A few months ago, I was asked to be part of a panel discussing policing, public policy, and race. The event was sponsored by a professional psychological association and was titled, “After Ferguson.” I was invited to be part of this panel because I am faculty in a graduate school in psychology, I’ve written about race issues in this blog and delivered sermons on this topic, and I’ve work in various African-American communities.
To be honest, I found the experience on the panel to be very confusing. A number of younger African-American people strongly resonated with a white panelist who spoke of the scars of racism in the country and admitted that all white people in the US benefitted from racism. At the same time, I felt like I was viewed negatively when I tried to address directions that could lead to better public policy and law enforcement practice. It wasn’t until the panel discussion was almost over that I realized that the vocal, younger African-American participants wanted me to publically confess my sins and guilt as a racist. But doing so seemed to me to be disingenuous and inappropriate given the topic of the panel discussion. The panelists had been invited to discuss ways to improve public policy that impact policing and minority communities including African-American, Latino/Hispanic, and LGBTQ.
After the presentation, I noticed that the younger African-Americans surrounded the one white panelist who claimed his own racism and seemed to treat him as a hero. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think, “He’s playing the audience but offering nothing substantive.” As I was leaving, I was stopped by a three older African American people (two men and a woman) who introduced themselves. One of the names I recognized as an historic leader in Atlanta’s civil rights movement. They told me that they appreciated what I was trying to do in terms of discussing institutional change. After a pause, the woman said, “Our children have a lot to learn about making social change.” We chuckled and I said, “Yep. You only learn that by doing it. It’s hard work, not cheap grace.”
This week, I watched the video tape of Hilary Clinton’s conversation with members of the group Black Lives Matter. I saw in that conversation something similar to my own experience at that panel discussion a few months ago. I also watched the same members of Black Lives Matter on Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting what these individuals are saying, but it seems to me that this young group of civil rights leaders is primarily focused on making sure others agree with their historic and political analysis with the belief that if others share in the analysis, somehow social change will happen. However, that’s not been my experience of how to be a catalyst for social change.
Over the years, I’ve worked for social change in regard to immigration reform, nuclear disarmament, gay rights, and the funding services and treatment for people with HIV/AIDS. I’ve also been in the backseat in work toward the Equal Rights Amendment and the pro-choice movement. Through it all, I’ve learned a simple lesson: I can’t expect others to agree with my analysis of social problems. But if there’s a clear, focused platform for change, enough people may be able to be pursued to work toward the goals that make up the platform for change to occur. But the goals need to be clear and feasible.
Yes, I believe that personal transformation is key to our growth and development as human beings. Yes, I believe that we are more fully human when we embrace diversity in ourselves and among other people. Yes, I believe that racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, and all the other social diseases only make us weaker as a nation — and as a community of people on Earth. And yes: I don’t have any reason to think that all people will embrace my views on such things. Some people actively choose to be hateful and bigoted and are proud of it.
Yes, I believe that the countries of the Americas were founded on the genocide of indigenous people. Yes, this pattern of subjugation continued with the enslavement of African people and became this country’s original sin. Yes, I believe that all economic development in the United States has been based on the subjugation of various groups of people. Most notably, economic development in the US was based on the subjugation of Africans, then on the subjugation of other immigrants including my grandparents who lived as indentured servants while working for mining companies. This pattern continues today with exploitation of Hispanic people. Because this is my analysis — an analysis with which many people agree — I cannot conclude that anything will change because the analysis is correct and insightful. Consistently, change happens when people stand up and say, “No more” and demand specific action.
Changed occurred when the women’s suffrage movement won voting rights for women by passing a constitutional amendment. Change occurred when the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s demanded laws that ended segregation and established voting rights. Change occurred when Stonewall Riots led to the ability of gay men and lesbians to congregate publically. (Yes, in many states, it was against the law for more than two or three gay men to be in the same place at the same time.) Change will occur again if there are attempts to change specific laws and policies that result in the mass incarceration of African American men, sub-standard education in urban environments, and single mothers working 60 hours a week at multiple jobs and still not being able to feed their children. But change will not occur because of the number of people who agree to a particular historic analysis or because a critical number of white people confess the sin of racism. Feelings of guilt do not lead to action but draw people toward self-preoccupation and greater inaction.
For me, bringing about a just society for all is rooted in the spiritual dimension of our lives. For any of us to be truly whole and to live in consonance with the mystery deep within us, we must work for equity among our brothers and sisters. This basic concept is reflected in the Golden Rule found in all of the world’s great religious traditions. For me it is enshrined in the words attributed to Jesus: whatsoever you to do the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me.
Yes, Black lives matter. They matter not because of a particular analysis of historical events and social patterns. Instead, Black lives matter because life is sacred. Fundamentally, Black lives matter is asking a simple and honest question: will society stop killing and subjugating people with dark skin? Yes, I want to stop that. So, what’s the plan? How do we stop it? What is this new civil rights agenda? I’m ready for change.
© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.