a painful racial divide

I have been struggling for weeks over what to say or do regarding the racial tension I hear all around me.  I don’t know how to help those who need it.  The gaps I see between perspectives are daunting.   And the last thing I want to do is add to the hurt.  I have family members and friends who are cops or married to cops or children of cops.  I have friends who have experienced painful encounters due to the color of their skin.  People are dying unnecessarily.  I sense a deep complexity to the racial divide because pain comes from so many places.  Pain can be a powerful force that shuts down progress.

I first began intentionally engaging in conversations about the racial divide during the George Zimmerman trial.  As I listened and looked for ways to participate, I learned some important lessons along the way.  Perhaps for now, these lessons are what I can best contribute to the conversation, although my fear is that I will help no one and offend everyone.  Nevertheless silence doesn’t seem right.  So, as a 45 year old white, middle-class woman who feels compelled to look for and proclaim God’s grace, and who can’t help but cry out at what feels like its absence, here we go.

  1. White americans have no idea what life is like for people of color.  The closest we can get is a bit of understanding by learning what our non-white friends, neighbors, family members, and fellow citizens experience day in and day out.  A black friend shared that when he taught his son to drive, he had to include teaching how to safely manage being pulled over by cops.  He didn’t say “if he was pulled over” but “when” because my friend himself had experienced random stops many times, not initiated by any violation other than seemingly the color of his skin. This friend was a teddy bear of a man, a gentle soul.  And yet he knew that feeling targeted again and again could cause frustration to build, so he had to teach his son how to navigate the frustration without losing his dignity, his freedom, or worse yet, his life.  I had a 17 year old son at the time and had never thought to teach him this.  I assumed that if pulled over, my son would be treated fairly.  Justice is not experienced equally.
  2. People who aren’t cops or closely connected to cops cannot fully understand the sacrifice made by cops and their families.  As with any profession, you’ve got outstanding cops, awful cops, and mediocre cops.  I am not dismissing legitimate concerns of the militarization of our police force or the excessive use of force.  But the cops I know personally have a genuine desire to protect and serve their communities, and they regularly put their lives at risk to do so.  Worry is par for the course for spouses and other family members.  It is not an easy job for anyone involved.  Sacrifice is not universally understood.
  3. All lives should matter, but rarely do in a debate.  Someone often seems to be disposable.  The cop’s safety or the safety of the cop’s family isn’t important because of what the cop did.  Or the accused isn’t important because of present allegations or prior offenses.  Whatever side we are on is the life we lift up, often at the expense of the other.  Either we must value all lives or we ultimately undermine everyone’s life by attaching worth to any given person.  We must remember the humanity of all regardless of whether or not we agree with them.
  4. The issues of poverty significantly complicate the matters of race. I was helping with transportation for a mother of two.  She had recently been homeless.  In hearing about her life, the challenges she faced, and the complexities within her familial relationships, I realized that I would most likely never face homelessness because I had been given a skill set to avoid it and had parents with resources who, in a worst case scenario, could prevent me from experiencing abject poverty.  I assumed this to be true for all people, but not so.  My friend had more challenges on good days than I faced on my worst days.  It wasn’t just about getting a better job, but also about transportation and childcare and some family members who didn’t want her to succeed too much.  It was learning money management skills and getting a drivers license for the first time in her life.  What I had taken for granted as normal childhood experiences were not normative for my friend but rather things she had to work hard for on her own and with many obstacles along the way.  Poverty is excruciatingly complicated.
  5. Most people either focus on the systemic issues or personal responsibility, but both are needed and important.  However the area of personal responsibility must be navigated respectfully and with humility.  Let me illustrate.  I have never struggled with my weight.  As a thin person, it would be arrogant of me to talk to people who do struggle by giving advice as to how they could be more like me.  It might be tempting to convince myself that I am a stronger person but that would simply not be true because weight has never been my struggle.  Too often, my friends who have never lived in poverty or who have never experienced racism assert their opinions as to how one should improve his or her situation.  Know what you can contribute to the conversation and what is beyond your understanding.  

One of the best decisions I made was to engage in ongoing conversations with people who weren’t like me, didn’t think like me, and saw things differently.  It broadened my awareness and understanding.  It exposed some of my assumptions and prejudices.  It has allowed me to hear more clearly.  Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, Eric Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, Tamir Rice… these are human beings.  Our hearts should be breaking for the lives that have been lost and for the lives that have been ruined. And yet,  as I sit and consider what’s at stake, I find myself questioning if I should even speak at all.  These are painful, difficult, complicated issues.  We don’t need more noise.  We need to do better.  I guess if there’s one point I need to make, it’s that all lives matter.