I had another post planned for this week, on a completely different topic. I'll get to it sooner or later.
But events in Ferguson, Missouri, took a turn last night with the announcement of the grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown. And I've already seen far too many "justice was served"-type posts on Facebook and across the internet.
150 years after the Civil War, 50 years after the passing of civil-rights legislation - we still don't deal well with issues of race and racism in America.
Of course, lots of people don't quite "get" what it means to be privileged by the way the system works, through no intention or fault of one's own. Lots of people don't even see the ways they are privileged.
I saw an interesting description online, of a lesson in privilege. Sometimes it's just about where we get to start, and whether or not we recognize that others begin from an inferior position.
As a white, heterosexual male with college and graduate degrees, I know I occupy a position of privilege. I didn't compete with anyone for that; I didn't defeat anyone (fairly or otherwise) to get where I am.
But I began life with a head start. When it comes to finding a job, I "look the part." If something bad happens, I don't have the appearance of "the usual suspects." I didn't do anything to cause that, and I have no reason to feel guilty about it.
BUT - I do have cause to work at minimizing the effects of privilege, so that everyone really gets an equal opportunity.
During my first year in divinity school, I worked with an anti-racism organization in downtown Boston, Community Change, Inc. The founder, Rev. Horace Seldon, was a peaceful soul and very encouraging. My project for the year was to lobby the state legislature for changes that would minimize race in jury selection.
One of many documents available on Community Change's website is an outline of "The White Problem":
- "We at CCI understand racism to be more than individual prejudice and discrimination based on race.
- "We believe that racism occurs when one group has the systemic power to institutionalize its prejudice in the forms of laws, policies, and ideologies that exclude and oppress other groups.
- "Historically, and presently in the United States, white men of wealth and property have had this power to create and control the institutions that govern the lives of all who live here.
- "This has produced a system of advantage for white people who benefit from unearned privilege at the expense of people of color.
- "We believe that this systemic or institutional racism is largely invisible to the white community."
The events in Ferguson reveal a system that is skewed dramatically against people of color, in which young black men are automatically seen as probable criminals, and their civil rights - not to mention their lives - of less value than others'.
The anecdotal "evidence" of black crime cannot finally cover over the reality that whites are arrested less often, convicted less often, and given shorter sentences than blacks - not because whites commit fewer crimes, but because the system views blacks - without reason - as more of a threat.
Over four centuries after the first African slaves were landed on these shores, we still have a lot of work to do. And the first task is to take seriously the still-lingering character of racism.
Update: Articles and reactions are pouring forth, offering context and constructive suggestions. Here are a few....
On the huge disparity between blacks and whites killed by police.
On how to better understand those who think differently from you.
More suggestions for whites.
Above all, express your solidarity with those who are hurting, stand with them, and pray.