Dear White People:The Problem With Allies
What shall we call white people who care about racial justice? Is “allies” a good name? I feel uneasy about this term and the reality behind it, that reality being that, for us, the struggle may ( or may not) be real but it is always optional in a way that can never be optional for black or brown people.
Our motives may vary. Some may engage in the work because it seems like a “good” thing to do and we do need to think of ourselves as good people, not racist, among the “woke” etc.. But at the end of the day allies still have the option of opting out. We can return to a comfortable whiteness any time and often do whenever the going gets rough and the cost is too high.Allies are truly fair weather friends.
So what is the alternative? I think it is to be found in a deeper level of introspection leading to a deeper and more existential commitment to the work. That is, we need to realize the truth of what James Weldon Johnson said in 1917 upon viewing the burned body of Ell Persons. ” the truth flashed over me that in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.”
Dear white people, our very souls are on the line! I am often accused of self hate when it comes to why I do the work of racial justice. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love myself and, even knowing I can never fully emancipate myself from the chains that being born white into a white supremacist world have placed on my consciousness,I believe my soul is worth saving. I am not an ally who goes home after a few acts of performative solidarity. I am simply a woman doing whatever I can to save my own soul, trusting God’s grace to do the rest.
Yesterday we watched the sentencing of a white woman, a former cop, convicted of murdering a black man named Botham Jean in his own apartment, unarmed, eating ice cream. She received the very minimal sentence of 10 years following which the brother of the murder victim gave her a big hug and said he forgave her. Many Christians applaud that hug saying it was an extraordinary act of grace on his part. Having never walked in his shoes I will not judge him. However as a white woman, also a former cop, and Christian theologian I will judge the way so many of us in the white community are so quick to applaud black people for forgiving white murderers. We did it following the Charleston nine and here we go again.
We are quick to point to the way in which Jesus forgave his own killers even as he suffered on the cross and we hold that up as the model for victims to adhere to today. But wait a minute. Is that fair? As we usually do with Bible stories we cast ourselves in the role of Jesus but really white people in the U.S. are the Romans in this story. We are the crucifiers not the crucified, the defenders of brutal empire who perhaps feel a little guilty at the scene of yet another lynching taking place in our name. As such we hear “father forgive them” as good news. Even though we have killed Jesus and brutalized his people we need not really fear hell. Even the victim himself does not hold us accountable. We are innocent. We did not know what we were doing. Good news right? Wrong.
Forgiveness without repentance is what theologian Dietrich Bonhoefer, quoting Adam Clayton Powell, called cheap grace. It lets us believe we are off the hook for our evil without demanding any real change on our part. In the case of the murder of Botham Jean cheap grace lets us white people maintain our sense of innocence and goodness without first facing up to the role we all play, knowingly or not, in maintaining systemic racism. In this case it allows us to avoid looking at the particularly brutal history of black men and white women. We don’t have to think about the thousands of lynchings, unjust crucifixions, that happened in our country due to black men being unjustly accused of raping white women. We don’t have to think about the way in which white women to this day are seen as fragile and innocent (particularly if they are or make themselves blond) while black men are perceived as threatening and dangerous even when they are in their own homes eating ice cream. In other words we do not need to see let alone repent of our sins. But is that the gospel? Is that grace?
I say no. Let’s look at the “father forgive them” scenario again. Jesus of Nazareth who lived as an oppressed Jew under Roman occupation is, like many before him, being crucified as an enemy of state. (Side note- All of you chomping at the bit to inform me that Jesus’s crucifixion/lynching was “not political” because he was “dying for our sins” need to hold off until you read some of my upcoming posts about the racist roots of Anselmian substitutionary atonement theory. All of you who likewise want to blame “the Jews” need a lesson in the history of Christian anti-Semitism. All of you who similarly want to say “we are all equally guilty as sinners regardless of race” need to read a history book. Have I covered all the loopholes? If not I will get back to them. Today we are talking history.) So Jesus has been persecuted by Romans all of his life for preaching good news for the impoverished and oppressed people of Rome now hangs on one of thousands of crosses (which Dr. James Cone rightly identified as lynching trees) designed to support Roman supremacy. Notice that in every one of the passion narratives he has very little to say to his oppressors. At this point he is done talking to them. Notice also that Jesus does not forgive them. He asks God to do so. Notice furthermore that he essentially writes them off as ignorant “for they know not what they do.”
Is that what we, as white citizens of a white supremacist nation want for ourselves? Will we be satisfied by a cheap grace that comes from being written off as ignorant? Will that restore the humanity we have lost to the false and demonic systems of racism and white supremacy? Will enforced (and it is enforced) forgiveness coming from black victims of racist violence be enough to save our souls?
I am going with no on this. I don’t know about you but I want more for myself. When I see a white woman, entrusted to “protect and serve” all people who nontheless harbored racist ideas as evidenced by her texts to co-workers, who illegally entered a black man’s castle, shot him in cold blood, told a nonsense story, played Goldilocks on the stand, and got away with the most minimum sentence, I want to do better than cling to the “but his brother forgave her bless his heart” defense.
I want to hold her and I both accountable, her for murder and me for whatever way I have, knowingly or not, contributed to the systemic racism that caused the murder. I reject cheap grace. I need justice to be done. I need the gift of true repentance for my own sins of racism. I need real soul salvation. I refuse to be written off as one of those who did not know what I was doing. I am better than that and so are you.
Now that it is September 13 let me say that, yes, the bombings of 9/11/2001 were horrible. I was there. I know it. People I love still suffer from related illnesses. The equivalent violence many people around the world experience on a daily basis including that which is perpetrated on US soil and elsewhere in our name is just as horrible. I have witnessed some of that too. The only difference is attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon elicited global sympathy. The rest goes unnoticed not because it is less severe but because it happens to people whose oppression goes unnoticed. Yes I suffered as a New Yorker and a first responder but nothing about my suffering was or is unique in any way. It is part of what everyone in the world goes through, some more than others, due to our fallen human condition. Therefore I will not participate in any efforts to turn “911” into a bigger deal than the global violence and oppression of which it is merely a symptom. The US did not change on that day, although we could have, and neither did the world. Bombs still drop. Death squads still operate. People still disappear. Torture still happens. People still starve. People still needlessly die. Voices still go unheard. Hope is still hard to come by. If I manage to contribute one drop of hope to this hurting world sometime before I die it will mean immensely more to me than all the “thank you for your service” messages I ever received for just doing my job on a lousy day.
Although Christianity’s Afro-Asiatic roots cannot be denied, much of what is now practiced and taught throughout the world is a westernized version of the faith that came much later and was designed in whole or in part to promote global white supremacy. This is obviously not the teachings of Jesus. A faith that began with the teachings of a brown skinned, Afro-Asiatic, Jew whose own people were colonized by and suffered under Roman occupation, became a religion whose now dominant form supports similar forms of oppression. As such it is not a message of hope and liberation for this life and the next but a tool of racism, white supremacy, and empire. There are historical reasons why this came about. Fortunately, there are also ways of de-colonizing this thinking in a way that better reflects the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and brings us all closer to justice, reconciliation, and faithful Christian communion with God and one another. White supremacy is not the gospel. We can do better.
In this chapter, I will provide some context regarding my own social location and what brings me to these questions, define white supremacy, outline some of the history behind the way the teachings of Jesus became distorted by the interests of white supremacy, describe how slavery and systemic racism in the United States affected the preaching and teaching of the gospel, and summarize the ways in which this version of Christianity was spread to West Africa and elsewhere as part of western colonization. Finally I will make some constructive proposals about how theological educators of all nations can help to correct this false narrative and move forward to a decolonization of theological education in West Africa and across the globe.
Who Am I?
In any theological discourse, social perspective matters. It is therefore important to identify the social location of the speaker/ author. This is mine. I am a white woman, an American Baptist theologian and theological educator from the United States. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to teach on a global level in various places in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. I currently serve, in alternating years, as visiting professor of theology at the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary in Paynesville, Liberia and at the Pwo Karen Theological Seminary in Yangon, Myanmar under the auspices of the American Baptist Churches International Ministries. The observations in this chapter are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the American Baptist Churches at large. That said, I am not alone in my thinking that slavery and white supremacy compromised western theology. After all, our own denomination came about because of a debate Baptists had about whether or not slave-owners could be commissioned as missionaries. That this was ever a real question speaks to the way in which systemic racism impacted our tradition. Let me describe how I see this operating today.
What Have I Experienced and Observed?
While teaching systematic theology in Liberia, I had occasion to teach about the work of my mentor, the late Dr. James H. Cone and his theological claim that God is black. I shared with the class my conviction that Cone was correct. God is black. A student asked “How can you as a white missionary say that God is black?” Another student asked “Does that mean you hate yourself?” These questions deserve a response. First let’s be clear, blackness in the sense of Cone’s ontological blackness is not only about skin color. It is a state of being or, as Cone himself put it, Being black in America has very little to do with skin color. To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are. […] Therefore, being reconciled to God does not mean that one’s skin is physically black. It essentially depends on the color of your heart, soul, and mind. “
When I say God hates white supremacy I am not saying God hates me as a fair skinned person. I am saying God hates the system of white supremacy I was born into, often benefit from and serves to separate me from most of humanity. God is calling me to turn away from ontological whiteness and to be converted to solidarity with black people and all others who struggle for liberation, and to reclaim my own humanity. In other words, I believe that only a black Jesus can save white people just like only black Jesus can save all people.
What is White Supremacy?
White supremacy is the belief that the white race is superior to other races and therefore, white people should have power over all other people. There is a deep-seated and complex system of ideologies that serve to justify this position, beginning with the ideological construction of race itself. The roots of white supremacy are quite ancient but it’s most blatant theological expressions come from 18th and 19th century Europe and the United States. It is codified in institutions sadly including much of the Christian church which serve to perpetuate and maintain the social, political, and historical dominance of white people. Because white supremacy is systemic, it is not the same as mere personal prejudice. As Critical Race Theory reminds us, all racism is prejudice plus power. Often this means institutional power. One form of institutional power is the power of religion, specifically religious doctrine that is used by those with the most influence to affect laws and social institutions in ways that benefit them.
Because it is so deeply embedded and so wide spread, white supremacy is not confined to what are usually thought of as more “extremist” groups who openly state their belief that the white race is superior to others, although they do exist and sadly appear to be growing in numbers. White supremacy also operates in less blatant or visible ways within social institutions. In fact, people can perpetrate white supremacy without even being aware of it.
That means well meaning white missionaries and theologians like me could teach a theology we learned in the states that, unbeknownst to us, was developed to support slavery and may not be a faithful depiction of the good news of the gospel. That is why critical thinking is so important. We need to not only know what doctrines are out there. We must also have an idea where they came from. Only then can we make an informed decision about whether we should pass them on. Let’s look at some examples.
How Has White Supremacy Affected Western Christianity?
If the idea that white people are superior to others can somehow be coded into the belief system of a dominant religion then not only is the system of white supremacy generally supported, but the oppression and dehumanization of non-white people is guaranteed. Sadly that is exactly what happened. The United States was founded as a predominantly Christian slave state. Think about that for one minute – a predominantly Christian slave state. One might think such an enormous contradiction could not be reconciled but it was. Numerous theologies were developed in order to do so. Some examples include the Myth of Ham or the belief that Noah cursed Ham (Actually the Bible states Noah cursed Canaan, but we are not exactly talking about careful exegesis here.) and that Ham represents the black race that is forever destined to serve the white race. Another example is the teaching of the mark of Cain as black skin.
Needless to say, these doctrines require a very selective and questionable interpretation of the Bible. Aside from the problematic exegesis behind the material used to justify white supremacy, all of the social justice teachings in the Bible that might make enslaved people want to demand their freedom and claim their humanity, had to be ignored or removed, sometimes literally. “Slave Bibles” were published for the exclusive use of enslaved Africans. In order to try and avoid rebellions, pro-slavery Bible publishers carefully removed all mention of God acting in history to liberate oppressed people, not only from personal sin, but also from systemic social injustice. Doing that meant taking out about 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament. In other words, more than half of the Bible is about some form of social justice.
In a similar manner Christian preaching was adjusted (to say the least!) to permit and promote white supremacy. At first Christian leaders argued that enslaved Africans should not be baptized because, if they were, they might get the idea that they had souls and should not be enslaved. Others argued that Christianity could actually be used as a tool of power and control over enslaved Africans. Preaching on the plantation by white preachers and black preachers who were being watched by white slave-owners, invariably emphasized texts about obedience like Ephesians 6:5 “Slaves obey your earthly masters” and anything pertaining to the virtues of subservience. Salvation was depicted as a strictly individual and other worldly affair. Freedom in Christ had nothing to do with freedom in this world.
Of course this is not how enslaved Africans saw themselves. They experienced God as one who could help them in this world as they struggled for liberation from earthly oppression, not only in the life to come but here and now. As scholar of religious history, Dr. Albert J. Raboteau described it, “It is not surprising that the uses to which slaveholders had put the Bible would leave some slaves to distinguish their own experiential Christianity from the ‘Bible Christianity’ of their masters.” Nonetheless, as foreign as white supremacist theology may have seemed to oppressed people, it became very wide spread among the white majority. As theologian Jeannine Fletcher-Hill puts it, “No group has done more in defining public meaning of the gospel than white scholars. And no group has done more to corrupt its meaning, making Christianity seem compatible with white supremacy.”
In like manner, the imaging of Jesus in artwork as almost exclusively white that began in Europe and continued in the U.S. was not innocent. It was not simply a way of wanting a Jesus to look “more like us.” It was a deliberate effort to associate divinity with the white race and, conversely, evil with all non-white races. As put it, “The image of the white Jesus affirms for white people that whiteness is God and it teaches everyone else that they should submit to whiteness as if it were divine. White images of Jesus have been used repeatedly to subject nonwhite populations to the system of white supremacy. The white Jesus engenders spiritual colonialism which is often the precursor to the literal colonialism of land, resources, and labor.” In fact, that is exactly what happened.
How Did White Supremacist Christianity Affect the Mission Field and the Colonization of Africa?
The nineteenth century saw an enormous colonial occupation of West Africa by both England and the United States. Along with this colonization project came a missionary effort. As Guyanese Scholar of African history, Dr. Walter Rodney stated in his groundbreaking work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa “The Christian missionaries were as much part of the colonizing forces as were the explorers, traders and soldiers… missionaries were agents of colonialism in the practical sense, whether or not they saw themselves in that light” (Rodney,1972: 277). In a similar vein, a famous quotation often attributed to Jomo Kenyatta reads, “When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”
To be clear, I am not claiming that every single western missionary to West Africa in the nineteenth century was there for a consciously colonialist reason. What I am saying is that they were trained in a theology that came about as a way of justifying white supremacy, whether overtly or covertly. Therefore it is important to think critically about what they taught and decide what to keep and what not to keep as we seek to decolonize theological education.
Moving forward: How Can We As Theological Educators Work Toward Decolonizing Theological Education in West Africa and Elsewhere?
So how can we as theological educators help with this decolonization process? I have several suggestions. Firstly, let us educate ourselves about the history of theological ideas, particularly those associated with the perpetration of white supremacy and make sure this information is included in our teaching whether in the academy or the local church. Secondly let us re-examine all the biblical social justice teachings that were literally ripped out of the slave Bibles and subsequently de-emphasized or ignored, (Exodus, the Hebrew prophets, the gospels, and Revelation and more.) Thirdly let us re-consider the way we teach and preach the virtues of “obedience and submission” in social context. Of course obedience and submission to God is a Christian virtue. Obedience to oppressive earthly “masters” is not. Finally, let us think about the nature of salvation. Jesus of Nazareth taught about salvation in both other worldly terms, namely hope for eternal life with God, and earthly terms, namely a call to practice justice for the “last and the least” among us. (Matthew 25 ) In other words, salvation has both a personal and a social dimension. White supremacist and related colonialist theology will never address this social dimension, but it is fundamental to the gospel and needs to be taught.
Some questions for discernment and discussion:
1. Do you generally agree that much of Christianity has turned away from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth? If so, in what way(s)?
2. Do you generally agree that over the centuries Christianity has come to represent the interests of the powerful over the weak? Why or why not?
3. Do you generally agree that global white supremacy has impacted Christianity? Why or why not?
4. How can we distinguish between the genuine good news of the gospel and false doctrines designed to protect power and privilege?
5. How can we adapt our teaching methods to facilitate the “decolonization of the mind?”
Let’s clear something up shall we? I am a Christian and an ordained American Baptist pastor and I have earned a PhD in systematic theology and I teach the same and I support equal rights for LGBTQIA+ people including marriage equality and yes I have read the Bible. It is tragic to me that, when many people see the Christian part of my profile their first thought is I must be anti-gay like they are and right off start sending me homophobic propaganda in my inbox. They don’t think “oh she is Christian. She must be a compassionate person. Let us talk about how to be kind to others.” No. The first thing that comes to mind is “oh. She is Christian. She must hate ‘homosexuality’ (the sin, of course, not the sinner, heaven forbid) so let me send this little ‘God hates gays. Tell all your contacts.’ ” message.
Is it me? Have I been less than transparent about my beliefs and loyalties or is there something more basic happening, namely a major hijacking of the Christian faith on a massive scale?
How sad is it that the good news of a man named Jesus of Nazareth who sided with the poor and oppressed and the outcast and gave them hope – never once mentioning “homosexuality” has come to this? It is times like this I question even calling myself Christian anymore, not for the reasons my enemies would give, namely my departure from their understanding of orthodoxy, but because Jesus’ message has been lost in the institutionalization of religion and turned into the exact opposite of what it was meant to be. His promise of heaven became a “get out of hell” card for those who continue to create hell on earth for others.
He was crucified by the Romans as an enemy of state and is now being re-crucified by Christians who want to use his name to render his message irrelevant.
This is why I stay mad.
Dear white people, You know how horrible you felt when North Korea killed Otto Warmbier? You know how you kept thinking that could have been your kid? How you went and told stories about that movie Midnight Express and thought about all the stupid mistakes your kid made growing up and thanked God that at least he/she made those mistakes here where they were protected and not in some “foreign country” which did not privilege them? You know how you thought that if only there was some way of warning young people about the dangers of travel to “certain” places it would all be allright? Well that’s the way black and brown people, and maybe SOME who are in solidarity with them (still very much a work in progress) feel when OUR cops working for OUR country killed Philando Castille (and so many more, so very many more) and OUR jury failed to convict except, of course, it isn’t happening in a foreign country. It is happening here and there is nowhere they can go to escape it. They do warn their children with “the talk” and more, but it makes no difference. They can do everything right, just like Philando Castillo and so many others did everything right, and they will still be killed. What is worse, most of their white neighbors and co-workers and, dare I say, friends don’t even see it, let alone care. Until his life matters just as much TO US as Otto’s life, until we are just as outraged by the way our police and our courts and our prisons and our government all conspire to kill black and brown kids, often for nothing, as we are about foreign governments killing white kids for stupidity the horror will continue. So what are you willing to do today? Are you willing to at read this post and give it some thought? Are you willing to ask yourself these questions? Are you willing to talk to your friends and family about it? Don’t go apologizing to black or brown people. They are tired of hearing it. Don’t bother them at all. Bother US. We have work to do in our own families and communities. Let’s get on it.
John 19 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 27Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
Jesus of Nazareth was not a Roman citizen. Like most others in his community, he did not have the rights of Roman citizens. You might say he was undocumented. He could not vote, hold office, or make legal contracts. More importantly, if he was found guilty of breaking Roman law, he could be punished in ways no citizen was ever subjected to. He could be beaten and tortured. Also, unlike a Roman citizen, he could be crucified. And he was.
Hanging on that cross, knowing he would soon die, his thoughts go to those he would leave behind, particularly his mother, Mary, who would be left with no one to care for her. So Jesus makes custody arrangements. He tells his mother “woman, here is your son.” And to John, “Here is your mother.” This is how Jesus’ community survived persecution, by taking custody of each other.
We also live in a two tiered system of laws, one for US citizens, another for non-citizens. Non-citizens do not have the same legal and rights as citizens, even less if they are undocumented. Unlike citizens, undocumented immigrants can be “detained” meaning imprisoned, for long periods of time for no other crime than trying to seek asylum from poverty, violence and war. Unlike citizens, they have to report to ICE as frequently as three times a week. Many have to wear ankle monitors. And, of course, unlike citizens, they can be deported.
Knowing they can be deported at any time, they must make custody arrangements for children they may never see again, through power of attorney or legal guardianship. Right this moment, across our country, many immigrants are saying to a relative or friend “if I am deported tomorrow, behold, this is your son, This is your daughter.” Then they are turning to their children and saying “my beloved child, if I am deported tomorrow behold, this is your mother. This is your father.” That is how their community survives. They take custody of each other.
So, my beloved Christian family, as mass deportations happen in our country, as families are torn apart, as people who have lived among us for decades are forcibly removed from what is often the only home they have ever known ? Will we look the other way, telling ourselves they are only “illegal aliens” or will we start to see them as God sees them? Will we hear God say to us “Behold, this your son. This is your daughter. This is your mother. This is your father.” Will we take custody?
Dear White People,
Maybe this will sound strange to you, but I think the time has come for us to collectively mourn the end of white supremacy, not because it was anything less than evil, but because it did do something for us and unless we can let that something go, we will never be able to work to dismantle it.
As a nation, we tend to suck at lamentation. Admitting to feelings of grief is only allowed under very narrowly defined circumstances. It’s OK right after the death of a loved one and for a limited, very limited, time afterward. We are expected to “get through it” on schedule. When grief shows up unexpectedly years later refusing to follow the path we prescribe for it, insisting on its own unpredictable rhythms, we do not make space for it and treat the mourner like there is something wrong with them for not getting over it “on time.” Similarly it is OK to publically lament acts of violence against “innocents” like children or “honors students” with as yet unsullied reputations but once we enter the murkier waters of life where less than perfect and/or unfairly demonized people harm other less than perfect and/or unfairly demonized people our sense of pain and outrage is pushed aside. We need that simple binary of “good” and “evil” in order to respond. The same works for warfare. If “our brave soldiers” die, we mourn them. When the “enemy” dies we do not. Those are the rules. Only when that which we all agree is good is destroyed by that which we all agree it evil do we permit ourselves to feel the pain of loss and admit to it. Even then, our public rituals of mourning are limited to the “right occasion.” Again, grief has to follow the rules.
Except it doesn’t. Grief is complicated. It happens when it happens. Time does not limit grief. Neither does appropriateness and, yes, people grieve over the loss of that which is evil just as much, if not more, than we grieve over the good because the awful truth is, we often benefit from evil and really don’t like for those benefits to end and, yes, we DO feel grief when they do. Ask any good psychologist about why it is that people have such a hard time giving up harmful behaviors. It’s because, as dysfunctional as these behaviors may be, people do get something out of them. Which brings me to the usual topic we talk about here – white supremacy.
Every time I post a “Dear White People” letter in which I suggest we, as white people, need to change in any way I get angry comments about how I must be “self hating” or how I am the “real racist” for suggesting that any of us are racist. It seems the worst thing a white person can say to another white person is “You are racist.” How dare I call you racist! How self loathing I must be to say that I am racist too! The beat goes on. It is utterly predictable (which means, dear reader, if you are about to send me such a comment please be aware that you are being predictable).
What is behind this outrage? I think it is a weird and lethal cocktail of shame and fear and grief. Deep down, underneath all the demonic systems of oppression and dehumanization that have become so normalized we don’t even see them, we still have enough humanity to know that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow laws, legal segregation, lynching and everything that went into making it all seem OK – which frankly is a whole hell of a lot of “Christian” theology – is really, really, really wrong and deep down we ARE ashamed of ourselves and our race. But we dare not admit it because that is like saying we are bad people, that God must hate us, that we have no self worth. We can’t be “self loathing.” Heaven forbid. So we stuff all that shame into a box of denial and label it “stuff that happened many years ago that my ancestors had nothing to do with” and keep on stepping. Except we don’t. The shame is still there and we fear it will show up again, like when some smart ass preacher brings it up on her stupid blog.
We, as white people, particularly white Christians, have gone on like this for a very long time. As long as we were in the majority in our nation it sort of worked. But what happens now that we are headed toward an era where we are no longer going to be the numerical majority? What happens when brown skinned people start to outnumber us? What happens when, to make matters worse, brown faced immigrants who practice other religions like, oh say, Islam keep coming to our shores? Some of us seem to be dealing with this anxiety by voting to “make America great again” as if there was something truly great about our past which was lost and can now be found and saved, a time when white, Christian, Americans were the “good guys” providing a moral example to the world which, due to our goodness, we were destined to rule, a time when we could tell ourselves that our economic strength came from “hard work” not ill gotten gain, and when we were God’s chosen people. Of course that is a fiction, but it is a fond and beloved fiction that we did get something out of. We got to feel “great” and lots of us really long to feel “great again.” It is so tempting to want to build a really big wall around our “greatness” so that we can at least hold onto it a little while longer, so we don’t have to feel this encroaching sense of vulnerability that comes with change.
The problem is, our own scriptures warn us about this sense of “greatness” telling us that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1Co 1:27 NRS) The only greatness we can hope for is the greatness of shared vulnerability, of admitting to our foolishness, and a willingness to be weak just like everyone else. It is time to come down off our self made pedestal and join humanity. There is real hope in that. Shared, human, vulnerability leads to real love, the only true greatness there is. We can get there.
But first we must admit that we are grieving a real loss, which is hard because, while we may have rituals for lamenting the loss of something good, there are no rituals for lamenting the loss of an evil we liked. I am not even sure how we do this. I am just convinced that we must. Instead of dealing with our anxiety by building walls and embracing imperial “greatness” let’s deal with it by admitting we ARE anxious and we do grieve.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we derived a sense of specialness from white supremacy and we are sort of sad to see it go.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we really enjoyed it when whiteness was a synonym for goodness and it hurts to realize it is not.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we derived comfort from the idea that God’s love was tied up with white Christianity, the flag, and mom’s apple pie in a way that did not really apply to anyone else except our special selves.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we can’t even admit to how truly evil white supremacy was and is because we still gain from it.
Maybe if we can at least admit to how vulnerable we feel and lament the end of an evil we liked, we can finally begin to actually repent of it and be on the way to a whole other kind of true, and sustainable, greatness.
Sisters. It is time we talked. We just elected someone to be our president whose racism is so obvious that the KKK is now marching in celebration. The polls all said he would not win. But he did. The polls said white women in particular would vote against him. We did not. That means a bunch of us lied and said we weren’t voting for him but, once we were alone in that voting booth, we did. We voted for an admitted sexual assailant over another white woman who could have been our first female president and many of us did it in secret.
Why? I hear all kinds of explanations. Hillary is so bad. Emails. The economy. The dems don’t listen and so on and so forth. I could argue against each one but I won’t because deep down I don’t think any of these reasons are real. If they were, we wouldn’t have done this thing in SECRET.
When do we do things in secret? We do things in secret when we want to present one face to the world and another to our community and even to ourselves. We hide our racism under white sheets, social masks, coded language, and voting booths. We are so good at hiding our racism that we even hide it from ourselves. We say we are electing a KKK endorsed candidate DESPITE all the hateful things he said about people of color not because of it. We use the language of “greatness” and “unity” without considering who it is that will pay the price for it. Even when faced with a “not PC” candidate who “tells it like it is” meaning he is OVERT in his own racism, we still pretend he didn’t just say what he did. We still find a way to vote for the racist without making it SEEM like we are racist ourselves, often believing we really aren’t. Sometimes we do it by playing with language that makes it possible to BE racist without being CALLED racist or even thinking to ourselves privately that we might BE racist. Others just lie.
Well guess what. As a white woman, I am calling us out. We just did some really racist shit. Racist, racist, racist and yes, I just cussed. Oh my.
Why do I think this happened? The best explanation I can come up with is the way so many of us have been socialized to think about black men. Dating back to the era of mass lynchings and probably sooner, we were told black men were predators wanting to rape us and that our “virtue” and “womanhood” needed protection. I remember when I first became a police officer and white men wanted to get me off the job by trying to scare me by pointing to the “dangers” of the job, they almost always used the language of “What are you going to do when confronted by a BIG, BLACK, MAN?” When men are trying to get us to cooperate with the patriarchy by setting up boogie men, it’s never white assailants. It’s this mythological “big, black, man” that keeps us in line, obedient to the “nice, white, men” who perpetrate it in order to maintain dominance. We don’t like patriarchal dominance. That’s why many of us identify as feminist.
But even when we are feminist-fighting patriarchy, we still don’t fight the racism that lies within ourselves and our movement. From the beginning white American feminism has been racist. The first wave of feminism (the suffrage movement, Seneca Falls etc.) explicitly rejected black women. When it was apparent that the right to vote would either come first to black men or to white women, the white suffragettes were quick to betray their black sisters. Check out the history of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony as it relates to their treatment of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. That is the side of our movement we don’t like to look at, but desperately need to, because we never overcame it. We, white feminists, are still in the business of betraying our black sisters.
We will even turn on other white women if they get too close to black people, particularly black men. That is what I believe just happened to Hillary Clinton. She allied herself with President Obama and paid the price for it.
According to the exit polls, Black women were more than willing to support a white woman for president. They turned up in great numbers to do so. But they were the only ones who did.
We white women made a different choice. In secret.
We took our “souls to the polls” and lost them.
We have to do better than that. Starting now.
Dear White People,
It will probably come as no surprise, but I sometimes (OK often) get complaints about my “dear white people” posts. These complaints are sometimes phrased diplomatically. Other times not so much. But most seem to break down into the following categories. So if you are one of quite a few people who have recently written to me to bitch about my blog, here you go. (Others are welcome to listen in.) :
- Your words make me feel bad Please notice, I NEVER engage in personal attacks. I get piles of hate mail on a daily basis and have yet to respond in kind. This blog is safe space in that respect. Safe space means respecting the dignity and worth of all people and not letting anyone be personally denigrated. That said, there is a big difference between safe space and comfortable space. We are talking about racism here. It is not a comfortable topic. I can only sugar coat my words but so much. If I make the conversation comfortable so none of us white people ever need to feel bad about anything, it will become meaningless. So we need to make a decision. What matters more, white feelings or black lives? I believe black lives matter more than white feelings. So don’t ask me to sugar coat my words any more than I already have and let’s get past the need to feel good all the time and deal with this grown up topic like grown ups. This brings me to the next related objection
- You are trying to make me feel guilty ashamed Actually, as I have said many times, I think shame, or sense of worthlessness as a person, is what STOPS white people from healing from our own internalized prejudices and working to end systemic racism, so no, I don’t want you to feel shame. Guilt is another story. Guilt means recognizing you have done something wrong and need to change it. Anyone with a conscience experiences guilt. Recognizing healthy guilt and taking action to change whatever it is we feel guilty about is called morality. Morality is a good thing. Let’s be moral.
- Not all white people are racist. Let’s deal with some definitions here. Personal racial prejudice = having negative feelings about others based on their actual or perceived race. Some people have more personal racial prejudice. Others have less. Still more are really good at hiding their prejudices. Even more still aren’t even aware of the prejudices they have. I suppose it is theoretically possible for a person to have NO personal racial prejudice, but, frankly, I have yet to see it. I know for a fact, I am not there yet. There are still levels of unconscious bias I still have to work on. Systemic racism = social, economic, political, cultural, and other systems that have disparate impact on certain races. We all grew up in a racist world full of racist systems. We didn’t all personally create those systems, but we do all either suffer from or benefit by them and, those of us who benefit from systemic racism, i.e. white people with white privilege, have a special responsibility to be about the business of dismantling racist social systems. So, yes, we are all racist in SOME sense and it is not a personal attack to say so, nor is it shameful to admit it.
- “Not all white people are horrible” First of all, I never said that. In fact, I am pretty sure I have been quite clear that I believe in the inherent goodness of all human beings, including those of us who society deems white. Without it, we would have no hope in the face of such an enormous and long standing national sin as racism. I am also quite aware that we are all in different places in our, hopefully, anti-racist journeys. However, regardless of where we are on our journey, we can still ALL do better. Overcoming racism isn’t just an item on a to do list that you can check off and move on. It is a lifetime commitment. Either you are in or you aren’t and, if you are in, you still have work to do. Furthermore, responding to anti-racist messages with a “not all white people” response is usually a way of avoiding an uncomfortable discussion that really needs to happen whether we like it or not. That brings me to the next objection.
- Saying “white people” is racist because it labels people- “usually these comments come from the “colorblind” set so I will combine my response to this with my response to the related statement “I am colorblind.” No, you aren’t colorblind. None of us are. We are all capable of looking at another human being and making a good guess about how they are perceived racially. If you are trying to say that you try to treat people fairly, regardless of race, that is nice, but it is still not enough. As I have said before, there is a lot more to dismantling systemic racism than learning to be personally nice to folks. If you mean to say race is, basically, an artificial social construct, then I agree with you. It is. But it is a very deep seated construct that has led to the construction of many racist systems and simply pretending it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter to you, won’t make it go away. Furthermore, playing colorblind is not a loving thing to do. If you care about a person, you want to know something about them beyond the fact that they are some abstract humanoid. Part of knowing a person is understanding something about their racial identity and experience.
- Racism is a sin of the past that had nothing to do with me a.k.a. the “I never owned slaves” defense I never owned slaves either. To my knowledge, neither did my ancestors. But I DO benefit from the white privilege that came from white supremacy and, because that is so, I am responsible for trying to change my society. If you are also willing to take responsibility and work for change, I invite you overcome these objections and get to work.
Dear white people who “celebrate” MLK day,
Please do not ask me to hold hands with you while we all get teary eyed singing “We Shall Overcome” unless we can at least agree that a big part of what WE need to overcome lies in US. (Even then, we may not want to engage in this ritual but let’s at least start here.) Ever since MLK day became a holiday white America (and yes there is a white America and yes it does differ from non-white America) has been busy watering down and trivializing his legacy. We hear small clips from “I Have A Dream” and love the part about being judged by the “content of our character” and not the “color of our skin” because, when you listen to that all by itself, you can almost convince yourself that MLK himself would endorse our “colorblind” fantasies of race being a thing of the past and all we have to do is hold hands and sing “We Shall Overcome” once a year and it’s all good (which, btw, is why we maybe shouldn’t). But then there’s the rest of the speech, like the part about check marked “insufficient funds.” Can we talk about that? Even if it means we might have to fund it? Just asking.
Can we read the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” along with its indictment of white people and churches and even liberals and face the facts that even those of us who make a big deal out of being “good people” have failed to be just in a most fundamental way when it really counted?
How about this quote? “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
So, when we, as white people, say WE shall overcome, what is it we are overcoming if not our own ignorance, our own internalized privilege, and our own sense of superiority?
I know this is an uncomfortable conversation to have. Part of the reason is, I think, so many of us think admitting to white privilege means saying we are bad people (and let’s not even get started on what admitting to a legacy of white supremacy might do!) I keep pondering the reasons why overcoming racism is so hard for us as white people and I think it all boils down to shame. Deep down we know something is wrong, but we are too ashamed to admit it. It threatens our sense of goodness and even our deeper sense of self worth.
So let’s look at that. Does admitting to the racial ignorance and sense of superiority MLK accused us of having mean we are bad or worthless as people? Actually, I would say the opposite is true. I think being willing to admit these things, and then WORK to OVERCOME them is a sign of recognizing one’s own true worth.
James Weldon Johnson said “in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.” I believe my own soul is worth saving. That is why I choose to do the work and invite you to join me. So, instead of holding hands one more time and singing that song one more time, how about we REALLY try to overcome something, starting with ourselves?
Dear White People,
We haven’t talked in a while. I think it’s time. I know we are all still digesting the “White People 101” stuff, so I won’t say this is “White People 102” yet, but there are a few more items we need to add to the list so here goes:
- Just in case anyone on the planet is still wondering, and apparently some are, no you don’t get to put on a wig and black face and call it “trans-racial.” Trans-racial is a thing, but it has to do with people of one race who are adopted by people of another race. In other words, it is a genuine lived experience not a form of masquerade. The fact that white people CAN masquerade is a symptom of white privilege, not an answer to it. That is all I am going to say about that because…
- Just because the story I am referring to in #1 is more likely to be turned into a “reality show” does not mean it is more important. Just days before we were all up in it, black children were attacked by white civilians and police at a pool party in McKinney, Texas. If we want to know about the “black experience” we need to put down the spray tan and pay attention to that because that is the real reality of race in this country.
- When a nearby country (like the Dominican Republic) decides to disenfranchise and deport its own citizens because they don’t like what color they are we need to speak up about it.
- When it comes to racist, domestic terrorism like the mass murder of black people in their own church, we need to call it what it is the same way we would call it what it is if the perpetrator was Muslim or black or anything else besides a white American. We also don’t get to play the “I don’t know how this could happen” game because if we have been paying any attention to American history, white attacks on black churches in the form of shooting, bombing, fires etc. is not new and, if we honestly don’t know how it happens, we had better figure it out really fast.
- Whether it is police abusing black kids at a pool party or racist terrorists killing black people in their churches or any other manifestation of racism in our nation, let’s stop playing the “few bad apples” game. Yes, there are bad cops, there are good cops who have bad days, there are white people with psychiatric conditions who kill people and who need our prayers. But there are also longstanding patterns to this violence and we don’t get to ignore those obvious patterns just because we can see the humanity of the perpetrators. In fact, if we find ourselves noticing the humanity of white perpetrators in ways in which we do not notice the humanity of black perpetrators of other crimes we really need to check ourselves out on that.
- As always, dear fellow white people, let’s love ourselves, not with the kind of “love” that needs to hoard privilege and hold onto systems of supremacy, but with a real love of ourselves as fragile, vulnerable humans united with other fragile, vulnerable humans who know we are all ultimately connected, who want to move beyond oppressor and oppressed in a common humanity and who know that we can do better.
It has been fifty years now since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the Civil Rights movement crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma. On some level, we all want to identify with this historic event. Anyone who can remotely claim a connection to it (and some who probably can’t) proudly do so. I have heard it said that if everyone who claims to have been part of the original march actually was on that bridge it would have fallen. This is what happens with history. When it is happening, only a few choose the right side. When it is over, we all claim it. Now MLK has his own holiday and we were all on that bridge marching with him.
Except we weren’t. Look again. There is more to that scene. On the other side of that bridge there were a whole lot of white men, some cops and some deputies. Sheriff Jim Clarke (of KKK fame) ordered all white males in Dallas County over the age of 21 to report to the Court House and be deputized. Many of these deputies then joined other officers under the command of John Cloud and prepared to meet the protesters with force on this “bloody Sunday.” Some of these white men must still be alive today but, as far as I know, none of them have spoken out. They don’t seem eager to admit to being there, let alone to tell their stories. Fifty years later, it seems nobody wants to hear from or speak from the wrong side of history. But the wrong side of history has its truth to tell too.
When I imagine the events of that day I naturally want to identify with the protesters. I would like to believe I would have their kind of courage. I would like to think that I would have been on the right side of history and perhaps I would have been. But, if I am honest, as a white person and as a retired cop, a huge part of my own story is probably closer to those police officers and deputies than it is to Martin King. So I wonder, what were these officers and temporary deputies thinking?
Until they do speak out, we don’t know. So I am going to take the liberty of guessing. First of all, I bet they were scared. The fact that so many were forcibly deputized speaks to the deep anxiety white people in Selma must have felt. I imagine some of them were thinking thoughts like “These f—ing n—rs, who do they think they are coming here and causing trouble in this peaceful town? I had way better things to do today than stand here by this damn bridge and do this dirty job. I don’t want to be here.” I bet others were angry at King thinking “That coon King is a damn trouble maker. How does he have the nerve to call himself a Reverend? Ministers are supposed to be about peace and law and order, not politics and protest. We all got along here fine until this outside agitator came into town.” I bet others, standing on the east side of the bridge, focused on their physical discomfort thinking “ My feet are tired. I am hungry. I have to pee. I would rather be home today than doing this.” I bet others were thinking things like “These protesters just want attention. We don’t have a race problem here. White folks and Negroes get along fine with each other. It’s just a matter of everyone knowing their place and staying in it. King is an outside agitator creating problems where there are none. He encourages people to break the law like they are doing today, disobeying a lawful order to disperse. If they don’t turn around they will get what they deserve. All I know is I am coming home safe today and I will do whatever I have to do to make sure I don’t get hurt. I am ready for them. Just let them try.” I wonder if, in the midst of them, there were at least a few who saw something good in King and in the protesters, but were afraid to say so lest their community reject them as n—er lovers. I wonder if there might even have been at least one of two who wondered if what they were doing was right. I am betting, though, that most of them felt like THEY were the good guys, not the protesters. I bet most of them really believed that they were doing the right thing, standing up for law and order and public safety, protecting themselves and their families from something evil and bad. I doubt very many believed on that day that they were on the wrong side of history.
I wonder how, fifty years later, these men feel about what they did. I would love to ask them, if any were willing to speak. But even more, I wonder where I stand today. I would like to believe I am making choices about my life that I will later feel proud of that will put me closer to being on the right side of history. Don’t we all? But the truth is, history is always clearer in hindsight and human beings always make mistakes. Police make mistakes. Protesters make mistakes. Bystanders make mistakes. But there is still, as King often said, a moral arc in the universe. History is going somewhere and it matters where we stand. Even if none of us can know perfectly, we can all get a clue. If the path we have chosen involves beating someone bloody it is likely to be wrong. If the path we have chosen is full of “us versus them” it is worth questioning. If the path we have chosen somehow denies the full humanity of all God’s children, we are likely to be on the wrong side of history. So let’s hear the stories of the past, from both the right side of history and the wrong side of history. Let’s have enough humility that, at least in some ways, we might be wrong and let’s move forward as best as we can in ways that lead us closer to the right because, in the end, God’s justice and God’s peace will prevail and when that moral arc of the universe eventually does bend toward justice, it will matter what side we were on.
So yesterday we received word that there will be no indictment of any police officer in the death of Eric Garner. As one who has already admitted that “it could have been me” meaning I could have been that cop, I am feeling all sorts of conflicted emotions. On the one hand, I feel like it is my duty to say something, to not let “it could have been me” be my last word on this subject in this blog. On the other hand, seeing the deep pain and outrage so many people are feeling I am afraid of saying anything that in any way might rub salt in these open wounds. But I trust God is bigger than this retired white cop trying to be a theologian and that whatever is missing in my words or in my heart God will fill in somehow.
I don’t know why the Grand Jury found “no true bill” in this case. As I said before, I can see the “take down” as legitimate but not the choking on the ground. I have gone into my reasons for taking this position, but I am thinking more discussion about rules and procedures and tactics isn’t going to be very helpful right now. The real question isn’t about that is it? The real question is DO BLACK LIVES MATTER?
It’s easy for me to say “Well of course. All lives matter.” But that doesn’t answer the question. It avoids it. The truth is I really don’t know if black lives matter or not. I mean, I believe they do, but I can’t honestly say I have gotten to a place in my white life where I really, really know it in my bones and that’s after having worked at at least trying to know it for a while now. So no. No cheap answers. I will let the question sit there and take responsibility for my own discomfort and defensiveness and still let the question sit there unanswered.
One of the first of many black people to die during my own police career under tragic circumstances was Eleanor Bumpers. Do you remember her? She was an emotionally disturbed black woman who was killed by police in 1984 as they tried to evict her from her apartment. At the time, I was a rookie with two years on the job. I remember talking with a black cop, citing all the reasons why this was a justified or “clean” shooting, going right by the book, showing how she might have been a threat etc. I was adamant that “It wasn’t about race” and I really believed that. But then he said something that stopped me in my tracks. He said “Yes, it is about race because the officers were too quick to shoot her because she didn’t look like THEIR grandmother.”
Those words stuck with me. I wondered if he might be right. Do black lives really matter? I mean, beyond just thinking that they ought to matter. Do they? More to the point, do they matter to me? Yes, I have black friends and yes I love them and all that, but that isn’t the question is it? The question is, everything else being equal, would I shoot someone who looked like someone else’s grandmother faster than I would shoot my own? Would I choke someone who looked like someone else’s father or brother faster than I would choke my own? The defensive part of me wants to deny such a thing, but the more honest answer is I don’t know. I don’t know if black lives really matter in the way they need to matter to me.
Getting back to Eric Garner and my previous blog posts, when I say “It could have been me” meaning the cop in this scenario, what about the other question underneath it? As a good friend pointed out to me, others look at that video and see Eric Garner and think the same thing – “It could have been me” meaning Eric Garner. Am I seeing that side as clearly as my own? I don’t know yet.
Someday these two kinds of “It could have been me” might come together, but that day has not yet come and pretending it is here is just another form of cheap grace, a peace without justice that is no peace at all. So, for now, I do my work. I ask myself DO black lives matter to ME? At this point, all I can honestly say is I know they OUGHT to and I know it’s up to me to get to that place where they do.
Let us pray for one another on this journey. Amen.
It is November now, the month in which trees let go of their leaves and appear to die, a month that begins with the remembrance of the dead that Christians call All Saints Day and ends with Thanksgiving tables that sometimes have empty chairs. So I am fixin to blog about what else? Death – specifically good death – not painless death, not griefless death, not easy death but good death and, yes, good death is political and it is about social justice and it does call for faith.
In the past few years I had the profound privilege of walking with both of my parents as they journeyed from this life to the next. They both suffered greatly on the way but, at the end, they both died well. These were good deaths.
My mother went first. We didn’t expect it. Dad was in much worse health and she was his caregiver but, as often happens, the caregiver is the first to tire out. After ongoing complications following heart surgery the day came when Mom just said “enough.” She chose to refuse all medical treatment and, as she put it “just close my eyes and go be with God.” I was with her in her hospital room during her last night of consciousness. Unlike the weeks before when she was so miserable, this last night was neither sad nor difficult for either one of us. Like my dad, mom was a world traveler so we talked about what was about to happen as one more trip, more marvelous than anything that came before, going all the way from earth to heaven where she would finally see God face to face. She asked “Are you happy for me?” I told her yes, yes I was happy that she would soon see God. Then she told me something I will always treasure in my heart “You will see God too some day because you are a very good person.” Not long afterwards she slipped into a coma. By the next night her journey was complete. It was a good death.
My father, who suffered from dementia, was just not ready to go on living without his partner of sixty years. He really couldn’t even process it and sadly sunk into a world of frightening delusions full of loneliness and the deep pain of loss. It was a horrible time for me and for my brothers, but it was not without love. There were moments of grace and connection, even as the disease took over and destroyed what was once a brilliant mind. When death came to dad fourteen months after mom’s passing, it came as a mercy. I even remember it as a kind of joy. You see dad was a musician, an accomplished tenor. Even after his mental faculties had eroded, he could still connect in song, particularly when it came to songs he once had sung. Years earlier, when he was still singing in his church choir, he told me that he wanted the song “And The Father Will Dance” by Mark Hayes to be played at his funeral. I asked him why and he told me “All my life I have struggled with a judging and punishing God. I need to know an affirming God, one who loves me without conditions, one who will dance when He sees me.” So I got the sheet music and learned the song – just in case. On the day dad died, we all waited around his bed for hours as he lay there unresponsive not opening his eyes, not squeezing anyone’s hand until the very end. All day I envisioned God dancing and prayed that soon dad would see that image. When his legs began to mottle, indicating that transition was happening, I sang a piece of the song. Dad squeezed my hand when he heard it, opened his eyes, and let go. Dad saw God dance just for him. It was a good death.
Seeing my parents have good deaths not only gave me a sense of peace about my relationship with them and with God, it also helped to heal me from some of the trauma I felt from having experienced so much violent, or not so good, death during my police years. But I also realized all over again how death, like life, is political. Not everyone has the chance to die a good death. Impoverished people, people of color, mentally ill people, incarcerated or otherwise socially marginalized people are all more likely than others to die violently or die needlessly before their time or to die alone with no one there to love them and hold their hand as they cross over.
Good death is often more a matter of social privilege, something that happens to people who are able to live a long life and not be shot down on the streets, who have access to the best medical care when they are sick and don’t get neglected, and who have the kind of social support that ensures someone will be there in the end. Good death is a privilege, but it needs to be a right, the right to die with dignity, surrounded by love, the right to be buried or cremated with dignity, the right to be remembered, the right to be mourned, the right to have a name, the right to have mattered to someone as a human being, the right to go in peace, the right to go in justice.
That’s what I want my life to be about, working to create a world where all people have the chance to live good lives and die good deaths.
First let me say, once again, that I am very supportive of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri and nationwide against police brutality and racism. I want it to end too and I am very thankful it is happening and very prayerful that this movement will lead us toward a more just way of being a nation. But, in order for that to happen, I also think it is important that these protests lead to concrete ACTION plans that stand a chance of going somewhere and that is going to take a lot of education. Knowing something about the history and roots of systemic racism is obviously important. But it is also important to know something about the nuts and bolts of policing. That is where I think I might be able to help and why I am blogging about it, trying to answer questions that activists ask me.
Yesterday, I tried to answer the question “Why don’t ‘good cops’ turn ‘bad cops’ in.” Today I am going to try to answer another question that keeps coming up, “Why don’t police shoot people in the legs?” Here is why:
1. It is virtually impossible to do. Police receive firearms training that is much more extensive than that most civilian gun owners receive. In addition, they are required to demonstrate proficiency with firearms at least once a year at the firing range. As a result, most cops can hit a paper target with much greater accuracy than most. Many probably could deliberately hit something smaller than a human chest, like a human leg – at the range that is. But the range isn’t the streets. Firing at a paper target, under optimal lighting conditions, where the target doesn’t move and no one is shooting back at you is way different than shooting a person who is moving when you feel your life is threatened. Don’t quote me on the exact numbers on this. (Firearms instructors may correct me here.) but I think the average “hit ratio” in a street gun battle is about one in ten for police and one in twenty for civilians. That means, on the average, if a cop fires ten rounds, only one is likely to hit the suspect anywhere on the body. That is why police are trained to aim for “center mass” or the chest and not even try to aim for a leg or other smaller target.
2. There is no such thing as “shoot to kill” versus “shoot to injure.” That only happens on TV. In real life, there is only shoot to stop.
3. Shooting is deadly physical force. Period. Police are not legally justified in using a gun unless they are in a situation where deadly physical force is justified, such as they have good reason to believe that there is an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to them or someone else and there is no other way of stopping the threat than to shoot. Asking them to use guns as “less than lethal” weapons – or any other way – is asking for more trouble, not less.
So what DOES make sense? In my opinion, it makes sense to demand that police stay within the current legal and department guidelines for the use of deadly physical force, that police-involved shooting investigations be thorough and transparent, that black and brown suspects be treated the same way white suspects are treated, that police receive more and better training in all areas including firearms training and not just the paper target kind, but also the “shoot – don’t shoot” kind, such as what is available via the FATS (Firearms Training Simulator) where they have to make simulated judgment calls about when to shoot and when to hold their fire, where the race of the suspect can be controlled for and things like a tendency to shoot black people more than white people can come to light and corrected.
Those kind of reforms stand a chance of actually being implemented and, more importantly, actually saving lives.
Saying “they should shoot people in the legs” while totally understandable, isn’t.
In community – police dialogues I am often asked why it is that the many “good cops” – meaning those who respect the public, particularly communities of color and don’t use excessive force and don’t engage in brutality – don’t “turn in the bad ones” meaning those who do. I am told that the fact that they don’t is a major reason why people don’t trust police.
OK, fair enough. I can see that point. When “good cops” don’t turn in “bad cops” it makes it look like all cops are bad. In many, if not most, lines of work people do turn in colleagues who don’t live up to professional standards. It is a matter of pride and integrity. But it rarely works that way in policing. Here are some reasons why:
1. Unlike other professions, with the possible exception of that of a professional soldier, police literally hold each other’s lives in their hands. It is very hard to “turn in” someone for questionable behavior if they may be the ones to either rush to your aid if you call a 10-13 (officer needs assistance, as in a life threatening situation) or take their time getting there.
2. Police often find themselves in ambiguous situations where things are not necessarily as they seem. They don’t always have time to weigh all the facts before acting. It is a difficult job and not all of it is pretty. What may look, on the surface, to be an obvious act of brutality may turn out not to be. Therefore, the phrases “don’t Monday morning quarterback” and “you weren’t there so you can’t judge” are pretty common in police circles.
3. Police feel like nobody understands them but their own. I have to say, that is legitimate. Before I was a police officer, I was a major critic of police. Growing up in the Vietnam era, I was part of a number of anti-war protests. I always had an opinion about how the cops (actually, in those days I called them “fucking pigs”) did their jobs. I felt like I could do better. So I tried. In the process I discovered that, while some of my criticisms were very valid, others were not. You can’t find that out from reading books (or blogs.) You have to have worn the uniform to get it. Obviously, the “us and them” thing is not healthy. I personally try to reject it, particularly since so much of my life has been, and continues to be, in non-police contexts. But there are aspects of the work that do need to be experienced to be believed and the idea that “civilians don’t get it” has some basis in fact.
4. The price for being a “rat” is enormous. It’s not like other jobs where you may even be rewarded for reporting a substandard colleague. In policing, a “rat” is a pariah for the rest of his or her career, subjected to ongoing hatred and harassment. Reporting a “bad cop” means the end of ones career, and often more than that. There have been a few who did it anyway and paid the price, but not many and for good reason.
5. Finally, unlike many other professions, police departments are very hierarchical. As the saying goes, “shit rolls down hill.” Lower ranking officers are often sacrificed to protect the reputation of higher ranking officers. Therefore, I think putting the onus on the rank and file to “turn in the bad cops” as opposed to starting at the top where policy and procedure is formulated, is not only unrealistic, but also unfair.
So what can be done? For starters, let’s look at what is working. Even though cops rarely turn each other in, they do help each other. There were times in my career, particularly as a rookie, where I confess my own frustration level got too high and I lost my temper and was about to go overboard in terms of the force I used. Thank God, when that happened, there were older and wiser and more mature cops around to take me aside and calm me down and show me a better way of doing things. The public doesn’t see that, but it is also real and needs to be encouraged, perhaps by making sure such older and wiser role models stick around instead of being put out to pasture prematurely by a job that does not value them or their expertise and would rather have younger, lower paid, and “more aggressive” cops in the ranks.
It also might help to stop evaluating cops solely on the numbers of stop question frisk reports, summonses, and arrests as has increasingly been the case in recent years, and be more intentional about tracking and rewarding positive community relations as equally important. One way of doing that might be to institute a kind of “customer satisfaction” survey given out randomly to people who call 911 and request service. Let that be part of COMPSTAT too and I don’t mean as just a side issue. Institute training that emphasizes cultural sensitivity and police ethics and, more importantly, back it up from the top down and not dismiss it as “touchy feely bullshit” (as is often done) but as something that can literally save lives. Include more and better training in the appropriate use of force. Do a better job of recruiting, hiring and retaining “minority” officers. The list goes on but my point is, there are ways of making it both possible and worthwhile to be the kind of “good cop” so many people need while, at the same time, discouraging “bad cop” behaviors.
But it has to be systemic and it has to start at the top, beginning by “turning in” bad attitudes, bad policies, and bad procedures that have hurt our city for far too long and trying a new approach that will ensure both safety, and respect for ALL our citizens.