Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Gone Are My Friends from the Cotton Fields Away

a black man was shot repeatedly by a white policeman in south carolina, and the man's final moments were caught on a video by a witness to the shooting.  there are many questions we might ask: would this death have been more tragic if the races of the two men were reversed?  is the race of the two men significant?  what are the circumstances leading up to this tragedy?  why did the bystander feel compelled to capture these moments in a video?  is this incident a reflection of our society's insistence on easy access to guns?  the list of questions that need to be answered could fill many pages.

the one that most concerns me after so many recent deaths of people of color at the hands of white officers of the law is the question of race.  this is the elephant in the cupboard of culture in the usa.  we want to say that there are also whites being killed just as callously but i don't think that's the case.  we have only to compare the reaction to mobs of predominantly white students in kentucky after a basketball game loss to the reaction to mobs of predominantly black people over the killing of a black teen in missouri to see the bias in our culture.  the race of the two involved in this south carolina incident is significant, because, in the eyes of many, non-white lives don't matter as much as white lives.  so close on the heals of our observance of the surrender at appomattox that ended the civil war, the stain of slavery and the aftermath of that horrible war still have not been cleansed from our psyche.

in our part of the country, and i expect in other regions as well, dinner table conversation too often includes little veiled barbs that suggest that blacks or hispanics are not as bright, not as moral, not as industrious as whites.  we see ourselves as a society of us and the others, and the others can't be as good as we are.  we can't let them have power.  we can't acknowledge their complete humanity.  it was all too easy for our forebears to turn a blind eye to the misery that was the lives of thousands of people of color so that a few white colonists and their descendants could enjoy lives of wealth and privilege.  under the veneer of a genteel society, blacks lives didn't matter except for what their backbreaking labor could produce so that this "gracious" way of life could exist.  this attitude continues to persist and to color all our national conversation.

this is the horrible consequence of "us versus them."  we refuse to see our sameness.  we fail to grasp the desire of non-white families to want the best for their children, to acknowledge that race has nothing to do with intelligence, the willingness to work hard, or moral integrity.  we citizens of the usa are not alone in this failure--look at the treatment of the irish at the hands of the english, at the tragedy of racism in south africa, at conflict between arabs and jews in the middle east.  the fact that other cultures are guilty of racism doesn't make it any more right here in this country; it only underscores our human tendency to live mindless lives when we allow our minds to become lazy and to look for scapegoats.

the needless taking of one black life by a policeman in south carolina or new york or missouri or ohio or california is significant.  the hostility to a president because he is african-american is significant.  the denial of voting rights to minorities is significant.  the indifference to the suffering of the poor is significant.  the desire to deny citizenship to hard-working hispanics because they dared to flee poverty and oppression in their home countries is significant.  there is no "us," there is to "them."  there is simply humanity, and it is our duty to treat every person with respect and compassion without rushing to draw the all-too-accessible weapon that can so easily bring a life to an end.

may we train our minds and hearts to see the person inside skin that is white, black, or brown.  may we love without limit.  shalom.

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