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Where “Black Lives Matter” Can Take Us

Hope in fresh conversations on race

 

The cries of ”I can’t breathe” have apparently awakened America to much needed new conversations on race.  As the national outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter has gone global, perhaps, indeed, a new movement is afoot in our country.  Whatever is happening, it boils over with passion.

Matters of race have deeply divided our nation since slave ships first landed on American shores four hundred years ago.  Regrettably, the work of our Founding Fathers, in spite of their deep concerns of conscience, was unable to transcend the scar of racism that has haunted the American soul even into our modern era.

As a nation, it has been an immense struggle.  We endured a costly Civil War leading to the prolonged years of segregation and Jim Crow.  After tense civil rights protests in the sixties, landmark civil rights legislation was passed.  And still, more than fifty years later–in pursuit of “a more perfect union”–tensions and protracted inequalities persist.

In spite of the denials of government officials (as recently as today), racism continues to be systemic in our country.  It is everywhere and it is in everything.  Along with countless others, I am exhausted at white denials at the depths of systemic racism across our nation.  I sometimes ask myself, what world are these people living in?

Inside the black experience.  As white persons, we need to do what we can to get inside the black experience in America.  We can never do this, of course, but we have to try.  And the way we try, at the outset, is by listening.

In an article on Seeing Whiteness, Reggie Williams (who teaches at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago) conducts an exercise with students where he asks them to write down words they associate with a particular racial group.  Interestingly, while responses to Hispanic, Asian, and black, for example, were all predictable, the racial group white elicited such responses as “normal,” or “non-ethnic,” or “no race.”  Professor Williams then commented, “The exercise reveals that normal humanity, regulative humanity, or template humanity is white humanity.  That is the enduring ideology of white supremacy: white-as-normal humanity.”

He goes on to comment how “race is a myth biologically, but it is a political reality.  Racism is the effort to create and sustain systems and structures for whites.”  As white people, we need to hear this feedback.  Williams comments further, saying: “The power of white-as-normal is so common that it regulates social and political structures … .”  It shapes what people think of as “civilized” behavior.

As white persons, it is important that we listen to these observations and allow the power of what these words suggest for people of color to settle in.  Moreover, perhaps the conclusions Professor Williams has arrived at can become a meaningful part of fresh conversations on race in our country.

I don’t understand, but I want to understand.  In emphasizing the importance of listening, white people need to acknowledge up front that we don’t understand.  To begin with, this is the truth.  But, secondly, it has to grate on black people when we whites try to act like we understand the black experience.  When whites try to mitigate the gap between black and white experience, we trivialize the black experience with our arrogance.

Again, I don’t understand has to be the starting point for any white person.  I don’t understand because I’m not black.  I don’t understand, but I will stand with you.  I don’t understand, but I will try to understand and I will work with you.

In conversations on race in America, white people never have the moral high ground.  Nor do we have the spiritual high ground.  In conversations on race, culture, and values, those who have suffered the most always have the high ground.

Time for action.  In our conversations, at some point, we have to move beyond the talk to action.  Systemic change is needed to combat the way racism is sustained in our institutions and culture every day.  We must demand new legislation and laws that seek, over time, to eliminate the lingering disparity.  We do this through listening and then acting.  But the acting is imperative.  And the time to act is now.  There is never a better moment than “right now” to act and do the right thing.

In our Christian faith, Easter hope offers great possibilities for progress in race relations everywhere.  In an Easter moment at the table in Emmaus (Luke 24), a new consciousness was born.  It is precisely this “new consciousness” that advocates a message of universal love, mutual respect, and well being.  It is this new consciousness that seeks to eliminate the disparities that divide us–disparities caused by race, gender, sexual identity, and social-economic class; disparities in opportunities for health care, education, housing, and fair hiring practices; and disparities that prompt reform in policing and criminal justice.

At its best, Black Lives Matter can take us to a better place.  It can take us to a place where all people can experience the high promise of the American dream, a  dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of our creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all persons are created equal.  May it be so!

 

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired church pastor who began his ministry in the Baptist tradition before becoming a minister in the United Church of Christ. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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