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Wake Up, America – Racism is Real

For almost two weeks, the eyes of the world have been focused on the daylight execution of a black teen by a white police officer, the outrage of the African-American community, and the heavy-handed, militarized response of the local police force. With each day that passes, it becomes clearer that the mess in Ferguson speaks directly to the continuing struggle that all of us face – as individuals, communities, and the nation as a whole – as we seek to address the wounds of generational injustice, violence, and race/class hatred.

I have hesitated to write about Ferguson, for several reasons. First of all, I’m a white guy, and the last thing this conversation needs is another white person lecturing about the oppression of black people. No matter how well-intended, white discourse on the reality of racism is fraught with difficulties. Simply put, I will never know what it is like to be black in America.

Another reason I shy away from writing about Ferguson is that it is controversial. Believe it or not, I find it uncomfortable to wade into matters of public debate – particularly those that have taken on a political tone, as this current crisis has. No one in their right mind wants to invite the kind of hate-mail that is inevitably generated by discussions of hot button issues like racism and structural injustice in the United States.

Finally, I have hesitated to write about events in Ferguson, Missouri because to do so would force me to be vulnerable. For me to write authentically about the scourge of racism, I must wrestle with the many ways in which I participate in racism – both structural and personal. To talk about racial inequality demands that I face my own complicity in systems of oppression that go back centuries, but which still have us in their grip today.

This is scary stuff. While most Americans have become increasingly comfortable with the idea that our country once had a problem with racism, it is challenging to confess that we still find ourselves captive to the spirit of race-based oppression. We remember proudly how our country lopped off the branches of chattel slavery in the 1860s, and we glory in the civil rights movement, which cut down the trunk of Jim Crow a century later. But it is harder to recognize that beneath that monumental stump there is a profound root structure of injustice that coils tightly around us as a society. No number of memorials to Martin Luther King built atop that stump will remove the roots that choke our nation’s soul.

The crisis in Ferguson presents white Americans like me with an opportunity to wake up to the reality of ongoing, structural racism in our country. Slavery is formally abolished, and Jim Crow is no longer the law of the land, but the spirit of both are alive and well in our cities: In police forces that target our black neighbors and occupy their streets with counterinsurgency-style tactics; in our cities that are sharply segregated by race and class; in a prison system that disproportionately jails black men; and in all the subtle ways that I as a white person am taught to fear and look down on blackness.

Seeing is always the hardest part. This is why the first of the 12 Steps is admitting we have a problem. The first phase of Jesus’ ministry is to call us to repentance. The first step of the Quaker spiritual path is to stand still in the light, allowing it to show us our darkness. If we are willing to acknowledge the challenge that we face, the Holy Spirit will give us power to change, digging up the roots of evil and planting seeds of righteousness.

Are we ready to see yet? As white people, can we resist the temptation to blame black Americans for the conditions of their oppression? Will we choose to avoid the pitfall of framing this crisis as a question of (other people’s) personal responsibility, rather than being primarily structural – a system that we each bear some personal responsibility to deconstruct?

As a Christian, am I willing to acknowledge that Jesus was executed in public after being accused of insurrection against the state? Am I ready to acknowledge the echoes of the cross in the way that modern-day authorities brutalize my brothers and sisters in Ferguson? Am I willing to bear that cross, in some small way, even if it simply means taking an honest look in the mirror and repenting of the seeds of racism that are present in my own life?

  • Pablo Stanfield

    Since the Constantinian State made the official church part of the power structure, the reality that Roman soldiers killed a Jewish rabbi is something Christians have not been very good at getting a grip on. You have to choose: the Principalities&Powers or the Eternal One, who does not need SWAT teams to carry out Divine will.

  • Bonni McKeown

    Micah I respect your fearless Christian preaching. Jesus was a radical, a radical saying that God is Love and Love is more powerful than earthly might. I’m in Chicago the most segregated city in America, finding it hard to discuss racism with other white middle class Friends. But I’m doing some work with blues music, which African Americans originated. It became the root of most American popular music and most people are familiar with it, so I use it as a way to break racial barriers.

    • Thanks, Bonni. I’d love to be in touch with you and learn more about what you’re doing in Chicago.

  • Susan Chast

    I enjoyed reading this, Micah, and have a few responses. First, I would love for you to look at a similar blog post of mine at http://susan60.blogspot.com/2014/08/have-heart-poem-about-racism.html.

    Second, I want you to know that I was guided to this poest by a friend in the Facebook group “Quakers talk about Racism”–she said this post was a good answer to a question posed by Lucy Duncan: “What would it mean if Quakers really took seriously undoing racism and decided that we wanted to create a religious community in which it was unsafe for racism and other oppressions, where we cultivated a courageous many instead of a courageous few? One way that might look is that racist statements of Friends would be lovingly called out and when people of color spoke about their experiences among us or elsewhere, we really listened undefensively and learned. What would be the steps to such a commitment? How would such a project be fostered and deepened?” I agree.

    Third, I was moved today by this quote: “It begins with Michael Brown’s bloody black body. But should we not begin with the face of Jesus? Yes, we should. But first we must begin by recognizing that the face of Jesus Christ is the body of Michael Brown. Because Jesus shows up in the suffering of black bodies and all the world’s crucified peoples. His incarnation transcends the cross of Calvary. The life-giving power of Christ is en-fleshed in the everyday struggle of black people trying to live with dignity and decency amid a system that refuses to even recognize our humanity.” From http://syndicatetheology.com/strange-fruit-revolutionary-violence-and-a-love-on-fire/ What do you think?

    Fourth, well, maybe that’s enough. many Quakers in PYM have decided to read “The New Jim Crow” together to deepen our understanding and efforts. I just ordered a copy, though I had hoped PYM would provide it. Have you read it?

    • Hi, Susan. Thanks for sharing this.

      I do have a copy of the New Jim Crow, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. I’m looking forward to getting to it.

  • donna marie

    Thank you. As a highly educated
    Christian Black Woman, you eloquently expressed the feelings I have always had.
    I have always wanted to understand why the country I love seems to hate the color
    of my skin so much.

    Donna Marie

  • Slavery hasn’t been abolished, it is totally legal and Constitutional under the 13th Amendment if you have been convicted of a crime. So you have Quaker Richard Nixon declaring the “war on drugs” in 1971, then Quaker Eric Sterling’s ‘mandatory minimums’ legislation, drafted when he was Counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in the early 1980s, started sending people, especially black people, to prison in record numbers with greatly decreased chances of parole. Reagan and his ilk then legalized running prisons for profit, and though it no longer looks the same, there are monumental problems with slavery of black & poor people now in the USA; almost as if there was no Civil War, no failed “reconstruction”, no Civil Rights era, and no Quaker (& other) abolitionists. Thank you for talking about Racism, Micah. We all still have loads to learn.

    • Thanks, John. “The New Jim Crow” is a very worthwhile read on these topics.

      • Yes, thank you, Friend Micah. And BTW I just learned that slavery is totally illegal and unconstitutional in one state: Rhode Island, which expressly prohibits it in their Constitution.

  • I would like to tell you and your readers as well that I recently started two new open Facebook groups on racism: one is called W.A.R. — Whites Against Racism, and the other one, hopefully of even more interest to Friends, is called White Quakers Tackling OUR Racism. There is another group WAR-PACT dedicated to working on anti-racism training curricula that Friends can join if they are interested in that topic. And yesterday I also opened another Facebook group called ‘Friends’ which is about Quakers and Quakerism; an open and mostly unmoderated group. BTW PACT stands for Peacemaking and Conflict Transformation and is an AVP-based method I put together and piloted in 2004 in USP Leavenworth in Kansas.