Things Have Not Gotten Worse, We Just Started Paying Attention

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.*

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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.

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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.

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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.

Symbols Matter

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Symbols matter.

Certain images are forever etched into our memories both individually and collectively. That’s why people were so upset when this image:

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Or this one:

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Were co-opted with rainbow imagery.

It’s why people asked me why I would dare make my facebook profile picture yellow equal sign on a blue background (or pink on red).

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It’s why some people wear a cross with Jesus on it and some wear a cross without Jesus on it. It’s also why some people do not wear a cross at all.

Symbols matter.

Sometimes, the meaning of a symbol can change. The fact that the Christmas tree was once a pagan symbol is largely irrelevant. The cross was used a torture device and now it is a symbol of God’s grace and mercy and His presence in the world.

Some symbols are filled with conflicted meanings. The U.S. flag for many represents colonialism and oppression. For many, it represents freedom and courage. For others, it is simply a symbol that unites a country of diverse people.

But the meaning of some symbols cannot change. Some symbols are not conflicted in their meaning. The Confederate flag is a symbol of white supremacy and treason. It is the flag that flew for the army that seceded from the Union. It is the flag that was flown in defiance of the Civil Rights movement. While there are some people who may have grown up without that realization, it does not change the fact that the heritage the flag refers to is one of hate.

The flag coming down from the South Carolina statehouse today is an important move. May that flag never fly in a public place again. And for those who wish to use their right to fly the flag at their home or on their vehicle—go for it. You can do that.

But ask why that symbol is so important to you. Why do you need to fly a flag that represents hate and treason to show your pride? Why can you disregard the experience of generations of people who recognize that symbol as one of oppression?

We are repulsed by swastikas. We feel a sense of apprehension or anger when we see pentagrams. We are even convincing ourselves we are seeing ISIS flags at gay pride parades.

Symbols matter.

If the symbols that are important to me anger you, it falls to me to act out of love and understanding. I must ask you why. I must learn from you what your experience is.
If the symbols that are important to you anger me, it falls to me to act out of love and understanding. I must ask you why. I must learn from you what your experience is.

They are important. But relationships are even more important. If my symbols are affecting our relationship, then work must be done. Tough conversations must be had. Humility and love must be present. And a desire to be in relationship must be greater than a desire to be right.

The Charleston Murderer Is A Terrorist, But He Is Not The Problem

In Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, I was taught that alcohol was not my problem. It was a symptom of my problem. The true problem ran much deeper than the substance I poured into my body.

A young man walked into one of the most historically significant African-American churches in the South, opened fire, and took the lives of 9 people. Not only are the lives of the families of those 9 people forever altered, an entire community now mourns, and a nation is brought face to face again with the reality of racism in our midst.

But he is not the problem. The problem runs much deeper.

The problem is hate. In a state that still flies a flag that is a symbol of hatred, division, and white supremacy people are actually asking where this young man could have learned to hate black people the way he does.

It is not enough to think we can just ignore our differences and our nation’s history and the result will be our children growing up to be loving and accepting. We must teach love. We must teach appreciation of one another’s cultural differences. We must be examples of this in the ways we speak and the ways we act. We must set the example in speaking against injustice of any kind. Until we actively teach love and appreciation of our differences, we will face these issues over and over.

The problem is maintenance of the status quo. We don’t want to be uncomfortable. We don’t want anyone to rock the boat. We want to believe that things are okay. Or at the very least that they are better than 50 years ago. We want to believe that if we don’t talk about the problems that exist we can pretend they don’t exist.

The problem is too many white people have allowed the status quo to go unchallenged.

The problem is too many of you are upset with me saying “white people” in my last statement than with the truth of that statement.

As Christians (especially white Christians), we are often unwilling to talk about racism from the pulpit because we are afraid it will make us uncomfortable when we mess with the status quo at church. But nine people had their lives taken from them while they were at church. It’s okay for us to get a little uncomfortable.

“The way things used to be” or “the way things are” is not good enough. The status quo lulls us into a false sense of security. We think we are balanced. But that balance comes at the expense of recognizing those for whom balance is little more than a fantasy. We must wake up to the problems that exist around us. We must acknowledge our role, either explicit or implicit. We must make changes. The simplest way to begin that is build relationships with people who have different experiences than we do. And it must be intentional.

The problem is trying to make excuses instead of facing what the real problem is. Media sources came out yesterday trying to proclaim that this was a religious issue, not a racial one. Many pundits said we would never know what the motive truly was behind what he did. Many people took to social media to say this was not about race and we should quit making everything about race and we are race-baiters for saying this was a racist attack.

Do you know who made this a racial issue? The shooter did. Him and only him. He made this a racial issue when he chose the place he chose; when chose the victims he chose; when he spoke the words he chose: “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

When we refuse acknowledge the real problem we alienate ourselves from those who are truly victims. Racism is still alive and well in our country and when we try to sweep it under the rug or give it a different name or turn a blind eye to it we are telling people of color that we truly don’t care about them or their experiences.

When we acknowledge that racism exists, we can do something about it. When we confront the structures and systems that are infected with the disease of institutional racism we can begin to effect change.

But we cannot change anything until we point to it and say, “This can stand no longer.”

The shooter perpetrated a horrific evil earlier this week. But he is not the problem. The problem runs much deeper.

The problem is the system that allowed him to grow into that hate and the individuals who turned a blind eye and a deaf ear because they thought everything was “good enough.”

Let us work on the real problem.