by Loren Seibold | 26 May 2020 |
I have an African American friend whom I hold in high esteem—a gentleman of wisdom and uncommon common sense. So when he says something, I listen. And recently he said something that kicked me in the head.
It was about Ahmaud Arbery.
AhmaudBack in February Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was well known for distance running in his hometown of Brunswick, Georgia, had a pickup truck stop in front him while he was running. Two white men with guns got out. In the melee he was shot twice.
News reports said there’d been a couple of burglaries in the neighborhood, though no one saw this young man commit a burglary. The shooter had worked in the police department and the District Attorney’s office. The white District Attorney wrote of his friend, the white shooter, that he had been within his rights to chase a burglary suspect, and that it was Arbery’s fault anyway because he’d started the fight and tried to get the gun. He recommended that no arrests be made.
If this is all there were to the story, it would be shocking enough. It turns out that one of the shooter’s buddies had taken a video of the incident that somehow made its way into the wider world. It showed that when the pickup had stopped in front of him, Arbery didn’t engage them, but tried to run around them and escape, as anyone would do when confronted by men with guns. A shot is heard before he struggles with the men at all. He then fights back, as any sensible person would do when being shot at, then another shot, and Arbery falls down dead on the ground.
It was, in short, an execution. And this young man’s murder wouldn’t have raised an alarm in the police department or the DA’s office, had it not been for a video.
Why we must speak
Here’s what my friend, Christopher Thompson, said in an emotional video he made, with his son next to him. He spoke passionately and with difficulty about what an injustice like this means to a black man. (Christopher is also a runner, as it happens.) Somewhere in the video—I’m not going to quote him, because it’s just too painful to watch it again—Christopher said that he wondered why white people weren’t equally grieved about this, why they weren’t standing up against injustices like this.
As an editor, I’ve worked hard to cultivate diverse voices in Adventist Today. What I’ve mostly done is let these diverse voices speak to their own issues—that is, I let black people speak to black issues, because I think that’s a respectful way to deal with matters of which I have no personal experience.
But when I heard Christopher, I realized my editorial philosophy isn’t complete. Because I care about Christopher and his family, and because, more broadly, I’m a believer in mercy and justice, as every Christian should be no matter the color of their skin, I have to stand up and condemn those who think it’s justifiable to treat someone this way.
Sydney Freeman spoke in an AT article on this topic a couple of weeks ago to black Adventists. So let me, from my perspective, speak to white Adventists.
Race and me
I grew up without really understanding racial tension. It is hard for people even to comprehend just how culturally isolated the Midwest prairie states were back then: everyone in my world was not only white, but most were from the same bunch of Germans-from-Russia as I was, with a smattering of Norwegians thrown in. (As late as 1970, there were fewer than 100 African Americans in North Dakota, all at military bases.) My family seldom used racial words, and the few times I remember it was so decontextualized as to be without much meaning. I don’t remember opinions being expressed about race at all: everyone was as ignorant as I was. The Watts riots (one of a handful of racial events I remember hearing on the news in my early childhood) might as well have been happening in Tibet as America.
The first time I talked to a black man was when Dr. James Melancon came from Union College for a week of prayer at Sheyenne River Academy. I was enchanted by him, and his clear and engaging presentation was one of the bricks in constructing my desire to be a pastor. When I got to college I met more people of other cultures and skin tones, and I found that I enjoyed them and their views of the world. Before I left Walla Walla I married a Latin American woman.
But I also learned, eventually, that just because I liked these people didn’t mean I was free of prejudice. We all make judgments about people based on externals, from beauty to language to wealth to education to, yes, the shade of their skin. When I got acquainted with more people of other cultures and races, I fear I may have asked stupid questions or made stupid assumptions that, at the very least, showed I was more interested in our differences than in our common humanity—and at worst, that I knew better than they did how they should act and think and solve their problems.
Here’s the most important difference between me and people of color, one I can’t change: I’ve never suffered for my race. Certainly people have judged me for my deficiencies, but I don’t think anyone has ever written me off only because I’m white. No police officer has ever accused me of anything other than what he stopped me for—unlike Christopher, a teetotaling Seventh-day Adventist pastor who told me how recently he was pulled from his car and run through the whole side-of-the-road DUI test in front of his son and wife for absolutely no reason.
The merit argument
There are those of my race who insist on remaining stubbornly uninformed about what it is like to be a black person in America. They say that racism is in the past: “I’m over it. Why aren’t they? Time to move on.” They give reasons for why black people should have no excuses. Didn’t we have a black president? Don’t black people get financial help and preferential treatment? Aren’t there many wealthy and respected people among black athletes and performers now?
Often you’ll hear (from what I want to believe are well-intentioned people), “It’s all about merit. If a black person earns the grades, does the job well, then they’ll be treated like everyone else!” If merit is the standard, why are so many mediocre or even substandard white people so successful, and why aren’t more exceptional black people as successful?
The strict merit argument is itself a kind of racism, because it fails to recognize that the opportunity market is not governed strictly by impartial judgments, any more than the financial market is. Markets are created by people, and are selective in favor of those who control them. So when black people fail in that market, what conclusion does that imply other than that they are inherently inferior and don’t deserve to succeed?
To the point: we can’t assume that American culture has now become blissfully fair and just after centuries of racial mistreatment. If that were the case, so many black people in America wouldn’t be living in poverty compared to white people.
Another white friend of mine says, “They should just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps like I did.” This is his big self-deception: that he’s entirely self-made, as though he clawed his way by sheer grit out of a favela in Rio. In fact, he was born into a reasonably happy middle class white American family. His parents taught him to work. He went to camp, to church, to doctors and orthodontists, and to good schools. They bought him a decent used car and sent him off to college, from which he graduated without debt. He’s never gone hungry, or wanted for a warm bed. It appears to me he received everything he needed in life, and much of what he wanted, too. It isn’t surprising that he grew up to be an honest, hard working professional: he had good opportunities, and made good use of them.
My friend is not an evil man, but he doesn’t understand that not everyone in the world has the same opportunities as he did; and if they don’t, that’s not his concern. He points to Ben Carson to illustrate how black people can succeed, not realizing that few people of any race—including my white friend himself—have the gifts and drive of a Ben Carson.
Don’t people understand the concept of cultural trauma that lingers for generations? “Oh, but slavery ended over a century ago!” Remember: black people were still being lynched in my lifetime! I’m not all that old, but I’m old enough to remember colored-only bathrooms and drinking fountains on a childhood trip we took through the American South. I can remember news of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and King’s speech on the National Mall.
As for the church: during my lifetime black workers still couldn’t eat in the General Conference dining room!
Interestingly, the people who don’t seem to understand cultural trauma, who accuse black people of feeling entitled, are some of the same ones who whine endlessly about how white evangelical Christians are persecuted in America. Who think their freedom is being taken away because they can’t get a haircut in a pandemic. Who sue a college because it accepted a black person instead of their privileged child. Who carry guns around to protect themselves against mostly imagined enemies.
How can such an entitled majority accuse others of asking too much of society when they ask for simple justice—to not be killed just because they’re running through the neighborhood?
Not in the past
Nothing should convince us that racial injustice is still alive and well like Ahmaud Arbery. And Walter Scott, shot in the back because he was running away from a traffic stop. And Oscar Grant. And Anton Rose. And Trayvon Martin. And on and on and on.
And in a number of cases, particularly if the killer was a police officer, he got off with a slap on the wrist.
“Oh, but they eventually did arrest those men who shot Ahmaud.” Don’t forget that the district attorney first wrote that the actions of the shooter and his son had been “perfectly legal.” It took 74 days for an arrest to be made, and that was only because of the public outcry after the video was leaked. As journalist Karine Jean-Pierre said, “Always remember, they didn’t make arrests because they saw the video. They made arrests because we saw the video.”
Furthermore, there is no justice for Ahmaud in an arrest. He’s still dead. And the attitudes that led to the shooting also prevail in the community where the shooter will be tried.
Notice how quickly the justification mill went into high gear! Ahmaud had been seen on camera walking into a house under construction. That makes him a criminal? (I’ve done it while walking in my neighborhood, and you may have, too.) Soda and hard candy were said to be ingredients for a cough syrup drug high, even though Trayvon Martin bought Skittles and iced tea, and no cough syrup.
Trayvon’s killer was let off. Trayvon is still dead.
“But why did Walter Scott run?” “Why did Trayvon Martin fight back?” “Why did Ahmaud try to get away?” Really? If you were a black man who knows that unarmed black men are four times as likely to be shot as unarmed white men, you wouldn’t run? You wouldn’t fight? I would!
“But some of these people really did do illegal things!” True. Was shooting them dead the right solution? A man is apprehended for an expired tag, a burned-out brake light, for selling loose cigarettes, for walking through a white neighborhood, for entering a building site—so it’s OK to kill him? Ahmaud was once arrested for shoplifting. So someone is justified in just murdering him? Does everyone see the problem here?
By comparison, think of the number of white CEOs who acted unethically to the tune of billions of dollars—who in 2008 collapsed the entire economy—and not only got off scot free, but got bonuses!
A level playing field?
No, not every white person is a racist. Not every black person is a victim. Generalizations like that are an insult to all of us. But let’s also admit that it is not a level playing field either. America has made progress in racial attitudes since the 1950s. But the culture has deep, infected abscesses, and the poison is seeping out, which is especially evident in law enforcement attitudes, white vigilantism and the belief that black people have to pull themselves up against odds that people who look like me don’t have to face.
If as many white men were killed by police officers and vigilantes as black men are, we’d have candidates running on that platform alone. We’d have congressional investigations. We’d have never-ending lawsuits. We’d have an outcry that would be heard all the way to heaven from every white church and white politician and white business leader. There could be a full-scale race war.
What we wouldn’t hear: justifications about why they had it coming—because they fought back, or had a criminal conviction years ago, or looked like a criminal, or ran through a neighborhood where there’d been a robbery, or checked out a house being built, or had candy in their pocket.
And so I join Christopher in grieving the culture of violence against black people. If I don’t defend Ahmaud Arbery, I’m contributing to the erosion of justice for all of us.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today