About a month ago, I sat in a room full of people of all different colors and backgrounds, and together, we talked about race. We had gathered in a college classroom to speak honestly about how racism and prejudice affected us, how it shaped us uniquely from a young age, and how, hopefully, we may begin to dismantle it.
We came to break the silence. We came to listen to one another. We came to be vulnerable, to be angry, to confess our sins to one another, and to mourn the senseless injustice all around us. We came to begin the process of shedding light into dark places, even if those dark places existed within our own hearts.
We admitted to our silence.
“I admit that I have been silent as my white friends have attempted to excuse or justify the murder of black people at the hands of police,” I confessed to the group. I made a commitment to not succumb to comfortable, easy apathy in the face of injustice- but to face it honestly.
Since that day, about a month ago, there have been more gun shots, more children rendered fatherless, more black bodies left to bleed and die in the streets.
Yesterday, the nation watched the disturbing video of Terence Crutcher’s death. The 40 year old father of four was on his way home from a college class when his car broke down. His hands were in the air when the men circling in a helicopter above decided he looked like “one bad dude.” He was unarmed when he was shot to death by police. His name was added to the ever growing list of hashtags we use to commemorate the dead.
Where there should have been wailing, cries for justice, and arms linked in solidarity, there have been shrugs of indifference, excuses, and skepticism. Perhaps worst of all, there has been silence.
I’ve already seen people online try to justify this killing- to explain it away- to invent a narrative in which this innocent man’s actions made him deserving of a death sentence. It happens every time: instead of lamenting, instead of listening, instead of mourning with those who mourn, there are those who immediately make a case for why, maybe, the unarmed black person deserved to die. Maybe they weren’t being compliant. Maybe the armed police officer felt threatened. Maybe it had nothing to do with race.
It’s the same sentiment expressed by Bill O’Reilly when he responded to Michelle Obama’s recent speech: she said, “I wake up every morning in a house built by slaves.” He responded, “Yeah, but slaves weren’t treated that badly. They were well fed.”
Where in the world does this urge come from? Why is it so bafflingly common? When people of color express anger and frustration about these deaths, why do so many white people react with defensiveness and denial instead of compassion and humility? Why are we unwilling to listen to what it’s like to be black in America from black Americans? Why do we assume we know better than they do what their own experience of prejudice has been?
The truth is, an enormous amount of white people are more concerned about being called a racist than they are with the actual consequences of racism. They defend their white comfort with a vicious ferocity, because they value that comfort more than they value liberty and justice for all.
Here’s the reality: when you account for the fact that the white population is approximately 5 times larger than the black population in America, data shows that unarmed black Americans are FIVE TIMES as likely as unarmed white Americans to be shot and killed by a police officer.
This doesn’t mean that all police officers are corrupt or bad or racist. It means that there are systems of prejudicial injustice in our country that still affect us and still need attention. It means that there’s a problem, and all of us- including good, honest cops, should want reformation in it’s presence.
We all exist within a society influenced by systemic racism. Our country has a long history of dehumanizing of people of color. Sadly, slavery, segregation, and the murder of black people is woven into our foundations. That kind of baggage does not just disappear from a culture overnight, and it is foolish to claim that we are living in a post-racial society. There have been powerful movements in this country which have led to significant change, such as the Civil Rights movement, desegregation of schools, and the abolition of Jim Crow laws. But racial prejudice still affects us all, largely in ways we are unconscious of.
We still have work to do.
The progress made during the Civil Rights movement was not enough to keep white officers from executing 12 year old Tamir Rice just 2.0 seconds after they pulled up on him playing with a toy gun in a park. It was not enough for Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and hundreds of others.
My friend Rudy Darden, the same professor who invited me to the aforementioned gathering, took to social media yesterday to express his frustration and sadness. He mentioned that he usually likes to go running to relieve stress, but even something as innocent as taking a jog is haunted by fear when racial prejudice is so often lethal.
In my high school class yesterday, I thought about all the mothers of my students who would once again be battling fear tonight. My students were drawing self portraits in charcoal and hanging them proudly on the walls. I thought about the fear some of them felt themselves- fear that they must mask with strength- strength that is interpreted as dangerous and threatening by our culture.
As we reflect on yet another senseless death, let us make the choice to respond with humility and courage rather than denial and silence. Let us not remain asleep- let’s wake up. Let us mourn with those who mourn, confront injustice head on, and roll up our sleeves- because there’s still work to do.