“I’m not a racist.” That’s what one of the members of our church said during a discussion we had on race. “Our community isn’t racist; we welcome everyone.” I heard that here in Rockport. “Our country is not racist.” I read those words in a letter to the editor in this newspaper just last week.
Those are exactly the words, the thoughts, the privileged self-assessments that enable racism to remain ingrained in our government, in our schools, in our police departments, in our economy, and in our lives. Those are the words of white sleepwalkers, eyes closed, living the American dream.
Our country had an 8 minute and 46 second wake-up call nearly a month ago. In broad daylight, in full view of a video camera, George Floyd was choked to death by a police officer. It was the officer’s knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck, but it could have been a noose in an old-fashioned lynching.
This past Friday was the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth. The actual date of the Emancipation Proclamation was Jan. 1, 1863, and the Civil War officially ended more than two years later in April of 1865, yet 250,000 Black people were held in bondage in Texas until June 19, when Union troops rode into Galveston Bay and told them that they were free.
Slavery was abolished and for a brief time during Reconstruction many African-Americans had a taste of freedom, but it was short-lived. The South never rose again, but racism certainly did, and not just in the South, as many might like to think; it was thriving in the North as well. Jim Crow laws kept freed slaves in a new form of slavery.
In 1921 successful Black Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street were massacred by jealous whites, and no one heard much about it until recently. The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, lists more than 4,400 African-American men, women and children (yes, children) who were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned and beaten to death between 1877 and 1950. Weren’t those the years when our country was “great?”
Despite making up only 13% of the population of the United States, Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a police officer. And for those who are not killed, nearly 40% end up as prisoners. That’s three times the number of African Americans in the general population of this country.
I recently read a book by Debby Irving titled “Waking Up White. It’s the perfect book for white people like me; white people who care; white people who want to do something about racism; white people who are outraged at what happened to George Floyd and others. We don’t need to go to Minneapolis or Atlanta or Washington; we can begin by waking up and looking at ourselves:
I don’t have a police cruiser following me when I drive into Rockport or Wenham, just because of the color of my skin.
And if I do get pulled over by the police, I don’t worry about keeping my hands in plain sight — so I won’t be shot.
I never even thought about telling my son to be careful when he was growing up because he’s a “big white boy.”
When I meet people, they don’t ask me why I moved to Rockport rather than living in Lynn or Salem.
I’ve never been at a party and had someone ask me to refill a wine glass, because they thought I was a waiter.
My parents were poor, but they were able to get a mortgage in the 1950s, because they were white and no one redlined them. There were no Black kids in the little, rural New Jersey town where I grew up; they all lived in the big messy city nearby. I never thought to ask why. There are things we white folks do and say without thinking that betray the racism deeply embedded over generations. There are privileges white people take for granted, privileges that Black people have to struggle to attain, and then face resentment when they do have what whites have.
Yes, we need to walk, but not just in protests or marches. We need to walk in the way that the ancient Hebrew Prophet Micah told us to walk:
“what does the Lord require…
to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
The outcry we’ve recently witnessed is a long overdue first step for our country and our communities, but one step is only one step. We have miles to go in this long journey against 400 years of injustice. I pray that this will not be a moment, but a movement. May we begin that journey by looking within, and by making the change that can happen with each one of us. A more contemporary prophet named Cornel West said it this way: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
The Rev. Michael J. Duda is a resident of Rockport and pastor of First Church in Wenham. The Midweek Musings column rotates among Cape Ann clergy.