Understanding Ferguson’s Fires (updated)

Source: nbc.com

Source: nbc.com

[Updated: I updated this post to incorporate other responses published since I wrote the original.]

In Ferguson, Missouri a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who shot a young African-American man last summer. When the decision not to indict was announced protests and violence ensued, with several fires set as some residents expressed anger and frustration, and other protests occurred around the country.

In a blog comment reprinted on Christianity Today, African-American pastor Bryan Lorrits wrote,

Over the years I’ve been challenged by my white brothers and sisters to just “get over” [events perceived as involving racism]. Their refusal to attempt to see things from my ethnically different perspective is a subtle, stinging form of racism. What’s more is that it hinders true Christian unity and fellowship within the beloved body of Christ.

My purpose with this post is an attempt  to explain this difference in perspective to my white brothers and sisters (of which I am one), and to help people understand why there is often an angry reaction to situations such as that of Michael Brown and Ferguson. In pulling together this post, I draw on what I have learned by studying race and American politics for more than twenty years. I also suggest some solutions from a Christian perspective. As you might imagine, it’s often complicated, but here goes a blog-length attempt.

Why are they angry?

There are obvious immediate causes: the unarmed African-American man[1] shot by a white police officer; the decision not to indict; the militaristic environment after the shooting, and so on. But the reality is that there are longer-term factors at work here. First, there is the perception (or reality) of racism on the part of the authorities in the situation. Second, there are race-based social and economic frustrations in many of America’s communities. Let’s take these apart carefully.

Racism

White people view racism quite differently than do black people. When whites are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “when a person treats another person badly or negatively because of their race or ethnicity.” But when African-Americans are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “a system in which racial groups are treated differently.”

The reasons for these two different views are socially and historically complicated. White people in general do not define themselves in terms of their ethnicity, nor do they view themselves as a social, economic or political group that has any specific common interests. (There are obvious exceptions to this, such as those whites who do view their race as their main relevant social characteristic. These people often end up in white supremacist groups, but are a very small portion of the white American population.)

African-Americans, on the other hand often see their primary relevant group characteristic as being their race or ethnicity. They have a high level of what social scientists call “group identification,” a strong psychological attachment to their group. This leads to a strong feeling of “linked fate,” the idea that what happens to one person in their group is likely to be relevant to one’s own life. So when a black person is shot by a white person, there is a psychological link made between that event and an awareness that this could happen to anyone in the group, including oneself.

White Americans simply don’t think this way based on our racial category, but we sometimes do in other areas. For example, as a home schooler, when I hear about a bad event (child abuse, or social worker’s abuse of powers), I often will say to myself, “I really hope that wasn’t a home schooler.” Why? Because I perceive that what happens to other home schoolers could also happen to me because I am a home schooler. Or if a child abuser is a home schooler, that reflects badly on home schoolers generally and makes us more likely to be viewed badly by society. This perception is due to my strong social identification as a home schooler and my sense of linked fate with other home schoolers.

The System and its Outcomes

Because African-Americans have higher racial group identification and attitude of linked fate, they view their relationship to the American political and criminal justice systems differently than white Americans do. A very important historical fact to remember is that for at least two centuries in the US, the legal and political systems did in fact define people and their status in society in race-based terms. In the South especially, the “Jim Crow” social environment used the law specifically to treat blacks and whites differently, and unequally (See an excellent article on this here). Thus one major reason the African-American community defines itself in that way is at least partially because the political system did so for so long.

While whites might optimistically hope that several decades after Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Acts the group-oriented mindset of African-Americans might have lessened, the reality is that group identity and linked fate still are quite important. To say that they shouldn’t be important is to miss the point that they still do matter to our neighbors.

In fact, the system itself seems to reinforce the sense that the group is systematically disadvantaged, not due to problems of individual motivation or a sense of entitlement, but because of intractable, long term social and economic outcomes in society. Here are just three examples:

The public education system, which is broken and dysfunctional in so many ways, is a particularly harsh environment for black (and Latino) boys. See a report here).

Family income in the black community is persistently lower than other racial or ethnic groups. This is illustrated in this graph:

Racial differences in household income, 1967-2012 Source: businessinsider.com

In terms of interacting with the criminal justice system, the legacy of race-defined unequal treatment still rears its ugly head. See this op-ed on crime statistics.

Differences like these produce the perception that the system is largely rigged against people of color, and persistent differences reinforce those perceptions.

That is not to say that this perception about bias in “the system” is universal among African-Americans. For example, following Ferguson, Pastor Voddie Bauchum reflected on his own experiences, writing,

“for many of those years, I blamed “the system” or “the man.” However, I have come to realize that it was no more “the system” when white cops pulled me over than it was “the system” when a black thug robbed me at gunpoint. It was sin! The men who robbed me were sinners. The cops who stopped me were sinners. They were not taking their cues from some script designed to “keep me down.” They were simply men who didn’t understand what it meant to treat others with the dignity and respect they deserve as image bearers of God.

It does me absolutely no good to assume that my mistreatment was systemic in nature. No more than it is good for me to assume that what happened in Ferguson was systemic. I have a life to live, and I refuse to live it fighting ghosts. I will not waste my energy trying to prove the Gramscian, neo-Marxist concept of “white privilege” or prejudice in policing practices.”

There is, however, in the black community a broad tendency to blame the system because of low trust in the system, for which there are plausible historical reasons. It is true that social, economic, educational, and political advances of black Americans occurred through governmental involvement. Nonetheless, there is a broad perception of stagnation in that progress over the last forty years. Whether white people think this it is unreasonable for black people to think this way is entirely beside the point.

Why Political Solutions Fail

In the big picture, political efforts to solve these problems will fail, because politicians are notoriously bad at changing peoples’ attitudes and hearts. More to the point, I have become convinced that there are individuals and groups in politics and society who have no interest in pursuing genuine healing and solutions to America’s longstanding race problems. They make their money, sell their books, and win elections by taking advantage of black anger and frustration and white complacency, resentment or ignorance. They are liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, black and white. If the “race problem” goes away, so does their income stream and their political advantage. So we can’t look to politicians and talking heads to get us out of this mess.

Christian Solutions

The solution, it seems to me, is just as complicated as the problem, but that is not an excuse to ignore it. As a Christian, what am I to do when Ferguson situations come up? And how am I supposed to think about these problems? I think the Bible speaks in two specific ways—to me as an individual, and to the church as a social organism. The solution is not going to be borne out of a crisis, but out of a long-term systematic commitment of people of faith and their churches.

As an individual, I am to be an instrument of peace (as the old Catholic prayer goes) in my community (Matt 5:9; James 3:18). I can do this by praying for peace in communities where there is unrest, but also in the hearts of people whose hearts are broken or hardened. I must humbly check my own attitude and seek understanding of others’ situations (Phil 2:3-4). This is one area where the social justice movement of Christianity is correct—we are to strive for justice in our communities and to work on behalf of those who are oppressed in God’s eyes (e.g., Psalm 10, Psalm 146). Am I trying to be understanding of the frustrations of others, or do I just view Ferguson-like violent outbursts as unruly mobs engaged in unjustified riots? Am I personally working to be an ambassador of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-21) across racial and ethnic groups in my community?

Our churches are supposed to be voices of truth and reconciliation in our communities. Is your congregation making opportunities to partner across racial and ethnic lines where you live? Martin Luther King, Jr. often observed that “eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour and Sunday school is still the most segregated school of the week.” If your congregation is virtually entirely of one race, is your church leadership doing anything about that?

As Christians we must continue to acknowledge that Christians sometimes were on the wrong side of race conflicts; that some Christians twisted scripture to support their own personal racist beliefs; and that some of those wounds are still painful to brothers and sisters and neighbors. And yet, Christianity provides an extraordinary—indeed a supernatural—means of reconciling the races, and unifying people in our communities. In the Bible we are repeatedly instructed that the arbitrary social groups of society are supposed to be set aside in the church, where

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. (James 2:1)

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:13)

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6)

Instead of being angry or looking on in disbelief, pray for peace, walk humbly, and strive for understanding and peace in your own communities.

[1] I use the terms African-American and black interchangeably here. I also use the term race (and variants) to refer to different groups even though I believe there is only one race—the human race—with different ethnicities and skin tones.