My wife and I got a new-to-us car a couple of months ago. One of the small repairs we needed to make on the car was a rear light out. We drove the car for at least two weeks before making our way to a shop for an oil change and light repair. I thought nothing of it at the time but now that rear light means a great deal in light of the last two days.
I'm a white male married to a white woman with two adorable children who, as you could probably guess, are white.
While I was driving around Memphis where I live I occasionally hoped no policeman would pull me over and give me the annoyance of a citation for the light. Not once, however, did it cross my mind that a rear light out could lead to a cop pulling me over and then to me being shot and killed...with a small child in the car while streaming on Facebook.
However, its clear for black men and women in America this is now a real and pressing concern. It’s scary. It’s gut wrenching. And, if we remain silent, the next death may be our fault.
Now, before I go further and you say "We don't know what happened before that video began live feed on Facebook" or “The evidence regarding Alton Sterling is not clear and comprehensive in what was happening,” let me say this. It is clear in light of all things considered and the growing list of police related shootings growing we can say that the grand narrative of shootings show black people are clearly at greater danger than others in police interactions. If Alton Sterling and Philando Castile don't say it, maybe Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Brown, and the chorus of others whose blood cries out can build to a strong enough crescendo in your heart to consider there is a systemic error that vomits out the lost lives of men and women whose greatest crime is wearing a skin tone that is black. There is also an insurmountable amount of research data to support this.
That said, what in the world do we do if we are white? Whether acknowledged or not we sit in some form of systemic privilege in which our fear of a busted back light is the annoyance of a ticket rather than the fear of a bullet. How do we love our neighbor who is unsafe because they have a way better tan than you or I?
I don't know all the answers. I may know very few of them in fact. However, Luke told a story about Paul the apostle in his account we know as Acts of the Apostles where Luke had been arrested in Philippi. He had healed a girl whom had a spirit which caused her to tell the future. Some men were exploiting her abilities for their profit and so Paul's healing caused them to lose money. Paul was arrested and then flogged and beaten at those men’s behest.
As the story goes he was eventually set free and even halted the soldier who held him in prison from suicide. When Paul was released he preached good news into the soldiers life which convicted him and led to repentance and change of heart and lordship.
The strangest part of the story, however, is when Paul is told he is free to go. He refuses to go. Here are his own words for his reason: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.”
Paul did not expect the magistrates to act as people who shared his faith (they didn't) but did expect them to act as people who treated fellow citizens with dignity. He expected a trial if accused, a proper arrest for a citizen and not a flogging, and ultimately an apology when those things didn't happen.
Luckily for Paul he survived his arrest. He wasn't shot four times in the arm, choked to death, or had his flogging placed on social media for the world to discuss.
However, Paul knew he had dignity and expected to be treated with such.
So what can we learn? What can we do?
1. Call your local representatives and speak up if there is a racial injustice in your area. You have dignity and you can speak up for those whose dignity is being demeaned or exploited. It’s not just that you "can speak up" it’s that you MUST if you are aware of an abuse of power!
2. If you are white like me, acknowledge that the system stacks cards in the favor of white safety and success more so than for POC. At this point if you don't believe that I doubt I'll convince you otherwise and we can part ways. However, for those who know it to be true and haven't said anything because your family, friends, or coworkers may not agree, the day for silence has passed. Too many people are dying because of a system that undermines their value as people created in God's image (for us Judeo-Christian folks) and American citizens (for all of us).
3. Call out straight-up racist talk and activity in your sphere of influence. It’s so, so past time. Demeaning language has no place. Lives are at stake. Literally. When we allow generations to absorb racist thinking it creates a racist reflex. Sometimes that reflex is connected to a trigger finger. Don’t allow racist talk remain unchecked in your presence. Be bold, it could save lives in future generations.
4. Allow black people time to mourn, be angry, demand justice, call darkness to light when news like we’ve had the past 48 hours breaks. Paul did that in Philippi when he was flogged unjustly as a Roman citizen. They deserve that space. We can and should, as mentioned earlier, be vocal as well in calling out the injustice and raise a mirror to the authorities who need to catch a glimpse of any injustice. However, we can’t fully and truly feel the weight of that burden and fear placed upon them by this news.
5. Have black friends but don’t make sure everyone knows you’ve got POC friends in a sensational way, especially after traumatic news events like this. You have friends who have a better tan by genetics than you? Great! The world needs more folks in community to break down heinous walls of racial inequality. However, don’t exploit friends who are POC by gaining racial merit badges for having an African American friend in such times. This devalues their true worth and tarnishes your relationship. Just be cool, hang out, love them. They’re fighting enough battles without being exploited by white friends with egos needing stroked.
6. Parents, intentionally have conversations with your children in which you inform their understanding of the value of all humans. As they grown in understanding be open about successes AND failures of your own particular race. One of the most powerful moments I’ve ever heard was from a close family member of mine (white) who confessed his past racism to an African American friend whom befriended him in a dark time of his life. He asked for forgiveness and repented of old ways of thinking. For a man from his generation from the West Tennessee town in which we lived this was powerful Jesus transformative community. It set a great deal of my relational trajectory. Teach love, grace, honesty, and a heart for justice.
7. On a micro-level, ask with whom you share a table most days. With whom do you typically break bread, do family vacation, and play sports or music? These choices teach your children who is of social value to you and them as well. Can you make a spread at your table for someone whose names are not like yours? Will you intentionally share a meal with someone who doesn’t look like you who is gracious enough to join you and so begin teaching the next generation that tenants of law (macro approach) won’t fix all this mess in our hearts but maybe tables and food (micro approach) might.
Most people who become police officers do so to make their communities safer. I've known both white and black police officers who are good, good people. I've also known a few who are questionable. Either way this is beyond just a police matter. This is a cultural matter. It is the end result of the shadier underbelly of colonial history. Its roots run deep and often undetected on the surface but the biases we don’t check will bud into undesirable things in the common cultural garden we share.
We have to do the painful, rigorous work of uprooting the evil that dwells within ourselves, our common cultural assumptions, and our belief systems so that something healthy can grown. We have to stop tip-toeing around and, like Paul the apostle in Phillipi, not just take the quiet road out of the unjust situation. Paul believed Roman citizens’ lives mattered. If he was in Baton Rouge or Falcon Heights in the last 48 hours he would hold a light up to the authorities and examine their systemic health as well. Black lives matter. On this that he wouldn’t be silent nor should we and this becomes truer everyday.