This is not a new normal
In case you haven’t heard, over the past two days, two more young black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were killed by police officers. Mr. Sterling was shot by officers in Baton Rouge, LA, while pinned prostrate on the ground by the same officers. Mr. Castile was shot while attempting to get his license and registration after being pulled over for a broken tail light. Much understandable outrage has spilled onto the online sphere due to these two latest examples of institutional racism and over-militarization in the United States’ judicial system.
But we should not be surprised. According to statistics gathered by such groups as Campaign Zero, Mapping Police Violence, Fatal Force, and Killed By Police, Mr. Sterling and Mr. Philando were at least the 184th and 185th black men killed by police officers in 2016. Since the start of 2013, Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile were at least the 1,812th and 1,813th persons of color killed by police officers.
I find it bewildering that people would still, at this point, not realize the depths of racism in the world, but then again I am often bewildered. Seeing such overt examples of institutional racism once again capture the public eye, however, I am compelled to plead again for all of us to lead explicit lives of anti-racism. Now, if you or people you love have personally experienced acts of racism, or if you have spent time studying or reflecting on the history of race relations, you may not need extra evidence for the United States. If you have grown up white, and thus necessarily privileged by the color of your skin, you have a higher likelihood of still being resistant to conceptions of institutional racism. Statistics, even definitive ones like this study–“Police fatally shoot unarmed black men at disproportionate rates“–may not prove to you the problem, or may seem like impenetrable conclusions that remain far away from your daily experience. As such, I offer my voice today, in hopes that it may pierce through whatever unconscious biases may hold you back from leading and accepting lives of anti-oppression, of anti-racism.
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I am white, straight, and male. I grew up in New Orleans, thus I not only profited due to the color of my skin because of the socio-economic landscape of “America” built by free African-American slave labor from the 1500s to the 1800s, but I was given specific privileges or “let off the hook” largely because I was white. As an obvious example, I was pulled over for going 75mph in a 40mph zone when I was 16 years old. As punishment, I was given just 40 hours of community service, which was done at my high school and signed off on after 20 hours.
As a less obvious example, my whiteness gave me inherited wealth in the form of a stable house purchased by my parents in the suburbs, co-signed by their parents, before I was born. This location and a steady parental income allowed me to go to a prestigious local Catholic elementary school, which allowed me to go to a prestigious local Catholic high school, which then got me into a prestigious Catholic university.
If you do not think that this is a form of white privilege, then you should read more about the outright refusal of banks to give home mortgages to persons of color in the mid to late 20th century. You should come to see that due to centuries of racial prejudic and decades of specific racist housing and education policies, “a typical white family today has on average eight times the assets, or net worth, of a typical African American family. Even when families of the same income are compared, white families have more than twice the wealth of Black families.” These policies were not accidentally racist, but intentionally so, written specifically to keep white people insulated from the dangers of people of color.
Which brings us back to my title, and the point of today’s post. That this violence, this police violence against persons of color, and even more specifically against black men, is not in any way a “new normal.” But what do we do, we people of privilege in skin and bones and wealth and power and politics and violence?
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In Brothers Karamazov, the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky writes that “in the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith.” Our perspective on life, Dostoevsky reminds us, determines how we perceive life to unfold. If I begin with the perspective that miracles exist, I am far more apt to see the miraculous around me. If there is no place for miracles in my entire world, no possibility of the unexplained, then I will never believe a man could rise from the dead, even if I were to see one rise with my own two eyes. My eyes must be deceiving me, I would say, I am in need of medical attention. We begin with our biases, good or bad, and then we see the world.
In this light, when you consider the
unprovoked executions lives and families of Mr. Sterling or Mr. Castile, I invite you to consider yourself in the process. Consider the point of view from which you see the world. Consider your wealth, your town, your neighborhood, your church, your friends. Consider that our eyes may yet still be clouded by biases we do not understand, no matter how many times we have emoted on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.
We humans are not computers; we cannot wipe our hard drives and start over. We cannot overcome our biases through acts of will and statements like “I am not racist.” Either we actively work against the biases that inhabit our minds, or, in silence, we allow the biases to continue generation upon generation. If we are not performing acts of anti-racism in our daily lives, if we are not seeking out racist biases in our workplaces and homes, in our churches and communities, then we are allowing the general racial biases of culture to continue unabated. “We must take sides,” argues the late Elie Wiesel: “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
There is nothing new in the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Let us take our shared moments in anger and frustration as a social community, but let us not allow these shared moments to become another example of the silent white moderate class that Dr. King so lamented. Instead, let us become emboldened through our shared anger and act in specific anti-racist ways in our communities, churches, schools, and homes.
It is only in such ways that we, who know the victims only in death, can honor their lives and act to end the unjust system that ended their time on Earth far too soon.
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 Some of the above databases differ in the total count of persons killed by police officers. I use the numbers of Mapping Police Violence when discrepancies arise.
This post was originally published on July 7, 2016, on DailyTheology.org.
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