An article in The Atlantic, written a cyber-century ago (August 21, 2014), before the November flames of outrage licked through North Saint Louis County, noted America’s penchant for self-segregation. White people tend to socialize with white people (91%). To a far lesser extent, black people socialize with black people (65%). The author of this article noted that this was why one’s perceptions of Ferguson were so different depending upon which side of the color line you found yourself.
This article resonated with my experience. Since the Grand Jury’s decision in the Darren Wilson case, I have heard a chorus of voices on my side of the color boundary decrying a community that has lost control of itself. The images seared into white, suburban American consciousness: a police car, and twelve businesses burning, hateful slogans intermingled with smoke and tear gas. The story of a wayward young man strong-arming a shop-keeper, and then, unimaginably attempting to assault an armed officer of the law, cause head shaking disbelief. In the midst of one of these conversations, a long forgotten memory showed up for me.
I found myself traveling back in time to a day when I engaged in some criminal behavior of my own. Slightly younger than Michael Brown was at his death (17), I took an after school trip with some friends. We drove into the country to an abandoned old two-story farmhouse. There, we altered our consciousness, and proceeded to thoroughly vandalize that property. In my reverie, I failed to notice that an old man had slipped into the house and stood two feet behind me with his pistol drawn. He was full of a righteous anger, and probably a lot of fear. His gun hand was shaking terribly. The only word I clearly remember was his name for me, “Slime!” He threatened to kill me.
He was clearly upset. I was clearly in the wrong. Looking back, I can see that this “abandoned farmhouse” may have been the place where he took his first toddling steps, ate at his mom’s kitchen table, sat under a Christmas tree. Was this a home that had been in his family for generations? It was clearly important enough to stir up an old man to confront two large, and two medium-sized high school criminals. I can’t imagine how scary that was for him. I know it was for me. By the laws of the State of Illinois, that man would have been within his rights to shoot me, but he didn’t shoot me.
Despite the amazing disregard and violence I visited upon his property, I believe the old man found some shred of common humanity with me, and was able to restrain himself from shooting. In the midst of remembering this episode, it occurred to me, “What if all the facts of this story remained the same, but I appeared to be completely “Other” to him?” “What if I was a black kid vandalizing his property with my three buddies who were also black (two of them being football player sized)?” If I were black, would he have shown me the same mercy? African American parents, unfortunate enough to have kids who have acted up like I did, have a clear answer to that question.
And this wasn’t the only illegal behavior during my high school career. When confronted by a police officer on at least two occasions, over other illegal behavior, I didn’t go to jail where I would form bonds with criminals. A rap sheet never resulted from these encounters. I didn’t have to lay on the ground. I think Michael Brown becomes a flash point for so many African American parents because they, their nephews, their sons, didn’t benefit from someone sensing a common humanity when they screwed up (eg. African Americans use and sell drugs at the same rate as whites, but are 2.5-5.5 times more likely to go to prison for the same crimes). In many instances, they would be arrested and mistreated even when they didn’t screw up. I think this is the tinder that Mike Brown and Darren Wilson sparked.
For boys like me, “The Talk,” connoted the squirmy experience when a red-faced mom or dad would stutter through a talk outlining the vicissitudes of the reproductive process. Come to find out, “The Talk” for an African American boy describes a signature experience in which a mother or father schools a boy in how to behave to decrease the chances of getting shot or arrested. “Don’t run in public places. Don’t run with something in your hand for fear you will be mistaken as a thief, or worse, that you have a gun. Don’t leave the house without identification.”
I think the crux of what I am getting in touch with, is that we still do not all play on a level field. For example, I think most of us would agree that being born into an Indian reservation is to be born into a culture that has been systemically eviscerated for hundreds of years. I’m not saying that a young Navajo can’t succeed. I am saying that realistically, he starts off with many strikes against him. Being born urban, poor, and black in this country is like being born into that Indian reservation. Born into this setting, a person has more strikes against him than my impoverished, orphaned grandpa had. These were my grandpa’s adult observations as he viewed the black experience in Central Illinois during his time. Unfortunately, my grandpa’s observations remain relevant in my time.
Without personal access to people who live on the black side of the color divide, it is hard to know the experience of a non-level playing field when it comes to law enforcement, housing, jobs, education, healthcare, safety, no grocery stores in the neighborhood, intact families…or in this case, what happens when a young black man breaks the law. Being born urban, poor, and black in this country is like being born into an Indian reservation.
Do we ignore these facts because some enraged people vandalized some property in Ferguson? Do we ignore these facts because Michael Brown was no Emmitt Till, and Al Sharpton is no Martin Luther King Junior?
A revered rabbi I know laid a little Midrash on me the other day (Midrash = Rabbinic wisdom based upon studying the first five books of the Old Testament). He noted that the Biblical Hebrew words for “dialogue,” and, “Messiah” are profoundly related to one another. On the basis of that similarity, he shared some ancient wisdom, “We believe that one way to hasten the coming of the Messiah [the first time for Jews, the second time for Christians] is to engage in authentic dialogue.” A modest proposal for Advent, then, would be to turn down the volume on those voices that would promote more self-segregation as well as misunderstanding. To engage in a more profound dialogue would be to soothe down reactivity, and to really listen to the voice of “the other.” In the words of a wise old teacher, I suspect we could all benefit from engaging our ears more, and our mouths less.
In our day, we have a Pope who named himself after a 500 year old saint from an obscure town in Italy. This Advent, perhaps we could root ourselves in that man’s famous prayer as we attempt the kind of dialogue that could usher in a “kingdom come.”
It begins like this:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is darkness, light…”
It continues like this:
“…Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be understood, as to understand….”