I am the kind of person that needs a long time to stew on things before having an opinion, mostly because I will typically have a gut feeling about a situation, but won't be able to articulate it for a while. It makes me terrible at debating because for every point the other person makes, I need a few hours or days to mull it over.
The cases in question, Mike Brown being shot by a police officer in Ferguson, and Eric Garner being choked to death by a police officer in Staten Island, have had a lot of noise surrounding them. Bundled into this issue has been the militarization of police, white privilege, unequal treatment of minorities by the police force, rioters and the sometimes violent reactions of protestors, the innocence or guilt of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, the excessive force used by police, and the lack of willingness to indict police officers. Basically there is something in here for everyone to reaffirm whatever previously held beliefs they had.
I have sat back and watched my Facebook feed, by no means a pulse on the general American public (being that most of my friends are from the San Francisco Bay Area), but I have certainly seen a myriad of opinions dance across my feed. If I were to write these opinions out in a conversation, they would make very little sense. Here is an attempt:
"Another black victim! Another example of how blacks are treated differently from whites!"
"Yeah but did you see the police response to the rioters, when did our police force become an army?"
"Okay but those rioters were there to destroy, they would have destroyed property no matter what the verdict was!"
"And how about that verdict. Can you believe it? Not even an indictment! Our justice system SO broken! It is so racist!"
"Here's a link to an article showing that in the autopsy report Mike Brown was found to have been aggressively attacking the officer. So the officer was justified! No racism here!"
"Look here's an article comparing police-related deaths in American versus country X in Europe. Our police are out of control!"
"Look, here is a picture of Eric Garner and his family. See he was just a family man!"
"Here is an article about Eric Garner and who he really was, see he wasn't the innocent angel that everyone is saying he was."
Huh? Just what are we talking about here?
It seems like these deaths have become the platforms for many different opinions, about many different topics, to come out.
Is this a good thing? Is this a reflection of the many different opinions that we have in this country, a reflection on healthy disagreement? Or are we choking out some potentially important discussions because they are drowning in all the noise?
As I listen to all the chatter, to all the news, and to all the opinions, I can't help but hear one refrain that keeps repeating.
Amidst the wails of grief, the silence of shock, and the destruction of riots, is a chorus speaking to the Black experience in this country. An experience that says that racism is alive in all but name. That segregation is alive in all but name. That the divide that once was still is, only now subtler, more implicit, and more hidden.
There is a Black experience in America, a thread that is common enough to not be a coincidence or an isolated incident, and the question is are we as a nation willing to listen to it. Listening is so hard because if we really listen, we open ourselves up to the possibility that we are wrong, and to the possibility that we must change.
Here is an example of what this situation feels like.
Imagine a group of friends, and one of the friends comes up and says that they've been feeling excluded from the group.
There are two paths the group can take.
Path 1: Assume their identity and self-worth is coming under attack
Solution: Defend. Counter with the fact that the friend who feels excluded always complains that they're too busy with work to go. Mention that one time that they failed to show up to that thing you planned.
Path 2: Recognize this is someone they should care about who might have a genuine concern, one that they don't currently understand
Solution: Curiosity. Ask them why they feel that way. What examples are there where they felt excluded? Ask what you can be doing differently?
I am seeing a lot of Path 1 being used in discussions recently. To the cry of exclusion and mistreatment, we respond with "yes, but", rather than with curiosity.
There is a significant portion of our population that is telling a fairly consistent story of struggle, of profiling, and of marginalization.
Am I willing to listen to it? As a white male, am I willing to accept that there is a Black experience that is radically different than my own? Am I open to the idea that I live in an area or an era where racism, that devil we thought our ancestors had abolished, might still be alive and well today? That racism isn't something that is happening "over there" but something I might unknowingly also be perpetrating?
Was Darren Wilson right to shoot Mike Brown? I honestly don't know. Was Eric Garner's death 100% unjustified, I don't know. I don't know because I wasn't there. I don't know because I can read opinions on either side that seem just as convinced. Does the recent execution of those two police officers validate the excessive reaction Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo used when confronting their respective suspects? I am not a police officer, I don't know.
What I do know is what I hear, and what I hear is pain. As a Christian it's painful to hear of systemic injustices. As an American it's painful to hear fellow citizens not being given access to that same dream we all hope to partake in.
What would it look like for us all to look at our position in this matter, and simply ask, what is life like for this other group, that might be causing them to act or react in this way? Chances are, you don't know the answer, or the answer you think you know is wrong.
That information can only come from outside of yourself. You want to truly understand the American experience for a Black individual? Ask them, or at least listen to them when you hear or read something. If they say it's a different experience, are you willing to accept that it might be true?
To think that a particular people group "just needs to...", then you're saying that there is something about that group that makes them all act a certain way, or do certain things. That is racism. That is the very definition of racism.
If 40% of incarcerations are black individuals, even though they represent only 13% of the population, you can only come to two conclusions. Either there is something inherent about being black that makes you predisposed to breaking the law, or there is something in our society and our laws that is systemically targeting and creating a disadvantage for a particular people group. One view is racist, I'll let figure out which one.
From all the noise, all the hashtags, all the media coverage, all the articles, if the Black population in American could feel heard. If they could have their pains and sufferings acknowledged, what a powerful step that would be.
Our friends are saying something. I hope we can listen. I hope I can listen.