Unsafe in black and white America

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I was frustrated when I took this picture last night from the fifth row at the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert because I wanted a picture of the eagle that is the symbol of “Free Bird,” one of my favorite songs of all time, but there was a big old Dixie flag underneath it so I couldn’t share it on my facebook page. The reason I decided to share it now is because many people who look like me get offended when they hear other people say that today, in 2013, it still isn’t safe to be black in America.

I was safe at the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert because I’m white. I could relive my teenage years when I used to go to Walnut Creek in Raleigh, NC, for all the country and Southern rock concerts with my redneck friends. Skynyrd for me was about being a rebel in general. I would blast “Sweet Home Alabama” on my car stereo every afternoon peeling out of the school parking lot and driving way faster than I should have on the country roads down to Jordan Lake. I hung out with the rednecks at my school because I desperately didn’t want to be a sheltered little rich boy. I don’t think that word Paula Deen said ever actually came out of my mouth but I heard it plenty of times and laughed nervously and cowardly at whatever racist joke was being made.

The third verse of “Sweet Home” always made me feel a little uncomfortable: “In Birmingham they love the governor / Now we all did what we could do.” What is that supposed to mean? Governor George Wallace? The one who stood up for segregation? What does it mean to say “we all did what we could do”? Were you part of the mob keeping the black kids out of the University of Alabama? How could a black person not feel unsafe hearing the words to that song with some understanding of their context?

I read on wikipedia that for a few years Lynyrd Skynyrd took the Dixie flag out of their set because they didn’t want to be seen as supporting racism. But their fans thought they were selling out to “political correctness” so they harrangued and harrangued until they brought it back. And they said on their site something about it being Southern heritage, not hate. Here’s the thing. With something like a Dixie flag, intent doesn’t matter. If it makes black people feel unsafe, it doesn’t matter how I see it; I don’t have the right to tell anybody to get over it.

I discovered the lack of safety black people live with in America about 7 years ago. I was in a rock band, and our drummer was black. He got scooped up by the cops who were looking for somebody else because he “fit the description,” and lo and behold, he had failed to appear in court a couple years back for something minor so they put him in jail. (If he were white, he never would have gotten scooped up and that misdemeanor warrant would still be outstanding.)

It was the first time I’d had a friend in jail. I remember putting on a coat and tie and going to the magistrate to speak up for him at his arraignment. I got pretty choked up. He was just out of high school and I was in my late twenties. He was incredibly mature so I didn’t even view him as a little brother but just a friend. We had met through the Durham activist scene. They actually released him to me if I remember correctly. Because he had a white guy who could vouch for him. The other black dudes in orange suits didn’t have white guys to speak up for them. So they had to stay in jail.

I had an experience this afternoon that was really convicting. Having had these things on my mind since the verdict in the George Zimmerman case, I was driving through DC in a part where most people on the sidewalk are a different color than me. I had to get gas. So I pulled into a gas station. There were a bunch of black guys standing around in the parking lot. As I was doing my thing, I realized that I was moving more quickly and nervously than I needed to. And I realized that I felt unsafe. Because I was surrounded by black guys.

I’ve been working on my racism for at least 15 years. My best friend is black. My first year in college, I was the only white guy at the black First Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’ve sung in gospel choirs with mostly black people. I’ve taught and mentored black kids who became close friends. I’ve made music with black people. My favorite theology professor was black and my favorite preaching professor. I try to preach like I’m black (even though I know it doesn’t sound that way at all). So why the hell do I still tense up when I’m in a gas station parking lot just because there are some black guys standing around?

I have a feeling that I’m not the only white guy who experiences these thoughts that I sure don’t want to have in my head. I also have a feeling that the more pissy white people get when you talk about racism, the more likely it is that they think these kinds of thoughts all the time and don’t want to be confronted about them. But I desperately want to unlearn these instincts because if I feel unsafe around someone else because they’re black, I am part of the reason that the world becomes unsafe for them.

Whatever the details of the actual physical confrontation that George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin had, the whole situation was created because George felt unsafe on account of Trayvon’s blackness. Trayvon, in turn, felt unsafe because he was being followed. And it turned out that he was right. He wasn’t safe in his own neighborhood. Because he was black and it was a rainy night.

Irregardless of how bloody George Zimmerman’s nose got and whether he had a reasonable fear that he might be killed, independent of the verdict itself, I don’t think any honest person can say that Trayvon’s blackness wasn’t the reason that everything started, whatever happened after that. And I’m one of the however many million white people who get nervous when there are too many young black guys around, which creates an atmosphere of suspicion that can have devastatingly tragic results like this.

The source of so much evil is people feeling unsafe and seeing others as threats instead of people who feel just as unsafe (and may actually have more legitimate reasons for feeling that way). Jesus came to do something about that. He was safe in heaven, but He left His gated community there to spend His life walking from one sketchy neighborhood to another.

When he got nailed to a cross, it was more than just a payment for our sins. It was God saying all those people who make you feel unsafe, yeah I’m one of them, that’s why I got lynched. God takes sides on the cross; He’s on the side of the people whose lives are actually unsafe because they can be crucified, as opposed to the people who don’t go anywhere near the type of place where Jesus got crucified because they’ve devoted their lives to worrying about their safety and the safety of their kids.

To take up your cross and follow Jesus means more than just doing “sacrificial” things for other people. It means you join the people who are unsafe. It means you do a lot of listening without speaking. It means you don’t live in denial about the shameful assumptions you make about other people in the deepest corners of your mind. It means you ask God for help in unlearning the racially-triggered instincts that we’ve all had drilled into us by a complex amalgam of social forces.

The only way for all of us to be safe is to be unsafe together. That’s what the Lord’s table is supposed to be about. I realize I’m not saying anything earth-shattering; but honestly it’s not my place to be the great white mind that saves America from its race problem. We’ve already got a savior who’s a black-skinned Palestinian Jew, and He’s been trying to save us from our racism ever since Christianity became European civilization.

18 thoughts on “Unsafe in black and white America

  1. Pingback: Unsafe in black and white America | Mercy not Sacrifice | She's quoting T.S. Eliot again

  2. 1) According to testimony, George indicated he thought he was black but couldn’t be sure because of the hoodie.
    2) If the testimony is correct, Trayvon didn’t feel scared enough to go ahead and go the 30 seconds it would have taken him to get home and instead roamed around the neighborhood eventually approaching George from behind – not the actions of someone who was “scared”.
    3) If you are going to talk about blacks having a problem “getting on” in America you have to address as Ben Carson does so eloquently the “poor me, I’m stuck in the ghetto” attitude entrenched in the black culture. Ben’s mom told him constantly that he didn’t have to stay there, he believed her and he got out.
    4) The main thing blacks have to fear in America is not the George Zimmerman’s, but the black on black violence in their own communities. Blacks are almost never killed by whites which is why this story got so much traction. Then when it came out that Zimmerman was Hispanic they couldn’t back down because they were already too invested in the white on black angle so they started calling George a “white/Hispanic???”.
    5) Throughout history, it has never been the best or most compassionate thing to subsidize and belittle the poor among us by either thought or comments like “they just don’t know better” or “they just aren’t capable of changing”. Thoughts and comments like these are condescending, offensive and the worst form of racism and people like Bill Cosby, Ben Carson, Condoleezza Rice and other blacks (who know what it takes to get out of the ghetto) try to point this out every chance they get.
    Just this week, my wife and I shopped at a Winn Dixie in the heart of inner city Miami Fl. I think we were the only people of color (white) in the store. We felt totally comfortable and were treated with respect and thoughtfulness as someone shared their member’s card to enable us to get the discount. Later that day when in the course of conversation it came up where we shopped, that (white) person said “you are braver than me”. It was not an issue of bravery, but rather realizing that there are bad and good people everywhere and that we can’t live our lives constantly worrying where they are or like the lazy (and it is lazy to be racist) man in the Proverbs – “I can’t go out because there might be a lion in the streets”. I do believe strongly racism is a blight on our nation, but we have to open our eyes to the truth of where it comes from before we can eliminate it.

    • I can only speak from my own perspective. I know that I make presumptions about people according to their skin color. I can’t say what other white people do. I can’t talk about what black people need to do as a race. I can only repent of my own sin and offer the testimony with the hopes that it might make it safe for others to repent too as the One convicts who sees every other heart. Thanks for sharing. When you’re walking with God, there’s no reason to be afraid of anybody. What can flesh do to me?

  3. Feeling unsafe at a gas station is not an example of racism per se but of not being able to identify others’ cultural identity or intent. I feel equally uncomfortable at a gas station with a bunch of unkempt white people standing around with no apparent reason to be doing so, which happens from time to time in my area of town.

    It is very progressive to try to understand everything in terms of racial prejudice, but the reality is much more complex. Houston has seen difficult times post-Katrina, because many of the gangs from Louisiana relocated here. It is a simple fact that crime rates are higher in poor communities, because poverty breeds desperation, but many of those communities remain poor because we throw their families in jail on a whim, much as you describe in your experience with your drummer.

    There are lots and lots of issues going on with race, and as someone who actually wants to do something about it, I grieve that the dialog cannot be more honest. It is as though we are performing for our progressive overseers rather than trying to say what is truly on our minds.

    • As I say this, bear in mind that if I were trying to perform for the conservative white folk trying to excuse themselves of racism, I would be suggesting that “the real problem is [reverse-racism/drug use/black people not choosing to leave their poverty/take your pick of white excuses]” or something along that line. White people and our power structures are certainly a — if not the — major player in the state of racial affairs. I am just trying to avoid spreading unnecessary guilt when the problems need more rigorous solutions.

      • Re: your last sentence, I can respect that. By all means, let’s dig deeper and get past the surface level obligatory piety. But again be cautious about universalizing and saying “It’s not really that.”

    • For me, the language I would use to describe my encounter is racialized. You don’t have to own that language for yourself, but don’t declare your experience as a universal. I also do agree that we have to be attentive to our tendency to perform to earn our progressive gold stars. I am a recovering performer (hypo-crites) in addition to being a recovering racist. But this didn’t feel like that. This felt like God saying who the hell do you think you are.

      • I can definitely respect that as your experience. I have been more and more convicted of socioeconomic prejudice more than racial prejudice. A significant portion of the homeless guys around here are white. Not sure how to handle that just yet, but it sounds like about the same sort of calling-out from God as you’re experiencing here.

  4. Thank you so much, Morgan. I’m a UCC pastor who just discovered your blog a week ago while researching sermons, and have enjoyed your posts, but this one is amazing.

    If I may add a nuance to your post: three weeks ago, my boyfriend (white) was at a gas station, feeling much the way that you described above. Tragically, he was brutally beaten by six people, all of whom were black. He and I, much like you, have spent our lives working on our own racism, and I’ve taught courses on overcoming racism and white privilege. Now he’s a victim, and we’re struggling with believing in solidarity and knowing that some threats are very real. Sometimes fear is appropriate. Last week, with the Good Samaritan, I preached that we need to dedicate ourselves to magnifying one another’s humanity, telling ourselves every time we are tempted to cross the street to avoid someone, that they are God’s beloved.

    We know that love and justice and equality and hope and compassion are the answers, so thank you for your reflection. It will be added to the mix of all that is helping us to heal so that we can continue to be allies. We’re all in this together.

    • Wow. I am so sorry to hear your story and grateful for your courage in sharing it. White people get beat up by black people sometimes. And that creates fear that we have to take the cross (which is for our wounds as much as for our flaws). It happens, and it needs to be okay to acknowledge that alongside every other story not as an indictment on blackness but as part of the tragic messiness that we live in where we all need the grace of Jesus Christ. I got conned out of several hundred dollars in Mexico City in 2000 by a black man who knew that he could play on my white guilt. I knew that he was lying deep down but I was paralyzed by my need to put on a show as the progressive white guy. Most of the guys who have asked me for money on the street have been black men who were physically intimidating to me. What I have to do is be secure enough in my own identity that I don’t need to prove myself or assuage my white guilt. I also need to see the people I encounter on the street as individual human beings created in the image of God and resist the very easy tendency to make them into a category of humanity organized according to their physical appearance. To be anti-racist is not merely to abstain from being intentionally racist but to actively resist demonic corruption from very real things that cause us anxiety or fear. It requires constantly going back to the cross to receive healing for wounds that aren’t my fault but nonetheless can make me sinful. So it’s a higher bar than most people feel obligated to set for themselves. I am so grateful for your brave journey. I will be praying for you and your boyfriend.

  5. Pingback: A Good Guy with a Gun | Author Laura Lee

  6. No matter what white America says, (and I am white) until there is an equality in economic and educational opportunities, we are still back at square one. There is a little less oppression since the 14th Amendment, but not much. Americans of all ethnic communities need the grace and understanding that comes from Jesus’s teachings and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

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