Do Black Lives Actually Matter? A Personal Question

I was born among racists. Perhaps, in the 1970s, that was the status quo for a boy growing up in the heart of the Confederacy, the great Commonwealth of Virginia. I had friends and family members who called black people “niggers” on a regular basis. I had family members who overtly expressed their desire for a re-segregation between blacks and whites. Racist, hateful jokes and comments were a regular part of my childhood experience.

Apparently, I was influenced by those racist sentiments as a young child. I still recall watching a boxing match with my father when I was ten years old or so. It was a white man fighting a black man and I told my dad I was rooting for the white guy because he was white. He reprimanded me for that, which was honestly a little ironic. Around that same time in my life, I made up a song called “Tyrone and Ramona” to the tune of Jack and Diane by John Cougar. It was filled with racial stereotypes and ugliness. My parents still celebrate how funny that song was. It breaks my heart that I ever came up with it in the first place.

Racism would not gain a permanent grip on me, at least not in the ways it did for so many others around me. I attended Indian River Junior High in the mid-80s and went to school every day with blacks, Asians, and whites. Some of my best friends were black. I started being influenced by hip hop culture, especially by Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, and Whodini. Eventually, I began writing my own raps and performing them. These relationships with black kids and interaction with elements of their culture impacted me deeply. As I grew into my later teens, I began confronting racism when it surfaced around me, which was often.

When I was about 19 years old, I was actually the victim of a race-based attack. Some friends and I (all white kids) were leaving our city’s annual celebration, the Chesapeake Jubilee. A group of black teens walked up to us and started interacting with us. It felt awkward, but I chose to believe the best and just keep chatting. One of my friends was not able to play it so cool. He was obviously nervous. One of the guys saw my friend’s tension and preyed upon it. He brushed up against him, saying “We found the hard one.” He and my friend began pushing each other. The rest of us intervened and broke it up. As soon as things settled, my friends and I walked away and headed toward our car. However, those boys weren’t through with us yet. They ran after us and started throwing punches. I got sucker-punched in the jaw and hit the ground. None of us were injured. But, my heart was broken. In the days after that event, I got anxious around groups of young black men. But, in time, that anxiety subsided and I was back to normal… confronting racism and desiring unity.

As you can see, racial tensions and relations between blacks and whites have been a part of my experience since childhood. But, somewhere in the mix, a deeply-seated apathy began to emerge in my psyche and my sensitivity toward racism and inequality waned. In my late 30s, a personal event took place that changed not only my feelings about race, but my entire life: my wife Charlotte and I adopted our baby boy from Ethiopia. We immediately became, quite literally, an African-American family.

Having a black son has reinvigorated my sensitivities around race issues, as have our various brushes with racism since bringing him home. There was the way people would look judgingly at my wife and son when just the two of them were out together. There was the boy at Carson Park who told my 4 year old Joshua he wouldn’t play with him because he’s brown. There are the multiple times my boy has told me someone doesn’t like him because of his skin. So, racism is not just something to which I am opposed; it has become intensely personal for my family and me.

This is why my heart is broken in light of recent events. When Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, I grieved. But when I saw the video of his 15 year old son breaking down uncontrollably at a news conference the following day, I broke with him. That boy’s daddy is gone forever. His life has been altered forever. Alton Sterling’s son put a face to this tragedy, a real, human, brokenhearted face.

The video of Philando Castile’s girlfriend trying to talk to the police with Castile slumped over and bleeding out beside her in the car, and a four-year old child witnessing it all from the backseat… this tragedy had faces as well. That woman and her young child are forever scarred by what happened right before their eyes. I will not forget their pain. It has marked me.

But, my goal here is not to create some kind of emotional plea. No, there’s been plenty of that, and it hasn’t always been helpful. The events of the past few days, the killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers, have left many of us angry, grieved, and/or bewildered. It is understandable there would be emotional responses to these events. It is only right. After all, anger is an appropriate response to injustice.

However, emotional responses alone will not generate any meaningful change. I certainly want to keep in the forefront of our minds the real human beings involved in these unjust tragedies. However, my desire is not to focus on what some may see as “isolated incidents,” sensationalized by the “liberal media”. No, my heart is to try, as best as I can, to show the broader context of these events.

Before I go any further, I need to get something out of the way. I stand with those who have declared you can be both pro-black and pro-police. I hate that anyone would feel like they have to choose a side. That dichotomy is false. I am passionately for equal rights, equal pay, equal treatment, and seeing black folks (and every other kind of folks) live out their God-given potentials. At the same time, I am deeply appreciative of the public servants who do their best, with integrity, to uphold the law on a daily basis, risking their own well-being to do so. So, let’s not think lazily about these issues. We don’t have to choose between black people and the police. In fact, such a choice is contrived and ultimately illogical.

Having gotten that out of the way, let’s move on. In light of the killings of Sterling and Castile, I want to start with a look at police shootings resulting in deaths. In April 2015, the Washington Times published an article about this subject, specifically about the racial statistics around police killings. The title was misleading: “Police kill more whites than blacks, but minority deaths generate more outrage.” I’ve heard that idea from more than one source in the recent past, and it is a statement in desperate need of some context.

On the surface, that headline is true. It is a fact that police kill more whites than blacks, but that’s not the whole story. Within that article, the author, Valerie Richardson, offers some much needed clarification. Quoting Peter Moskos of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, she writes, “The odds that a black man will be shot and killed by a police officer is about 1 in 60,000. For a white man those odds are 1 in 200,000.” Why is that the case? Because the raw totals of people killed by police does not take into consideration the racial make-up of our country.

In 2015, whites made up about 62% of our population, whereas blacks comprised about 13%, according to the US Census Bureau. In the same year, according to The Guardian (as cited by The Society Pages), the police killed 578 whites and 301 blacks. Proportionally speaking, the data shows that black people are about two and a half times as likely to be killed by police officers as white people. According to the Washington Post, “Although black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police (in 2015). In the majority of cases in which police shot and killed a person who had attacked someone with a weapon or brandished a gun, the person who was shot was white. But a hugely disproportionate number — 3 in 5 — of those killed after exhibiting less threatening behavior were black or Hispanic.” We cannot ignore the clear message this data is painting. If you are black in America, you are over twice as likely to be shot and killed by a police officer than are you white fellow Americans.

You are also significantly more likely to be imprisoned. In March 2016, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, about 60% of the prison population was white. About 38% were black. Once again, when the population breakdown is taken into consideration, blacks are three times as likely to go to prison as whites. The data seems to clearly show that blacks are incarcerated at a significantly higher rate than whites.

While it seems clear that blacks are much more likely to be killed by police or sent to prison, these are not the only signs of racial inequality. The U.S. Census reports that white peoples’ (not including Hispanics) median income for 2014 was $60,256, while blacks’ median income was $35,396. In other words, whites, on average, earned 60% more than blacks. That is a significant difference. Some of this, presumably, is due to blacks not being afforded the opportunities whites have for higher end jobs. However, even when black and whites have the same jobs, there is still inequality. In October 2014, USA Today reported, “In the same high-skilled positions such as computer programmers and software developers… blacks (earn) $3,656 less than whites…” That same article also discusses the regularity with which minorities in high tech jobs are passed over for promotions more often than whites.

When I consider these three inequality dynamics, my heart sinks. First of all, I find myself needing to repent for my own apathy in these matters. I have willingly worn my racist blinders for too long, and have been okay as my black brothers and sisters have suffered. That’s not okay. Lord, forgive me…

My natural inclination when thinking about problems or challenges is to ask “Why?” Why does something need to be done? Why are we facing this problem? To a great extent, the “why” doesn’t even matter. The simple, painful truth seems to be evident: in America, black lives do not matter as much as white lives. Certainly, we can discuss the history of blacks in America. I could talk about the enslavement and subjugation of Africans in American slavery. I could mention Jim Crow, the KKK, and the “40 acres and a mule” lie. For many of us, that would be rehashing what we already know. No, I won’t spend an abundance of time discussing history.

I’d rather talk about the more central “why”:  the heart issue. One of the great lessons I’ve learned personally over the last couple of years is how intense pressure can reveal one’s true colors. We are a lot like fruit. When a piece of fruit gets squeezed, juice comes out. The taste of that juice shows the quality of the fruit. We Americans are being squeezed in the vice of obvious racial problems and inequities. What kind of juice is coming out of us right now. Is it the sweet juice of peacemaking, justice, and reconciliation? Or, is it the rancid ooze of deeply-seated racism and/or willful apathy?

The continued oppression of black people in American certainly doesn’t look the same as it did in 1950 or 1850. But it is oppression nonetheless. It is injustice. We must respond. But, acts of violence and vengeance are not the best course of action. The fruit they bear is of the rancid variety mentioned above. No, the best initial response is for each of us to look deep inside ourselves to see what is living in us.

Honestly, I have heard, from a variety of people, the same ugly racism that justified slavery for hundreds of years here. We’re simply more polite about it now. Let’s be real about these things. And let’s repent. For me, my only hope is to invite God to come in and show me where my racist tendencies are and repent when I see them. I am doing that.

And then we need to get together. We must find ways to connect across racial lines and learn how to love each other. We’re not all the same, and we shouldn’t act like we are. I love the contrast of my son’s beautiful mocha skin on my fair white skin when he puts his hand on my arm. The differences are a gift, but we will never experience that gift fully unless we choose to do life together. Fear and racism get diffused when confronted by real relationship.

The truth is this: blacks lives matter. It is equally true that all lives matter. However, as I have read from other folks of late, until black lives actually matter, it is disingenuous for us to say “all lives matter.” Because black lives do, in fact, matter and in light of the terrible inequalities which still persist in America between black and white, action is required. And I propose a two step strategy: let’s be real about what lives in each of us and let’s have real relationship and dialogue, especially between black and white. I suggest this is the most logical path to racial reconciliation, equality, and justice.

 

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