|Confrontation in Ferguson, 2014 August|
In any case, it DIDN’T start 25 years ago when the nation watched video Rodney King lying unmoving on a Los Angeles street as officers continued to rain vicious baton blows upon him. The officers were acquitted – a familiar pattern – and that triggered the 1992 LA riots, but the nation as a whole did not take seriously that there was a SYSTEMIC problem here.
When Trayvon was killed in 2012, that was in my back yard – I was serving in Florida at the time and I joined with other UU clergy and other groups in protesting what had happened. I preached then about the evident racial bias and injustice. Two and a half years later when Michael Brown was killed, I admit I missed the nationwide social significance of reaction to that event.
When I say “it started,” of course I’m not talking about a callous and systemic and brutal disregard of black lives. THAT has been going on for about 400 years in this country. What HAS started quite recently is a social awakening to this fact. The alarm bells which have been a constant din in our country’s African American communities began to pierce the consciousness and conscience of the nation as a whole with the Trayvon Martin killing. And then, just as the nation was hitting snooze on that alarm, came the killing of Michael Brown. And at first I was not attentive to the significance of the response.
Our neighbor UU congregation in Westport, CT was more on the ball. They held a vigil of honor for Brown and of protest against police violence. I did not seek to organize any such response here. They held that vigil within a week, as I recall, of Brown’s death, and I thought, “Why this one?” Over the seven years, 2005-2012, white officers killed a black person on average almost twice a week. Blacks constitute about 12.3% of the population, but are 24% of all people killed by police officers in the US. (These statistics on police shootings, particularly of blacks, are likely to be significantly understated. Police departments self-report the numbers, and these are based on the reportage of only 750 of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the US.) So: just going by these woefully underreported numbers, we’ve been having white officers killing a black person twice a week. So why the outrage about Michael Brown?
The better question, of course, is: why hasn’t there been outrage all along?
To answer that question, we need to look at some history. In the history of the European colonization of these continents we call the Americas there are many places we could begin. There were centuries of enslavement of African peoples and people of African descent. Then, after the Civil War, Reconstruction represented an effort to make a serious break with that past. So for our purposes now, let's start the story with the day the US abandoned the hope and promise of Reconstruction.
That day, if it can be pinned on a single day, was 1898 November 10. On that day and for the next several days after, in Wilmington, NC, white supremacists violently overthrew the duly elected biracial city government, burned down the black-owned newspaper, and murdered as many as 100 black citizens. It was not a “race riot,” it was a coup d’etat by white supremecists. Hoodlums overthrew the legitimate government. The US government declined to step in, thereby tacitly signaling to the entire South that there would be no federal protection of black voting rights. And there was none for the next 67 years. When the citizens of this country learned that the US government did nothing to defend a legitimate government against insurrection, what could they have concluded except that it must be OK because black lives don't matter?
Lynchings were numerous from 1890 through 1930, and the nation as a whole declined any meaningful effort to stop them. Some awareness that the lynchings were going on seeped through to the country as a whole. Seeing no particular effort on the part of law enforcement at any level to stop these gang murders, what could a person conclude except that it must be that black lives don't matter?
We have an ingrained national pattern of regarding black lives as not mattering. Since about 1890 and the backlash against Reconstruction, our nation’s citizens get periodic news reports about something horrible happening to people of color: discriminatory policies, acts of hate, or acts of violence against people of color. We get these stories over and over and we see that neither our government nor our fellow citizens want to do much about it.
Yes, there was a Brown v. Board decision in 1954. There were the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, since rolled back. And things got better – some. Throughout all that and since: we have been getting stories of violence and injustice, and stories about the official response. When Trayvon was killed, Zimmerman was at first not charged, and he never would have been charged were there not substantial public outrage. Sanford, Florida Police “said that there was no evidence to refute Zimmerman's claim of self-defense and that Florida's stand your ground law prohibited law-enforcement officials from arresting or charging him.” You hear these stories over and over and something in your brain just goes: “Oh, must be that black lives don’t matter so much.”
Remember Asch's conformity experiments of the 1950s? If not, here's a refresher from Wikipedia:
Groups of eight male college students participated in a simple "perceptual" task. In reality, all but one of the participants were "confederates" (i.e., actors), and the true focus of the study was about how this subject would react to the confederates' behavior. The confederates knew the true aim of the experiment, but were introduced to the subject as other participants. Each student viewed a card with a line on it, followed by another with three lines labeled "A", "B", and "C". One of these lines was the same as that on the first card, and the other two lines were clearly longer or shorter. Each participant was then asked to say aloud which line matched the length of that on the first card. Prior to the experiment, all confederates were given specific instructions on how they should respond to each trial (card presentation). They would always unanimously nominate one comparator, but on certain trials they would give the correct response and on others, an incorrect response. The group was seated such that the real participant always responded last. Subjects completed 18 trials. On the first two trials, both the subject and the confederates gave the obvious, correct answer. On the third trial, the confederates would all give the same wrong answer. This wrong-responding recurred on 11 of the remaining 15 trials. It was subjects' behavior on these 12 "critical trials" that formed the aim of the study: to test how many subjects would change their answer to conform to those of the 7 confederates, despite it being wrong....[In the 12 critical trials] the majority of participants’ responses remained correct (63.2 per cent), but a sizable minority of responses conformed to the confederate (incorrect) answer (36.8 per cent).... Overall, 75% of participants gave at least one incorrect answer out of the 12 critical trials.We see the world around us acting in a particular way, and there's a lot of pressure to figure they must be right. We are social animals. We are built to adapt ourselves to our social situation. That is our glory as a species – but it can become our biggest problem. We see a society that regards people of color a certain way, and we -- blacks as well as whites -- can’t help but share, at least partially, that regard. 
That same society has, in the last couple generations, also taught us not to say out loud that black lives don’t matter. But something in our brain nevertheless concludes that they don’t – or else how could our government, our fellow citizens, allow the way they are treated to continue? That’s been trained into the brains of the people of this nation for 400 years. Since the end of Reconstruction, it has continued to be trained into our brains -- but we are now trained to be somewhat less overt about expressing it. We don’t say anymore that black lives don't matter. We just keep showing it. And the message gets through.
In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Authority. The FHA provided mortgage insurance, but only for high rated neighborhoods. The presence of a single African American made a neighborhood low rated. So while the law didn’t say, “No mortgage insurance for blacks,” the effect was the same. And private banks simply didn’t give uninsured mortgages to African Americans. A system of contract selling sprang up in which white speculators would buy a house cheap, double its price and sell it to a black family under contract terms in which the interest rates were high, the seller retained the deed until the house was fully paid for, no equity accrued, and if a single payment was missed, even if it would have been the last one, the buyer lost everything, the house and all money that had been invested in it.
“In Chicago and across the country, whites looking to achieve the American dream could rely on a legitimate credit system backed by the government. Blacks were herded in to the sight of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport.” (Coates, 2014 Jun)So if we have so-called “black on black” crime, it is because we had intentional, deliberate policies to herd people of color into proximity only with other people of color and equally intentional policies to prey on them to impoverish them.
Let me repeat some of the facts I have mentioned before – lest we forget:
In one study, thousands of identical resumes were mailed to prospective employers -- identical except only for the name. A black sounding name – say, Daunte Williams instead of David Williams – was 50% less likely to be called back. Fifty percent.
Bilking and plundering African Americans for profit and sport continues. Black car buyers are charged $700 more on average than white car buyers of the same car. When driving that car, multiple studies show that black drivers are twice as likely to be pulled over. When looking for a home, black clients looking to buy are shown 17.7% fewer houses for sale, and black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units.
Up until the recent move toward decriminalizing marijuana, penalties have been stiff. Blacks and whites used marijuana at similar rates, yet black people were four times more likely to be arrested for it. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created much harsher penalties for possession of crack cocaine, used mostly by blacks, than for a quantity of powdered cocaine, used mostly by whites, that produced similar effects.
Overall, Blacks are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.
Doctors did not inform black patients as often as white ones about the option of an important heart catheterization procedure.
White legislators – in both political parties -- did not respond as frequently to constituents with black sounding names.
When Black men open-carried firearms as the Black Panthers did in the 1960s and 70s, gun control legislation passed, and when that perceived threat was gone and whites wanted to open carry, those controls were rolled back, and white people heavily armed in public are celebrated as patriotic guardians against government tyranny.
Meanwhile, government tyranny, in the form of its police officers, is a more realistic threat to African Americans. According to ProPublica analysis last October, a young black male is 21 times more likely to be shot by police than his white counterpart.
How is it that this goes on? How can we know this, however dimly we might be aware of it, and also know relatively little is done to rectify these inequities, and not conclude that, well, black lives just don't matter much.
So that's why there hasn't been outrage all along. It's because our long history has trained us to regard injustices toward people of color as simply the normal and irrevocable order of things. Blacks as well as whites were inculcated with a tacit assumption of white supremacy.
But the same stories that inured this country eventually started waking it up.
We watch movies like “12 Years a Slave,” and are rightfully horrified, yet stories of the horrors of 19th-century slaveowners also function to reinforce the idea that racism is a conscious bias held by mean people. Today it’s an unconscious bias perpetuated unconsciously by people like most of us who see ourselves as nice people. What we finally started waking up to was that those unconscious biases have real and deadly repercussions.
I don’t know why, out of the long history of abuses, a murder in Ferguson was the one that finally triggered a movement. Apparently this nation was simply due. If Darren Wilson had never shot Michael Brown, some other senseless murder would have triggered this movement of people to say, hey, wait. Black lives DO matter. So we’ve got to stop acting like they don’t.
There’s a growing recognition among white-identified people of the privileges they -- we -- are granted. A year ago, just after a grand jury announced its decision not to bring charges for Eric Garner’s killing, a hashtag “crimingwhilewhite” began trending on twitter. White people shared experiences of how they had been treated by police. Here's a sampling:
- Arrested for DUI, cop took me to drive through ATM so I'd have money to bail myself out.
- Friend w/ suspended license gets flat tire/pulled over in someone else's car. Cop says he will use my license (passenger)
- Arrested for stealing street signs xmas eve back in high school. Probation waived as it would interfere with DRAMA CLUB.
- Exhaled blunt smoke in a cop's face as I opened my door and then told him he couldn't come in without a warrant. He left.
- Played with realistic toy guns my entire childhood, wherever we wanted.
- My 13yo son and his friends were loitering at Walgreens recently. Only his black friend got searched for shoplifting.
- Ticket for going 120. No license. Judge let me off. "You go to too good a school to be so dumb so I assume you aren't."
- I dined and dashed-cop found me at the movies, I paid the bill and he left. I was rude but not arrested and not killed.
- successfully shoplifted A LOT back in the day because nobody ever followed me around or assumed I was a risk
- Got pulled over for a brake light out. Underage and drinking and blew over the limit. Cop let me walk to my friend's apt.
- I was 20. Stopped by cop at gas station. Under the influence & underage. He flirted with me then let me drive home.
- In high school I got in a 3 car wreck that might have been my fault. The cop told me it was the "illegal alien's" fault.
- Shoplifted when I was a teenager. Was apprehended but never charged because I looked "like a good kid"
- Someone very close to me assaulted a state police officer at a traffic stop once. Was out by 9 am and later beat case.
- oh yeah the time I got picked up for the gun at school thing they let my mom come pick me up and take me home. No juvie.
We as a society have a long way to go. We Unitarian Universalists, as a people of faith, a community of conscience, have a role to play in helping that happen. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are actively making their neighbors uncomfortable. They are putting up banners that say “Black Lives Matter” on their property displayed to public view. They are doing this because if the idea that black lives matter makes a neighborhood uncomfortable, then making it uncomfortable is what we need to be doing.
Let me say that again. If the idea that black lives matter makes a neighborhood uncomfortable, then making it uncomfortable is what we need to be doing.
Are we not a people of conscience? Are we not a people who stand for something other than our own comfortable complacency?
Cornel West, in his Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 2015, alluded to the fact that white supremacy infects the consciousness of black folks as well as white folks:
"I've got a lot of vanilla brothers and sisters that walk with me and say, Brother West, Brother West. you know, I'm not a racist any longer. Grandma's got work to do, but I've transcended that. [LAUGHTER] And I say to them, I'm Jesus-loving, free, black man, and I've tried to be so for 55 years, and I'm 62 now, and when I look in the depths of my soul I see white supremacy because I grew up in America. And if there's white supremacy in me, my hunch is you've got some work to do too." (UUA Ware Lecture)