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Keeping the Lens in Focus: Becoming an Ally in Anti-Racism

Photograph by Sylvia Jarrus

In the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery’s deaths, I found myself going back and unearthing an article I wrote three years ago when Saint Louis’ attention was riveted on the same set of issues. I share an excerpt from it because, unfortunately, the lessons from that time remain relevant.

“Saint Louis, MO: the New Jerusalem

On the day after The Feast of the Triumph of the cross, Saint Louisans found themselves, once again, in the shadow of the cross. Jason Stockley, a former police officer, was found innocent of First Degree Murder in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith, an African American. Just like three years ago in Ferguson, Missouri, there were protests. Once again, the world found a tiny peep hole through which our community, could be displayed in all of our sloppiness. The great Twentieth Century theologian, Karl Rahner, said that if you want to see where salvation history intersects with human history, look for the cross. We in Saint Louis seem to be camped out at the foot of it.

Unlike Socrates who took his death-penalty vile of hemlock and went to his demise philosophizing serenely with his students, Jesus death wore the smudge and smell of the humanity that he took up thirty-two years earlier. He wept. He begged for death to pass him by. “My God, My God…” he screamed. Out of all of this sloppiness, somehow resurrection came to pass, and an opening wide enough for all of us to pass through came with it. Like childbirth, somehow the sloppiness of our suffering and humanity is the royal road to breakthroughs to new life.

For those of us who live a suburb or two removed from the protests in the city, it is hard to observe the daily results of centuries of racial injustice percolating, just below the surface. Every-so-often, like the tip of an iceberg, something like Friday’s verdict surfaces, and along with it, the birth pangs of something that is trying desperately to be born. For those who look through the tiny peep hole of the media, we see a first degree murder case that was decided in favor of a defendant, because the steep mountain of“beyond reasonable doubt” could not be submitted by a judge.

For those with eyes to see, there is the 85% of the iceberg that supports every manner of mischief in our community. For those willing to widen their gaze, they see decades of racial steering that created ghettoes of people unable to produce a tax base robust enough to fuel excellent education, leaving generations of people stuck in soul-disintegrating, family-splitting hopelessness. Violence and crime endemic to these communities produce PTSD in many of the children inhibiting educational performance, and leading to the kinds of things that soldiers’ families report upon their return home (eg. depression, anxiety, panic attacks, increased aggression, domestic violence). Neighborhoods like these don’t attract many businesses or even grocery stores. A depressing self-feeding cycle sets in. In the face of all of this, for those with eyes to see, in these same neighborhoods, tremendous generosity, neighborliness, and resilience also occur on a daily basis.”

Three years after writing that article, I find myself catching up to a phrase that used to make me bristle, “white privilege.” I have now come to embrace it. For those of us who enjoy white privilege, living a suburb or two removed from the protests in the city, it is hard to even get a glimpse of the daily results of centuries of racial injustice percolating, below the surface for some (read white middle class), out in the open for others (read black people of every class). Every-so-often, like a family secret, something like George Floyd’s killing exposes the truth from which we so readily avert our suburban eyes. And like a family secret, many (myself included) struggle to explain it away, re-ignore it, defend against it, and return to whatever we have defined as normal. All the while, our black brothers and sisters, who suffer the oppression of that secret, bear its weight on their bodies, in their central nervous systems. A really kind friend of mine recently said, “When it comes to these issues of race, why can’t we just move forward, and quit focusing on the past?” I was immediately reminded of William Faulkner’s famous quote, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”

The unseen impact of the GI Bill allowed my dad, the son of a coal miner, to get a college education. This, in turn, provided the opportunity for a middle class life including excellent education for my siblings and me. Black soldiers of my father’s time were not provided this benefit. The house that my dad purchased with a sweet post-war mortgage with favorable interest rates provided equity, which in turn, provided credit for my dad’s entrepreneurial genius to flower. Such mortgages were unavailable to black families. Even if they weren’t steered by realtors away from neighborhoods like ours, the mortgages they were allowed to purchase were stingy and precarious. These draconian mortgages often led to foreclosures. Even when they did not result in a foreclosure, it was difficult with these agreements to build up substantial equity, like my dad did, to move a family into the middle class with all of the blessings of education, security, and self-esteem that came with it. Even if someone wanted to leave neighbors and family behind to move to a safer place, it was impossible.

I have spoken with a black administrator of a large Saint Louis health care institution who describes the night he was forced to spread across a car as he was searched on his way to being arrested. The police discontinued the arrest only when some white colleagues who happened to be walking by attested to his innocence. I have spoken with black students who describe regularly being stopped by security whenever they are walking unaccompanied by white colleagues on campus. Every black person I have ever known has stories like this to tell, not from decades ago, but right here in the current time zone. The past has a way of not staying in the past.

Karl Rahner’s insight about the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God matches the thought of Martin Luther King Junior. As such, this current moment of upheaval can be viewed as a creative moment. Something is desperately trying to be born right now. How can we participate in the in-breaking of the Kingdom in this place, to midwife an in-breaking of new life? One way to midwife the Kingdom would be to insist upon a wide angle lens view of the situation unfolding across our country. It is important to keep the frame of our ever-present history in mind. There is an historic logic to the unfolding events, that if kept in mind, can assist us in holding onto our compassion, which in turn can move us past our defensiveness. The surest heuristic principle to guide the interpretation of scripture, tradition, history, and moral questioning is that of compassion. The confusing thing for so many of my white, middle class friends and me (including police), is that very, very frequently, there is no conscious desire to be racist, or perpetuate racism. We benefit from a racist system, even though we don’t espouse
racism. Keeping that wide angle-lens view of the historical context that is still with us creates space for courageous conversations, which in turn can lead to courageous actions, which in turn can transform unjust systems like community policing, the justice system, the healthcare system, the educational system, the real estate system, and more. To see that we all participate in systems where some of us can take for granted basic rights and the benefit of the doubt, while others of us, terrifyingly, can count on neither, is the beginning of the labor pains necessary for something new to be born.

One Response to Keeping the Lens in Focus: Becoming an Ally in Anti-Racism

  • Kathy Buchheit says:

    I love your image of midwife. This is one who stands present embracing the whole and welcoming new life. The midwife does not judge, yet offers insights, provides a safe environment – one full of compassion. The path may have many deviations and plans may require readjustment, reframing. It takes patience and waiting. Newness emerges.

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