What Whites Can Learn from Ferguson
The recent situation in Ferguson, Missouri, has been all over the news, and it has again sparked a lot of conversation about race in America, Pastor John. It raises questions about the use of lethal force in law enforcement. From this vantage point in time right now, we hear a number of conflicting reports about what actually happened in Ferguson, but from your perspective as someone who has invested a lot of time in thinking about the trajectory of race relations in America, what are some key lessons we can take at this point?
This has been a really tough season for a lot of people after the killing of Michael Brown — unarmed, 18 years old — in a hail of bullets from a policeman. We don’t know all the facts. Yes, there are people who would like to say that, and people get really angry when you say that first.
I am just trying to learn what is going on in the dialogue, not just in the wider community but also in the Christian church. Here are three things. I want to mainly address, I think, my white fellow evangelicals and plead with them to think hard about three things that might feed in to why the black community would respond at least emotionally, if not theoretically, differently from the majority culture.
A Sense of ‘Us’
Number one: I learned this from, I think his name is Bixby, pastor Bixby, who wrote a blog about this, and it is an incredibly important principle. If you are a minority — it doesn’t have to be black, just if you are a minority living in a majority culture; so blacks in this country are 13 or 14 percent, something like that, so around them is a majority culture — the minority ethos tends to be an us, a we, a community, an identity along the lines of what defines them as the minority.
“Be aware that any time anything happens of a critical nature in the black community, there is a sense of ‘us’ that is intrinsic.”
The majority culture never has to do this. They are never even aware that they are a group. You know, when a white guy shoots a white guy, we don’t say, “Oh, white-on-white crime.” We just don’t think about it.
It is the luxury, it is the privilege of being majority. So, we need to be aware that any time anything happens of a critical nature in the black community, there is a sense of us that is intrinsic. It is reflexive. It is natural. It is understandable, precisely because of the nature of the community as a minority community. That is one of the most important lessons I have had reaffirmed as I have listened.
Past Bleeds into Present
Number two: Feeding into this event is a history, right? I mean there is slavery, and then within my lifetime a long history of Jim Crow laws (they were called), roughly coming to an end at the civil rights movement, but being ugly, horrible, and demeaning — I mean to a degree that one can hardly imagine the indignities of it.
So the long history of slavery, the long history of Jim Crow injustices and abuses, are part of the matrix of that minority self-consciousness. We have been hated. We have been abused. We have been mistreated for a long time.
And I know there are other voices who say, “Come on. If we don’t get beyond that, we won’t make any progress.” That is true. That is true. But it is not canceling out the reality of the consciousness, which we need to handle. Whites need to be aware that we never had to deal with that, and they still do. That is number two.
Patience and Listening
Number three is this: I went to church last Sunday, and I was wondering, “Is Kenny going to address the issue?” Bless his heart. He began with the issue, and then he put it in a wider context, and I was so thankful. He is just so racially, ethnically, culturally sensitive that he began his sermon that way.
And he drew attention to, along with other things — he had the names all ready, and I don’t have them all ready now — he listed, I think, five other unarmed black men who had died in the last month at the hands of police.
“Whites need to be aware that we never had to deal with that injustice, and they still do.”
Now, you don’t have all the facts with those; every one of them may be warranted in some way. But when you put a century’s long history together with a minority consciousness of us-them, together with a long history of innocent black men being lynched, and in the moment some unarmed black men being killed by people with authority, you have just got to believe and understand that when another one happens it is going to feel different. It is going to feel.
Now having said all that, I am pleading for white-evangelical patience, and understanding, and listening, right? And I know that those observations don’t warrant untrue, or ill-advised, or inflammatory talk from the black community toward the white community. And I have talked with the brothers about that.
So that is it, Tony. That is where I am in my effort to listen and understand and admonish and to be admonished. So I hope that is of some help to the majority white (especially evangelical) culture as we deal with these things.
Lead with Compassion
Yeah, thank you Pastor John. And within our circles — YRR, neo-Calvinism, whatever you want to call it — were you surprised by the amount of what some would say is a misunderstanding between blacks and whites on Ferguson? Did this come as a surprise to you?
No. I think that is going to continue to be there. And I don’t know if “misunderstanding” is the way I would have described it. Lack of empathy is what I think I would put my finger on. I said to one brother, “I am hearing what they are saying, and I am hearing true things” — they meaning the black community. “I am hearing what you are saying, and the facts I am agreeing with.”
But here is the problem. Leading with that, in this context, with a dead man on the street, against that backdrop, without some kind of effort to say that you have empathy, that you have compassion, that you have understanding — that is what is missing. And no, that doesn’t surprise me. We haven’t gotten there yet.
In fact, I think there is probably some push back on that: “Do we have to pander to this every time something comes along? Do we have to, you know, deal with those kind of emotional things?” And I would say, well, I think there is a probably a way to do it that isn’t pandering and that isn’t belittling, that isn’t dishonoring, by owning a sense of understanding and empathy.