After a night of fear and violence in our community very, very close to our home, you awoke one morning last week with questions.
Why are we all staying inside today?
Why are the people lighting things on fire?
Why are they stealing and breaking windows in our town?
Are the protesters the bad guys?
Are the police the good guys?
Are we safe?
And as I stood there making breakfast, I was overwhelmed by my own lack of an answer. I wanted you to feel safe. I wanted you to be shielded. I wanted to wrap my arms around you and shut out the world. Pretend like none of this was happening. But the main reason those questions are hard to answer is because I don’t know all the answers myself. And for more than a week, I’ve been thinking and praying and trying to answer these questions in my own heart. But there are no simple answers here. The reasons are many. The answers are not easily boxed and delivered. And they are not easily understood.
I have not raised you to see race. I have raised you to see people. And so, this thing of racism and fear and hate does not make sense to you. And I really thought, REALLY THOUGHT, that that view was more the rule than the exception in 2014. I was wrong. And the grief that brings me was a bit hard to see through in the immediate aftermath of the “burning of Ferguson.” Because in watching all of this unfold, you are forming conclusions whether you mean to or not. And in my own search for wisdom, I haven’t felt like I understood it enough myself to guide your conclusions to the balance I pray you grow up with.
I have written this letter numerous times over the past week. And deleted and revised and re-written. Because honestly, I didn’t feel like I had an answer. Every answer I could muster felt jaded. One-sided. Shallow. And like a deeper grief was brewing beneath the surface.
And so after a few days of trying to make sense of this myself, I began to seek out other perspectives. I am white and surrounded by white people. We do have friends who are black, but not as many as I’d like to have. I read perspectives online from wise leaders in the national black community. I read about the epidemic of fatherlessness and poverty among African-Americans. I read about sin and racism and justice and hate. I prayed for an open mind and an open heart. To look past the fear and anger that came from watching our community burn. To hear the heart of the message that those still protesting this whole thing are trying to get across. And I started to get it.
I don’t agree with all of it, but I can respect it. I was raised to believe that the justice system in this country works. That it will defend me if I need it to. And so, every time something like this happens, I spring from the basic perspective that our justice system is fair. And that it is designed to protect its citizens. But many in the black community grew up seeing a totally different perspective. They saw men accused of crimes based on the color of their skin. They saw the benefit of the doubt go to the police because of stereotypes in their community that I can’t even begin to understand. They grew up seeing men and women of color treated differently by authority figures simply because they were men and women of color. And so their basic perspective grew from these roots. And they do NOT believe in our justice system as easily as I do.
I read one Facebook comment from a woman who explained her perspective on the grand jury deliberations regarding the Mike Brown/Darren Wilson case. She explained that in a jury trial, all evidence is presented to the jury, by prosecution AND defense. In a grand jury review, only the evidence deemed “credible” by the prosecutor is presented. And if the person of interest (in this case, Wilson) testifies, they do so of their own volition and are not cross-examined by any defense counsel. And this is why she viewed the way this case was handled as unfair. And while I’m not sure I agree, I see her point.
Even after I began to understand WHY the remaining protesters felt they had a case to protest about, I still struggled to understand the violence that took place in the immediate aftermath of the announcement. And I maintain that there is no EXCUSE for that violence. Those were criminal acts and deserve to be punished accordingly. But that does not mean there was not a REASON behind them. A reason is not an excuse, but it helps to understand the reasons behind something if we hope to be a part of the solution. A part of the greater movement who moves toward change so that something this devastating doesn’t happen again.
And so, I agree with the many wise black men whose writings I have recently read who say we need black leaders within the black community to call for and initiate change from within. We need strong black leaders to stand up for what is right, to call their youth out of poverty by offering real initiatives and solutions, to challenge black fathers to step up and parent their kids. All of those things are true.
But passing the buck and saying it’s “their” problem to solve and pretending that because I don’t hate black people, racism doesn’t exist is simply insanity. Because the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. And while I don’t pretend to know (yet) what practical steps I personally need to take to be a part of the positive change that needs to happen, I will not throw up my hands and say I can do nothing.
I seek to know more, to understand more. And as I have pondered the violence, I started to understand some things. At the root of all violence, you will find a sense of powerlessness. Whether real or perceived, it whispers there beneath the anger. And when a person feels powerless, it leads to anger and attempts to gain power in any way you can think of. We have heard of outside gang influences in Ferguson, inciting some of the violence. But gangs at their core are formed out of powerlessness, too. Out of a sense of displacement. Needing a place to belong and be cared for. So they are as much a symptom of this thing as anything else.
So I believe the situation in Ferguson boils down to this: Powerlessness begets powerlessness. A son feels powerless to win the love or attention of his father and he becomes angry. He acts out in anger, trying to feel like he is in control of some little piece of his life. And after time has passed, if no constructive intervention has taken place, he takes the power back by not being available to his own son, and the cycle is perpetuated. And when you look at the balance of power in our government entities, it makes sense that black people feel underrepresented. Because they ARE. We need more black police officers. More black elected officials making a difference. More black judges, more black prosecuting attorneys. . .because no one should EVER be convicted for. . . or tried for, or exonerated for. . .a crime just because of the color of their skin. And as long as we white people continue to view discussions of racism as a personal insult to our own race, we will never be open minded enough to be a part of the change that is needed.
And so, my three loves, LISTEN to other perspectives, no matter who they come from. OPEN your heart to change from within. LOVE your neighbor as yourself. Don’t form an opinion about another race just because of all you’ve seen in this last week. Get to know PEOPLE. On an individual level. Seek out wise people and talk to them. Because change will only happen if we are willing to stop perpetuating the illusion that racism does not exist and it’s not our problem. or as one old saying goes, “BE the change you want to see in the world.”