Friday, July 8, 2016

No getting around it: It's racism

Many of us are in a state of denial these days, as we read and hear about white police officers shooting young black men.  We don’t like the word racism, we don’t like to talk about it, and we especially don’t like to admit that it still exists…even in our own hearts. 

One would think that, in my first career as a broadcast journalist, I might have seen a lot of and know a lot about racism.  But that wasn’t the case.  The bulk of my local news coverage occurred in the Grand Rapids, Holland and Grand Haven markets.  In those days we could count the number of black families in Holland or Grand Haven on one hand.

No, my first real dealings with racism occurred when I tried to free a black man who had been wrongly convicted.  He was charged by a white prosecutor, was found guilty by an all-white jury, and sentenced to life in prison by a white judge.  He had been accused of shooting and injuring a white cop, and somebody of color had to pay.

While leading the fight to free Maurice Carter, I had occasion to work with black members of the cloth.  These preachers in Benton Harbor would tell horror stories about being stopped by the police for a faulty taillight, and having to get out of the car, put their hands on the roof of the vehicle, and be publicly frisked.  Even when out fishing in their nice boat, the water cops would stop them to check out everything.  If black people had an expensive boat, something must be fishy…no pun intended.

A young man known as “Bear” who had served in the U.S. military, took me around Benton Harbor.  As I drove, he pointed out shabby buildings where the little black kids went to school, compared to the nice schools across the river where the white boys and girls attended class.  He showed me the fancy, private baseball diamond where employees of Whirlpool got to play ball, and the dirty sand lot where the black kids competed.  He showed me the run down park on Lake Michigan where the blacks had picnics, as compared to the fancy white beaches in St. Joe.

Matt and I see and hear about and feel racism every day, in the year 2016, as we work with prisoners.  The American Friends Service Committee did a study showing how a disproportionate number of Michigan prisoners are black, as compared to crimes actually committed.  A report by the Center for American Progress notes that it is women — disproportionately women of color — who are the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population, increasing at nearly double the rate of men since 1985. African American women make up almost one-third of the female prison population and are incarcerated at three times the rate of white women.

It’s not just happening on the streets in Louisiana or Minnesota, either.  It’s happening way up at the highest levels in our country.  No president has ever experienced the obstructionism, scorn and derision as our nation’s first black commander in chief.  No one who is so openly bigoted has ever risen to the top of one of our major political parties.  Yet we blindly call it business as usual.

It’s here, boys and girls…not only on the local level, but right on up to the national level.  And all levels in between.  And it’s racism, pure and simple.

Rev. Al Sharpton is probably correct in saying things aren’t going to improve in the police shooting incidents until some white cops go to jail, instead of having all charges dropped.  But I think it must start with you and me. 

It’s gotta start with how we talk around the dinner table, and the things we chat about in our favorite neighborhood bar.  We must stand, and if necessary, join with our black brothers and sisters in protest.  Our church groups must make this a matter of discussion and prayer.  Our lily white church services must not just simply sing gleeful songs of praise (the cops aren’t shooting our kids!), but must also include songs of lament and prayers of confession. 

Today let’s take this stand with Dr. Martin Luther King:

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

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