there is — and the history of both in this country only serves to lay bare the apparency of their inequities.

I say this to call out an uncomfortable reality in my experience as a Brown kid growing up to be a Brown man in America:

I’ve never admitted out loud that I owe a lot of what I’ve accomplished in this country to the Black people who came before me.

Despite the dark complexion of my own skin and the fact that my parents immigrated here with close to nothing in their pockets, I was able to grow up in a world where I could eat at any restaurant, drink from any fountain, go to any park, go to any school, sit anywhere on the bus, etc. And it wasn’t because my parents or other Asians worked any harder or struggled any more; but they struggled in lowercase as Black Americans languished in uppercase.

This isn’t to minimize the Asian-American struggle: there were language barriers, racial prejudice, and other hills to climb. But it still doesn’t equate to 400 years of systems built to keep an entire race — whittled to a monolithic “Black” experience — down and out. (Research also suggests that Asian immigrant success in America also coincided with general anti-Asian racist attitudes decreasing after the 1960s.)

Incredible writers and thought leaders have already covered this concept beautifully, and I’m urging you to check these out (if you want to learn more about the debt Asian-Americans have to Black people in America):

I do, however, want to highlight two things Asian-American Christians in particular ought to consider when determining where we fit in America’s unfinished story of Black discrimination and inequality.

First, we’re probably a little guilty of ignoring real suffering. A lot of second-generation Asian-American Christians grew up in homogeneous churches driven by ethnophyletism, the belief that conflates one culture’s material success with the progress and success of the Church. There are a lot of things I’ve already written about on this topic, but the most important thing to take away is this: having tunnel vision for your culture closes the door behind you and mostly ignores the struggles happening around you. It leads to xenophobia, exclusion, and ethnocentrism — all of which are troubling for their own unique reasons.

Second, we’re probably a little guilty of cultural appropriation. A lot of second-generation Asian-American Christians know what I’m talking about when I say we wanted all the cool parts of Black culture and none of the struggle. We wanted that hot new single from Kirk Franklin to show up on the Sunday worship plan; that dope bass riff from that one Israel Houghton record; that gospel vocal riff from that one Fred Hammond joint; the choir rocking and swaying. And we largely kept ourselves disconnected from the struggles of Black people around us except when we had the handful of good-intentioned (but slightly pretentious) community-oriented events or the mission trip out to actual Africa somewhere (which isn’t really the same thing as standing up for actual racism in America).

It wasn't because my parents or other Asians worked any harder or struggled any more; but they struggled in lowercase as Black Americans languished in uppercase.Click To Tweet

So, yeah. There’s a debt we owe to Black people in America. And we especially have to understand why it’s wrong to borrow all the good stuff from another culture without grappling with our purpose is putting an end to all the bad stuff that culture goes through.

There are implicit biases we’re all guilty of feeding or letting take the lead. It will take work to confront them all, but the first step is acknowledging we’re all at least a little bit racist if we’re not actively antiracist. A great place to look to help with this internal reckoning is UC Berkeley’s “Anti-Racist Resources from Greater Good”

Make Church Less Fake

There’s this moment in Frederick Douglass’ autobiography where he cuts into the hypocrisy of the Church with the kind of surgical precision you’d expect from a laser beam.

cat chasing laser pointer on floor

Unable to reconcile “the slaveholding religion” of America with “Christianity proper,” he tears into the “partial… Christianity of this land.” Douglass breaks down each glaring inconsistency, one by one by one — and then he says this:

“He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me.”

The Church (i.e. Christians) has had a tenuous history with American slavery and racial discrimination, mostly because the transparent hope of the gospel is often buried beneath opaque legalism preached by those who seek power. And often, if the Church wasn’t actively racist, they were entirely silent on the matter — which, we know, is no better than being full-fledged racist.

“The church gave spiritual sanction [to racism], both overtly by the things that it taught and covertly by the critique that it did not raise.”
Bishop Claude Alexander, Senior Pastor at Park Church

Historically, the Church either wholly sanctioned or turned a blind eye to the blatant misuse of the Bible to:

Churches themselves were so infamously segregated, it prompted Dr. King to call it out: “11 A.M. Sunday is our most segregated hour.”

Church leaders, this isn’t business as usual. To be not concerned with the reality of Black people in America is to be not compelled by what breaks God’s heart. Social justice shouldn’t be a concern that’s somehow beneath you, and it shouldn’t be a matter of playing tug-of-war between whether Black lives or all lives.

The opportunity churches have to really galvanize people around meaningful causes is huge — especially because church communities are often the only places both where we’re expected to consider these social justice issues but also where we’re surrounded by people who don’t necessarily fit into the parameters of our social media echo chambers. Across a pew, we’re bound to find people who have different stories about how they grew up, how they came to Christ, what their moral pillars are, how they got to this city, etc. If matters of racism and justice aren’t pillars on Sunday, the shiny stages, the high-quality livestreams, and superb sound equipment are probably just unnecessary charades.

Lip service during this global uprising doesn’t work (ask Drew Brees) because churches are expected to model a Christ who walked the walk as he talked the talk. Don’t just send out an email or publish a social post; work with the community to fill the gaps and fight for justice. Don’t just tell people you care about community; groom multi-cultural leaders and give them visibility in leadership positions.

If you don’t know where to start, here are great resources worth checking out:

The church has a chance to make racism universally unacceptable for the very first time in America. That’s not an understatement; it’s an imperative.

hashtag in shipping container

Positive Peace

I once talked to a little girl about a drawing she made. She had sketched out, on one side of the paper, her dad, her mom, and her sister. She drew herself standing away from them.

I asked her why she was standing so far from them.

“Because I’m darker than them.”

After we talked, I found out it wasn’t because of anything her parents or family ever explicitly said or did, but it’s something she subconsciously had picked up on from really everyone around her — and from TV, movies, and social media. From friends, music, and pop culture. This poison of colorism that says dark is different, dark is bad.

It broke my heart, and this wasn’t even coming from a Black girl. And while that pain and feeling of inferiority is real, take that insecurity and multiply that by factors of 100, and you’ll begin to understand why Black parents have to teach their kids about how to talk to law enforcement from the moment they can walk. In America, Black is different. Black is bad.

I started writing this piece a month ago when I heard people call the novel coronavirus The Chinese Virus. Once Trump started calling it the Wuhan virus, I was like Alright, this is the best time to start talking racism.

And then we found out #AhmaudArbery was killed.

And then #BreonnaTaylor was killed.

And then #GeorgeFloyd was killed.

We’re running out of hashtags. We should be running out of patience, too.

There’s a reason why this global outrage over the slaying of a Black man in Minnesota feels different and feels more compelling: Black lives matter, and it’s no longer good enough to stay on the fence about it. We’re either racist or antiracist; there is no middle ground.

But antiracism is as much about doing as it is about knowing. Maybe the doing starts at home, shutting down somebody when they say something racially insensitive. Maybe the doing happens at work, calling out leadership for not addressing racial tensions in America and how that affects people of color in the workplace.

Either way, the time for lip service is over, and it’s up to us to become the allies Black Americans need.

Because racism isn’t just a thing of the past:

 

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Christians must stand in the gaps and fight until we create a world of better justice. Of positive peace.

That’s what Christ would do. ■


Featured Image by Victoria Pickering, used under CC BY / Colorized from original