Monday, August 24, 2015

Awakening to Enduring Racism

An exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry features a display of patterns found in nature: spirals, fractals, the golden mean, and Voronoi motifs. After seeing this visit, I began seeing similar designs everywhere. How was it that I hadn’t really noticed them until they were pointed out to me?

The same goes for racial bias happening throughout our culture. Until Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow (Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 2010/2012), I wasn’t aware how racial bias permeates every step of the criminal justice system. Until Bryan Stevenson wrote Just Mercy (A Story of Justice and Redemption, 2014), I didn’t realize how innocent people end up on death row, all because of profound racism. 

Until Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about the systematic exploitation of blacks migrating to Chicago ("The Case for Reparations" in The Atlantic, June 2014), I had no inkling how so many black families couldn’t raise the financial capital to build homes and businesses, and were cheated out of ‘The American Dream,’ only to be thrown together in massive housing projects. The ironically painful story of how Chicago became segregated becomes so much more clear--and ugly. 

Until acquaintances of mine in the Community Renewal Society shared with me the horrors of being charged with ten- to fifteen-year prison sentences for getting caught with drugs as young adults, while the same drugs were tolerated at predominantly white colleges, the essential truth of racism still seemed theoretical. But these are people I know and respect. Hearing their personal stories vividly illustrates the victimization caused by racism.

Until hearing these accounts, along with stories such as those Coates shares in Between the World and Me, as well as from other readings, from observation, and from listening to the personal struggles of people I know and love, I didn’t understand just how far so many black people must go to avoid confrontation with the police. 

Until the murder of unarmed black people by over-aggressive police officers, until the videos of Sandra Bland being arrested in Texas, Eric Garner being suffocated in New York City, and Walter Scott being gunned down from the back in South Carolina, only to have the police officer put a Taser gun next to his bleeding body and claim self-defense in his report, until these egregious behaviors were caught on film, I, as a white person, was blinded by ignorance.

And now that I am aware -- just like becoming aware of the shapes and designs in the Voronoi exhibit at the Chicago Museum -- I recognize the pattern of racism much more often. And so are others.

It is in the midst of this cultural awakening, this cultural grappling and heaving, that I believe the most critical civil rights work of our time is being done, particularly here in Chicago with “Black Lives Matter.”

As a pastor of a vibrant and socially active Oak Park congregation, I invariably want to provide pastoral and prophetic leadership for my people and the region. But more than that, I want to contribute to the emerging movement that truly declares that Black Lives Matter. I seek to participate in and cultivate networks of thoughtful, committed people here in the Chicagoland western corridor to foster compassion, equity, and justice in human relations.

The next step for me is sitting down with other pastors on the west side of Chicago and the corridor that includes Oak Park and the communities to our west, both individually and in networks. I am grateful for the Community Renewal Society and The Leaders Network that prioritize the voices of those most vulnerable among us. I want to discover other networks of people of compassion and people of faith in our region calling for justice. 

There is great need for people like you and me to gather in solidarity with others seeking to make real change. As opportunities emerge to bring people of all colors together in order to examine and work for racial justice, I will enthusiastically share such collective calls to action! 

1 comment:

  1. Alan - Thanks for expressing what many of us at Unity Temple discovered by participating with the Community Renewal Society, Faith In Place, ARISE Chicago, PREVAIL and other action groups. We met real people and heard their stories about their direct experiences of racism, bigotry and prejudice. These experiences changed me. More than just gaining knowledge, and changing my opinions, I am moved positively to action to change how the world works. Building relationships with others different from us, people we never would have met before, is probably the best way to make change in our world. - Rich Pokorny