“Our Difficulty Talking About Racism”

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer was another in the long string of deaths of unarmed Black men and women by law enforcement in America.  The public reaction to this death has been phenomenal, with national and international protests involving thousands of persons—black and white, young and old, including many who have never engaged in protests against racial injustice.  The video of Officer Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while looking calmly at the cellphone and three officers standing by observing his actions made this excessive use of police force stand out from others.  The incident was shocking. 

          Reactions by local, state, and national leaders and lawmakers were immediate.  The officers were fired and criminal charges have been filed.  Lawmakers in Minnesota and Washington, D.C. have responded with legislation to curb excessive use of force by police officers.  There is not general consensus among the public and lawmakers about the most appropriate and effective response to police use of force, however.  Nor is there general agreement on whether the officers’ actions constitute “racism.”  Many white Americans do not acknowledge the significance of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.  

Americans of the “Baby Boom” generation born after World War II witnessed similar protests against racial segregation in the 1960s.  We followed the news of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he led peaceful protests to raise awareness of racial injustice.  Most Christians and church members did no more than listen politely and silently agree that Blacks were not treated fairly.  We certainly did not condone active protest movements.  The purpose of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was in response to a public statement of eight Alabama clergymen representing mainline churches.  They appealed to Dr. King for “law and order and common sense” in pushing for change.  The church leaders preferred a civil, polite approach focused more on education and dialogue than on peaceful protests like marches that blocked roads and bridges and required police presence for crowd control. 

          If that appeal to “peaceful protest” and civil, polite dialogue sounds familiar, it is essentially the same position most White Americans and Christian leaders have taken in the fifty-seven years since Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written.  

          The global protests following George Floyd’s tragic death were like a “wake-up call” to persistent, widespread racial injustice and police killings of unarmed Blacks.  Reasons for the protests are many and varied.  The COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” time has engendered thoughts and reflections on what we truly value.  Thousands of deaths and hospitalizations due to an unseen virus have made us rethink the true threats to our health and safety. Disruptions in education and the workplace; restaurants and bars closed; empty theaters and sports stadiums—this is not supposed to happen in America!  Complaints about inconveniences and “personal freedom” due to the pandemic were quickly drowned out by the unjustified death of another unarmed Black man at the hands (or knee) of another police officer.  

          I’ve addressed the issue of race and injustice in previous weblog posts, including Police Actions and People of Color, White Privilege and Justice, MLK, Jr.: A Struggle for Racial Equality & Justice

          The intensity and number of persons protesting George Floyd’s death drove me to read more, learn more, about why we White Americans have done so little to address the problems of racial inequality and injustice.  In short, it’s not a comfortable topic!  We seem to not know how to address racism.  We’re living in two worlds, black and white.  We go to school together, work together, celebrate music, entertainment, and sports together—but we’re not really “together.”  We self-segregate.  Dr. King was correct that the most segregated hour of the week is on Sunday mornings.

                Sociologist Robin DiAngelo claims “White Fragility” is what prevents White Americans from confronting racism.  She questions the claims of White Americans who deny racism, that they “were taught to treat everyone the same,” and that they are “color-blind.”  She coined the term “white fragility” to describe the defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged. We refuse to acknowledge “white privilege” and white supremacy.  Our discomfort and reluctance to acknowledge and talk about racism is so apparent that many Black people don’t risk pointing out discrimination when they experience it and see it.  White fragility is a barrier to change and holds racism in place.

          This is not a comfortable read.  DiAngelo challenges the idea of being “color blind” and that “race doesn’t matter.”  Few White Americans will admit to being “racist.”  We have the idea that racism is conscious bias and prejudice held by narrow-minded, mean people.  Seeing our Black-White divide as a world of “evil racists” versus “compassionate non-racists” is what DiAngelo calls a “good/bad binary.”  White Americans focus on our good moral beliefs toward all people and overlook the systemic and structural racism that has disadvantaged Black Americans throughout American history.

          Ordained minister and professor of Sociology Michael Eric Dyson preaches against a culture of whiteness in Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. Dyson’s central premise is that if we want true racial equality in America, whites must take an active part in doing away with the false idea of white supremacy.  While few Americans relish being “preached at,” the structure of the book may appeal to persons of faith who will recognize the chapters organized like an order of worship.  Readers should be prepared to hear the lament of a Black preacher who speaks from personal experience about the American culture of “whiteness” that shamelessly allows cruel, uncaring practices against our Black neighbors.

          Many Americans hailed the election of Barak Obama as the end of racism in this country.  “Postracial” was a term seen on social media and heard on the airwaves.   The election of President Obama surely was proof that Americans valued equality under the law and under God.  Many were skeptical of that optimistic claim however, and the last three years have proven the skeptics correct.  Racial inequality and injustice remain unchanged and Americans stand in need of reckoning with these persistent issues.  The editor and contributors of Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds offer concerned Christians the chance to clarify terms and issues around racism and how to respond. 

          The book challenges the myth of white supremacy.  In the Foreword to the book, the Rev. Otis Moss III writes that racism will be “eradicated by Christians only when we reject these myths and come to grips with the beauty of Africanness and dare to live out a new Christianity that is not beholden to European views.  We fight these myths by admitting they exist.  We fight them by facing the biblical mandate about what the Lord requires: to act justly and to love mercy and to walk with humility before God.”

          American institutions including schools, banks, government offices, housing practices, laws, and justice system officials have in fact acted and made decisions as if black lives do not matter as much as white lives.  Yes, the thousands of persons protesting the tragic deaths of George Floyd and other unarmed Black persons clearly understand the meaning of “Black Lives Matter.”


Police Actions and People of Color White Privilege and Justice

MLK, Jr.: A Struggle for Racial Equality & Justice

“White Fragility” Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America

Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds

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