Every day, it seems, I bear witness to the reality that rights to humanity are not afforded to everyone in this country. Every day as I face the world, I see life being snatched away from men, women, and children simply because they are black. This fate is no respecter of persons in that it does not matter how wealthy, how poor, how saved, how pagan, how educated, how uninformed one is – so long as you are black in this country, you run the risk of being accosted and harassed by the police or shot by unsuspecting terrorists in your own house of worship.
This is the point that I really wanted to establish in my last piece, “Opportunity Gap? The Only Opportunity We Lack is an Opportunity to Live.” So often I find that in conversations about racial justice, the discussion focuses on improving economic opportunity for black people. Don’t get me wrong, this is important! We need access to jobs, housing, education and so much more. However, the crux of this issue is not that we lack these things; the problem is that we lack the opportunity to fully live. In fact, it is because we do not have complete and total access to life that we sometimes lack the financial wherewithal to live well.
How do we undo this? Is it even possible to turn back the clocks of time and live as we did before blacks were taken hostage and brought to the American soil? Probably not, racism and slavery has left an indelible mark on each and every one of our souls – black and white alike – so that it very much defines and characterizes who were are as Americans. But, I believe that we can be healed so that our collective humanity as Americans is restored.
Our healing won’t come easy, true transformation never does. It will take us, all of us, looking deeply at the situation before us and accessing the damage that has been done. We must consider how we got here, what were the layers that went into crafting this false narrative of racial superiority and inferiority? As I previously indicated, the perfect combination of laws, science, and religion, were instrumental in creating the current conditions. If these things were what led to our current reality, they must also be faced in order to secure a future where blacks are fully embraced and humanized.
Let us first address the things that need to shift in laws and policies. Before doing so, it would be helpful to understand that laws are not moral documents but documents that limit and control the behavior of a particular group or people. I make this case in a recent blog post, the Irrational Politics of Law, drawing from the stories of Daniel and Mordecai in the Old Testament to explain how law can be used intentionally and unintentionally to discriminate against people:
In Daniel and Mordecai, we see how the law can be used to inhibit a people whose existence threatens the state. The law, in instances as such, is nothing more than a tool to ensure that the interests of the powerful remain intact. The law, therefore, is not a just, moral document. Instead, it can be a representation of pure evil, something to be fought against rather than obeyed.
As police brutality, mass incarceration, and racial profiling continue to rob our communities of our black men, women, and children, for wearing hoodies, asking for help, running away when sensing danger, selling cigarettes, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, fighting for one’s rights, it is clear that the laws of the land are designed similarly to the ones of the Persian empire. The laws that are being erected are there, not to ensure moral behavior, but to severely inhibit black people so that we are either behind bars, dead, or so extremely poor and disillusioned that our existence does not disrupt the power structure of the state.
In America, laws have often been used to limit the ability of black Americans from moving and existing freely in the American society. The War on Drugs was one law which unjustly profiled, arrested, and sometimes killed black people for possessing small amounts of illegal substances. And in the most extreme, desperate cases, drugs were planted on people so that there would be an excuse to profile, harass and arrest. Yet the war was announced prior to there actually being a presence of these drugs in society. The plan was clear: cripple the vitality of the black community, restrict our movement, and silence our leaders. Time would fail me if I began to unravel the immediate and lasting effects of this war. What I will say is that living through the crack years of the 1990s was absolute hell. Laws like this do not need to be reformed but revoked all together in order to grant freedom and access to black Americans (and no, legalizing marijuana is not the answer here. Opportunists!).
Public policy, when designed and implemented with race in mind, can be a great tool in addressing the inequities that our unjust laws have produced. This is what much of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s aimed to do. Had this legislation been able to operate as it intended and lift the burdens of black Americans, society would look much different than it does today. But the beast of racism wouldn’t let it. In the words of the illustrious Malcolm X, ‘Racism is like a cadillac, they bring out a new model every year.’ The American society needs to commit itself to stop inventing new, more insidious forms of racism and allow the public policies that can reduce racial inequities to work.
While the work of Carl Von Linneaus was foundational in making the case for a hierarchy of races among humans, any scientist worth their salt knows that this is simply not true. And Bill Nye is certainly worth a lot of salt. According to Nye, there is no scientific basis that supports race whatsoever. In fact, as Nye so eloquently puts it, all of humanity originates from the same place – East Africa. The differences among us can only be attributed to migration patterns and the effects of ultraviolet light on the skin.
PBS documentary, Race: the Power of An Illusion, supports Nye’s thesis. The documentary which draws on the expertise of researchers, scientists and more, also concludes that any genetic differences between us are not based on the color of one’s skin. “85 percent of all the variation among human beings is between any two individuals within a local population…any two individuals in any so-called race may be as different from each other from any individual in another so-called race.” To substantiate this claim, a group of students representing various cultural and racial categories, tested their DNA to see who they were most like and who they were most different from. Prior to receiving the results, the students assumed that they would be most like their peers who were from their same racial and cultural group. Yet they discovered that genetically speaking they were as similar to those within their racial group as they are to those without.
In spite of the work that has been done to prove that the idea of race is not supported by science, American society operates as if it holds true. It is so ingrained in this country’s ethos that scientific data alone cannot put an end to this myth that has endured for centuries. Late last year, I had a conversation with someone who wanted my opinion on research they were conducting about health outcomes and differences between people of color and whites. I spent at least ten agonizing minutes trying to explain that the differences had nothing to do with genetic makeup or biology because race is artificial. But he kept going there, so clueless to the fact that the differences in health outcomes had everything to do with racial disparities, environmental injustice, and concentrated poverty. When I concluded our conversation stating that his research was faulty and unscientific, he blew me off. Facts alone cannot change hearts and minds. But I know something that can.
As I mentioned above, religion – and specifically American Christianity – also played a role in sanctioning slavery and the perpetual dehumanization of black bodies. The same documentation that made it theologically permissible to exploit and colonize Native Americans supported slavery. While this has historically been the case in our country, I am also convinced that true Christianity that is not marked by white supremacy and colonialism has the capacity to change attitudes, substantiate scientific research and lift up good policy that ensures that blacks, along with every other disinvested group, are treated in an equitable and just manner. Essentially I believe that the Church, through Christ, is able to reaffirm the humanity of black Americans and say to a sadistic society that racism has to end. In an age of colorblindness and #BlackLivesMatter, this is what we desperately need. In my next piece, I will explain how. Hang around!