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Racial Justice: For White People Who Want to Do Something

Michael Brown.

Eric Garner.

Tamir Rice.

Freddie Gray.

Cynthia Hurd. Susie Jackson. Ethel Lance. Depayne Middleton-Doctor. Clementa Pinckney. Tywanza Sanders. Daniel Simmons. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Myra Thompson.

Sandra Bland.

Samuel DuBose.

Friends, it’s been a heavy year and we’ve had much to grieve. Our sanctuaries and worshipping communities have held space for lamenting our loss, uncomfortable learnings about white supremacy, but unfortunately, devoted very little action to racial reconciliation. Many of us are trapped by white guilt and white fragility–paralyzed from acting by the fear of doing it wrong and revealing that though we desperately want to build God’s beloved community, our subconscious thoughts and actions are shaped by racial biases.

So instead, we work to educate ourselves about white privilege. We teach a Sunday School class on The New Jim Crow. However, at the end of the course–when the media frenzy surrounding the latest instance of police brutality against a person of color dies down–passions fizzle out and we put our work for racial reconciliation on hold until the next grave injustice garners our attention again.

Here is a proposal–hardly unique–that we hope will build accountability and momentum for moving past the white fragility where many of us get stuck. It’s simple: reverse the order. Instead of beginning with education and research with the hope of discerning how best to act, begin with the action to generate the energy needed to continue moving.

Act. Hold a prayer vigil. Collaborate with local racial justice groups in a parade or demonstration. Partner with a neighboring black church for a mission project and relationship building. Audit your church’s children’s library and add books until 50% of characters are represented as non-white. (Then move on to the adult library and add books until 50% of the authoring theologians are non-white.)

Reflect. Evaluate your action. Discern directions for what comes next. Grapple with addressing your own racial biases. Find the gaps in your education and follow your curiosity to begin learning more.

Educate. (We like to think we’re great at this!) Begin filling in those gaps. Research and lay the groundwork for your next action.


To help you get started, here are some resources for each phase:

ACTION: Do something concrete.

  • If you’ve ever thought, “If I weren’t so busy, I’d have time to do something about race,” Showing up for Racial Justice has action tool kits that conveniently lay out actions that you can take based on time commitment. If you have 2 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, or more, SURJ has suggestion for how you can make the best use of your time do something.
  • For a more holistic approach, Laura Cheifetz’s blog post outlines eight concrete ways to address racism, from shifting your news source to supporting black businesses to hiring a consulting firm to partner with your congregation for training.

REFLECTION: Take some time to process and evaluate.

  • This NEXT Church resource runs through the basics of an IAF-style evaluation. In this instance, your “big picture” goals may have been “show solidarity and support” or “further develop relationships and foster understanding.”
  • Our blog topic in June 2015 was Contemplation and Social Justice–here is a list of all posts. Contributors from the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. shared reflections on their experiences of race and the transformative power of contemplative practices. These authors model how to integrate faith and action with making sense of racial oppression. (Intimidated by the list? Try starting with For what shall I pray?)

EDUCATION: After doing something and reflecting on that experience, where does your curiosity lead you?

  • For the novice: Have a burning question about race? Ask a white person. This site is run by a group of experienced racial justice anti-oppression educators for peer-led discussion. While tempting, it isn’t fair to turn to our POC friends and colleagues and ask them to shoulder the burden of educating white folks by sharing their experiences of oppression. Is there a time and a place for meaningful sharing and discussion around racial justice? Absolutely. But do your research first. This is a great place to start.
  • For the group learner in need of structure: There is a free online class taking place in August. It’s an introductory course covering systematic racism, white privilege, racial bias, and being a good ally. Learn more and sign up here.
  • For the independent learner: In the wake of the massacre in Charleston, an academic twitter conversation (#CharlestonSyllabus) emerged for folks trying to make sense of the tragedy by studying its historical context. This is a list for voracious readers and historians that covers a wide range of topics from the specific context of race in Charleston — colonial times through reconstruction and the civil rights movement–to systematic white supremacy, and even how to talk about race with children. (And for those of you who would rather watch documentaries than read thick tomes, there is an similar film syllabus as well!)

What other resources for ACTION, REFLECTION, and EDUCATION would you add to our list? Let us know.

Breathe on Me Lord; I Can’t Breathe

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Rosalie E. Norman-McNaney

Breathe on me, Breathe of God, Fill me with life anew,

That I may love what Thou dost love,

And do what Thou wouldst do.

“Breathe on me, Breath of God by Edwin Hatch (1842-1914) Composer Robert Jackson (1842-1914) Composer Lockhart (1745-1815).

I usually begin a spiritual direction session by inviting a directee to focus on his/her breath as we begin a time of silence. Focusing on one’s breath is a way to become centered in the moment, during a meditation practice, so that we can be attentive to the moving of the Holy Spirit within our lives. As we attend to each moment of inhaling a deep breath and then slowly releasing it, we can experience the easing of the tension within our physical bodies and the scattered thoughts jostling within our minds. The spiritual discipline of focusing on our breath is also a reminder of Genesis 2:7, when God breathed the breath of life into Adam and then to Eve bringing forth life.

Recently, our nation has been reminded of the importance of human breath from those whom the breath of life has been extinguished due to injustice. On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, 17, was fatally shot by George Zimmermann in Sanford, Florida. Trayvon was unjustly profiled as dangerous because he was wearing a hoodie and Black in a neighborhood that Zimmerman believed Blacks did not belong.

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot by a white police officer who suspected the youth of a recent robbery and of carrying a weapon. Millions watched the unbelievable actions of New York City police officers holding Eric Garner, 43, in a choke-hold on Staten Island on July 18, 2014. “I can’t breathe,” Garner gasped, as officers held him down and repeatedly banged Garner’s head on the hard pavement. Garner was arrested for resisting arrest and for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner’s body went lifeless, and he was dead on arrival (DOA) to the hospital. Eric Garner was also Black.

The most recent example of injustice was Freddie Gray Jr., 25, who was arrested for allegedly carrying an illegal switch blade. Gray died on April 21, 2015, as a result of unnecessary force used against him, resulting in a spinal cord injury. In addition, Gray was not correctly secured inside a police van while being transported to the police station. Gray also said “I can’t breathe.”

Gray’s life ended due to the actions of six police officers. It was later found that Gray did not have a switchblade. He had a knife that is lawful under Maryland law. It was the type of knife that millions of men of all races carry every day throughout our nation. Unrest, protesters, and riots broke out after each of the deaths of the Black youth and men previously mentioned. Each demonstration echoed loud and clear the same sentiment of injustice and violation of civil rights. Mothers, fathers, spouses, and children moan their loss of loved ones, and we are yelling and shouting individually, corporately, and as a nation, “I can‘t breathe;” We can’t breathe.

The violence and injustice we are facing today is far from the dream that The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had spoken of on August 28, 1963. This is not the dream we had hoped would end racism and the inequality of Blacks and others not of the dominant culture. Instead, there is a noose of injustice and racism cutting off the air of our Black youth and men, and we have been jolted out of our dream state to face a civil rights crisis and a complete reversal of what we had all hoped would bring peace and new life. Instead, the breath of some human beings is being cut off because of their color. The recent violence against our Black youth and men has ignited the racial and injustice conversation again. A pertinent conversation to get to the root of racism, which is a deep societal wound that has long been bandaged over, is essential for all of us. The worn bandages are peeling away and falling off as new forms of racism are introduced into society. These new systems are strategically being carried out through a set of laws that unfairly tips the scales of justice in support of destroying our Black youth and men.

The “Stop and Frisk” practice that allows police to stop an individual who may be suspected of carrying a weapon has been inappropriately used to restrict civil liberties rather than for the prevention of crime. It is sadly assumed that our African American men and most others outside of the dominant culture are all dangerous and are most likely to commit a crime. The media has long perpetrated the negative views about African Americans and specifically Black men and youth. This continues to cause a divide to the point that society does not distinguish between one person of color from another. Fear and suspicion is cast over all Blacks instead of seeing people as individuals. The portrayal of Blacks and others outside of the dominant culture as dangerous, as demonstrated in the cases previously cited above, consequently profiles our Black and minority youth and men in a negative light.

Michelle Alexander, social activist and author of the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarnation in the Age of Colorblindness, uses the analogy of Jim Crow laws to show that the old racial caste system has just been redesigned as a mass racial incarceration system for blacks and Latinos. Alexander challenges the view that, by electing President Obama, a Black President, we are living in an era of colorblindness. Instead, Alexander speaks to the caste system that keeps our Black youth and men, and all others, disenfranchised through a racial incarceration caste system that relegates them to second class citizenship. Alexander calls us all to action to bring about change.

As Christians, believing that we are each made in the image of a loving God, we cannot turn away and breathe within our own safety zone. We are all affected, especially those of us whom are Black and others outside of the dominant culture with sons, spouses, brothers, fathers, uncles, neighbors, friends, and coworkers. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, “…injustice anywhere is threat to justice everywhere.” We must all be prayerful, speak up, and advocate for justice for all.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Until my heart is pure, Until with Thee I will Thy will,

To do and to endure.

Closing Prayer:

Lord, help us to be new; breathe on us God. Breathe courage and peace within and instill in us the willingness to breathe out the racism that has hold of our country and bring new life. Help us to be free from our own biases and to be reconciled through Jesus Christ. Move us to peaceful actions that bring about change, so that we can breathe the breath of New Life. Amen.


 

Rosalie Norman McNaneyRev. Rosalie E. Norman-McNaney is an ordained American Baptist minister, spiritual director, and hospice chaplain in Central Florida. She is vice manager of the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Norman-McNaney is committed to sharing the transformational love of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in ministry with all people regardless of race, culture, ethnicity, language, age, sexual orientation, and or ability.

A “Hardened, Hurting” Homecoming

By Marranda Major

There was a commotion this morning at my bus stop. A man waved his arms furiously and jumped up and down to catch the attention of a young man walking on the opposite side of the street. When the boy crossed to join the crowd at the bus stop, the man embraced him and other elders patted the boy emphatically on the back. The boy smiled in acknowledgement and continued on his way. Another curious bystander asked, “Who was that?”

“A son of our community, come home,” answered the man.

He told us how he had watched the young man grow up in our neighborhood—a good student and star soccer player who had gotten a job at sixteen to support his mother and grandparents. “He disappeared three years ago. We knew he was in jail but were in disbelief—he was such a good kid.”

“He’s changed,” said another woman, “You can see in his face that he’s hardened, hurting.”

I don’t know this young man’s story. I don’t know his name or his charges or the conditions that led to his crime. But I do know his context, and after living in this neighborhood for the past eight months, I recognize that this community is “hardened, hurting” too. And as the tension between police brutality protesters and the militarized law enforcement is exploding in Baltimore, we see the inevitable outcome of our hearts “hardened, hurting” when our grief fails to find reconciling justice. Racially polarized reactions to the events following Freddie Gray’s death reveal that our country is “hardened, hurting” and the enormity of fixing the systemic racism that is so deeply entrenched in our justice system seems insurmountable. However, this year’s Ecumenical Advocacy Days offered our churches and faith communities a place to start.

 

The theme for the 2015 conference was “Breaking Chains: Mass Incarceration and Systems of Exploitation.” During worship, preachers grounded us in the scriptural basis of our tradition that calls us to see God in the faces of the imprisoned. Keynoters presented the appeals we would make to Congress:

Reform federal criminal justice and immigrant detention policies toward the goal of ending unfair, unnecessary, costly, and racially biased mass incarceration by:

  1. adopting criminal justice and sentencing reform policies that incorporate an end to mandatory minimum sentencing;
  2. and eliminating the detention bed quota for immigrants and implementing alternatives to immigrant family detention.

We would ask for our representatives to support legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 (S. 502/H. 920) that would

  • limit the excessive mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses,
  • retroactively apply previous sentencing reforms from the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 for crack cocaine offenses which would result in an immediate reduction of the federal prison population,
  • transfer power back to the judge’s discretion in cases involving the lowest level drug offenses.

Why should Christians care about reforming sentencing procedures? And more importantly, how is drug policy related to police brutality and racism today? For me, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness made the connections between race and how people interact with the criminal justice system obvious. Alexander traces how the War on Drugs led to policies like the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that inadvertently target poor black communities by imposing long mandatory minimum sentences for low level dealing and possession of crack cocaine, and led in part to the 750% increase in the federal prison population in the past 35 years. (Yes–you read that number correctly, a 750% increase.) For more information about drug policy and about how its implementation unfairly disadvantages the poor and people of color, I highly recommend reading The New Jim Crow.

 

On the final day of the gathering, nearly one thousand participants descended upon Capitol Hill to meet with their representatives. We shared stories from home to connect our elected officials with a vision of how mass incarceration is ripping apart the fabric of our communities. I joined with four other DC residents in briefing a staffer for Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton and expressing our concern that in Washington, D.C., three out of four young black men will serve time. Staffer Gamble held our concerns in consideration and shared letters with us that Representative Norton had signed onto to show her support for this legislation.

While having a positive reception to our smoothly rehearsed presentations felt like a triumph, our lobby visits did not end the conversation about mass incarceration. We did not convince all of our elected officials to vote in favor of the proposed legislation. Rather, these conversations opened up a relationship between constituents and their representatives for people of faith continue to continue advocating for just policies.

 

The learning from Ecumenical Advocacy Days has prepared us to engage in conversations at home with our friends and families about mass incarceration and our flawed justice system. The hard work ahead of us is in changing the collective consciousness of our communities to address systemic racism. For now, we have the tools to acknowledge our privilege; lift up the voices of returning citizens and stories of our incarcerated brothers and sisters; reframe the conversation about drug offenses from criminality to one about public health and addiction; and name the injustices we witness in our daily lives—from the death of Freddie Gray to the War on Drugs that has become a system of mass racial control—so that we can begin the change our “hardened, hurting” communities so desperately need. Lamentations asks,

“When all the prisoners of the land are crushed under foot, when human rights are perverted in the presence of the Most High, when one’s case is subverted–does the Lord see it?” (3:34-36)

By continuing the conversation, we affirm that we see it. We see the injustices our incarcerated brothers and sisters are facing. We see the need for liberation and reconciliation in our “hardened, hurting” communities. We see the opportunity before us to walk alongside “the least of these” as Christ has called us to do so.


 

Marranda MajorMarranda Major is a Young Adult Volunteer serving at the Washington, D.C. site where she works with NEXT Church. 

 

 

Racial Justice, Contemplation, and the Next Church

By Therese Taylor-Stinson

Harriet Tubman said, “I freed a thousand slaves; I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Her words are still true. Without trivializing the atrocity that slavery was to our ancestors, too many of us today have a false sense of freedom and equality in a country that was founded on white supremacy.

Today’s perpetrators, supporters, and beneficiaries of slavery, colonialism, and oppression suffer from the spiritual disease of racism, whose system enslaves even them and is a web of denial and separation. People who claim that they don’t see color deny their own experience and the experience of those who suffer the effects of racism. That denial prevents true freedom and the dismantling of racist systems that may not be the legalized slavery of history, but mirror those realities today in laws and a culture of white privilege.

For the 21st-century Church, which has always held that contemplation comprises method and inspiration, call and response, our deepest response in God to a suffering world, including the violence and injustice that results from privilege, should come through prayer and responsive acts of love. Frederick Douglass wrote, “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has and it never will.” The 13th Amendment to the Constitution declared that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted [emphasis mine], shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Slavery was not abolished, however, by this amendment, but reconstituted to the penal system, where it remains today.

During Reconstruction (1865-1877), Black men were elected to Congress and to state legislatures. However, after Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws were instituted in the South. I believe we are witnessing something similar today. Several states have passed laws or attempted to pass laws that require voter identification requirements. In 2013, the Supreme Court weakened protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by deciding that “Preclearance laws for southern states with a history of voter discrimination are unconstitutional.” Lynching is not as prominent, but has happened in some form on occasion in our time, such as the murder in 1998 of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, after he was dragged behind a pickup truck for 3 miles. The militarization of the police, particularly in disadvantaged communities, heavily populated by people of color, has become prevalent, and states such as Florida have “Stand Your Ground” laws that endanger young black lives such as that of Trayvon Martin’s. The number of black men incarcerated, relegating them to the penal system, particularly for relatively non-violent crime, as well those targeted by police profiling, are grossly disproportionate to the number of white males committing the same crimes.

One of my past colleagues with whom I served in the federal government, a white man, told me that he was not surprised by the resurgence of racism since Obama took office. He observed that civil rights laws had suppressed racist practices but had not ended racism or racist attitudes, and thus, with a black President, racist attitudes that had been suppressed have resurfaced.

Racism is therefore America’s shadow. It is a spiritual disease, operating to maintain white privilege through cognitive dissonance.

Psychologist Leon Festinger wrote, “…cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.” Our civil rights laws establish equality without regard to race, gender, age, religion, sexual preference, or ability. Yet, when black people go out into the world, they are immediately challenged to make sense of their lived experience, which is contrary to the laws established to protect them.

Racism affects every area of life: Education, economics, entertainment, labor, law, politics, religion, sex, and war. In defining racism during the height of racial tension in the U.S. during the 1960s and ‘70s, Frances C. Welsing, a Washington DC psychiatrist stated, “Racism is a system of advantage based upon race. It doesn’t mean hating or not liking a race. It is White Supremacy.”

Romal Tune is a United Methodist minister. He left the gang life to graduate from college and receive a Master of Divinity degree from Duke University. He is the author of God’s Graffiti, and upon hearing about the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, he wrote:

“What most people don’t understand about poor black males on the inner-city streets, I can tell you now, they will not stay off the streets tonight, but it’s not just because they are angry and tired of mistreatment by police. It’s because they are tired of being ignored. Because of this tragic incident, the media has shown up and cameras are rolling. The world is watching! Brothers in the hood finally get noticed. The same brothers who were on the street before the shooting and nobody gave a damn.”

This is cognitive dissonance, where young men live invisible lives to a great extent, except when they break the law. In Ferguson, the young men had a chance to be seen for a good cause, yet were still treated as unwanted and unproductive agitators. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” These young men began rioting, looting, and burning property in their own neighborhoods because the need to be heard in a righteous act of protest, a civil right protected by the law, was met with rejection—cognitive dissonance.

Racism can only be healed from within, through contemplation. Both victims and perpetrators can be healed from the effects of white supremacy and racism. Contemplation is a willingness to be immediately awake to the present as it is—to us, to others, and to a Divine, Life-giving Presence that is always available to us. If racism is recognized as a spiritual disease, a person of contemplation engages both reflection and response. As I heed the words of the desert Ammas and Abbas to “pay attention,” I see people of color disparaged in the U.S. and massacred in Nigeria, while the dominant culture deplored the tragic deaths of fourteen in Paris. When Ebola swept West Africa, I see our concern was overwhelmingly for the Americans affected.

Contemplation is pure, existing before archetypes, and is the essence from which everything else flows. Contemplation needs both method (the pathway) and action (the sacrifice), which dwells within its tradition, to be authentic and effective in overcoming the spiritual diseases of white privilege and racism. The NEXT church, the church of the 21st century, should proclaim with one voice that Black lives do matter, as fully as the lives of all others. Let the healing begin!

Amen.


Theres Taylor-StinsonTherese Taylor-Stinson is current Vice Moderator for National Capital Presbytery.  She is a spiritual director and Managing Member of the Spiritual Directors of Color Network.