Odds are you have seen it by now. The video of fraternity brothers in Oklahoma singing a racist song to the tune of “If You’re Happy And You Know It.” Certainly, the words they use are despicable. They chant racial slurs and reference lynching in such a nonchalant way that you might think they were singing about a school carnival. But far worse than the words are the intent behind them. These kids from my home state created an entire song to proclaim that African Americans were beneath them. Less than. Worthless. As an Okie myself, it’s hard to watch.
But our shared geography is not the reason for my shame.
Over the past several months the topic of race has been front and center. The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. The choking of Eric Garner in New York City. The shooting of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy in Cleveland who was killed for brandishing a toy gun in a park. These incidents lit a fuse leading to demonstrations, protests and riots.
This whole time, I have sat silently on the sidelines trying to wrap my head around the news reports. What happened in those fateful moments between Michael Brown and the officer who took his life? Why does a community believe that rioting is the best way to bring attention to a crisis? What might cause a police officer to fear an unarmed man? How on earth could Garner lose his life for selling unpackaged cigarettes? How could two seconds end a child’s life? How could any of this happen? And who is to blame?
In my quest for answers, I have listened to interviews and read numerous articles, and several things are now clear to me.
I understand why Michael Brown and other black men are so distrusting of police.
I understand how officer Wilson might have felt threatened enough to pull the trigger and take the man’s life.
I understand why a community of voiceless people would riot.
I understand the arguments of those who say the riots did more harm than good.
I understand why a police officer in Staten Island might have felt the need to subdue a man who was resisting arrest.
I understand that Garner died of asphyxiation caused by a police-administered choke hold.
I understand how police might feel endangered if dispatchers did not inform them that Rice’s gun was a toy.
I understand how Tamir’s parents would feel outraged at an official report saying it was their son’s fault that a police officer shot him in the torso two seconds after arriving on the scene.
Yes. I understand.
I hoped all of this understanding would make me feel better about the whole situation.
But it doesn’t. And that’s why I’m ashamed.
I have been settling for understanding. I have convinced myself that my quest for facts and a balanced perspective has accomplished something. I argue it has helped me to remain level-headed in debate and assures no one gets too riled up.
But all of my understanding has accomplished absolutely nothing.
Yesterday, I sat in an airport terminal as CNN blasted the video of the frat boys singing their song. Talking heads on screen expressed outrage. Meanwhile, a big, boisterous fella’ sat across from me. He was a giant of a man. As he sat holding his newborn baby, his wife was arguing with him about how they should have packed more diapers. Half-listening, his gaze was fixed on the TV screen when he said,
“Sheesh. Here they go again. Last I checked, this country allows free speech.”
His wife, embarrassed, immediately said, “Shhhhh!”
Even though she wasn’t talking to me, I complied. Slowly filling with shame.
Don’t get me wrong. I had a huge conversation in my head. I labeled him a racist. I wondered what might make him so insensitive. I tried to understand his perspective. I reasoned that his parents were probably raised in the Jim Crow south. I assumed he probably had no black friends, so he was ignorant of the double-standard.
But I still said nothing. And neither did anyone sitting at the gate. We didn’t want to ruffle feathers or cause a scene. So we all just sat in silence. Most of us praying we wouldn’t have to sit next to this man on the plane. Our shared responsibility became a shared excuse to do nothing. So we let it slide.
And this is the problem with systemic prejudice. When everyone is responsible for fixing the problem, no one is responsible. I have been safely hiding behind the language of “We need to” and “They should stop”, completely ignoring my role. Owning my shame, yet offloading the blame.
And it has to stop.
For me, it starts with moving past understanding and moving toward action. For understanding alone is unacceptable.
I can understand that 27% of African Americans live below the poverty line, nearly four times the rate of whites.
But I cannot accept it.
I can understand that schools enrolling 90% students of color receive over $700 less per pupil than schools with 90% white students.
But I cannot accept it.
I can understand that blacks are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate nearly ten times that of whites even though the rate of drug usage is fairly consistent among all races.
But I cannot accept it.
What I must accept is the fact that I am part of a broken system. An unfair system that I cannot change by myself. But silence is not the answer.
So I pray I will find ways to speak out against injustice every day. Even if I am unsure of the facts. Even if I do not truly understand. For in the end, the only fact that matters is that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. And allowing anyone to tarnish that image is to deny the God I profess to follow.
So Lord, today I ask for you to give me the strength. Give me the words. Give me the courage to lend my voice to the chorus.
Silent no more.
* Writers note: Would love to hear suggestions from you Accidental Missionaries out there about the best ways to help. Especially those directly affected.
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