Friday, September 30, 2016

True Reparations Begin in the Heart

 My brother and I were discussing reparations for slavery the other day. He was saying he believed that maybe, yes, in theory the U.S. should pay reparations for slavery but went on to name all the difficulties. "Who is going to pay for it?" he asked. The taxpayers? Did any of today's taxpayers own slaves? Who is going to receive the money? He felt that only black Americans whose families can be traced back to ancestors who were enslaved should be paid. While I tried to splutter out a response, I had no answer for overcoming all these sticky issues.

I do think reparations are important and shouldn't be entirely dismissed. Ultimately though, they will do nothing toward really healing our nation's racial divide. I believe that true healing will start with white Americans deeply examining our past and feeling real regret. I don't mean flippantly tossing out, "hey, I'm sorry black people were enslaved, I really am, but that was over 150 years ago. We need to move on."

Yes, absolutely, we need to move on but we can't until we white Americans truly, deeply feel remorse for our country's past injustices, even though we weren't there and are not responsible for what happened.

Everyone wants to point out how far we've come and it's true on one level. In the 150 years since slavery, we have come a long, long way from literally treating human beings worse than we treated our farm animals. But the progress has happened slowly, slowly, inch by inch. Somehow, over this long span of time, the magnitude of the horror and degradation black Americans have dealt with in past decades has faded in the minds of white Americans to the point that many want to dismiss it as irrelevant to our lives today. I don't believe this reaction is necessarily out of meanness. I believe that many of us, myself included, have just lost touch with other people's reality.

Not too long ago, I listened to a super informative podcast that spoke about the misunderstanding held by white people who had grown up in the 70's, 80's and 90's. It said that those people had grown up with a few black kids in their neighborhood. They saw their black friends with the same quality of house and car as themselves and believed African Americans lived that way all over the country, completely unaware that there were pockets of extreme poverty.

I recognized myself with some shock. In the 1970's, as a kid in Muncie, Indiana, living with my family on a college campus in married student housing, every one of the many black adults I knew either attended college or worked as college staff. By the time I became an adult, I had come to believe that we all have truly equal opportunities. But the truth is, policies and practices put in place decades ago, such as redlining for just one example, have made it harder for many black Americans to gain equal footing.

I'm harping on Facebook comments again but I am reading things like, "Yeah, but what about black on black crime? What about the violent, hateful lyrics of hip hop? What about black people who abuse the welfare system?" (By the by, white people abuse the welfare system, too.) Of course, these are all issues that need to be addressed. But are we really going to repair society's problems with angry retorts of, "Yeah, but what about YOUR flaws?"

I'm not a sociologist but my guess would be no.

I believe we each have to start with ourselves. Don't wait for "the other side" to go first (in my mind, much of the other side has already gone first by continuing to be cordial to us.) We white Americans need to really come to grips with our nation's past.

I feel like we have this protective wall built around our hearts. I don't know why. It's like we think that if we really realize the magnitude of the damage our country has wreaked on the lives of African Americans through slavery and Jim Crow, and we say, "my god, what have we done?" it's tantamount to taking the blame, to being personally responsible for the atrocities that occurred. Of course, we today are not responsible for the actions of people who came before us. No, I did not sell or buy human beings. You did not scream threats at black children seeking an education at your neighborhood school. We do not need to sit around feeling guilty. Yet, I do believe we need to be responsible enough to face full on what happened in the past and cry, "my god, what have we done?

Somewhere in the Bible, maybe I'll look it up before I'm finished here, but somewhere in the Bible it says the sins of the father are visited upon the sons for generations. I always thought, "Well, that's not fair, God. Why would you punish kids for what their parents did???" But I think what it really means is the natural consequences of one generation's sin will have repercussions that will negatively affect future generations. If I choose to go around lying and stealing in front of my young children, that's certainly going to negatively affect them and, depending on their response, their children as well. As a friend said to me the other day, our nation is currently suffering from the repercussions of the sins of our predecessors. We can be the generation that takes responsibility and really makes progress.

I say really because, think about it, all those slow, inch-by-inch steps toward progress were tolerated begrudgingly by most white Americans. Black Americans, with the help of some white Americans, had to fight and fight and fight for each tiny step. What if they didn't have to fight for it any more? What if love and understanding flowed freely from our hearts?

But love and understanding aren't going to flow when the heart is encased in a wall built to keep out the discomfort of any sense of responsibility. For me, tearing down that wall and taking on responsibility means giving up my conviction that I can't be any more enlightened. I need to swallow my pride and stop thinking, "but not me. I don't benefit from white privilege." I need to take a moment, maybe repeatedly, to really let the shame and horror of what our ancestors did to Africans and to African Americans soak into my heart. I need to feel terrible about it. Maybe let myself cry about it. I need to be ashamed of not noticing that systemic racism is still affecting people all around me today. Although I do need to recognize that the media is manipulating us and playing us for fools, I also need to stop reducing a large group of individual human beings to statistics that I see plastered on Facebook memes as proof that the other side is wrong and dismissible, proof that I don't need to do an ounce of changing myself. I need to stop being so quick to judge and take either side over the other.

I know my life is far too full of Facebook but I have to mention another meme I've seen. This meme is very well-intentioned, featuring kids of different skin colors and text saying something like "love is natural; hate has to be taught." I do appreciate the sentiment but I think I disagree. I think hate and fear tend to be our go-to responses toward people who seem different from ourselves. I think love and understanding and empathy have to be carefully modeled, taught and encouraged. Here's our chance.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Our Country Needs You to Show That You Care

Oh, I know! I went twenty-four hours without yammering on about something on Facebook! You probably worried (or perhaps hoped) that Mark Zuckerman himself had barred me from posting anything anywhere near your newsfeed ever again. That is not the case. The truth is, I've been busy here under The Crooked Clothesline, tryin' to untangle my knotted underdrawers which have been snappin' and flappin' in the gale-force winds of social injustice.

Yes, I said social injustice. This is not going to be my funniest blog post ever. But it will be my most passionate one.

I have been saddened, frustrated and even outraged by some of the posts and comments I've come across out on the Internet, dismissing, shaming or blasting anything to do with the slogan "Black lives matter" or Colin Kaepernick or anyone voicing the need for change in our country. The sentiments that confuse me the most are the ones that come across my newsfeed from people I know to be fellow Christians.

I have read more than one comment posted by African-Americans saying, "Stop trying to explain to white people what we're going through. It's not that they don't understand. It's that they just don't care."

Can this be true? Some of us don't care that black Americans are hurting? From what I have seen on the Internet, I am scared to death that it is true.

First, I want to say that it is a little difficult for me to speak up on any subject. I am sometimes embarrassed by the fact that I appear to be a bit of a "yes-man." However, my bad habit of readily yielding to another person's opinion is not as much from a desire to win his or her approval as it is due to a lack of confidence. I will back down in any conversation, disagreement, debate, etc. because I assume EVERYONE is wiser and more knowledgeable than I. But on this one subject I feel extremely confident in my opinion: Black Americans still have many reasons to be dissatisfied with the way they are treated in this country and white Christians are failing them.

I am speaking to white Christians because, for the most part, it's only my non-Christian white friends that I see supporting black Americans on any issue. I've known many of my non-Christian friends for a long time so I am not at all surprised to see this proof of their love and concern for people. What surprises me is the heated anger I see out on the Internet coming from people who also post memes about following Jesus Christ.

I hope that the anger and dismissal I see from white Christians is not from a lack of concern for the unequal treatment black Americans receive but rather from a lack of understanding that such treatment is still happening. And, in addition, maybe from a lack of understanding that the consequences of past injustices still reach through the generations to affect us all still today.

I commonly read comments on the Internet written by white people saying things like, "I am sick to death of hearing about slavery. The first slave owner in America was black!"


"Oh, yeah, blame whitey for all your problems. Africans sold their own people into slavery."

Let me be clear! None of my personal Facebook friends have said anything insensitive like this. But I wonder if my friends realize that people are out there saying these crazy things about and to our brothers and sisters. If we do know, then being silently disgusted by it is not enough. We need to speak up!

It needs to be said that while most cultures in the world have at some point sold and/or enslaved other human beings, this fact serves to back up the Bible's claim that all men fall short of the glory of God, rather than to excuse our country's past or current sins with a shrug of the shoulders.

Another comment I recently lifted directly from a stranger on Facebook read, "I refuse to feel guilty about slavery. It happened over a hundred years ago."

First of all, 150-some years isn't all that much time! We need to acknowledge that recovering from over 200 years of something as traumatic as slavery is going to take more than a couple handfuls of generations -- even if racism had been magically eradicated the minute Abe Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And we all know that didn't happen. Recovery has been seriously impeded by Jim Crow laws, lynchings, denial of education, and general unwarranted hatred.

Secondly, maybe none of us today need to feel guilty about our nation's history of slavery. Sitting around feeling guilty isn't productive. (Although, personally, I think if you haven't thought about slavery and Jim Crow until you feel a little bit sick, you haven't thought about it enough.) Maybe, though, we need to consider that we are all sort of victims of slavery in a way. Frederick Douglass said in his autobiography that slavery was harmful to both the enslaved person and the slaveholder. I believe that the repercussions of slavery still affect our nation today; it still affects the hearts of white Christians today.

If you still have the lingering thought anywhere in the back of your mind that, in general, black people tend to be less intelligent, less capable, less trustworthy, less productive, you are still being influenced by the lies of white supremacy perpetuated by the legislators of Jim Crow laws.

And if you can point to a particular case in which this thought appears to be true, I would again point to slavery and Jim Crow laws as contributing factors. This isn't an excuse for bad behavior but when people are consistently held back and denied job opportunities, denied education, denied basic dignity for generations, there will be some who are not going to behave, who were maybe not set up to behave, in the same ways as white people who've been told, either overtly or subliminally, that white people are smarter, harder-working, more law-abiding, etc.

Additionally, I believe it is important to stop and think about what our personal attitudes would've been had we been a part of American society sixty years ago or 160 years ago. Today, I like to think I have just the right attitude regarding race relations and that I'm always on the right side of an issue. But then I wonder what my opinions would've been if I'd been a young person in the 1950's living in a neighborhood being forced to integrate. Would I have been adamant that expecting white kids to sit side by side with black kids was just too much? Quite possibly. So, if I could've been on the wrong side of an issue back then, what makes me think I am unfailingly on the right side today? It is my opinion that all of us who call ourselves by the name of Jesus Christ need to stop measuring ourselves against our embarrassing ancestors, thinking we're much more enlightened than they were, and start measuring ourselves against the Creator of all human beings. Would he be pleased with the scathing comment we posted on Facebook today belittling Colin Kaepernick for attempting to support people who don't have the blessings he has and who are suffering from discrimination?

The Bible tells us to weep with those who weep. It doesn't say to post snarky memes insisting that they have neither the right nor a reason to weep.

Along those same lines -- and this is just my opinion but -- posting Tomi Lahren's angry, arrogant, foam-flecked video rant on Facebook is a surefire way to advertise to any of your African-American friends that you don't think their complaints are worth considering, that you believe they should just be grateful they aren't in chains anymore, and that you think just saying we believe in justice for all is plenty good enough so there's no need to back the idea up with, say, equitable jail sentences.

I am not suggesting that black Americans are always right on every single issue. They are just as riddled with flaws and weaknesses as the rest of us. I'm not trying to promote political correctness. I'm not saying that we shouldn't state on Facebook what we perceive to be the truth for fear we might appear racist or might offend people of color. I'm just saying that as representatives of Christ, as Americans who claim to be patriotic and proud of our nation's strides in Civil Rights, when we state our truth, we should do so with a little more respect for the experiences of people from a different background, with a little more effort to understand their point of view and with a little less anger. I know what you're thinking...because I've thought it myself:  of course I have respect for my black friends; of course I understand, I'm not a racist. But we need to move beyond just convincing ourselves that we respect all lives and actually demonstrate that respect by listening to what black Americans have to say about their experiences, by acknowledging that we can't possibly understand what it's like to be black in America and by offering sincere love, concern and support instead of posting a video by that ONE black guy whose rant supports our position.

We also need to remember that our black friends or even the black people we encounter on the Internet don't have control over every other African-American person in the country. One black woman had added a comment on a thread about police brutality and a livid white guy retorted, "What about all the black on black killings in Chicago and Detroit? Guess black lives don't matter unless they're being killed by whites!" The logistical problem I see here is that this woman he was answering probably isn't running around a Chicago neighborhood with an illegal firearm stuffed in her waistband. More than likely she had just kicked off her shoes after teaching third-graders or treating patients all day. She has no more control over the bad behaviors of gang members in the inner city than I do over the bad behaviors of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. So is she not allowed to have an opinion on police brutality until she singlehandedly gets gang violence under control? How was it productive for this livid white guy to throw Chicago and Detroit in her face? He has no idea how much pain these shooting statistics might cause her.

Ultimately, as followers of Christ, the pain experienced by our African-American brothers and sisters should be of far more concern to us than our traditions or our pride or our desire to see ourselves as guilt-free or our perceived position at the top of the totem pole. Are we really as concerned about the suffering of our fellow human beings as we are called to be or are we more bent on being right? We need to take a good, long look at ourselves. God already knows every ugly, secret ethnocentric thought in our hearts and he still loves us. So we don't have to be afraid of discovering those ugly thoughts for ourselves, examining them, confessing them to him and asking him to change us where he sees fit. If you are a follower of Christ, you know he will bless you and make you more like him in the process. And we all have room for more of that! The presence of people who humble themselves and ask God for listening, loving, Christ-like hearts is what will make our divided country truly great.

My son said that it would be helpful if white people could enter a simulator to experience how a person with dark skin is treated on a daily basis. I think that would be a great benefit to our entire nation! But until such a simulator exists, there are books! Below are a few of the books that have shaped my understanding. If you have read any books concerning the black American experience that have influenced you, I would love it if you'd post about them in the comments below.