We who believe in freedom cannot rest;
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.
It’s been stuck in my head for the last several days, since before the non-indictment came down in Ferguson, but I’m not sure it’s my song to sing. I question whether my voice – yet another middle-aged, middle-class white liberal voice – is usefully raised at this time, on this issue, under these circumstances.
My small New England town is not on fire; my streets are not filled with demonstrators and police action. The crowds that slow traffic here have been more immediately concerned with inclement weather or stuffing and cranberry sauce or hot deals on cool merchandise than equality and justice. The events in Ferguson, MO would seem abstract and remote, were it not for the internet. I have had the luxury of time and the privilege of distance, and it seems therefore that I have also the responsibility of giving the matter of systemic racial injustice some considered reflection.
But for me it is interwoven with so many things that I struggle to tease out a fragile edge from which to start. Every event happens in context – derived from the events that pass before it, contributing to the events that follow it – and I am part of that context and come from my own context as well. Sometimes the right thing to do is to listen more than to talk, to bear witness to the unfolding of the world, to another’s suffering, to the story that is greater than the larger of its parts.
It’s not about the individual data points, the litany of names and places that are but a sample of those incidents of police violence against men of color, particularly Black men. I hear other white folks argue sometimes that this one or that one wasn’t really about that – and what it most reminds me of are the people who argue against anthropogenic climate change by coming up with a perfectly plausible reason why this time or that time it wasn’t so. I want to pound on the pulpit and yell some. It’s not about the data points, but the pattern they reveal when viewed at some remove: like a Seurrat or a Monet, all dots and splotches up close, but caught in a glance from the far end of a gallery the image jumps out, water lilies, or a fine walk in the park.
We must learn to see, to feel, to perceive, to experience the whole that is greater than the aggregate of its parts. And by we I mostly mean us culturally-white, college-educated, English-speaking, middle-income liberals for whom most of the American system mostly works most of the time. When the system generally works for people like you, it is easy to assume that the system generally works.
I want to write about Ferguson, MO. But my heart is drawn to Tulsa, OK and the class I attended there earlier this month – about which I had intended to blog, but the world has been moving faster than I can write about it. Part of our preparatory work for the class involved some study of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre or Race Riot – even the language of naming the event carries implicit systemic bias. It is a story better told by voices other than mine. It is a story that echoes.
Because none of this, none of this is new. It breaks my heart to say that none of this is new. It’s the kind of thing that is so wrong, you want it to be a one-off, an anomaly; you want to not see the pattern that starts jumping out from the dots. The uprising sparked by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO is the latest manifestation of a systemic sickness that goes back generation upon generation, implicitly modeled even when not explicitly taught. I carry it, you carry it: systemic racial bias – racism – is woven into the cloth of American culture and can only be picked out individual thread by individual thread. It is hard work that will never be complete.