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My People: A Lamentation on Racism

 

Black lives matter.  Not at the expense of other lives.  By affirming that Black lives matter in this moment in history, all lives matter more.

It is worth reflecting on why and how this is true.

Especially, for me, after a conversation my wife Roberta and I had this week with our neighbors.  We were taking an evening walk when we encountered a woman and a man who live down the street from us on the edge of town in Ojai.  A friendly white couple about ten years senior to us.  The conversation veered into politics.  We discovered that they are consumers of Fox State Television and supporters of Trump.  The woman started complaining that “all lives matter – what’s this business about ‘Black lives matter’?  And if Black lives matter so much, why are so many Black people killing each other in Chicago right now?”  We expressed vigorous disagreement with their points of view on nearly every subject that arose in the conversation.  We managed to end on a polite note, and went our way.

Afterward, I found myself deeply unsettled by the encounter.  I had asked questions to try to gently move the woman in the direction of understanding that ‘Black lives matter’ is not a zero-sum endeavor.  That the same history of racism that led to George Floyd’s death lies behind the horrific levels of Black-on-Black violence in Chicago and elsewhere.  But she wouldn’t let me finish my sentences.

After a meditative time of cooling-off, I considered further the question asked by the woman down the street, pejorative as it was.  If Black lives matter, why do Black people kill each other on the streets of Chicago and elsewhere?  I am not qualified to answer that question, assuming it is even appropriate to ask.

But it did drop me down into a deeper place where I pondered the nature of the self.

All selves, including myself, are others.  Selves are essentially social.  They don’t exist in individualistic, autonomous bubbles.  My sense of self emerges through my interactions with other selves.  The social nature of the self exists even within myself:  I’m an other to my self.  Otherwise I’d have no sense of self at all.

I discovered this truth at the age of twenty, as a senior at the University of California, Riverside.  My primary professor was grooming me to go on to the University of Chicago to get a degree in social psychology.  I took courses in quantitative research methods, and I had a good part-time job as a research assistant in a longitudinal study.  But I was a lot more interested in the “armchair” branch of the field than in the number-crunching branch in which I was being trained.  I drifted into a reading jag, focused on the more philosophical roots of social psychology.  That led me to discover “Mind, Self, and Society” by the early 20th century thinker, George Herbert Meade.

Meade was the son of someone like myself – a Congregational minister.  He could not abide by the traditional beliefs of his father, but he did inherit the social conscience of our tradition.  He was a good friend of Jane Addams, the founder of modern social work, in his days as a professor at the University of Chicago.  A thread of mysticism pervades Meade’s work – not in any formal religious sense, but in the spirit of his observations.  I was electrified by his wisdom that the self is a construct of community.  This resonated deeply with the religious writers I was also reading at the time:  the Buddha, Tolstoy, Gandhi, John Woolman, Paul Tillich.  The shared heart of the faiths of the world is the realization that a small-s, separate, individual, isolated self is not the true Self.  My being is inter-being with all other beings.  The corollary of this universal spiritual truth is that individual responsibility and social responsibility are one and the same.

If someone is told or shown since birth that they are less-than, that they are “marked”, that they are not to be trusted, that they are objects of fear and scorn, it will be no wonder that a certain sense of self will be thusly formed.  And out of that sense of self may come scorn for the other selves who share it – including one’s own.

I worked in a majority Black community for a few years, early in my ministry career.  One day, a Black woman, a leader in the community whom I admired very much, was talking about how she felt it necessary to spank her young son when he was naughty.  “You know,” she said to me, “black boys aren’t like white boys.  You have to beat on them to get them to shape up.”  This from one of the kindness, most compassionate people I’ve ever known.

A few years later, directing a drop-in center for homeless people, I got to know a young Black man named Randy.  The word among the people on the streets was that he got into a messy mix that resulted in him killing another Black man.  He was never arrested or convicted, but he was haunted by it ever after.  He was homeless, strung out on crack cocaine.  At our drop-in center he mostly kept to himself.  He helped out with setting up the center in the morning and tidying up at the end of the day.  He was unfailingly polite.  Then he stopped coming around.  About a year later I ran into him on the street.  “Where have you been?  I’ve been asking around to find out what happened to you!  I’m so glad to see you!” I said.  He reported that he was clean and sober and had a steady job and a place to live.  I told him “We’d love to see you at the drop-in sometime!”  He shook his head and said, “No, Jim, can’t do that anymore.  I can’t be around those people.”  To maintain a new sense of self, he had to avoid the people who reinforced his old sense of self.  Including, I realized, my self.

A few years ago, riding on the LA Metro train, a Black woman walked through the car, holding out a plastic cup begging for money.  She was a big person in a flimsy, raggedy, filthy dress, and she smelled awful.  After she passed by, a Black woman near me shook her head and moaned:  “My people.  My people.”  I wept then, hearing her words.  I weep now, remembering them.

These encounters reinforced what I learned from George Herbert Meade.  The self is socially constructed – for better and for worse.  Each encounter put me in touch with the way my white self was constructed.  Each encounter broke my heart and cracked open my own sense of self: to begin, if only barely, to inter-be with selves constructed from the Black experience in America.

“My people.  My people.”  It’s what I say to myself now, shaking my head in sorrow, remembering what my white neighbor in white Ojai said about Black people killing Black people in Chicago…

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: Musings

Follow on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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