A pastor’s lament: 60 years later, and we still don’t give a s*** about each other

Last night as we waited for the Darren Wilson verdict to return, I went to the right place: I went downtown, where faith leaders and anarchists and socialists and nonviolent youth movement leaders and queer activists of all races had convened because we needed to be a public witness but more than that, we needed to be with each other.

Then I grabbed dinner and grieved and processed with a White clergy friend who is also family-of-choice.

My mistake was falling down the rabbit hole of facebook and twitter.

What an echo chamber. And what a heartbreaking reminder that we have no f***ing idea about each other’s lives and no interest in walking in one another’s shoes.

There’s been a lot of talk in my circles about the statistic that in 2014, 75% of White people have no friends of a different race. Last night that mattered.

Last night, lots of people all across America thought that the outpouring of grief was about people rejecting justice done well. Lots of people thought people were using this as an excuse to be destructive with no real cause. Lots of people thought this was about disrespect by one race for all police. Lots of people thought the rallies and also the damage of property were about a particular race of people not wanting to be responsible for their actions.

No. Really. More than a few people actually said that out loud.

Members of First Unitarian Church during 4.5 minutes of silence as requested by the family of Michael Brown.

The church I pastored when I came to Oakland was predominantly attended by educated, faithful, morally upstanding people most (although not all) of whom were Black. And they got pulled over more frequently by police. And their children were more likely to be disciplined than other children in school for the same offenses. And they were less likely to get good treatment in hospitals, because they were educated and faithful and morally upstanding, but they were Black in America.

I know lots of White people who are outraged about this. But those White people actually have meaningful relationships with Black people.

One of my friends who I stood with yesterday, a priest who grew up in Cleveland in the 1960s, remembers tanks rolling down his street as a child during the race riots of 1968, and he remembers the blame placed solely on the shoulders of Black people for a system so broken that people had taken to the streets expressing their broken heartedness over a country determined not to give them their basic rights.

And two Dr. King quotes seem equally important today for me as a nonviolent activist who daily witnesses a broken system. The more common one is:

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.

And I find myself thinking, 60 years after Dr. King’s dream, Black children and White children aren’t playing together, and their parents sure as hell don’t know each other. No wonder there is no interest in knowing one another’s struggles and creating a system that works for all of us.

The other quote from our nation’s greatest hero of nonviolence is this:

Rioting is the language of the unheard.

And while I think violence is the morally wrong choice and wins nothing for the movement, and I feel the same way about property destruction, still I wonder why so few Americans care to sit down and really listen. I wonder why our faith communities do not talk about the violence of ignoring cries of despair and real experiences of oppression. Dr. King always spoke of choosing the path of nonviolence, but he actually listened to and cared about the grief and despair of the people drawn to violent resistence instead of using nonviolence as a cudgel against people while denying their very real grief.

 

I care about public safety. I care about community and police partnership. I have publicly expressed my experience that there are many good police officers in my city seeking to create a better Oakland for everyone, although I believe they work within a system that works against them.

And I work with literally thousands of people who work to end Black-on-Black violence every day, in the face of all of those statistical realities I listed above.

There are days like yesterday my Black colleagues and friends and family say, “We can only do that work when we can trust the people who are committed to serve and protect.” And the rhetoric used against them is that they don’t want to take accountability for their actions and they don’t want to address the real issues like Black-on-Black crime.

And the people leveling those accusations aren’t doing anything to address issues like Black-on-Black crime. And I believe that is because they do not see Black people as their brothers and sisters.  And they have explained why Michael Brown deserved to die the same way they will explain away Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice. The same way Rodney King and Amadou Diallo were explained away during my younger days.

 

Don’t get me wrong. This works in multiple racial directions: an anti-poverty activist I deeply respect said last week after President Obama’s immigration speech that President Obama has never done anything for Black people and cares only about immigrants, since his father is an immigrant.

When I led an anti-racism training for Asian/Pacific Islanders, a couple of middle class API young adults said racism had nothing to do with them because they didn’t experience it. This was at a faith gathering, where you’d think our teachings about caring for others would have helped them recognize that even if they didn’t think they faced racism directly, racism has something to do with them because other people are suffering and those people are their brothers and sisters.

And yes, I saw some anti-White rhetoric on facebook last night. But I didn’t encounter any at the rally, because White people showed up to grieve alongside their brothers and sisters of all races last night. And in a country set up throughout all of its history to preserve power for White people even when they don’t ask for it, I hold my White brothers and sisters to a higher standard of seeking to understand one another’s pain, particularly my White brothers and sisters of faith, whose sacred texts tell them to care about people who are mistreated.

 

What’s happening in America this morning, what happened across America last night, what happens in the echo chambers of social media, and what led up to the verdict all have to do with a very real and very dangerous thing: we have completely antithetical understandings of discrimination and fairness based on our social location. And those understandings are rarely influenced by more than one cross-racial experience or relationship (if that).

We do not want to walk in each others’ shoes. We do not think we have to.

That is what led to the contempt that whole groups of people are throwing on each other. And it is what will destroy us if we do not address it.

And having made the mistake of wandering out of my own social media echo chamber into others’, I feel today like the simple fact is that we don’t give a s*** about each other.

That is my pastoral lament.

 

 

Comments (2)

  1. Shayne

    Sandhya, AMEN!!!

  2. Tai Amri

    The pain in my heart has just subsided enough to be able to read this. I am grateful for all the people who wade into the pain of this country to find truth.

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