A Sickening Story and the Injustice It Illuminates

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Truth be told, I do not know exactly what to write or how to write it. But I feel compelled to write…

…something.

As I process a story from Brunswick, Georgia that I almost never even heard, my soul feels both sick and complicit.

I refer to the story of the pursuit and fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old black man, during what, for Ahmaud, was a Sunday afternoon jog in a neighborhood that should have felt like safe and familiar territory to him.

The shooting took place on February 23rd, 2 ½ months ago. I am processing the story now only because of the recent emergence of a video that has placed Ahmaud’s shooting starkly and graphically in our country’s consciousness.

“We don’t know all the details,” some will be quick to declare. But we know enough to be reminded of this inescapable truth: It is not the same America for Ahmaud Arbery as it is for the men who had both the agency and falsely-perceived justification to arm themselves and confront him. The shooters and the victim lived in the same geographical vicinity. But, in terms of their standing in a nation that is still plagued and driven by systemic racism, Ahmaud and the men who pursued and shot him were light years apart.

I hear it from so many of my white colleagues, even in the church: “Enough with the racism talk! It’s only an issue because you are making it one!” Some are inclined to make their rejection of the conversation even more pointed: “There is no such thing as ‘white privilege.’ It is nothing but an artificial social construct designed to perpetuate a liberal agenda and to manipulate the conversation.” I have heard such sentiments. I suspect you have as well.

But the tragic story of Ahmaud Arbery reminds us of how wrongheaded and dangerous such sentiments are. The moment I am tempted to believe that systemic racism no longer exists or that white privilege is not a reality, I simply have to spend a moment telling myself this truth: That, as a white male, I could travel to any suburban American neighborhood right now, park my car, even put on a mask (given the COVID-19 dynamics), and take a leisurely jog without giving a single thought to either my wellbeing or the possibility of being presumed guilty of a crime. If that is not a societal privileging based upon whiteness, what else could we possibly call it? To ignore or deny such privileging’s continued impact upon the moral dynamics of our nation compromises and even corrupts the integrity of our nation’s very identity.

The story of Ahmaud Arbery brings all of these things and many others into quick and unnerving focus. It is a story not to be minimized, not only because of the depth of its tragedy, but also because of the urgency of what it illuminates.

As I write these words, I am keenly aware of the fact that I write them from a place of privilege. All that I have to worry about is the possibility of being misunderstood or mischaracterized or tuned-out or resented, none of which is life-threatening or even remotely risky. But I want this privileged voice to speak about the stories that matter most, and the story of Ahmaud Arbery is one of those stories.

It is a story that matters to his family and friends.

It is a story that matters to a nation still burdened by the weight of a racism that produces such a story.

It is a story that matters to faith communities, including the Church, where narratives about justice and the sacred worth of all people must frame Ahmaud’s shooting as an agonizing affront to any theological worldview grounded in Truth.

It is a story that matters to the broken heart of this writer, who, while not always knowing how to write or how to speak, longs for his inadequate words to be interpreted as both an outcry against the injustice that Ahmaud experienced and a call for a shared recommitment to the dismantling of the systemic racism that makes such injustice all too common.

I will say it once more—As I process this story from Brunswick, Georgia that I almost never even heard, my soul feels both sick and complicit.

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Prejudice, Privilege, and the Ongoing Work of Dismantling Racism

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As Black History Month 2020 nears its conclusion, I was inspired this morning to spend some time re-reading Peggy McIntosh’s essay from the late 1980s entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” I am asking all of the United Methodist clergy and lay leaders on the Butler District to read or re-read this essay and to reflect on its content. I also hope that church leaders on my district will continue to seek out additional resources that will help them in the work of dismantling racism (such as the book “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi).

This morning, I found these words from the “Invisible Knapsack” essay to be powerfully convicting:

“In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.”

McIntosh’s words compel me to acknowledge how frequently I have been guilty of minimizing (or, worse, ignoring altogether) both the unearned privilege I experience as a white male and the oppressions made possible by the continuing existence of systemic and institutional racism. Too often, I allow my passion for dismantling racism to be quelled by my self-satisfaction with my own avoidance of individual “acts of meanness.” In so doing, I often become inattentive to the “invisible systems” of racial dominance that continue to exploit, disenfranchise, and oppress.

I once heard a United Methodist pastor offer what I think is a popular viewpoint concerning the issue of racism. Here is the pastor’s viewpoint, offered with the pastor’s permission:

I don’t know why we have to keep making racism such an issue. Most of us have been delivered from racism…But when we keep making racism a point of focus, all we’re doing is beating a dead horse and highlighting an ugly thing that doesn’t deserve to be highlighted.

Shortly after my conversation with that pastor, I heard the following comment made by a United Methodist lay person (offered, again, with permission):

People have told me that they don’t want a black pastor at our church. They’ve told me that they would leave if that kind of thing ever happened. Truth be told, I might leave too.  I guess I just wouldn’t be comfortable with that kind of thing. I would feel like I couldn’t relate to my own pastor.

Those two viewpoints help to illuminate the painful complexity of the issue of racism in the church. Racism is as real as it ever was, but we are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to inspire a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. We prefer to comfort ourselves with the shallow belief that, because we have been delivered from our individual racist “acts of meanness,” our commitment to dismantling racism has been fulfilled.

Concerning the matter of white privilege, some have gone so far as to suggest that white privilege is nothing but an artificial social construct created to further a social agenda. My own personal journey has led me to conclude that this perspective is dreadfully misguided. I have experienced far too many instances in which people of color have been confronted with racially-driven presuppositions and antagonism from which I, as a white person, am automatically exempted. As a District Superintendent, I have listened to newly-appointed clergy of color address a committee’s concerns about how the church’s first non-white pastor will be accepted, all the while knowing that I will never have to experience such scrutiny as a white United Methodist pastor in Western Pennsylvania. I have participated in far too many group conversations in which I have suddenly realized that people are making steady eye contact with me but not with the person of color standing right next to me.

Much could be added to this list. All of it bears witness to a privileged access to an unearned collection of advantages. That privileged access is decidedly white.

When one begins to take seriously a racism that is thoroughly undergirded by institutional injustices and white privilege, one is compelled to move beyond defensive rhetoric such as this:

“Those people of color are just as prejudiced as I am!”

Or this:

“People of color need to stop playing the race card in every situation, because nobody wants to hear that anymore. It’s time to get over the past.”

The danger of this kind of rhetoric is that it overlooks or, at the very least, oversimplifies the complexities of systemic racism. Moreover, such rhetoric often discounts the most crippling racism of all—specifically, the kind of racism that can only be generated and perpetuated by people in power.

I have no easy answers in the midst of all of this. This much, however, is certain: United Methodism’s emphasis upon dismantling racism is, first and foremost, one of the many necessary consequences of both the sin of racism and the fervency with which that sin has been perpetuated by both the American culture and the American church. The aftermath of this particular sin is an environment in which Christ-followers will have no choice but to be creatively and prayerfully engaged in the messy tensions that often exist related to this issue: tensions over how to create ethnically and culturally diverse communities of faith; tensions over the fact that there are so few racial/ethnic United Methodist clergy in Western Pennsylvania; tensions between those who see racism as an ongoing problem and those who simply want people of color to “get over it;” tensions over what it means to have a church that makes tangible its belief that “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in God’s sight.”

These tensions are not going away any time soon, nor should they. They are tensions emerging from the unsettling presence of a Holy Spirit who stubbornly refuses to allow a church to settle for being less than what it has been called by its Savior to be.

Personally, in my life and ministry, I want to live into an ever-deepening sensitivity to the sin of racism and all of its manifestations. Even more importantly, I want to lead by repentance. I want to name and confess all the different ways in which I have perpetuated the kind of racist presuppositions and patterns of behavior that have simultaneously fractured human community and broken the heart of God. Only then will I become a suitable laborer in the work that the dismantling of racism demands.

Livability and Race Realities in the Steel City (and the Implications for Its Churches)

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Back in early September, my heart was pleasantly warmed by the news that my nearest city, Pittsburgh, was named the third “most livable” city in the United States by a research group entitled the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Way to go Pittsburgh,” I thought to myself. I was grateful that my city, often maligned or undervalued by other portions of the country, received some national affirmation and recognition for its many merits.

As is so often revealed, however, beauty always resides in the eye of the beholder—or the privileged. To put it another way, the “livability” of a city will always be judged differently by those who benefit the most and the least from its services. A highly livable environment for the privileged might at the same time become a territory of toxicity for those who find themselves marginalized or disenfranchised.

Case in point: Just yesterday, a friend and colleague drew my attention to two articles, also written in September. One of the articles was written by Brentin Mock for the website “CityLab.” The article is entitled “Pittsburgh: A ‘Most Livable’ City, But Not For Black Women.

The second article, written by Sakena Jwan Washington for the Huffington Post, was a deeply personal reflection on the first article. Here is a link to the second article, entitled “My City Was Named the ‘Worst Place for Black Women to Live.’ Is That My Cue to Leave?

Mock’s article sheds important light on troubling Pittsburgh statistics, many of which point to a city in which black girls and black women suffer from birth defect rates and death rates (along with school arrest, poverty, and unemployment rates) that are significantly higher than those of white Pittsburgh residents. These rates are also significantly higher than those of black people in the majority of other comparable cities.

To put this into perspective, consider these words from University of Pittsburgh sociology professor Junia Howell (whom Mock quotes in his article):

What this means is that if Black residents got up today and left [Pittsburgh] and moved to the majority of any other cities in the U.S. … their life expectancy would go up, their income would go up, their educational opportunities for their children would go up, as well as their employment.

As I pondered the statistic that 18 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for black women end in fetal death in Pittsburgh (as compared to 9 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for white women), I found myself undone by the enormity of what those numbers represent. In a city known for its teaching hospitals and medical technology, we have nurtured an environment in which fetal death is twice as likely among black infants than it is among white infants. At the very beginning of a life’s journey in Pittsburgh, there is a stark inequity that cannot be ignored or minimized.

In her reflection on Mock’s article (which is as poignant as it is eloquent), Sakena Jwan Washington, a professional “Black woman from Pittsburgh who also happens to be the mother of a Black girl,” gives voice to her own experience of Pittsburgh and its dynamics:

I wonder if I’m living in the dark. I’m surely not ignorant to the fact that most of my friends and colleagues are white. Or that finding a Black hair salon sometimes feels like going on a scavenger hunt, or that the Shadow Lounge ― a Black-owned lounge I once frequented monthly ― closed after gentrification shuttered its doors, or that my favorite jazz lounge closed for the same reason. It’s not lost on me that when an independent film like Toni Morrison’s biopic ‘The Pieces I Am’ comes to town, it plays in one theater in the entire city. I’m aware and I grumble about my observations every day. And yet, I’m still here.

I hear in Washington’s words the echoes of a marginalization that I will never be able fully to understand as a white male Pittsburgher but that I dare not minimize. The echoes compel me to wonder about the long-term impact of an institutionalized segregation that is so thoroughly embedded in a city’s ethos and daily patterns that it is routinely accepted as normative. “I might be able to operate in this sort of segregated atmosphere,” Washington writes, “but can my daughter? Will there be educational options in Pittsburgh that are both diverse and receive the same level of resources I had access to in my predominantly white private schools?”

These are questions that hang in the philosophical air, demanding the attentiveness of any Pittsburgher who longs for a city that is committed to justice and equity for all of its citizens and families.

I traffic in the rhythms of western Pennsylvania church life (United Methodist church life, more specifically). As a clergy person in a conference that has named “Dismantling Racism” as one of its areas of focus, it is one of my responsibilities to nurture the kind of spaces (and churches) in which racism in all of its forms (personal and systemic) is recognized, named, rejected, and actively dismantled. In recent days, I have seen deeply encouraging glimpses of my tribe’s commitment to this work.

A few weeks back, for example, during a time of anti-racism training, another white pastor spoke to me about one of his newly-energized priorities: “I have spent too many years giving lip-service to dismantling racism in the churches that I have served,” he said. “I am making it a priority in 2020 to help my [predominantly white] congregation and community to experience the kinds of resources, relationships, and conversations that will deepen their understanding of racism, privilege…and the sin of complicity.” His words inspired me to reflect on my own priorities in this regard—along with my own complicity.

At the same time, resistance to the work of dismantling racism finds expression in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I suggested to a ministry team recently that we read an article together entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (written by Peggy McIntosh), simply because I believed that the dynamics of white privilege were pertinent to the matters we were discussing. The body language in the room (which I have gotten fairly good at reading over the years) communicated a collective lack of hospitality to my suggestion. My interpretation of the body language was later confirmed by one of the team members, whose perspective I share with permission: “I know that racism still exists,” she said, “but when we keep fixating on it, all that we do is create resentment and enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I found the imagery of her words painfully ironic: “enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I wonder how that kind of imagery would fall upon the heart of an Asian-American or African-American pastor in Western Pennsylvania who is daily confronted by the reality of being the only person of color in the room (and in the sanctuary); or a person of color who regularly experiences both implicit and explicit racial biases that reinforce isolating and even dehumanizing presuppositions; or the black female Pittsburgher navigating the injustices and inequities illuminated by recent statistics. How can dismantling racism remain a focus when resistance to conversations about racism and a burgeoning sense of white fragility have begun to govern portions of the collective consciousness?

I suppose the dynamics that I am describing only serve to elucidate the complexity of the situation related to race. Racism is as real as it ever was, but far too many white people are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to inspire a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. The statistics related to black women in Pittsburgh are what they are, but we comfort ourselves with the manufactured belief that we have been completely delivered from our racist history.

If the United Methodist Church in western Pennsylvania is to succeed in keeping the dismantling of racism as an authentic point of focus, there are some governing convictions that white United Methodists in this region will have to embrace and guard. One of those convictions is that participating consistently in strategic conversations and training related to racism and privilege does not “enslave us to the problem” but rather generates a necessary spirit of galvanizing solidarity between the church and those for whom the problem truly is enslaving.  A second conviction would be that a condemnation of racism runs the risk of becoming anemic if it is not accompanied by a risky commitment from the privileged to utilize their voices in the fostering of expanded agency for the disenfranchised, disruptive truth-telling, and energized advocacy.

As a white male, my privilege often blinds me. I am painfully aware of that blindness, even as I type these words. It makes me all the more grateful for those souls in my journey (including my clergy colleagues) who love me enough to bring me into difficult but important conversations about race and who value me enough to hold me accountable for my ongoing participation in the relentlessly urgent work of dismantling the machinery of racism—a machinery that exists in both the hallways of our churches and the chambers of my own heart.

Sakena Jwan Washington concludes her article about Pittsburgh in this fashion:

The hard question for me is will my daughter struggle with connectedness the way I once did, and will a move to a city with a more robust Black middle class lessen her struggle? Is this a game-time decision, or must I act now?  Will I stay and be a pioneer for change, or will I leave to occupy spaces where I know, without question, my family will feel like they belong?

I hope and pray that she stays, but I know that my hopes and prayers are not enough. They must be accompanied by my commitment to the nurturing of spaces in which the kind of connectedness and belonging that Washington envisions can be pursued and experienced with integrity and hope. Only then will the “pioneers of change” get the strong sense that they are not alone in their pioneering.