Ephesians 6:10-13, Jeremiah 6:14-15
Back in the late 1990’s I was elected to a National Committee of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I really didn’t care what committee that I was elected to because I just wanted to be on a NATIONAL committee. All the cool kids were doing it. At the time, I really got sucked into free flights to distant cities, overnights in hotel rooms and the chance to meet interesting people from other parts of the country. The national committee that I was elected to was called the General Assembly Committee On Representation. I’m sure that my name was suggested because I fit into a certain needed slot: young, white, female clergy from the North West. Of all committees, the committee on representation is obliged to have multi-racial, multi age, and gender representation from across the United States. The COR was started in 1983 when what was the northern and southern Presbyterian Churches reunited after splitting during the Civil War over slavery. During the reunion, this new committee was called for so that traditionally black Presbyterian churches wouldn’t end up with all white Boards of Elders.
I was excited to serve on the committee for the reasons that I previously mentioned: fame, fortune and travel. But, there were at least two problems with my participation. The first was that the only thing the committee was allowed to do was to collect data and make pronouncements. The second problem was that I was a nice, white female clergy person who “didn’t see color” and wondered “why don’t we all just love one another?” The first problem was written into the fabric of the structure of the committee’s work. Gathering data, such as: the church has 110 members, 100 are black and 10 are white. The Church’s board is made up of 6 elders: 1 black and 5 white. We pronounce that the board is out of balance with the church’s membership. So there.
As I read through data, I could see the problem. I could also see that saying “Hey, there is a problem here, fix it!” wasn’t going to be very productive. On to the second problem with my participation: my complete obliviousness of my privilege as a white person. The group tried to gently help me by giving me papers to read such as the one by Peggy McIntosh: White Privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack. But at that time I really had no ears to hear.
Fast forward a few years to the Youth Connection Gathering at Purdue University. I took a group of students from the Olympia Presbytery. The year was 2000 and we were primed to support our GLBT brothers and sisters by introducing legislation that would include them in all aspects of the church. We were pumped! We were ready. To our surprise the other youth from all over the country were so over it. The inclusion of gays and lesbians was passé. Of course they should all be included. The real issue was race. I don’t even remember what we were arguing about, but I will never forget a young black woman who approached the microphone and said “you cannot win the race when your shoes are tied together.” This time I HEARD it. This time I realized, really understood that the idea that anyone in America can succeed by working hard wasn’t true.
This was the message that I was raised on. If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be. My parents drilled this into me on a daily basis. My parents grew up poor. I used to joke that we were “trailer trash” because I lived a number of years in a single-wide trailer. I was the first in my extended family to go to college. I was so proud of my accomplishments. I thought I did it all myself. My dad was lifted out of poverty and a life as a foster child due to his service in the US Air Force. Eventually he was able to use his military benefits to buy a small house. My mother worked hard as well. I thought that our success as a family was due to all of our hard work.
Hard work doesn’t hurt but what really helped were those military benefits that enabled my parents to buy a home in a tidy little white suburb and gave my father educational benefits to take classes to further his career. His investment in California real estate gave my parents a financial boost that was unavailable to his black counterparts in the military who also served our country, because no “nice little white suburb” would let them buy a house, thus exercising their benefits. Colleges didn’t “have room” for the black GI’s because people should be admitted to college on the basis of their academic achievement, not the color of their skin. Right? Never mind that greatest indicator of school success is zip code. I didn’t realize until the last decade how my being white was the major ticket to moving forward in this game of life.
By the same token, I learned that I have no idea what life looks like inside the experience of my black brothers and sisters. I thought they were living a life just like mine and that is why we should all work hard and love each other. I didn’t realize that they constantly have to protect their bodies. They are more likely to lose jobs for things like wearing their hair in the natural way that it grows. They are more likely not to be able to get a job. Unemployment for blacks is twice what it is for whites. They are more likely to be expelled. I actually found a report from the department of education that noted that black children make up 18 percent of PRESCHOOL enrollment, but are 48% of the preschool children who are suspended more than once. Seriously, suspended in preschool? Blacks are more likely to be bullied at work, thought to be shoplifting when they are just shopping, harassed by neighborhood vigilantes, have no access to health care and more likely to be encounter a police officer that will kill them. When our police chief Ronnie Roberts said of the shooting of Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson, by Olympia police officer, Ryan Donald, that race had nothing to do with it, all I could think was that it would never have happened if it were two young white men who had tried to steal beer from Safeway.
The book of Jeremiah was written for people in the throes of suffering. The background is a collapsing political structure, resistance and the destruction of Jerusalem. The poetry and stories collected in Jeremiah were collected over nearly 100 years. Chapter 6 verse 14 is a refrain that appears again in Chapter 8: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly saying “peace, peace, where there is no peace.” This entire chapter of Jeremiah gathers images of cosmic battles. Verse 13 says: “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain, and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.”
The economic success of this nation was built on the bodies of black people. For 250 years we enslaved blacks. After the Civil War ended we segregated them and dehumanized them through the Jim Crow laws. When they stealthily migrated to the north and west, we still enforced segregation, overcrowding them in to small portions of cities and charging them double what we paid for rent, while paying them 40 – 50% less than we were being paid for the same work. In his book that he wrote for his 15 year old son: Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates says that “the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor and land. Through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs, the strangling of dissidents, the destruction of families, the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant first and foremost to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”
As I have more fully heard and absorbed what my ancestors have done to our Black Brothers and Sisters, as I slowly begin to recognize how I continue to participate and support this cultural construction called racism, as I ponder on all of the invisible privilege that I enjoy simply because I was born with blonde hair and blue eyes, I am heart sick. It is not up to the black community to “fix” this, if you will, it is up to us.
Ta-Nehisi Coates ends his book to his son reminding him to pray for his people and reminding him that he cannot stop what he calls “The Dreamers.” The Dreamers: that would be us. He says that we must stop ourselves. He says to his son: “Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle for themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.”
Friends, we must wake up. We need to use our white privilege in every way that we can to de-construct this thing called race and to level the playing field of power and privilege. We need to call the leaders of our city to create an over site group for our police department that includes people of color. We each need to continue to do our homework to learn what we each can do to make institutional and structural change in our society to achieve racial equity: equal opportunity and access. In the place of mandatory minimums and broken windows must be a sensible approach to policing, particularly drug enforcement and proactive community building strategies. Contracts must be rewritten and police policies adjusted so that police and citizens alike receive the same set of protections and presumption of innocence under the law.
All people in our society are deeply ingrained with racist messages. There is always more work to do. We cannot heal the wound of the people lightly and say “peace, peace, where there is no peace.” We can each do something, and then we can do something else. We have the power to make a difference and we should use it for good.