Back in the mid-90s, I attended a conservative Christian college in west Texas. When I arrived as a freshman, I felt like I had a pretty solid grasp on just about everything. You know, the typical 18 year old. During my sophomore year, I started attending a predominantly African-American church.
It was a great experience. It was the first time I worshiped in a context different from the one in which I grew up. It was a time of learning and growth for me. I learned as much about preaching from the minister there as I did in all my classes at the college I was attending.
One lesson I struggled to learn, however, was that being a black person in west Texas was a totally different experience than being a white man in west Texas. (For that matter, the experience was different in most, or all, areas of the country.) I even went so far as to tell my friend, the preacher, that he was wrong. I told him he was imagining things. I told him racism no longer existed and he needed to get over it.
I was convinced that I was doing him a favor enlightening him on how much better his life would be if he would just get over it.
And then it happened.
I was shopping with him in the college bookstore one day. In addition to being a local preacher, he was also a full-time staff member at the university—Spiritual Activities Director. At a college that had daily chapel, he was in charge of coordinating that chapel. He was on stage and in front of the entire university a lot. And as we walked around the campus store, he was followed by an employee. (Poorly, I might add.)
A full-time staff member, a local preacher, a man dressed in slacks and button-down shirt, was followed. You know, just in case he was going to steal a pack of pencils.
That event bothered me. It opened my eyes in a way that was painful. But my education would not end there. Later that year, our college had the opportunity to host a national youth event on campus. The event was attended primarily by African-American high school students from across the country. There were going to be 1000 high school students on a college campus. Huge score for the recruiting department, right?
The Director of Admissions at that time wrote a letter to the Dean of Students. In that letter, he used the sentence, “I know we want to have large groups of students on our campus, but are these the kind of students we want?” The Dean had an appropriate response: he wrote several comments in pencil and sent it back to the admissions office.
Two events separated by only a few months. They both made something abundantly clear: as much as I wished it wasn’t true, racism and prejudice were still alive and well within my church and my country.
Now, those events did not make that true. But they opened my eyes. In other words, race relations did not get worse that year. I just started paying attention.*
I remember a story when a black man was pulled out of his car by the police and severely beaten by four officers while others watched. Even though the event was videotaped, none of the four officers was convicted in criminal court. The event led to a number of riots across the country. It even led to a response condemning the police officers’ actions from the President.
Ferguson 2014? No. Los Angeles 1991. Almost 25 years ago.
When I went to high school, our football team was good. We won the state championship my junior year. My senior year, we made it to the state championship game again. Things didn’t go so well. I believe the final score was 35-0. I remember the 0 that we scored. The other team may have had more. Our quarterback, a black classmate of mine, was all the rage in the town while we were winning. When he was pulled out of the game in the 4th quarter, the townsfolk sitting in the stands changed their tune from “hometown hero” to “worthless n—-r.”
2015? No. 1993.
Racial tension is not higher now than it was before.
My college roommate, an African-American, didn’t become afraid to drive through Louisiana and Mississippi in the past year.
Parents of black children didn’t all of a sudden become nervous about how their children would be treated in the past 12 months.
The reason you think things are worse now is you are being forced to pay attention. Last year, Walter Scott would not have been a story. The police officer who shot him in the back and planted evidence on him in order to fabricate a story would have gotten away with it.
Last year, Sandra Bland likely would not have made the news cycle. She would have been portrayed as a belligerent black woman who ended up committing suicide. Most people would not have cared.
Still, it is true that many people do not care. But thanks to increased cell phone videotaping, livestreaming, social media storms, and just sheer tenacity, people are getting the message out more. People of color are no more oppressed now than they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago. But more people are finally listening.
And it is about time.
Because people of color are also no less oppressed now that they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago.
You might be uncomfortable. You might want to blame President Obama. You may want to throw around the term “race-baiter” and confirm that you don’t really know what that word means.
But we cannot deny this truth: race relations are not worse in 2015 than they were in 2005. Or 1995. Or 1985. We are just finally talking about it more. We are using social media more. We are utilizing the technology at our fingertips more. Those things we wanted to ignore before are now put in front of us on an almost daily basis.
And we need to stop ignoring it or simply wishing it away. We have to pay attention. Whether we want to or not.
And you have to choose how you will respond.
I respond by saying Black Lives Matter. I respond by working to fight against unjust societal structures. I respond by acknowledging my privilege and looking for ways to leverage it to help others. I respond by listening to people who have had a different experience than me. I respond by acknowledging that advances that have been made in civil rights and race relations, while commendable, have not yet gone far enough. I respond by seeking to have uncomfortable conversations with people I may disagree with in order to create stronger relationships and build better communities.
It’s uncomfortable. But it’s necessary. Problems exist. They don’t go away by ignoring them. We’ve got work to do.
*I believe it is important to note that since the time of this story, the college I attended has done a lot to address their past sins of racial discrimination. There is still a ways to go, but they are making honest attempts to move forward.