Ferguson has brought racism off the back burner in the US. A recent article on Killing the Buddha (an online magazine presenting various irreverent religious perspectives on social issues) is probably the best thing I’ve read on the subject lately. Maybe ever. It blows right by the tired old discussions of “let’s just all get along,” sifts through recent lists of “what can we do” and finds them wanting.
White people are going to have to suffer if we’re going to get this issue solved, and most of us are not too eager to step up take our share of the suffering. We want, like the Village Voice columnist of a few weeks ago, to think that we can all just rest in our well-meaning liberalism, avoid confrontation at all costs, and let good will work through the system and everything will be fine.
Briallen Hopper, a professor at Yale University, put things in perspective early on: “… as a white American I do know this: It is a privilege to experience political differences as differences of opinion rather than differences of power. It is a privilege to be able to view all political issues in indistinguishable shades of gray.”
She brings the insight of a 50-year-old documentary film, “A Time for Burning,” to bear on the current discussion about race in our country. She quotes famous black nationalist barber (and member of the Nebraska legislature) Ernie Chambers from the film:
I can’t solve the problem. You guys pull the strings that close schools. You guys drop the bombs that keep our kids restricted to the ghetto. You guys write up the restricted covenants that keep us out of houses. So it’s up to you to talk to your brothers and your sisters and persuade them that they have a responsibility. We’ve assumed ours for over four hundred years and we’re tired of this kind of stuff now. We’re not going to suffer patiently anymore. No more turning the other cheek. No more blessing our enemies. No more praying for those who despitefully use us. …
You’re treaty-breakers, you’re liars, you’re thieves, you rape entire continents and races of people. Then you wonder why these very people don’t have any confidence and trust in you. Your religion means nothing, your law is a farce and we see it everyday. You demonstrated it in Alabama. And I can say “you” because you’re part of the whole system. You profit from it. In fact you make your living from it. … As far as we’re concerned, your Jesus is contaminated, just like everything else you’ve tried to force upon us is contaminated. So you can have him. … I think the problem is so bad that we can have no understanding at all. … You talk about justice and it means something to you, we talk about it and it means something else to us. And it will always be that way.
In 2014, these problems and the truths Mr. Chambers presents here are magnified beyond all reason, and all our good intentions have not made one whit of difference. The power structure is still every bit as racist as it was in 1960 and the impacts are as unjust and destructive as ever.
“What’s truly necessary is for white people to have hard conversations about injustice with other white people, not gratuitous arguments but challenges that count,” Hopper says.
She goes further. She makes sort of a list of her own:
I want to be willing to bear some of the cost of racism, a cost that is so unevenly distributed and that is visible in rates of incarceration, unemployment, hypertension, diabetes, debt, infant mortality, stop and frisk, and death by guns. I want to bear my share of the cost not just in social discomfort but in tedium and tiredness, in my time and my bank account and my body. I love social media and t-shirts with slogans, and I think marches are energizing and photogenic, but I believe the battle is also being fought in the meetings that no one has time to go to: in school board and city elections, in voter registration drives, in budget debates and hiring decisions and referendums on the minimum wage.
This calls us all to task: there are battles on everyone’s doorstep that need to be fought every day. If we are willing, as she says, to live in the struggle, those opportunities will come to us. Then we have a choice: speak up or keep the peace.