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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?

An Anti-Racist Gentrifier?

Washington, DC is a city of contrasts. Like most large urban centers, DC encompasses the very wealthy and the very poor; the powerful and the disenfranchised; the descendants of slaveholders and the descendants of slaves. Washington is a city where the political elite of the United States gathers to battle for economic interests and position and it is home to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who are battling just to make it through the month.

Income inequality and de factoracial segregation is a serious problem throughout the United States, but my experience is that DC suffers from these ills differently from many areas. In Washington, there seems to be very little middle ground between the two main populations that characterize our city. The first group is DC’s native-born population, largely made up of working class or poor African Americans. The other major group is the elite, wealthy, highly educated and mostly white population that has recently relocated to the region to work in a variety of federal programs, non-profit organizations and lobbyist groups.
These two populations occupy different physical and social space within the city. There is an invisible line running through DC, dividing East from West. The easternmost neighborhoods of the District are settled mostly by native-born, African American residents. The western regions of the city are largely inhabited by wealthy newcomers.
This racial, economic and cultural dividing line is rapidly moving eastward. While in the 1980s African Americans vastly outnumbered any other ethnic group in the District, black residents now make up only a slim majority of Washingtonians – and it seems likely that even this small edge may be slipping away. As the price of housing has skyrocketed, many longtime DC residents have been forced out of their neighborhoods – pushed farther east as the invisible line dividing our city advances.
There is growing fear that our city does not have room for both groups. Many areas that until recently were bastions of African American residence and culture have become the exclusive reserve of the very wealthy, and mostly white – and many other neighborhoods are headed in the same direction. If current trends continue, there is little doubt that the District of Columbia will soon become a city that is unlivable for anyone without a white-collar, professional income. Most working-class, African American residents may soon be displaced, forced to commute into the city they once called home.

What is my role in all of this? Whether I like it or not, I am a participant in the dynamic of class warfare that is playing out here in my city. I am a homeowner in an area that the last census recorded as being 99% African American. As a white person and a newcomer to the city, it is likely that my family represents the vanguard of a future wave of gentrification and forced removals of lower-income, non-white residents. We chose the home we did because it was located in one of the few areas of the city where we could (barely) afford to buy. It seems ironic that our presence might help fuel a process that makes housing unaffordable for others.

This destructive dynamic of rising prices and displacement is not something that I want to encourage, but I do not see a clear way that I as an individual can participate in a solution. Instead, I mostly just feel sad about it, all the while struggling not to feel defensive when some people suggest that my family – as white, middle-class people – are somehow a plague on DC. We all need a place to live, and I am convinced that God has called me to settle here in DC. What can I do?

I cannot change who I am, nor would I want to. But how can I be an ally to my fellow DC residents who are not of my same ethnicity or class background? As one of the few white residents east of the Anacostia River, how can I participate respectfully in my neighborhood’s civic life without imposing my own norms and expectations? Are there ways that I can work to address structural injustice that is helping to precipitate this situation? What does it look like to be an anti-racist, anti-classist, white, middle-class homeowner in a rapidly-gentrifying city?

Fifty Years Later, Segregation Lives

I have drawn a lot of comfort and inspiration recently from reading Andrew Lewis’ book, The Shadows of Youth, about the young activists who were the backbone of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It has been a delight to read about how women and men in their early twenties – like Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, and John Lewis – had the courage to stand up against cruelty and injustice, and in the process helped to shape the character of the United States for decades to come.

Despite the gap in generation and historical context, the lives of these daring civil rights activists provide perspective on my involvement with the Occupy movement. I am intrigued about the many similarities that present themselves: the tension between reform and revolution; clashes between the old, pragmatic establishment and the young, idealistic activists; the friendships that hold the movement together; and the personality conflicts that break it apart. There is so much wisdom to be gained from the hard-earned lessons of those who have come before.

Reading about the civil rights movement is affecting me many ways. In addition to giving me insight about the nature of grassroots activism in general, it helps to sensitize me to the dynamics of race and class in the United States. Some of the stories told in The Shadows of Youth are so extreme as to be almost unbelievable. A prime example would be how the Freedom Riders of 1961 were met by violent mobs of white citizens who, with the cooperation of local police, beat these college-aged activists with baseball bats, chains and whips. White America was stridently committed to the perpetuation of Jim Crow, and it required great courage by black activists and white allies to be willing to take the insults, beatings, torture and murder that awaited them.

The sheer moral power of this guiltless suffering, captured by reporters and broadcast to the nation, had a huge impact on the culture. By the end of the 1960s, de jure segregation was no more, and though the pace of progress was slow, African-Americans were increasingly finding their voice in public discourse and governance. There was real reason for optimism.

Yet, as I read about these remarkable historical struggles that changed the face of our nation, I cannot help but notice how far we still fall short of the dream of racial equality and economic justice in this country. Despite the fact that segregation is no longer legally enforced, Washington, DC is deeply divided along racial and class lines. Of course, the strong links between race and economic class only increase the dynamic of de facto segregation.

I live in Deanwood, a neighborhood in DC that lies to the east of the Anacostia river. Those who are familiar with DC will know that white folks do not generally venture into this part of the city, known as East of the River. Many here are afraid to even visit my neighborhood, much less live here. On the other hand, since very few of the city’s cafes, supermarkets and shops are located East of the River, we frequently leave our part of town to buy groceries, or meet up with friends.

It is a strange sensation to people-watch as I commute from Deanwood to Capitol Hill. As I start out from my home, I am surrounded by my African-American neighbors. Kids returning from school. The man hawking newspapers at Benning Road and East Capitol Street. When I cross the river, the picture changes dramatically. Immediately, there are large numbers of well-dressed professionals and middle class white people. By the time I reach historic Capitol Hill, all I see are white folks jogging, walking their dogs and strolling with their babies. I am in another city entirely.

I cannot help but wonder: is this what Lewis, Nash, Carmichael and other civil rights activists thought they were putting their lives on the line for? De facto segregation in the nation’s capital? A city divided by enormous gaps in wealth and privilege, where most of its black residents are consigned to one isolated quarter of the District? Seeing the dynamics at work in my town, I am reminded that the long struggle for racial equality and economic justice is far from over. I wonder how I, as a white man involved in the Occupy movement, can humbly make space for a next step in the liberation of those who are marginalized in our culture and economy. How can I stay aware of the injustice that continues to hold sway in our society? How can I change my own ways of thinking and living in the world, to live into the dream of true peace and reconciliation?