America is at an important place in our history. For a long time we have believed the conversation about race was behind us. With a black president and black attorney general how can anyone say we have a race problem? But if Ferguson has taught us anything it has taught us that we haven’t come as far as we though. We can try and deny it, but as President Obama said yesterday,
“There are still problems and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up… these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down. What we need to do is understand them and figure out how do we make more progress. And that can be done.”
Scrolling through your social media feeds will quickly reveal this sentiment isn’t shared by everyone. People are taking sides. On one side are those who who are talking bout race being an issue, an other the other side are those who say it isn’t about race it all.
Here’s my question. Why can’t it be about both?
Why can’t it be that Officer Wilson did his job and a horrible injustice was committed?
Why can’t it be that Officer Wilson felt the need to protect himself and that race contributed to that?
Why can’t it be that black teens are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than white teens and that police have incredibly difficult jobs?
Why can’t it be that systemic racism is real and that we as white people don’t understand what it is like to be black and that personal choices matter?
Situations are often more complex than we make them. As humans, we try and find the most simple explanation for a situation so that we can point to the problem. Confirmation bias leads us to explanations that support what we already believe about the world.
What is true about Ferguson is that it is revealing something that exists in American culture. Whether the actual shooting was about race doesn’t matter. The subsequent events reveal that race is an issue. Our black brothers and sisters are not grieving for nothing. They are not making up the pain they feel. We need to listen to what they are saying because they are saying something important. They are telling us equality isn’t real. They are telling us that not everyone experiences our society the same. They are telling us that we aren’t listening.
We need to start listening.
I need to start listening.
I know that some people will say that they don’t see race. I used to say that. I believe it was the way that I could show that I am not racist. “I don’t see race, I only see people.” That is a crock. We all see race. I notice when I am the minority in the room. I watch more words more carefully when I am around my black friends because I know that race matters.
Race matters because it impacts how we experience the world. A black man experiences the world differently than I do. But if I say race doesn’t matter then I am saying his experience doesn’t matter. That it isn’t real. That I can ignore it. That he should just get over it. Telling a person of color to get over the experience, hurt, or sense of injustice is an absolutely heartless thing to say. If I say that, I am implying that I am better and more enlightened than them because I don’t see race. It completely negates their experiences in inhibits me from showing any compassion or empathy.
If we don’t see race, then we don’t see that we have a race. If we don’t see race then we don’t see that, as white people, we don’t have to see race. If we don’t see race then we won’t see that, as white Americans, we have a certain privileges that people of color never have to deal with. We don’t get labeled lazy or thuggish or crooks or lacking values just because of our skin color. No, we need to see race to see just how much race affects our experience of the world.
This is why we need to listen. As Christians, we are called to be peacemakers and agents of reconciliation. That begins with listening. It begins by understanding the experience of others. It begins by admitting that the world we live in is not the way it is supposed to be and to stop turning a blind eye to the obvious plank in our societies eye.
Those who believe Ferguson became about race because of media coverage argue that Officer Wilson was doing his job and, as a part of his job, is required to make difficult decisions in the moment and that we should trust our law enforcement officers. They point to the altercation that led to Brown’s shooting as evidence that the shooting, while unfortunate, was a consequence of his actions. “Follow the law! Respect the authorities and this won’t happen!” is the underlying theme.
It’s time to stop saying we don’t see race. If anything, we need to see race more. We need to see it, value it, and celebrate the beauty of all the races.
We need to see race because we need to see that there is a difference. And we cannot be a part of the solution if we cannot see that there is a problem.