By Sharifa Stevens, Stephanie Morris-Graves, and Julie Lyons.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he shooting death in August of a young black man—Michael Brown—at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, reignited a national debate about racism. While a grand jury declined to indict the officer of any criminal charges, the case is far from closed in the eyes of many Americans. The circumstances of Brown’s death, and the widely divergent ways they are viewed among blacks and whites, point to deep divisions within America and the Church.
White Americans consistently grade racial progress in the United States higher than blacks do, according to multiple studies. Are the problems of racial discrimination, prejudice, and unequal justice invisible to most whites? If so, what should our response be as followers of Jesus Christ?
MannaEXPRESS asked these same questions two years ago when another young black man, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by a Hispanic neighborhood watch captain in Florida.
Three of our writers—Sharifa Stevens, Stephanie Morris-Graves, and Julie Lyons—engaged in a dialogue about race and belief that is just as applicable today in the aftermath of Brown’s death and the protests that engulfed Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, and several other U.S. locales.
The dialogue, reproduced in its entirety, began with this question: What was your reaction to Trayvon Martin’s death?
Frustration and anger, but not surprise. And that’s probably the saddest part–in 2012, an unarmed young black man can be shot and killed for “looking suspicious” and no arrests are made–and I’m not surprised. I should be floored. I should be able to, in confusion, cry out, “How in the world did this happen?” But no, I could only shake my head in resignation and try to make sense of the senseless.
And that’s when my mind and heart turned to Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mom. My heart burned for her and for me. I have a son. He’s 4. And he’s brown like Trayvon. And every day when he gets home from school he changes into his favorite blue and red striped hoodie–a too-little jacket he’s had since he was a toddler–because he thinks it’s cool. He likes the brightly colored stripes. He’s so innocent. But in his hoodie he’s just another suspicious-looking black kid, right? He’s up to no good, packing a gun, looking for a house to break into, a white woman to carjack, or drugs to sell. No, he isn’t. But to many, many people…that’s exactly what my sweet little man is.
I thought, “No…no. Not again.”
I remember the hunted terror that overcame the black community in New York City when Amadou Diallo was killed by police, in front of his apartment door, while reaching for his wallet. He was shot 41 times.
Diallo fit the description of a serial rapist in the area, according to the officers, and in the darkness, it looked like he was reaching for a gun, so they shot him 41 times–in self-defense.
Diallo had no weapons; just a wallet.
Diallo was coming home from dinner, and committed no crime.
Diallo was just 23 years old.
Diallo’s death is tattooed in my psyche because he and I were the same age when he died. And because, like me, he’s black.
It seems like blackness in itself is an acceptable defense for would-be killers. Being black = looking like a criminal. Looking like a criminal = being treated like a criminal, i.e. being put down like a dog. Afterward, the burden of proof is on the victim (or the victim’s family) to prove his innocence, even post-mortem. Even when no crime was actually committed.
Anyone who speaks out on the victim’s behalf, anyone who voices grief or anger concerning the strange circumstances around the victim’s death, is labeled a race-baiter. To talk about reasons why someone who committed no crime and had no weapons was gunned down? Well, that’s just stirring up old racial flames. This same kind of reprimand probably surrounded those who wailed and protested after the murder of Emmett Till. Let cooler heads prevail. Let the justice system do its job. Don’t make this about race when it’s clearly about an insolent boy who had the nerve to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, thinking he had the right to—fill in the blank: walk down any street he pleases, whistle at a white girl, defend himself if he’s being followed by a stranger, pull out a wallet.
Invalidating, dismissing, and condescending to people who condemn racism and demand equal justice is not new, nor is it fanning old flames. There is a basic right to life that sparks the grief and anger surrounding Trayvon Martin’s murder. This same right to life compels me to advocate for the unborn. It’s the right to life that was snatched from Trayvon Martin. I wish more of my brothers and sisters in Christ would see this case as a right-to-life issue, and fight like heaven to eradicate the circumstances that led to this end.
Fanning old flames? Give me a break. These racial flames are fanned and fed by the majority culture all the time, every day. To live, I have had to learn to walk through fire.
I had no reaction to Trayvon Martin’s death at first. I was caught flat-footed by the passions his death provoked. I found myself in a situation I’ve been in often during 22 years as one of the very few white members of a black, inner-city church–playing catch-up, trying to process emotions and facts, groping for understanding. I get it, but I don’t really get it. I am white by acculturation and color, and my world unfolds differently from that of a brown-skinned person.
I listen, I observe, and I search for understanding. I do see why black Americans are so insulted by people telling them in the Trayvon case, “Keep calm, let’s wait till all the facts are in, let the system take its course…”
First off, it’s condescending.
Second, the facts are never “all in.” Years of experience as a crime reporter for major publications taught me that there are always significant disputed facts.
Third, justice isn’t blind. She’s got at least one eye cocked against people of color and individuals of any background who don’t have money. In Dallas County, in fact, money buys you justice in criminal cases. If you’re black or Hispanic and don’t have the funds to hire a competent lawyer, you’re going down. I know that from years as a reporter.
But last, and most important, people exercise snap judgments all the time based on color—he looks “suspicious,” he’s dressed like a thug—but this time it got someone killed.
So, I’ve had a kind of slow-burn reaction. I didn’t make an instant identification with Trayvon, but I know I should have. The Christ in me cries out now—because of the hatred, the injustice, the unchallenged and untouched prejudice. What I feel in my gut is a sense of despair about the racial divisions in this country and in the church.
What are the forms racism and prejudice take in everyday life?
One thing I’ve noticed is that white Americans have a strong tendency to dismiss or downplay incidents of racial prejudice. I’ve done it myself. Years ago, a friend might tell me how a hotel clerk had treated her poorly because of her color. “Are you sure?” I’d ask. Sometimes I was standing right in front of the clerk, and I didn’t see what my friend saw. I said “Are you sure?” quite a few times back then, and I’m surprised I didn’t get smacked in the face. I think that many white people begin with the presumption that we are innocent and free of prejudice. Maybe that’s why I’ve often heard white people say, “Well, I’m not prejudiced, but…” and then launch into a diatribe about blacks, or Hispanics, or Africans, or whatever.
Some days I don’t notice racism. Some days there isn’t any directed at me that I’m aware of. But I’ve also learned how to ignore racism, ignore ignorance. When someone comes up to me and says, “Your baby is so cute. Black babies are always so cute.” I smile and say something PC, like, “Thank you…babies are such a blessing, aren’t they?”
The conversation in my mind plays out differently: “‘Cute’ like a little monkey? What if I came up to you and said, ‘White babies are always so cute’–how would you feel, lady? Special? How about weird and singled out?”
“Stephanie, she meant well.”
“Is she patting herself on the back right now for paying a compliment to black people?”
These kinds of things happen every day. Is it racism? I don’t know, but I tend to lump it in that pile.
I intentionally wear a pricey pair of Tory Burch flats to certain stores because I know if I go in wearing those shoes, I might get some service or at least be acknowledged by the staff. It works, by the way.
No one’s really a racist anymore, right? But I shop online because I’m sick of getting looked up and down by security upon entering a clothing store. People don’t make eye contact with me at some of my husband’s work events until they see him with me (he’s white). People see me and don’t assume the best. And I don’t strike an imposing figure. I’m ridiculously bright and whimsical-looking. So, if I’m a 5’5″ caramel sunshine-and-rainbows beauty and people are scared to look at me, what do they think of my brown-skinned brothers with their deep voices and tall statures? And—gasp–tattoos?
I discern the presence of racism, prejudice, and hatred at times, but most of the time I don’t feel it in my gut. The few times I have–when a loved one who’s black tells me about being treated with contempt, and the times I’ve felt the coldness of prejudice directed at me from someone I’m close to–I have felt a rage and helplessness swell inside me with so much power it terrifies me. But, unlike black Americans, I have not had a lifetime of being forced to constrain that rage.
I’ve been called a nigger to my face by a white person before. Most of us have at least once in our life. I’ve been ignored. I’ve had my credentials questioned. I’ve had bad service. And who’s to say whether racism played a part in every instance? But that’s the hard part. Racism is a pervasive problem in our country; we have a long history with this issue; it’s so easily disguised or hidden; so for a lot of black people, we automatically default to the assumption that any mistreatment is the result of racism.
When I tell people here that I’m from the Bronx, they presume I got a lousy education, was part of a gang, and escaped by the skin of my teeth. Really–I’ve been asked if I was in a gang. By a friend who I’d known a while (but we talked and straightened it all out). One of the best schools in the entire country is in the Bronx (they say Riverdale, because of all the bad press the Bronx gets, but really, it’s in the Bronx). I graduated from there. I went to an Ivy League college. I love New York City. But people see me and hear the Bronx and their fear meter goes through the roof. Is jumping to inaccurate conclusions racist? I don’t know…I guess it depends on what happens next. A discussion…or dismissal…or death.
But how do we know for sure that someone’s bad treatment was racially motivated? We don’t always. But one thing we do know for sure is that prejudice and hatred are part of the sinful human condition. They are firmly lodged in the human heart, and it only takes the right combination of pressures for them to be exposed. Prejudice is really the default position. We fear the unknown; we fear what we don’t understand. Whites who downplay the prevalence of racial prejudice really have a puffed-up view of man: I am beyond and above such things because of my intelligence, my social awareness, my spiritual sensitivity.
I do believe that many white people start with the presumption that these incidents we’re describing are not race-related. I grapple with whether it’s simply a byproduct of being in the majority or the lack of awareness of white privilege or a combination of both. However, I think most whites downplay the prevalence of racial prejudice not because they think they’re above it, but because, as in your experience, they don’t see what we see, and so therefore, to them, it just doesn’t exist.
The arrogance and the puffed-up view come in when you don’t take our word for it, when you blow it off because our word is not as valuable as your beliefs.
But how could you see it? It’s almost impossible. Our life experiences color how we process information. My filters include being black, being a woman, being a mom, being educated, being a wife, being a Texan, being American…they don’t include being white. I don’t know what “white” feels like on the inside.
Now, most black people, particularly those of us who have grown up around white people and have similar lifestyles, are quite adept at adapting to and understanding white culture. We’ve had to understand white people, but most white people have never had to understand us. My point is, unless you’re black, there’s really no way to see racism unless it’s blatant, egregious. Most of the time it’s subtle, beneath the radar, undetectable to most whites.
I accept that most racism is subtle and undetectable to the vast majority of whites. But isn’t there a point where it’s dangerous to think we can peer inside someone’s heart and judge a particular person or action racist in motive? I say this because I’ve had my motives judged. And the judgment was false. It is a wretched feeling to have your heart misjudged. It bothers me, because I have observed that many black Americans don’t confront their own prejudice.
And yes, I see the irony of what I’m saying. Because black Americans are judged all the time, in awful ways. And it is wretched indeed. The frustration and helplessness I have felt were almost unbearable, but I willingly put myself in the situation. I can leave if I want to and go back to the majority culture. It is a different matter altogether for black Americans. Trayvon Martin was judged, and the judge was also his executioner.
Prejudice is a horrible thing all by itself. But we need to be careful about what we “see” in a person’s heart—especially in the body of Christ.
Sure, there are many black people who are prejudiced. I know many who hate white people altogether, and group all white people as racists, and that’s not fair. And Christians should always confess and repent of hate in our hearts. But I know for sure it comes from a place of deep hurt. Victims of sexual abuse often carry distrust and anger into every aspect of their lives even well after their abuse comes to an end. No one is telling or asking them, “Oh, that was so far in the past, why can’t you just get over it and move on?” The wounds are still there.
And with prejudice and racism, the wounds are often re-opened. Just when you think you’ve reached a healthy place, a place of forgiveness and restoration, an employee at a department store looks right past you and goes to offer service to a white person, or a young unarmed black man gets murdered and no arrests are made. And then we’re told to make sure we examine our own hearts, reminded that we can be racists too. We’re the victims (and I’m sure someone will say we have a victim mentality), but we’re expected to make it right or forgive and move on. It’s too much. It’s frustrating and it’s upsetting.
But guess what, we still have to steady our emotions, put on a game face, smile and get back out there and try to live a full, complete, happy life in Christ in spite of all this. It’s fine. We’re used to it. Some of us are better than others at dealing/ignoring/tolerating/denying/justifying/coping with it. We’ll still teach our kids that they can be anything they want. Because I do believe they can. They’ll just have to deal with a lot of stuff along the way…but hey, that’s life. The bottom line is we live in a fallen world. Heaven will be much cooler.
Prejudice is sin, and I know of only one way to deal with sin: repent. When you repent, Jesus Christ forgives your sin and takes you on a journey in which He cleanses you of all unrighteousness. But, as I’ve discovered, there are surprises on that journey. You discover layers of prejudice beneath prejudice, with sordid little pockets of stuff that comes awfully close to hatred. You see yourself tested and tried and found wanting. You want to give up, especially when it seems like not many of your peers even bother with this journey, and they seem to be doing just fine. But the Christ in you compels you to go deeper, and as long as you guard your heart and keep it soft, you find yourself changing. Irrevocably.
My question is, how many Christians repent of prejudice? I mean blacks as well as whites. We all begin alike with wicked human hearts. Does my sin stink more in God’s eyes because I am the color of the oppressor?
Jesus was healing, teaching, and loving, and multitudes followed him: curious, thirsty for healing, hungry for liberation. He sat on the side of a mountain and blew their minds by saying this:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
There is a perennial struggle for importance among people who are different from one another: browner, paler, richer, poorer, older, younger. Jesus came to abolish the walls that we have built–but not in the way we expect. He was unjustly accused, scourged, and murdered for His perceived rebellion (too much fraternizing with undesirables, too little respect for their laws) in the sight of the “haves”; he was lauded, abandoned, and condemned (initially hopeful that He would overturn Roman authority and lead a political rebellion, then disappointed by His spiritual emphasis) by the “have-nots.”
I trust that Jesus gets it. I trust that He will redeem this. I trust that He indeed blesses those who are merciful, and so I want that blessing.
It comes down to this: Jesus shares the parable of the Good Samaritan to a crowd of pious Jews (who, by the way, hate Samaritans) to illustrate the virtue of being a good neighbor to those who you encounter, period. Not parsing who should be a good neighbor to you, and not choosing who to be kind to and who to shun.
I hope that the Christ-followers that I encounter are good neighbors. At the end of the day, though, my charge from my King is to be a good neighbor, period.
Continue the dialogue by leaving your comments here.
Sharifa Stevens is a wife and mother, singer, and writer. She earned a B.A. from Columbia University and a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. She lives in Dallas.
Julie Lyons is a journalist, author, and editor. She lives in Dallas with her husband and son.
Stephanie Morris-Graves is a freelance writer, business owner and graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. She lives in the Dallas area with her husband and their two children.