EDTOR’S NOTE: Today’s guest post is from Dr. Linda Thomas, Professor of Theology and Anthropology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. She blogs regularly at “We Talk. We Listen.”, where this post first appeared.
These are the words that describe how I feel about the recent deaths of two black men at the hands of police and now the murder of five law enforcement officers in Dallas and three more in Baton Rouge.
I can’t breathe. I am suffocating.
Can someone breathe for me?
Can we breathe together?
My mind, body, spirit and soul are in a state of trauma today. The sickening volume and frequency with which acts of deadly violence are perpetrated upon black citizens by law enforcement has become incompatible with a healthy state of living.
The 14th anniversary of my nephew’s death after being “handled” by police has come and gone this past July 5th. The tsunami of emotions I experienced back then have come rushing back as though there was only a temporary reprieve in the deadly wave.
Please hear me from the core of my being. This is the wakeup call for the United States of America. Until whites in this country can even conceive of what it’s like to lose a loved one at the hands of those entrusted with our protection, then nothing will ever change. We will continue to have the tragic events of recent days play on a dreadful loop.
Until the lives of black people and brown people in this country are valued, this unsettled and agitated environment we are currently living in will not end. Will a compassioned response from lawmakers come only if their children fall victim to the violence that has plagued non-whites in this country? Or will shallow human empathy coupled with empty rhetoric continue?
That our country is divided on the issue of race is an understatement. African Americans live with this reality in our everyday lives, whether it is a black mother worrying about her son, a daughter worried about her father, or a sister worried about her sister.
We live with the ever-present knowledge that those who are supposed to protect us may in fact end up killing us when we are pulled over for a routine traffic stop. We know that we may be stopped for “driving while black” or verbally accosted as we “walk while black.” This is our experience in and America, and now we live with the burden and fear that because police officers have now been shot and killed, the situation will become even more dire for people with black and brown skin.
This is what I know: “Until the children of black women, black women’s sons, are as important as the children of white women, white women’s sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.” These words are from Ella’s Song written by Bernice Johnson Reagan, one of the legendary vocalists in a black women’s a capella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock. Unfortunately we can only infer what “until” means. In the meantime we continue to suffer “until” justice finally rests upon us.
Our problem as a nation goes back to slavery and the unresolved social inequality that is perpetually embedded in institutions—the criminal justice system is one of those institutions, as is the church and the family. Theologian James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree examines the sin of racism in America, which has been reinforced by the white churches’ that have remained silent rather than stand up against the structures the keep black people at risk.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s “America’s Ethicist” did not deal with the issue of race. When he did, his response was similar to that of other white pastors who claimed that the protests that Dr. King had been leading in Alabama were “unwise and untimely.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. responded with the Letter from the Birmingham Jail where he wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He reasoned that people have to take direct action rather then wait for the justice system to render justice. So, it seems to me that of all people seeking justice based on morality, it would be Christians. I hear regularly that “all people are children of God.” “I don’t see race.” “We are siblings.” I think that the unstated reality is that black Christians are treated as stepchildren by white Christians.
We are treated as children of a lesser God. Black lives really don’t matter to the majority of Christians. So, I don’t look for America to wake up because it did not when Ida B. Wells wrote “Lynch Law”…
Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal.
This brutal and inhumane history is not taught to children; nor is Frederick Douglass’ timeless July 4th speech given in 1852. So, yes as Jennifer Harvey writes in her book, “Dear White Christians…” the first step is repentance.
We know that racism is a sin, but what still needs to be confessed is that despite the pain of black people from slavery forward, white police garner sympathy and the benefit of the doubt first.
We always have to investigate what happened when no similar investigation is needed as ISIS attacks Americans! Yes, I said it: the fear that America has about ISIS is the same fear that black people have of the law enforcement system. The report written by a special commission stated very clearly that the Chicago Police Department’s issue was racism and what the African American community had been reporting regarding this matter was correct.
Sadly, very little has changed in the city of Chicago. Black lives are lost in significant numbers every weekend, but there’s not an outcry from whites because it is black people. If we were siblings why would those with white skin privilege not leverage it to support black people who live in fear of black-on-black violence as well as white police violence against black and brown bodies?
We don’t hear much about black police killing white people or black police killing black people for routine traffic stops. I have heard black female police officers say that they feared white police colleagues.
One thing that is certain, our lawmakers have a serious task before them in uncoupling the NRA from its cozy proximity to our elected officials. The profit that exists from the manufacture and sale of weapons in this country is untenable. The resulting violence and loss of life is also at a breaking point.
This cannot be the new normal.
Can we breathe together?