“The fierce urgency of now” if you’re white

When I visit my friends in Maine, we are cut off from most of the Internet and from most television, and frankly that’s always one of the lovely — if disorienting — aspects of the trip. It was dismaying to return from that to news of two more killings in just two days of black men by white policemen, topped off by the killing of five white police officers in Dallas by one angry black veteran.

So what can those of us who aren’t black do about it?

As a novelist, I am always tempted to think that if I can just help someone put themselves in someone else’s shoes, they will develop empathy for that person and his problems. And in fact, my next novel does get into racial issues.

But because I have also taught argument and persuasion in racially mixed classrooms using contemporary topics, I also know firsthand that there are some young white people (men, usually) who absolutely refuse to imagine what it might feel like to be, say, a frustrated black man, or the family of a black man slain by cops over a minor offense.

I’ve watched them refuse to do this even as part of an exercise that might help them produce a more effective argument for their own side. In their view, the cop is always right, the black suspect always had it coming, and to entertain any other possibility is letting down the team.

So whites who are capable of noticing that there is such a thing as racial bias in the world really need to do more than just sympathize with its victims.

I was hoping for something explicit in my somewhat racially mixed church this week, since our presiding bishop had suggested as much. Our white priest gave his usual excellent sermon, though it was (also as usual) without a mention of recent events. But it was about the parable of the good Samaritan, and examining Jesus’s answer to that question by the lawyer — “Who is our neighbor?” felt appropriate.

Later, the priest did explicitly address recent events during the announcements, and instead of an offertory hymn, we heard a reading from Lamentations, an expression of grief in lieu of what he said would be our tendency toward self-righteousness at this time.

And, yes, it seemed fitting in many ways — defeated Jerusalem surely had something in common with those who feel they’ve been abandoned to poverty and violence and injustice, though the Jews had obviously experienced being the group in power in their own country at some point, and you can’t say that about black people in this country.

And then the reading ended on a note asking us to wait patiently for the Lord.

Sorry, Father Steve, but here’s where I get all self-righteous.

Because surely waiting patiently for the Lord is the oppressor’s game? Surely waiting patiently for the Lord is a perk of white privilege? Surely waiting patiently for the Lord assumes that everything will work out eventually if we just wait in love and hope and faith for goodness to win out?

As far as I can tell, unless people actually fight for something, goodness only wins out on an eternal scale. And, yes, eternity is the focus of church. But surely not the only focus of a church that says it’s concerned with justice and peace. Jesus didn’t wait patiently for the Lord. He went around saying and doing stuff, and he delegated his disciples to go around saying and doing stuff.

Waiting patiently for the Lord doesn’t do anything to address the injustice of the world we have now, the lives being lost now, the human potential being squandered now. And no progress on this planet has ever happened without people fighting pretty damned hard for it … and then continuing to fight for it when the usual suspects try to reverse it. (Just look at what has happened to economic inequality in this country in the last thirty years.)

The Rev. Martin Luther King rightly insisted on “the fierce urgency of now.” His classic Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in response to the clergy of Birmingham who expressed sympathy for the plight of African Americans in that violent city while deploring the protests he and others led there, made this especially clear:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. (Excerpted from the full text here.)

This is what the Black Lives Matter movement attempts to do, and obviously not just in the South. Even if you don’t agree with all the movement’s specific positions (I don’t), you can still support its goal of ending America’s largely unjust pattern of policing and sentencing black people.

We already know who doesn’t get it, or chooses not to get it. They’re the ones who say, “All lives matter!”

Courtesy of JP Porcaro's Facebook post

Courtesy of JP Porcaro’s Facebook post

The white people who most frustrated King did get it, but responded with grief and prayer and moments of silence and hugs and yeah, okay, all that is lovely — but not if it’s all we do. Not when it becomes a substitute for actually trying to take steps to solve the problem.

OnceACopIn a related note, I just finished a good book, ONCE A COP, by former New York Police Department Deputy Inspector Corey Pegues, that vividly details the appeal of selling drugs and belonging to gangs to young black boys in tough neighborhoods. He was one of those young drug dealers, who somewhat miraculously managed to escape into the military and then became a rising NYPD cop. From that vantage point of the insider, he illustrates how “broken windows” policing — when driven to extremes by politicians — can cause arrests to skyrocket, especially among young blacks.

In fact, he shows how simply being stopped without ID at hand can cause a young man who wasn’t doing anything wrong to be taken in and get entered into the system, something that may dog him the rest of his life.

And that’s just in New York, which doesn’t have a private prison system providing a profit motive for incarceration. Which doesn’t, presumably, see incarceration as an easy way to strip voting rights from a whole bloc of people almost as effectively as any Jim Crow laws did in the past. Which does hire some black members of the police force (though it would appear from the book that they mostly get promoted when racial scandals make it temporarily expedient to do so).

So what do we do, those of us who can see the score here, besides grieving?

Well, there’s this advice compiled by Sally Kohn.

You can also vote for the politicians and parties that recognize there is a problem with racism and poverty in this country and appear willing to do something about it rather than fanning racial fears and hatred. Not just at the national level, but at the local level.

And then you have to hold them to it.

And then you need to continue to support them when some of that change threatens to reduce some of the many advantages you and your children enjoy simply by virtue of being white and middle- or upper-class.

Even if it means volunteering and contributing and voting in less sexy midterm elections and local elections. If politicians who do the right thing think it will cause them to lose the next election, many of them are going to play it safe.

It also means, sometimes, compromising your ideological purity to avoid electoral and judicial disaster.

There are, sadly, a lot of people in this country who think this world is a zero-sum game, and the more benefits they can get for themselves at the expense of others, the better.

For the religious among us, however, there is supposed to be that pesky matter of loving our neighbors as ourselves, and not just those who live in our own zip code.

And religious or not, there is also such a thing as enlightened self-interest — the idea that prosperous people without serious grievances are less likely to pass along disease, or mug us to make a buck, or get angry enough to overturn our government. They are also way more likely to pay taxes and in other ways contribute towards the greater good, perhaps even cause our stock portfolio to rise in value. Maybe even take care of us in our old age.

So there’s that. If simple humanity or religious duty doesn’t appeal to you, maybe enlightened self-interest will.

Something’s got to do it. Because it needs to get done.

5 thoughts on ““The fierce urgency of now” if you’re white

  1. Hi Sandy, wonderful post. I was sitting by the altar on Sunday and had a somewhat different take on what was going on. Perhaps I projected this, but I felt our priest offered the reading from Lamentations to help us confront our inability to feel grief. I heard the black doctor who received the slain officers say on the radio that things will not change until whites can accept that blacks suffer disproportionately in our system — this echos what you have noticed in the classroom. It’s the job of prophets and preachers to put us in touch with our feelings so we can act on them — perhaps this is what Father Steve felt to be his vocation that day. I thought I heard the hope that learning to appropriately feel grief and empathy would be a beginning of change. I hope in me it is. See you Sunday 🙂

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