A Pastoral Letter
for such a time as this.
*Anyone is welcome to read, but I wrote this for fellow white folks
I am in no way an expert on race in America. All I can offer are a couple honest stories and some stuff that I have found helpful.
First, a story about how little I knew about Black people and police.
In the Spring of 2014 I found a small dog wandering around our urban neighborhood. Our streets were dotted with small brick houses and the nights were often punctuated with gunfire and drunken shouting. So when I coaxed the friendly Chihuahua into my arms and found he was tagged with an address just 2 blocks away, I decided to return the cute little thing to the owner. Given the high crime rate in our neighborhood, I didn't know what kind of situation I’d find when knocking on the door. On the way I saw a police cruiser parked on the street and thought I’d just ask the nice officer to keep an eye on me as I returned the dog. I did not know that they would roll up right in front of the house and stand by their police car. I also did not understand why, when a Black young woman answered the door, that she was not relieved and grateful that a nice white lady was returning her lost dog, as I had expected, but instead had a look of terror on her face when she saw a cop parked in front of her house.
I had thought “oh good! A police officer.”
She had though “oh shit. A police officer”
I don't think I will ever get her expression out of my mind and I am deeply sorry for this moment in my life.
Would I do that again? No.
Why? Because there are things I now have a little more of an understanding about than I did then.
I just started listening.
In August of 2014 an unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
November 24th 2014 is the day it was announced that the grand jury would not be charging the officer in the murder.
I was invited to listen to the announcement live with a local Black church, Shorter AME. That night I sat in a pew and for 3 hours listened to members of the church stand at a single microphone on the stage, one after the other, and speak about their reactions to this news. They expressed fear for the lives of their own teenagers. They prayed. They sang. They told stories.
My son Judah was 14 at the time, and I remember that earlier that week we had spoken excitedly about when he might take driver’s ed the next year.
So what landed inside of me with the thud of truth in that grief and anger filled sanctuary of Shorter AME in the winter 2014, were all of the parents who spoke about the amount of fervent instruction they gave their Black sons about how to act if pulled over by police so that they were not killed by those who were sworn to serve and protect them. It NEVER dawned on me to instruct my kid on how to increase his chances of not getting killed by a cop if he is pulled over for speeding. NEVER.
I simply did not know what I did not know until I knew it. None of us do.
It’s humbling to find out you’re a novice when you fancied yourself already educated.
I thought I knew about racism because I was raised to believe it was a sin. Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and my white grandfather was a card carrying member of the NAACP in Detroit in the 60s and the few Black people in my life I loved to pieces. So I thought I knew stuff already.
I was one of the “good” white people, and I have a picture of myself with Assata Shakur in Cuba when I was 20 years old to prove it.
I knew that White Supremacy was wrong, but what I lacked was a genuine curiosity about the ways in which it is all around me, baked into so many institutions and beliefs and practices in America. I knew that it is wrong to be racist, but what I did not understand was the way in which racist systems have harmed others while they have benefitted me.
Here are just 2 examples of how I myself have benefitted from white supremacy :
1. African Americans and whites use drugs at the same rate and yet the incarceration rate for African Americans for drug related crimes is 6x that of whites. As a former drug user – if I were Black I’d be 6x more likely to have been arrested and thrown in prison, and yet not 6x more likely to have broken the law. Note: There is no calculation to be made in which bad people go to prison and good people don’t even though that is what most of us were taught to believe.
That is white supremacy.
2. My father was raised in a working class Detroit neighborhood in the 60s where blue collar folks could buy small houses….if they were not Black. This is due to something called “red-lining” where Blacks were prevented from getting home loans. (Which I knew nothing about until about 6 years ago) This means that as a white person I am significantly more likely to have parents and grandparents who owned their own homes – which means I am more likely to inherit money – which means I am more likely to own and home which means my children are more likely to inherit money. Note: this does not mean that my family did not have to work hard to buy a home, this just means that because of systemic racism, a black person could work just as hard at the same job and still not be able to achieve home ownership. (Here’s a great video on The Wealth Gap)
This is white supremacy and I condemn it and yet the truth is that I have benefitted from it every day of my life in ways that society tries to keep hidden from me so that I can keep believing that I deserve the life I have and so does everyone else – good or bad.
And what do I do with that? How do I fight against something I hate and yet which has loved me back my whole life? Well, first of all,
White guilt does nothing.
White guilt just makes us look for exoneration. White guilt leads to changes of only optics in which people of color are the object and not the subject. Once again. White guilt leads to me try and figure out how to relieve my white guilt and once again it’s all about me. So let’s let white guilt go. It doesn’t work. It only keeps us silent and immobile.
I am a beginner. And in a way the stories I just told are about my starting point in attempting to become anti-racist. Maybe you’re a white person who hasn’t really started. Maybe you are way ahead of me. But here’s what I want to say: everyone gets to start somewhere. There’s so much to unlearn. I know that you may not be an expert. I know that there are ideas that are totally new to you but that have been around for a while already. I know that you were born into a system that you didn't see was a system until now.
I see you. I have compassion for you (but please don't ask Black folks or other POC to…they don't owe us that).
I know this conversation is hard. And you may find yourself feeling defensive. If you are going to be a beginner with me, find other white folks on this path and talk with about those reactions so that your feelings don’t have the power to stop the progress you’re making. Maybe each time you feel defensive try having curiosity about why you feel that way. Then expose yourself to the thoughts and work of Black people. Go deeper. Do the work. I believe in you. And just so you know, and I don't say this to bum you out, but there is no way to do this exactly right. You’ll get things wrong. Just learn and work and keep going. You’ll be ok.
Here’s why I want you to come down this road of anti-racism with me:
It’s not because this is what it looks like to be righteous now, it’s not because doing so will mean you are a “good” person, it’s not because others are doing it. And it’s not to earn the approval of Black folks and people of color.
I want this for you and for me because I believe it brings life and life abundant.
I mean 2 things by that:
1. Life abundant means flourishing - but for it to be real, for it to be of the Gospel – for it to be full it must be for all. As a Christian I believe that God took on human flesh to be with us, which means that human bodies are holy. So the promise of life abundant can only be had when we insist on the dignity and holiness of every human body. And here in America, Black bodies in America are 77% more likely than white ones to have diabetes. And Black people are dying at much higher rates from Corona virus than white bodies, and the infant mortality rate among Blacks is twice that of whites in America. Black bodies are incarcerated at a rate 5x that of white bodies. Black mothers are 4x more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers. Black bodies are 2.5x more likely to be killed by police violence. This isn’t ideology. It’s MATH.
To desire life and life abundant is to desire it for all. Insist on it for all. Work for it for all.
(To be clear, white supremacy culture tells us that the economic conditions, health problems, and incarceration rates of Black Americans are due to their “personal choices”, indeed that the Black people have created these problems through a lack of character and discipline. These lies are what the system had to come up with after slavery to allow white folks to live alongside this kind of inequality and injustice while continuing to think of ourselves as “good”. And I renounce it.)
2. There is a flourishing to be had, a freedom, a vibrancy when we claw our way out from underneath the powers and principalities of white supremacy. It is a system that conceals our own souls from us. It lies to us about who we are and how the world works. It centers us to the peril of others, but also to our own peril. There is more to be had from this life than what we have been told. I want that for you. I want that for me. And for damned sure I want that for our Black and Brown siblings. Jesus said “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free”.
Are you new to this work?
Here’s an AMAZING opportunity: The Call of This Moment: An Anti-Racism Workshop
The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis is offering an anti-racism Master Class on-line over the course of 2 nights next week. If you would like to attend and can’t afford the $20, I am sponsoring 15 spots and will gladly cover your fee. Send an email to shamelessmediaLLC@gmail.comand I will make sure you can get a ticket.
Resources I myself have found really helpful:
A few BOOKS
I’m Still Here; Black Dignity in a World Made For Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown (become a subscriber to her substack, ROLL CALL here)
When They Call You A Terrorist by Patrisse Cullors
Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The New Jim Crow; Mass Incarceration in The Age Of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Just mercy; A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
A Bunch of BLACK VOICES: (suggestion - when something happens in our world and you have a different reaction to it than Black, Indigenous and People of Color, have some curiosity about why that is.)
Neichelle Guidry - Preacher and Dean of the Chapel, Spelman College
Chenjerai Kumanyika - Activist and assistant professor, Rutgers University’s Dept of Journalism and Media Studies
Lisa Sharon Harper - Speaker, writer, activist, author
The Root - Black news and media aggregate
Roxane Gay - Badass writer
Bree Newsome Bass - activist, writer, artist, consultant
Wil Gafney - Womanist Bible scholar at Brite Divinity School, Episcopal priest
Theresa Thames - Dean of the Chapel, Princeton University, preacher, yogi, cultivator of joy
Gene Demby - host of NPR’s Code Switch
A Couple Places I give money:
National Bail Out (provides bail money for Black mothers)
Fair Fight (fights voter suppression – Stacy Abrams’ organization)
A few organizations that are pertinent to what is happening right now:
So, children of God,
Have curiosity. Listen to Black people. Be teachable. Pray your ass off. Do the work.
I know you can.
I promise to do the same.
Let justice roll on like a river and righteousness like a never ending stream
– The prophet Amos