Category Archives: Race and Criminality

This is America

Recently, the news has covered incidents involving African American persons being physically and verbally assaulted, bullied, disturbed, falsely arrested, harassed and questioned for doing things considered normal in any other context or culture, that is, barbecuing, eating, shopping, sitting on one’s porch, sleeping, vacationing.  Persons would argue that there is an increase in such episodes.  Others would counter with the argument that with the advent of technology, these experiences of micro and macro- aggression are finally being recorded.  I tend to side with the latter.  African American people, now socially colored black, have historically been targeted and told that they do not belong.  From the cradle to the grave literally, America drew color lines.  The signs of Jim Crow segregation have been removed but the spirit of segregation remains.

The false arrest of two African American men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia began the new series of injustices.  “They had not ordered anything.  They wanted to use the bathroom.  They were loitering.”  They had not done anything wrong, but they were going to, right?  In response, Starbucks released a well- crafted statement that read like the cutting and pasting of the best statements on diversity, inclusion and promises to do better.  Their bathrooms are now open to all as if that was the problem.  I wasn’t buying it then and I’m still not.  A loyal customer for nearly ten years, I have stopped buying Starbucks products altogether.  I love authentic community more than I love caffeine.

I have always found it ironic, in light of American slavery and the long history of mistreatment suffered by African and later African American people at the hands of European American people, that the now socially colored white people feel that socially colored black people are going to harm them.  History simply does not support this assumption or the criminalization of African American people.  After being oppressed for hundreds of years, it would seem more logical for African Americans to cross to the other side of the street, lock their car doors, clutch their purses, hold their children closely and call the police when a European American comes near.  This reverse psychology simply does not make sense.

And this is not a case for, “Which came first— the chicken or the egg?  African people were robbed first, enslaved by European Americans, hurt first, threatened and then brutalized first.  American laws were not on their side.  That it remains against African Americans is the manipulation of power required to maintain the image of whiteness.

So, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson must have done something wrong.  The alternative is just impossible, that African American persons are regularly and routinely targeted and subjected to assault, harassment, mistreatment, false imprisonment and sadder still, death.  To accept that whiteness is sometimes wrong, that it falsely accuses in order to tip the scales of justice, of social righteousness in its favor is absurd.  No, whiteness is naturally good, divinely good, purely good.

“Two gentlemen in my cafe… are refusing to make a purchase or leave,” the manager said in the 911 call.

Day after day, we hear details of racialized discrimination, predation, intellectual subjugation and the mockery of African American culture.  But, due to the social construct of race and its rules of engagement, African Americans now deemed socially colored black do not belong.  This is what was defended by a student at Yale whose classmate called the police on her because she was napping in the common area.

“I deserve to be here,” Lolade Siyonbola said.

This is America for African American people.  And despite the forcefulness of which blackness is shoved on us, I will not yield.  I will not agree to expect my body to be targeted for mistreatment.  These incidents have produced a slew of hashtags to include #nappingwhileblack.  “While black” is not a new awareness: driving while black (or DWB), a term used for the racial profiling of socially colored black persons, who would then be subject to unwarranted searches, seizures and even arrest, became “popular,” if this is possible, in the 1990s.

The problem that I find after each of these encounters is that the blame and onus is on the socially colored black body.  These things continue to happen because her and his body is black.  It suggests that if hers was not a black body, it would not have happened.  The solution is that his body behave whitely.  The social coloring of the body is the problem—not the prejudicial behavior or stereotypical perspective of the individual.

Released a little over a week ago, “This is America” is the title of a new song by Childish Gambino, also known as Donald Glover.  The video presently has more than 123,000,000 views.  Trending on YouTube, I decided to watch.  I have to admit that I did not know who he was.  Elias Leight provides his backstory and placement in the music industry for Rolling Stone magazine.  It didn’t matter at the time that I read it and frankly, it doesn’t matter now.  This is not to suggest that his identity is of little or no importance.  To the contrary, a review or reminder is unnecessary as this song has cemented him in the memory of the American psyche.

We know who he is because Glover has done it.  Used rhythms traditionally reserved for dimly lit parties to move us, enlighten us, reflect to us what he sees in us.  He invites us to entertain the naturalization of violence in African American communities and with death’s horse riding through one of the scenes and a choir singing in the next, this conversation includes sacred spaces.  Baptism meets blood bath.  Sadly, the praise of guns is louder than the praise of God in some settings.

Nevertheless, Glover dances, shucks and jives, all the while mocking members that would move past this grotesque display of carnage.  How will the music move you?  Do we nod our heads in agreement to the sound or its substance?  In the end, he is running away, being chased by a mob but he is also running towards the screen and us on the other side of it.  What can we do to save him for in so doing, we will save ourselves?  We have the option to look away or to turn the video off.  This is American.

While there have been numerous discussions about the tragedy of gun violence on artful display in his video, Glover refused to interpret it during an interview.  He responded that his creations are “for the people” and invited them to see what they needed to.  This is America.  What do you see?

 

Race and reconciliation do not go together

See the source image

“16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

| Second Corinthians 5.16-20, NRSV

Recently, I led a series of workshops on racial reconciliation.  I did not choose the title but welcomed the challenge of a conversation with the two words.  The attendees saw no conflict between them, at least not at first.  I thought it necessary that they be clear of the meanings that they brought to the words.  As expected, the definitions were most often the total opposite of each other.

When I asked what words they associated with race, there was nervous silence.  After I reminded them that they were in a safe space for which they would not be penalized for learning, they offered words like hatred, division, anger and apathy.  It took quite some time before anyone mentioned color or prejudice.  And when I asked them what came to mind when I said reconciliation, there was almost a sigh of relief with each answer: apology, love, redemption and unity.  It was obvious that they knew and favored reconciliation over race.

The gathering focused on being an ambassador but it was clear that they wanted to get as far away from race as possible.  Though participants understood intellectually that race was and is a social construct, socially and emotionally it remained very real.  And this is understandable as there are real life consequences and implications for those on the last rung of its social ladder.  As we saw recently at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, two African American men socially identified as black were falsely arrested and imprisoned for asking to use the restroom and while waiting for a friend.  Not ordering immediately is apparently a crime for some people.  These men posed no threat but the perceptions associated with the social coloring of their skin prompted the manager to call the police.

As a result, I have given up my grande, seven pump, extra hot chai with whole milk, no water, no foam.  It had been my favorite morning drink for almost ten years.  But, when I saw the video and the faces of the men being arrested, I lost my appetite immediately.  I need authentic community more than I need caffeine.  Race and community simply do not go together.

To be fair, the social construct of race never aimed to unify human beings.  It never claimed that it would create community, that after it was finished with American slavery, lynchings, the Black Codes, Jim Crow segregation, redlining and the like that it would bring us back together again.  Its purpose was to justify a caste system, which enabled persons socially colored white to oppress and enslave those socially colored black.  There is nothing of this relationship that can be reconciled.  The two don’t go together.  Instead, we should spend our time reconciling the fact that we hate persons who are our siblings.

Reconciling ourselves to race is not apart of this ministry; reconciling ourselves to each other and to God is.

Death- defying protests

Image result for rosa parks sitting on the bus“You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right.”

| Rosa Parks

“There’s a lot of racism in this country disguised as patriotism.”

|Colin Kaepernick

The NBA’s Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum sent an email on Friday reminding its players that they are required to stand during the national anthem.  But, they weren’t “required” until 2009.  In fact, while we sit down and watch, the NFL is paid to be patriotic.  In 2015, it was reported that the Pentagon had spent $6.8 million dollars for these displays of loyalty during sporting games.

And it is was ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette in 1943 that no one could be forced to participate in “patriotic rituals” to include the Pledge of Allegiance.  Arguments have been made about respecting the flag but according to the “Flag Code,” kneeling is not included as a sign of disrespect: “While the Code empowers the President of the United States to alter, modify, repeal or prescribe additional rules regarding the Flag, no federal agency has the authority to issue ‘official’ rulings legally binding on civilians or civilian groups.”  Certainly, it is not within the President’s power to suggest terminating the employment of private citizens who do not participate.

NFL player Delanie Walker talked about his team’s decision to stay in their locker room during the anthem and afterwards, received death threats.  Am I missing something here?  Persons want to kill Mr. Walker and members of his family because of his decision to show solidarity with other team members?  He doesn’t deserve to live believe he decided to use his body to bring attention to cases of police brutality, misconduct and the criminalization of oppressed people groups?

President Donald Trump tweeted, “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race.  It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem.  NFL must respect this!”  But, then why did these persons include racial slurs in their threats to Mr. Walker?  I mean, if it is just about a song, a symbol and protesting at the right time, then why the escalation to violence and the choice of words that remind all African Americans of their history of oppression in the United States?  If persons have expressed on countless occasions their respect for the military and their rationale for kneeling, then why can’t persons just agree to disagree?

It seems that we are having two different arguments, talking about two different allegiances, participating in two kinds of protests and one is death- defying.

 

A round of applause for police brutality?

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

With the line of what is acceptable being crossed and then pushed back with each outlandish action from the current White House administration and decency being redefined to accommodate the indefensible behavior of President Donald Trump, it is hard not to become disgusted by the hypocrisy.  I am well past feeling disappointed.  What is acceptable, good and right is being changed with each interview, after each commercial break.  This is democracy.  Truth created by the people for the people.

And true to form, Mr. Trump has been consistent in speech and character, each tweet and speech outdoing the other.  Recently, two speeches warranted statements from the groups he was speaking to, here being the Boy Scouts and then to police officers in Long Island, New York.  While both are disgusting, the latter is deeply troubling.  Because the sitting President of the United States endorsed police brutality.  He told police to break the law.  To which he initially received applause.

Applause.  Agreement with violating the rights and personhood of citizens who may or may not be suspects?  See “innocent until proven guilty.”  Applause.  Affirmation of wrong- doing by those who have sworn an oath to uphold the law– not bring it down to their level and prejudices?  Applause.  Appreciation because the President is saying what you want to say or giving voice to what you really want to do, to some people, to those thugs he mentioned?  Applause.   Permission to incite fear in the residents you have agreed to serve and protect?

And these are police in communities– not soldiers at war with an enemy in a foreign land.  Police officers are patrolling America’s city streets and country roads where persons are driving to school and work, persons who want to make it home to family and friends too.  With or without badges, all of us deserve honor.   But, this is not what the current Commander- In- Chief said.

Persons are worried about his access to nuclear codes but I’m concerned about his access to a microphone and a cell phone, for that matter.  Mr. Trump is far from a role model and certainly not a model president.  Still, persons are hanging on his every word and if this kind of speech is mindlessly applauded, then persons could die because of his words.

With communities living in fear, cases pending and families still mourning the deaths of their loved ones, Mr. Trump says, “Please don’t be too nice.”  With body camera and cell phone footage depicting the shooting death of unarmed American citizens, Mr. Trump says, the laws are “horrendously stacked” against police officers.  His words suggest that police officers should not be held to the highest standard of the law and that we should normalize this kind of bad behavior.  Move the line back.

But, police officers are not judge and jury.  There is due process of law.  And no one has the right to change it to accommodate police officers or a president.  Because then, it’s no law at all.  It is but the abuse of power and the passing of social privileges.

Perhaps, this endorsement of meanness is the counter response to political correctness.  I have heard it said that Mr. Trump speaks for many American people, that he says what is on their minds.  Really?  Fellow Americans would agree with the murder of other Americans without due process of law.  They would applaud that?

That’s crossing a line and that’s not democracy.

After the death of Philando Castile: What will we preach?

Image result for philando castile

More videos have been released after a jury decided that the officer who shot and killed Mr. Philando Castile was not guilty of any charges.  A jury of his peers decided he did nothing wrong.  Mr. Castile is dead and this is just standard police training.  What’s most important is that the officer made it out alive, right?  Well, he’s been fired and will not be serving Mr. Castile’s community in the future.  I have no idea how both these truths can coexist.

I sat and watched his death from the police officer’s dash camera and it is just as tragic.  I can hear the anxiety in the police officer’s voice and I am disgusted.  “If you are afraid, wait for back up to arrive.  If you are afraid, why not interrogate your fear?”  Because I hear nothing scary coming from the car.

I hear Mr. Castile’s voice and I feel helpless and weak.  I know that he is going to die just like the other African Americans before him  and we will blame them for it.  It’s always their fault, right?  Still, no gun in view much less drawn or aimed, Mr. Castile is shot to death.

In a matter of seconds, Mr. Castile is shot numerous times and I see another officer move away.  The police officer who shot and killed Mr. Castile had not considered his partner who may have been in the line of fire or the other passengers, to include a four- year- old in the backseat, until afterwards.  She climbs out of the car after witnessing the shooting. His partner grabs her.  Isn’t that ironic?

It was “a split- second decision” that has changed her life forever.  I watch another video and I hear her small voice warn her mother to watch her language.  She doesn’t want her “to get shooted.”  In a split- second, her perspective has changed and she now feels the need to police her mother’s behavior.  Because it is more important that her mother maintain her composure after watching a fearful police officer kill the man she loves.

It was a split- second decision that involved the officer only thinking about his safety and no one else’s.  He feared for his life and had to make a split- second decision to kill Mr. Castile?  A decision based on fear of what could happen. But, wasn’t this why Mr. Castile greeted the officer with deference?  Wasn’t that the reason why he told the officer that he had a registered firearm in the car?  To calm his fears and to reassure him that he had no intentions to harm him.  Because why would he tell the officer that he has a gun and then reach for it?

“Sir, I have a gun.  Please wait while I reach for it to take your life with my family in the car.  Put your heads down, girls.”  In a split- second, this logic was not questioned.  That Mr. Castile also wanted to go home.  Because he knows the drill; records show that he had been stopped by police more than forty times.  But, I am supposed to believe he now decides to kill a police officer?

I’m still trying to make sense of it but I can’t.  There’s no real rationale for the continued employment of the shaky hands of Lady Justice.  Because it shouldn’t have happened.   Murdered out of fear when there has been year after year of nationally publicized police- involved shootings of African Americans?  I would understand Mr. Castile’s fear but not the officer’s.

I know that this messes with our neat little boxes.  Police officers swear to uphold the law so we don’t want to consider that they might break it.  They are the good people and the African Americans are the bad people.  There are cops and there are robbers.  But, what happens to our boxes when the cops are doing the robbing?

See Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees.  He didn’t mince words butcalled these keepers of the law “white- washed graves” (Matthew 23.27).  Jesus was quite comfortable with the inconsistences of our humanity and had no problem calling out their hypocrisies.  Police officers are no different; they are under the same law.  Call it like you really see it.  Jesus would.

So, how then do we preach?  Where will we stand behind our pulpits after the death of Mr. Castile?  Will we pray for his family?  Will we mention his name at all?  Challenge ourselves to sit in the car with him and see justice from his eyes?

Or, will we simply pray for the police officers because they are trying to do the right thing?  But, wasn’t that what Mr. Castile was attempting to do? The truth is that in our eyes, he wasn’t good enough.  We don’t have to say it; our silence sums it up.

Yes, a police officer’s job is hard and dangerous.  If someone is going to die, we would prefer it not be the good guy, right?  Our conclusions are cut and dry, black and white.  No grace and no wiggle room for Mr. Castile or his family in the car that day.  It’s the law.

The Scriptures are not silent on matters of justice so why does the Church pretend to be?  Instead, I would encourage my fellow preachers to speak authentically, openly, honestly and transparently about his death and what it means for you.  And if it means nothing, ask yourself, “Why?”  If you feel that he deserved it, ask yourself, “Why?”  If you believe that you can do nothing to break this cycle, ask yourself, “Why?”  And then write.

Perhaps, tomorrow’s sermon will be a lament.  Maybe it will voice the cry of righteous anger or be an opportunity to ask necessary questions about how we can best serve our community in times of crisis.  While you are searching for an appropriate Scripture for the subject matter, consider the position of the police officer and that of Mr. Castile.  Then, ask yourself, “Where would Jesus be?”