The racist dirge of America

When I commute by bus, I am often the only white person on it. I've been to diversity training many times and absorbed its lessons. I've had my classroom secretly subjected to a race audit -- a student who was tracking how many non-white voices were in the syllabus or cited as authorities in class. I know what redlining is.

In short, as a student and a teacher, I've been confronted about my white privilege quite consistently.

But I still needed Ferguson.

It's been hard to admit to myself. I can read statistics on incarceration rates and know my country is structurally racist. I can ponder the differences in marijuana arrests between races and know my country is structurally racist. I can walk through the Bronx and know I almost certainly won't be stopped and frisked. But I still needed the tragedy of Ferguson as a shock treatment. It's caused me to look again at every story coming across my news feed.

I should have been better before, but I wasn't. Just as Columbine changed me forever with respect to gun control -- I was a first-year high school teacher in the Denver area on April 20, 1999 -- so has Ferguson changed me and many of my generation with respect to structural racism.

It's not just a theory: a new survey from PRRI shows about a ten point change in just one year regarding racism in the criminal justice system:

The poll's findings apply across the board. While young adults saw the most dramatic shift toward acknowledging racial disparities in the criminal justice system, everyone else — seniors and Republicans included — saw a significant change as well. Notably, a majority (51 percent) of white Americans now appear to agree that there are some racial disparities in the criminal justice system, up from 42 percent just one year ago.

For young adults, the change was over twenty percent since last year.

In the aftermath of Michael Brown's shooting, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates's Atlantic cover story about reparations with a completely different receptivity than I would have before. It's all worse than I ever thought, and I'm sorry I didn't know.

I believe America is a holy place. But our original sin is racism, and we are not redeemed.

The evidence is everywhere, but just today more shocking examples were revealed. In South Carolina, a black man was shot at close range for following the order to get his drivers license, which was in his car. Even after getting shot, he still called the white officer "Sir." 

But to me, the most horrifying example in this awful trend is the surveillance video of the shooting of John Crawford.

If you don't recall, Mr. Crawford was killed last month in a Walmart in Ohio. He was carrying an (unloaded) air rifle. It was for sale at the store, and he was carrying it around, while talking to his partner (and mother of his two sons) on a cell phone.

Reports of his behavior were conflicting after the event. Was he waving it around? Aiming it at people? If so, why was only one person -- Ronald Ritchie, the 911 caller -- alarmed by the behavior? Why did a mother and her two children share an aisle with the supposedly dangerous Crawford?

The video shows Crawford's final moments. He is on the phone, casually swinging the air rifle at his side, as anyone might. It's something I could see myself doing.

When the police arrive, he shows no sign that he has heard them -- recall that he's talking on the phone, oblivious to the fact that someone has called in the police. Rather, the police surprise him and fire upon him. He died shortly after -- as did that mother, Angela Williams, who went into cardiac arrest at the shock of the event.

Despite the two unjustifiable deaths, a grand jury has decided not to indict the officers.

Did I mention that Ohio is an "open carry" state? It's especially relevant when you consider what a white man can do in an open carry state with a gun -- a real one.

In Tennessee, Leonard Embody likes to strap on a bullet-proof vest and his assault rifle to walk around. Last week he decided to visit Hillsboro High School and roam the perimeter with his rifle and a video camera affixed to his chest.

"A school is a prime place to be able to hand out my leaflets and educate children that guns aren't dangerous as people think they are. Certainly a man carrying a gun doesn't mean they're going to get shot," he said. [...]

"I don't think I look terrifying. Other people may think I look terrifying, but that's in their own minds and that's something they should deal with ... with maybe a psychologist," Embody said.

The contrast would be worthy of satire if it were not so tragic. A white man can wear a bullet-proof vest and carry a real assault rifle around the perimeter of a school. It gains him free publicity for his bizarre cause. A black man carries a BB gun (for sale by the store) around a few of its aisles and is shot on sight, from the side, by police.

Our country is not alone in being founded on the backs of slaves. But it may be unique in systematically educating white children to forget about this, even while the structural racism continues in daily violence.

As civil rights pioneer Pauli Murray wrote in Dark Testament:

This is our portion, this is our testament,
This is America, dual-brained creature,
One hand thrusting us out to the stars,
One hand shoving us down in the gutter.
 
Pile up the records, sing of pioneers,
Point to images chipped from mountain-heart,
Swagger through history with glib-tongued traditions,
Say of your grass roots, “We are a hard-ribbed people,
One nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

...

Tear it out of history books!
Bury it in conspiracies of silence!
Fight many wars to suppress it!
But it is written in our faces Twenty million times over!

We will lay siege, let thunder serve our claim,
For it must be told, endlessly told, and you must hear it.
Listen, white brothers, hear the dirge of history,
And hold out your hand—hold out your hand.

If white Americans need a testament by which to atone for our nation's original sin, we can start with this. It's a dark testament.

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Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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