Two more horrible images of racism were added to the national lexicon of our racial divide this week. Both have made my heart hurt this week.
The first was the killing of a young, black man in Minneapolis by a policeman who persistently ground his knee into the man’s neck as he lay handcuffed and gasping for breath on the street. How in the world are people like him still on a police force in America? Who doesn’t yet know that you can’t treat another human being this way? This. Is. Reprehensible. Yes, he and his partners should have been fired, and I hope they also stand trial for murder. Another young life is lost, and I hope we all mourn this horrible tragedy and demand better from our authorities. And I really don’t want to hear from my white friends that we have to be careful and not jump to conclusions until all the facts are in. There is no possible fact that would justify what I saw in that video. None. You can be a supporter of law enforcement and call out bad police work at the same time. In fact, you have to. What happened in Minnesota is bad policing and bad humanity. It feeds the fears of so many people that our society doesn’t care when a young black man is killed or the presumption that, of course, he must have done something to deserve it. (And if you want to find out just what kind of man the victim was, you can read about George Floyd here.)
The second image came from a lady walking her dog in Central Park. Her dog was off-leash in the Ramble, which is against park rules. When she comes upon a man bird-watching, he tells her to leash her dog. As the confrontation heats up, the man records the engagement on his phone. It’s a good thing he did, too. The lady is obviously offended at has actions and demands he turns his camera off. She even moves aggressively towards him when he doesn’t obey her. He pleads with her not to come closer. She responds by telling him she is going to call the cops. He tells her to please go ahead and do so. She warns him that she will tell them an African-American man is threatening her life. He tells her to go ahead, and she does. The video causes her to lose her job, her dog, and possibly her right ever to go to Central Park again.
It’s easy to hate on the Minneapolis police and young woman. They both made horrible choices, one costing a young man his life, the other didn’t have the same grave consequences, but grows from the same root. Before we choose sides and mount our soapboxes to eloquently argue from whatever side of the racial divide we find ourselves, perhaps it would be better to pause and see if we can learn something. It would be nice if these were just the actions of a few “bad eggs,” but the incidents themselves and how our people react to them, belie an ugly underbelly of American society where all people are not yet treated equally.
When another young, black male is killed by the outrageous actions of a police detachment, can you feel, even for a moment, what that does to the mothers of young, black men all across this country? Can you imagine what a young man feels when he is put in cuffs by the police, especially if he knows he’s innocent of their presumptions? They don’t see this as a tragic accident, but the result of a systemic unfairness to people who aren’t white. Many have already taught their sons how to be compliant and nonthreatening in the face of a police presence. They know it is likely that their sons will be treated differently than a white suspect, and often to tragic ends.
The lady with the dog in Central Park may be a fine person most other days. She was simply doing what many dog-lovers do. I’ve done it. I’ve had my dogs off-leash on mountain trails so they can have a moment to run free. I only do it when no one’s around. Occasionally, however, I’ve gotten caught by an unexpected person coming up the trail. I have always apologized profusely and leashed them quickly. I’m sure she wishes she had done that now. Instead, her life has been ruined by her willingness to use her whiteness to falsely accuse another human being based on the color of his skin. Watching it escalate, my heart hurt for her. She’s in the wrong, and she knows it. To compensate, she gets all uppity about the fact that he is filming the incident. Her racism gets unmasked when she takes a superior tone with him and rushes forward to try to put him in his place. Thankfully, he doesn’t back down, and she goes from embarrassed to feeling violated with his camera, to threatening him in hopes of gaining power in a situation where she had none.
Maybe that’s how we need to see racism. It is not only about white supremacists with hate in their hearts. Racism, at its core, is about power and what we are willing to do to gain or maintain an advantage over someone else. It subtly dehumanizes “the other” so we can treat them in whatever way is most advantageous to us. Even by making this woman a villain, we don’t have to look for the subtleties of racism in our hearts or how we might treat or perceive someone differently based on their skin color.
After losing her job and her dog, even the man she threatened has come to her defense, saying that none of us deserve judgment for the worst moment in our life. You’ve got to love his generosity when he was being judged for no reason at all. Wouldn’t it have been incredible if this had stayed a human engagement, where she would have learned something about herself and the video would never have gone viral?
I know it is difficult for many of my friends to talk about racism. We are quick to discount race and want to pretend it had nothing to do with the incident in Minneapolis. We want to pretend we’re color blind and that society is now equitable for all. These situations unmask that lie. It isn’t race-baiting to acknowledge it, nor falling in step with the mainstream media. The African-American, Latino, and Asian friends I know tell me of the situations they are presented with frequently that I’ve never had to concern myself with. They continually deal with injustices that never make it into the news. We can do better. These kinds of tragedies have to end, and they won’t if we can’t face it, learn from it, and get to know people on the other side of the racial divide so my erroneous presumptions can be dismantled.
Last week, I was in a Zoom conversation with the coauthors of A Language of Healing for a Polarized Nation and a diverse panel talking about our society’s reaction to the Ahmaud Arbery killing in Georgia. It lasted two hours as we listened to how circumstances like that affect families that aren’t part of the majority culture. I had one woman write to me afterward, sharing what she had gleaned from that conversation.
I thought so many good points were raised as the individuals felt safe to express truths that came from deep within. It struck me when Arnita said we need to tell our children that it’s wrong to kill someone because of their skin color. Just the fact that she needed to say that speaks volumes in terms of how far we have to go. I remember one man saying that his daughter asked him why they “always have to be the ones to say, ‘Sorry’”. That one got to me. The man who expressed the idea of whites giving up power by having a black person actually occupy the leadership position and how that leads to true diversity, resonated with me. Perhaps the comment that impacted me the most was from the African-American woman who shared that she knows that hearts can change because she experienced it herself. She had wanted her sons to marry girls who looked like them, but when she got to know some of the bi-racial girls in her program, her heart changed. Wow! I wanted to thank you for your part in this movement. This work is much needed, and I hope, greatly valued!
These conversations are changing me, and I’m genuinely grateful. They are the greatest joy of my work on A Language of Healing for a Polarized Nation. We wanted to put a tool in the world that would encourage people to move beyond their comfort zone and embrace those who don’t think or look like them. We’ve got to bridge the divisions in this country, especially where we can help to create a more just society for people who are being unfairly marginalized.
So, instead of reacting to news like this that reinforces our biases, maybe we could pause and learn how we can be a more generous person in a broken culture.