My problem with Ferguson

Earlier this week, Attorney General of the United States Eric Holder, visiting the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri after days of unrest following the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer, made a statement that perfectly illustrated the racial divide in today’s America.

Speaking to a group of local college students, he declared, "I understand that mistrust…I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man." He went on to describe encounters he had in the past with law enforcement where he was stopped and his car searched, purportedly because he was speeding, or where he was stopped and questioned while running to catch a movie.

The reactions to his statement couldn’t have been more different. Blacks and those who believe systemic racism is still a significant problem in America nodded their heads in assent, while others railed against the Attorney General for “taking sides” when his role as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States is to pursue justice without consideration of race.

Much of what we are seeing today happened during the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, and the Attorney General made similar comments at that time. The President of the United States echoed those sentiments with his now infamous statement, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”

Polls taken during the apex of both events show that black and white Americans see the world very differently, and that dichotomy is also illustrated in social media, where the debates are heated and often devolve into name-calling and accusations of racism from both sides. Sweeping generalizations are made about police officers, black people and white people, and some of the language used as weapons in the rhetorical war fails to acknowledge that those with whom we disagree are even human.

As a person of color, I am very disturbed by these events, but not for the reasons you may think.

The polls and pundits all tell me that, because I am a black man, I have a target painted on my back, I am a victim of an inherently racist culture, law enforcement is biased against me, and our predominantly white-run society favors white people at my expense, even as they go about their daily lives unaware of their own racism.

Except I don’t feel that way. Not even one iota. And that frustrates me.

It bothers me to read the comments on social media which fail to acknowledge the people of Ferguson as human, yet I am equally aggravated by those in the community who seem to think the instances of criminal activity occurring under the cover of protest are justified, and the spoils are their due for centuries of mistreatment.

To me, it is demeaning for people to speak on our behalf as if we are children or pets, incapable of reason or distinguishing between right and wrong, acting out in response to external forces as if God passed us over when He was granting man a soul.

Then there is the narrative of “white privilege”, which claims white people are favored in society as a whole, and have been for generations, because of their skin color. My white conservative friends become particularly exorcised about this claim, because many of them have had, or continue to have, difficult lives, and don’t feel particularly favored. They see the use of “white privilege” as a bludgeon to cast guilt and shame on them for a crime they neither endorsed nor have committed.

Most disturbingly, there are Christians who, in their desire for reconciliation and unity, embrace the narrative of systemic racism in America, eliciting howls of disapproval from other Christians who do not subscribe to the notion of collective guilt or bearing the sins of their forefathers, but believe each individual should bear either the credit or the blame for their attitudes or actions.

I observe all of this with a sense of discontent because, despite my race, I harbor no animus toward anyone based on perceived privilege – if anything, I feel that I have had a privileged life compared to most people, black or white - and I don’t believe that racism in America is systemic or even the most prevalent problem facing black Americans in the 21st century.

Before you jump to conclusions, however, I recognize that, for reasons only God knows, I have been spared the ignominy of being questioned by authorities simply because I was going about my business in a place they believed I didn’t belong. I’ve not felt the weight of poverty, substandard education or reduced employment opportunities that so many in black enclaves across America bear. I’ve never lived in a ghetto or a housing project, essentially open-air prisons where one takes his or her life into their own hands when they step outside the door. I can’t imagine living in an environment where hope has been suffocated, and I don’t know what I would believe or feel had I grown up in such an environment.

Have I experienced racism? Yes, but I can count the incidents of which I was aware, and those which I’ve acknowledged in retrospect, on one hand. Did they anger me at the time I experienced them and knew them immediately for what they were? Absolutely. Did they ultimately stop me from achieving my objectives? No. I didn’t hold onto them until they festered and infected my soul beyond redemption. I dealt with them, resolved them, and moved on, and I assigned responsibility solely to those who had wronged me, not everyone who looked like them.

As a Christian, my faith is the source of my hope and strength, and my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who understands hate, persecution and punishment simply for being who He is, commands me to love and forgive others as He loves and forgives me, and so that’s what I do. Acknowledging, as He did, that there is evil in the hearts of man, but that man is also made in the image of God, I engage people individually with humility and grace, no matter how they respond to me.

After all, I am no different. I am, as Blaise Pascal wrote, “the pride and refuse of the universe”. He warned:

It is dangerous to make man see too clearly his equality with the brutes without showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make his see his greatness too clearly, apart from his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. But it is very advantageous to show him both. Man must not think that he is on a level either with the brutes or with the angels, nor must he be ignorant of both sides of his nature; but he must know both.

Frankly, I’ve read a lot of statements in social media where each side is equating the other “with the brutes” and refusing to acknowledge that they are equally the image bearers of God. That is why I think social media, despite all the good things we can do with it, is poisoning civil discourse – but that’s a topic for another day.

There are other steps I take to inoculate myself against racial hatred, either as a recipient or a contributor. As a practical and spiritual matter, I do my best to do those things which increase the odds of success in life, and I dwell on the good, the true and the beautiful:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things. ~ Philippians 4:8

I got an education, worked my way up in the labor market, obeyed the law, married first and then had children, and I showed respect and deference to everyone, the latter influenced significantly by my upbringing as a military dependent and a veteran. For the most part, being a good citizen and a good neighbor have worked for me.

Here’s the thing, though. I could have done all of these things and still been subjected to the humiliation and shame of racism and discrimination. I know plenty of black professionals who “played by the rules”, yet were still relegated to inferior status by whites, individually or institutionally, and they are bitter and cynical as a result.

I don’t know why I’ve been spared, but I believe in a God who is purposeful, and whose plan will be realized, even though we can’t see or understand it. I know this because, in hindsight, I can see what He had to do to make me who I am today, even those things which hurt me and caused me to question His love, and it makes sense to me. Through experience, temperament and the gifts and abilities he’s given me, He wants me to be a part of His plan, and He has purposefully shielded me from egregious or persistent acts of racism that have debilitated or even ended the lives of others.

So how do I convert that personal blessing into something that can help the country and the people I love?

The problem I have with Ferguson, and Trayvon Martin, and all the other incidents like it, is that I don’t know how I can be a voice for racial reconciliation because, in the eyes of those who feel the sting of racism, I cannot relate to their experiences and, therefore, I have no credibility with them. Meanwhile, white society looks to my success and demeanor, and expects that all black Americans can and should emulate me, even though I have largely been, as I describe in my book, an innocent bystander in the race wars, and I can’t persuade them that the indignity many blacks experience simply because they are black is very real and difficult to dismiss.

My constant prayer is that God will show me my role, if I’m to have one at all, in bringing healing to my land. In the meantime, I will continue to love others as Christ loves me, not because I’m patronizing or absolving one group or the other, but because it’s what He commands, and I must obey. Don’t expect me to issue blanket excuses or condemnations of black or white people. Every soul has its own unique imprint, but all souls are made in the image of God. That means that every person, black or white, deserves to be treated – and judged - as an individual, but also as the pinnacle of God’s creation:

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them…God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. ~ Genesis 1:27, 31