A Mortal Enemy That Seeks
to Devour Us All
For people committed to racial reconciliation, the past few weeks have been incredibly hard to witness. The news of Ahmaud Arbery’s lynching in Georgia, which took place months ago but just recently came to the attention of many of us. The racial profiling of Christian Cooper in Central Park. The death in March of Breonna Taylor, an EMT shot to death in Louisville by police officers who entered her home. The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
All these stories, one would think, would so scandalize us that even the most hard-hearted among us could see that there is a toxic, destructive pattern on display here: the steady enforcement of whiteness in its many forms (privilege, power, supremacy and more) through the continued displacement and diminishment of people of color. One would think and hope that such close public scrutiny would lead to less, not more, instances of racial violence. Yet that does not seem to be the case, as we see once again this week in the death of George Floyd, who died when a police officer knelt on his neck despite Floyd’s entreaties that he could not breathe.
The result of these acts of violence is the diminishment of the dignity, rights and personhood of people of color. As my heart breaks for the victims, I also find myself angry. How would I feel if I felt my children did not have the same opportunities and rights that others did, simply because of the color of their skin? How would I feel if I had to take my life into my hands each time I went jogging…or even simply sat in my own apartment? How would I feel if I knew that if someone attacked me, or even murdered me, that if they were a white person of status then there would be no justice for me? How would I feel if I had to have “the talk” with my son, to warn him that he will be treated with a measure of condescension and hostility simply for making his way in the world?
I don’t have to have those talks, because I am white.
We are all on a journey, and mine includes a growing knowledge of what “whiteness” means. But here’s what’s making me angry today: I’m not the only person talking about racism and whiteness, and a great many speak of it more frequently and courageously than I ever will. Yet are things changing? It’s almost as if, the more we identify the sources and the tributaries of racist violence – which, by the way, are almost always packaged in race-neutral euphemisms like “riot” and “thug” – the more the powers of enforcement raise their voices to stop the flow of reconciliation, to interrupt the process of healing before anything can really change.
And so, I am angry. Not as angry as I might be if my skin were black, but angry at the white folks who taught me and all of us to live this way, and angry at myself for claiming this birthright uncritically for so many years. And I do not begrudge the anger of black people in light of this seemingly perpetual violence. I can hardly imagine a response that didn’t result in passionate, angry, tearful protest.
“Righteousness” means being in right balance with God and neighbor. Ours is a profoundly un-righteous society, and unless we can gather up the courage to claim our responsibility before God and one another we will struggle to draw back into right balance with one another. But I find hope in the very unfamiliarity of this: we have never known what a reconciled community looks like, because we swim in the polluted waters of centuries-old racist structures. I would like to believe that those structures are crumbling, perhaps more rapidly than we realize, and that the violence we see is the old order trying to enforce itself back into perpetuity.
That is my hope, but it’s neither a foregone conclusion that we will heal nor that we are resigned to live this way forever. We cannot be reconciled without the grace and presence of God. And yet, a racist structure isn’t going to dismantle itself…we must bring our anger, hope, vulnerability, courage, and commitment to it. We must see, each time racism raises its head, that it is a mortal enemy that seeks to devour us all. And we must find, deep beneath our broken heritage, and even beneath the anger that enables us to fight against it, a well of compassion and love for all the children of God.
The Very Rev. Bernard J. Owens