Balancing Act: Facing Reality about Racism and Still Maintaining Hope

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Racism is alive and well in the United States. Those who were in denial about it before for one reason or another, must come to grips with this sobering reality post 2016 election. We have not progressed our way out of it as many have eagerly but ignorantly imagined. Nor have we come remotely close to dismantling it, in spite of all of our good, earnest efforts spanning generations. While political pundits analyze so many different components of the election results, all with varying and sometimes contradictory statements, one piece of truth that continues to bear out is that racism is the culprit laying at the root of the tree.

Let me be expressly clear about what I am and am not saying. I am not saying that one political party is racist and the other not. Both Republicans and Democrats embody deeply racist ideologies and both at times, can present policy platforms that appear to help vulnerable people while simultaneously screwing them over. And I am not saying that the other candidate was America’s salvation in any way – she represented more of the status quo way of doing things than any substantive change in either direction. And I am not saying that everyone who voted for the president-elect is necessarily racist, though I have some pointed questions for those who did. What I am saying is that the man who ran on a platform that was openly and explicitly crass towards African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and women – just to name a few – won. What I am saying is that the man who – without specifics – proposed building walls and banning people of a particular faith, just secured 304 electoral votes. What I am saying is that the man who received the endorsement of a known terrorist organization, is slated to become the next president of the United States. In just a few more days. God have mercy on us all!

To me this reaffirms this nation’s historic roots. In spite of all of the work that activists, faith leaders, community residents, academics, journalists, and even government allies have done over the last eight years – not to mention the work spanning hundreds of years which made the last eight years possible – racism is rearing its ugly head, insisting its pre-eminence and staking its claim on the United States’ soil, land, and air. Racism, the manner by which this country was built since it was stolen from American Indians, is here to stay. It is the only way that this country can survive – the entire nation’s economy, power, and way of being in the world exists only because racism exists. It is the nexus by which every other thing in this nation holds together.

Because it is the way of doing things in the United States, all of the effort that we put into uprooting this awful evil often seems to be ineffective. Sure, there may be short terms wins along the way evidenced through policy change and shifts in individual attitudes. But these wins, just as quickly as they come, can disappear when the political climate shifts, the economy fails, or when people simply grow tired of doing the right thing. When it is no longer expedient to do the right thing, when equity is no longer as appealing as it once was, when people forget all of the work that we have collectively put in to get us to this point, these wins – like voter rights and affirmative action – lose their effectiveness. They either lack enforcement metrics or laws change so that the metrics that secured equal rights are no longer valid as evidenced in the work to repeal Obamacare just this week.

It is very difficult to maintain hope in the face of such a reality. It’s not impossible, as with God all things are possible, but it is beyond challenging to keep imagining that liberation could actually be a tangible reality when this present-day system has endured for more than 500 years. Could this great imperialistic evil, that haunts our memories and threatens the future of our children and our children’s children – children who are increasingly of color as our nation’s demographics continue to change – come to an end so that we can all be free? Can we dismantle the spirit of white supremacy, that in the words of Toni Morrison causes people to do things that they otherwise would not do and abandon their sense of human dignity in the name of identity? “Much as they may hate their behavior, and know full well how craven it is, they are willing to kill small children attending Sunday school and slaughter churchgoers who invite a white boy to pray. Embarrassing as the obvious display of cowardice must be, they are willing to set fire to churches, and to start firing in them while the members are at prayer. And, shameful as such demonstrations of weakness are, they are willing to shoot black children in the street.” Is a reality beyond this current situation even plausible or are we merely deceiving ourselves?

Facesatthebottom2.jpgPermanence of Racism
I recently finished reading Derrick Bell’s ‘Faces at the Bottom of the Well.” Like December recently. I bought the book over a year ago and finally picked it up the week before the election. Perfect timing! Although it was written in 1992, I was struck by how relevant Bell’s analysis around the black experience was more than 20 years after he published the book.

One of the most compelling chapters in the book was the last one – the Space Traders. An allegory, it illustrated how in times of political and financial turmoil, black people are easily scapegoated for the nation’s problems while being simultaneously called on to fix the nation’s ills. In this particular story, visitors from another world visited the U.S. and promised the country financial resources, the means to clean up the climate, and other goods in exchange for its black citizens. Activists, journalists and other leaders representing different racial and religious backgrounds tried to make the moral case for denying the visitor’s offer. Business leaders also tried to make a financial case for resisting this great temptation, not in the name of morality but because of black citizen’s purchasing power. Some leaders who were worried about violating the constitution, even tried to make a legal case against the Space Trader’s offer.

In the end, politicians gave into their depraved lusts and took the visitor’s offer. They amended the constitution so that it was now legal, even honorable to exile a whole race of people – telling black citizens that they were now being enlisted in selective service to save the country. They shut down journalists who contradicted their narratives, published the names of Jewish leaders who were to secretly give black people refuge, and even published propaganda through religious leaders who could deceive their audiences into believing that this was the right thing. They even went as far as to criminalize and even kill blacks who tried to escape the country or who fought back. Nothing would keep them from securing the financial and material gain that could be theirs by turning over the country’s black citizens to God knows what fate met them ahead.

Fortunately, no visitors from outer space are coming to take any of us away! And still, the parallels between this allegory written more than 20 years ago and our present day reality are uncanny. While the sanctioned means of exploitation and oppression changes from generation to generation – slavery to convict leasing system to Jim Crow to mass incarceration to police brutality – the oppression of black people is part and parcel to this nation’s survival. And as the country becomes increasingly diverse the codified hatred of blacks has expanded to include everyone who is not white, and particularly, not a wealthy, white, able-bodied, heterosexual ‘Evangelical’ male.

Everyone outside of this narrow demographic has been blamed for the economic and social instability in our country, further proving that the struggle for human rights and survival is now a struggle shared by all of us – even the so-called disenfranchised whites who voted for him in the first place. Many of these – certainly not all – voted out of the desire to Make America Great Again. While the popular slogan never mentioned race, it was a dog-whistle that called out for days gone by when whites held more power.

But not all whites, let us remember that. Power, as much as it is divided along racial lines, is more greatly defined along economic ones. Race is not the foundation, the foundation is gross inequities and class divisions between wealthy whites and non wealthy whites. Race keeps those without resources from going after the wealthy, instead turning their attention to people of color of all economic classes. Race has been effective in warding off uprisings and political revolts as so commonly happened in Europe between the 14th and 16th centuries. And in order to hold on to economic power, the wealthy rally disenfranchised whites to put pressure on people of color. As Obama so eloquently stated in last week’s farewell speech, “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving (person of color), then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”

If this is it, and this is all we have, and if policies that promoted human rights can be taken away with the stroke of a pen, and if it is so seemingly easy to incite people to turn on each other, what, pray tell, can we hope in? How do we keep ourselves from becoming filled with utter despair and sadness as we see history repeat itself right before our eyes? How do we keep marching forward and stay stedfast on the course of justice, truth and righteousness when others around us, even in the household of faith, have seemed to lose sight of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a gospel that is “about God’s saving love that wants to restore all of humanity to full communion.”

A Reason to Hope
Unfortunately, many people have cast off hope. After seeing generations of their ancestors struggle and fight for the same basic human decency in which we strive for today, some have given up on the idea that things could actually improve. The unbelief, which manifests itself in various forms including nihilism and atheism, comes from a place of deep despair and hopelessness as a result of the continual failure of the system to change. And who can blame those who embrace such ideologies? It is not for wantonness and debasement that these choose unbelief, but rather out of desperation and pain. Persistent despair causes people to surrender hope in exchange for something tangible, something real in order to face reality for what it is. As the Word of God affirms, hope deferred makes the heart grow sick.

Still, I believe. For me, hope does not equate to a sense of false optimism, but it is a hope that is painfully aware of the current reality and still utterly convinced that another reality is possible. Though it may come off as mere foolishness to some, I sincerely do believe that change is not only possible but is on its way. You see, evil always resists the hardest right before a cataclysmic shift in the spirit. Remember the stories of Moses and Jesus, and how the ruling powers of their day both tried to extinguish the chance of deliverance through genocide and oppression? Similarly, in our time, the national and global intensity of oppression in this moment has to cause us to ask what the Spirit of God is about to do in this moment. Though we are prone to tremble and fear, we still have to understand that there is so much taking place in the spiritual world that we cannot see with our natural eyes. As hard as we are fighting for the cause of justice in the natural, we can trust that God is moving things in the supernatural. If He wasn’t, if things truly were not changing, if that moral arc of the universe was not ever more bending towards justice, peace, and reconciliation, Satan would not be fighting so hard. Satan fights because he is fighting a losing battle – he will not win, God’s peace, truth, and righteousness will prevail!

In that vein, I also hope because of the imminent return of Christ. Deep in my heart, I believe He is coming back to restore all of humanity to Himself, each other, and the environment. All of the relationships that were destroyed as a result of disobedience will be repaired and we will finally enjoy the fullness of His presence. In that return, the systems of this world will fall. Every empire built on the backs of the disenfranchised will not only be called into account but will also be done away with. You see, if Jesus is Savior and LORD, there is no way that any of the rulers in this world can occupy that space. Even the most powerful dictator will have to face the fact that they are not in charge and will be held accountable for how they marginalized vulnerable populations for the sake of financial and political gain.

I also hope because there are so many people who are rallying for justice. People of different races, ethnicities and creeds. People of different income and educational levels. People within the nation’s boarders and without. People of different genders and sexual orientations. People of different abilities. People of all different shapes and sizes. People of different religions and faith expressions. Even people of different political ideologies. All of us, in spite of our differences, are pursuing justice. Because of our differences, we may not all take up the same approach but the point is, each of us with our gifts, skills, and abilities are doing what we can to usher in peace and justice, and stomp out evil and oppression. The sheer vastness of this coalition of folks also tells me that there are more people intent on securing righteousness than those bent on evil. Evil, at times, may seem to be more powerful. Because of its reach, we may even begin to feel that we are outnumbered. But let us remember the apostle Paul’s admonition to the early church who faced persecution under the Roman occupation, saying “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew! Do you not know what the scripture says about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left and they are seeking my life!” 4 But what was the divine response to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand people who have not bent the knee to Baal (Romans 11.2 – 4, NET).”

There are more of us than there are of them. Though those bent on evil may wield power and resources, we are mighty if we stand together under the common bond of love, mercy, justice, and reconciliation. As the words of the 1973 Chilean socialist movement declared, ‘El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido (The People United, Will Never Be Defeated)! If we stand united in purpose, even if our approaches and methodologies differ, we will not only be able to stand against the present day threat to our collective human rights, but we can stand against structural racism and capitalism that continues to devastate our beings and witness the unfolding of the kin-dom of God before our very eyes!

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This Advent: Christ Is Here – May He Be Found In Us

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As we finish off leftovers from Thanksgiving, we usher in another season of advent. And if you are like me, you too have also been wondering what this season means in light of the current political moment. Getting wrapped up in the typical holiday festivities and cheer is tempting – I want my children to have good memories about baking cookies, decorating the Christmas Tree, and of course, opening presents early Christmas morning. And at the same time, this moment demands a level of reflection and responsiveness that is not found in glasses of thick Eggnog, fragrant Christmas wreaths, or even Candlelight Vigils capped by melodic choruses of Silent Night.

Whether we appreciate it or not, this season of advent has already taken on a different meaning. So many people in our nation alone, are hurting and genuinely afraid of what awaits them after this season comes to a close. Our friends throughout the world also wonder the same. Coincidentally, the end of advent coincides with the beginning of a new presidential administration which has already made great promises to hurt and harm the marginalized among us – all for personal economic power and self-aggrandizement it turns out. How will this new administration affect the lives of the already exploited among us? Will they be deported, forced to go back to lands that our nation’s foreign policies have decimated? Will they be forced to put their names of a government registry because of their faith, once again scapegoated for this country’s crimes against humanity? Will they be killed without cause and vindication, either by police or those robbed in hoods of the heart? Will they be sexually harassed without their perpetrators ever seeing their day in court, forced to carry to full term babies born through such evil acts of rape and incest? Will they lose the little bit of land that they have managed to hang onto for all of these years, called trespassers on property that rightfully belongs to them? These are the fears that govern the hearts and minds of the vulnerable among us. What does the advent of Christ mean in such a time as this?

If we are paying attention to how things are unfolding around us while simultaneously studying God’s Word, we would understand that in a time just like this Christ came down. It was during a similar moment marked by intense marginalization and colonial rule, that Jesus was born. And fortunately for us, this Jesus was not born into prestige, resources, or any semblance of power. He was born into a community that had little clout which was being held captive by an empire that thirsted on the perpetual exploitation of not only His people, but other vulnerable communities within its reach.

So when the Bible says that Jesus identifies with our weakness, it means this quite literally. Like many of us, Jesus was an undocumented refugee. Like many of us, Jesus was born out of wedlock to parents who didn’t have enough money for a decent room at a respectable hotel. Like many of us, Jesus was a social outcast because of his ethnicity. Like many of us, Jesus lived in a despotic police state. Like many of us, Jesus did not have rights to free speech. Like many of us, every move that Jesus made was watched. Like many of us, Jesus was considered threatening to the ruling powers of his day to the point that they felt compelled to silence Him.

Advent then, has never been about Jesus identifying with the powerful; it has always and will forever be about Jesus living in absolute solidarity with the vulnerable and weak. This is what the incarnation is all about: the Son of God taking on human flesh and the utter finiteness of that human flesh in a world built of destruction. He could have easily been born to a family of means or during a time when the Jews were in a better political situation. Instead, he chose a family who had access to little resources in a time when His people were prisoners in their own home.

Jesus is rightly called Immanuel, God with us. God with us in the struggle, God with us in the righteous work to affirm the humanity of those who are under threat of losing it every day. He sees the fight we are up against for survival, and instead of standing away from it, He enters into that fight at the deepest level. He’s more than an ally because the same chains that bind others, He has allowed to bind Himself. Working on behalf of our liberation, He also works on behalf of His own, declaring to Himself the same salvation that He pronounces on the world around.

Jesus is not only with us, He delivers us. He does not simply fight for fighting sakes, He actually breaks the chains that keep us all imprisoned to an imperial system hell bent on our demise. He does this subversively, allowing Himself to be imprisoned, beat, and ultimately executed by empire. Rising from the dead, He proves that He has ultimately defeated and conquered them all. Every hint of power that satiates on the oppression of the weak, He destroys. Every idea that insists that it is Lord over creation, He makes irrelevant. He heals the sick. He raises the dead. He brings utter and complete liberty to those who cry out for rescue, proving that He is not only LORD of all, but Savior of all too.

Reflecting on the life and ministry of Jesus in this context gives me hope. For advent has never been about the wreaths and Christmas Carols. Though nice, it has always been about remembering what Christ initially came to do so that His actions would be found in us. And today, we desperately need to have His actions magnified in us – for how else will we stand and protect the rights of our brothers and sisters, our very own selves even, unless we commit to modeling our thoughts and actions after His? This moment necessitates that all of those who are called by Christ, those who say that they are His, to stand for truth and righteousness, forsaking all evil that claims supremacy and that exalts itself against the knowledge of Christ – even if that evil exists within our own selves. 

On this day, may the very image of Christ be reflected in us as we likewise enter into the struggle of the oppressed. May God be magnified in us as we fight for the rights of those are at risk of losing them for the sake of material gain. May the Kingdom of God draw a little closer to this earth as we pronounce salvation for those who suffer and grieve in this present moment. To them belong the Kingdom, to them belong the Kingdom.

Jesus, may you come ever so quickly!

Lament Song


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I woke up Wednesday morning feeling lost and confused, remorseful over the events of the night before. So much shame and a deep feeling of wantonness filled my chest, comprising the air circulating in my lungs trying to keep me alive. My head ached, my body was sore, and I wanted to vomit up the evils that threatened to overtake the dark-skinned body that I inhabit, telling me that I don’t belong.

For years, I have felt this though sometimes in less subtle ways. Being a product of the 80s, my grandmother’s realities were not my own. After all, I have always lived in the progressive north and was born after monumental civil rights legislation was passed. At the same time, racism has always been part and parcel of my life’s experience, whether I lived in the hood or the burbs. Mass incarceration. Rodney King. Massive unemployment. Displacement and gentrification. Police Brutality. And discrimination. These are all daily realities of living in this black body, here in this country that claims to love God so much while it despises God’s very creation.

But Wednesday, Wednesday the day after that night that we have all been dreading more than 18 months, further intensified what I have always feared. In many ways, it made the covert nature of racism more overt as the nation elected a fascist, white supremacist for president. This man was clear about his intentions for people that represent any difference from the cis-gendered white male identity, you know – Black, American Indians, Asian Pacific Islanders, Women, Differently Abled, Queer and Gender Nonconforming folks. 

And his people salivated for it, no matter how much we tried to reason. They ignored our pleas and appeals to the higher conscious and Christian morality. They so much lusted for the power of days gone by when it was okay to call people Nigger and lynch them in the next moment. They craved the freedom that comes with male patriarchy and treating women as sex objects with no personal ideas and inclinations. To them, this was liberation, they only felt secure in their humanity when they stripped others of theirs. They denied the image of God in people who look like me, insisting that in a world of 7 billion people their’s were the only lives who truly mattered. So they refused the call of the prophets and priests and the saints among us, quenching the spirit of God begging to break forth in themselves in order to satisfy the depraved yearnings of the flesh.  

So now. We grieve. We lament. We the black ones whose lives are already under attack every single day. We the American Indian ones who are fighting to hold on to the last bit of land we have and save our earth. We the undocumented ones – Asian, Latino, African, and Caribbean – who fear instant deportation, whose children are too scared to go to school, who are afraid to even comprehend what it is to go back to their own countries of origin that have been decimated through US foreign policy, trade, and war. We the queer ones, whose bodies people just won’t allow to exist. We the Muslims who’ve been called unworthy, who’ve been labeled terrorists, who are stopped and profiled before we even leave our homes. We the women, who already experience assault, whose bodies are already over sexualized, whose voices are already silenced because no one dares to believe our stories are real.

We are the voices calling out from the margins, raising our voices to denounce America’s sin. We weep because you have chosen the fleeting pleasures of whiteness over our existence. We wail because you used religion to cover up your hatred of us, insisting that this was about God when in fact, you denied him over and over again. We shake our fists in rage, fearing what may happen, agonizing over what has already happened to our babies, our folks, and our kin as the hoods come on and the racists, who we’ve always known to be racist, come out of hiding to denigrate our existence. 

And yet.

We forgive you. And we will resist you. Our liberation and even yours, is tied to our resistance of this great evil that eats at your soul.

We love you. And we will rebuke you. For if we do not rebuke, we do not love.

We wish to be reconciled to you. And we will protest you. For reconciliation cannot occur without a prophetic telling of our pain and suffering. If Christ could not reconcile us to God without calling us into repentance, you should expect nothing less from us. We call, no we implore you to repent and be delivered from the sin of white supremacy that steals our land, kills our bodies, rapes our women, and denies our sons and daughters the opportunity to be free.

In our liberation, you will find deliverance.

In our liberation, you will find deliverance.

In our liberation, you will find deliverance.

Salvation

There is no power gained by oppressing others.
No glory.
No honor.
No peace.
No joy.
Only terror, the terror of living under the tyranny that your own hands have wrought. The agony of your own oppressive behavior released upon the earth, threatening breath, air, water, land.
Us.

Be delivered from the memory of your tyranny that haunts your bones and that keeps you awake. That chills your soul.
And step into the light with the rest of us.
Where goodness flows like milk and loves tastes as sweet as honey.

This is where salvation is.

White Church So Silent, White Church So Complicit

*A version of this post has been posted at RaceRhetoricandReligion.

14479586_1272218729477199_2797807119461754697_nOn Wednesday, I awoke to the news that Bethel University’s St. Paul, Minnesota campus – the school I attended for Seminary – experienced a racist incident. The Kresge rock that had been recently painted in solidarity with Black Lives Matter was now painted over in white paint with the message “BLM = Racist, Blue Lives Matter.” As I scrolled through my facebook feed, searching for clarity about the event, I became angry but I wasn’t necessarily surprised. Over the years, Bethel has experienced its share of attacks against Black people specifically and other populations of color as well.*

Back in 2003, there were a slew of incidents targeting people of color on campus which included one student’s car being vandalized with racial slurs. On the night that Obama was elected into office in November 2008, racist language was once against used against black students in reference to the president elect. Then in 2010, a white student dressed in blackface and impersonated Lil Wayne for a campus AIDS fundraiser. Disgusting, right? And sprinkled in between all of these incidents is your typical share of microaggressions and Minnesota Nice covert racism. So once again, I wasn’t surprised. But I was reminded that the school where I spent four years of my life, had a lot of work to do in terms of being an institution that would stand up for racial justice.

But isn’t Bethel University a Christian college?

Yes, it is. Since 1871, this school has been preparing future pastors, lay leaders, administrators, businessmen and women, nurses, and so many others, how to integrate their faith experience into their professions. And while it can be said that not everyone on that campus professes to be a believer, the vast majority of students subscribe to the Christian faith. And yet, these same Christians, who are studying theology and serving in their churches on Sunday, are guilty of racism. How do we reconcile these two realities?

I used to ask myself the same question when I first moved to Minnesota from Milwaukee, WI and attended another Christian college, North Central University, for undergrad. For the very first time in my life, I was surrounded by a sea of white people on a consistent basis – black people were few and far between. Also, for the very first time in my life, I felt as if I was being discriminated against because of my race – the fact that I felt more excluded at a Christian college than I did in one of America’s most segregated cities ought to say something!

In the North Central bubble, as students so affectionately called it, I felt isolated and alone. For nearly two years, I struggled to make and maintain friendships with roommates and classmates. Between the summer of my freshman and sophomore year, I watched my roommates help move each other’s stuff to another dormitory on campus and left me to carry my stuff alone. When I ended up in the emergency room due to a bad allergic reaction to God knows what, the only person who helped me in my moment of desperation was a Sri Lankan woman who happened to live down the hall (thank God for her). When I spent a holiday completely by myself, as all of my family lived in Wisconsin, and the church I attended was just as white as my school, I seriously contemplated hurting myself because the pain of isolation hurt so bad.

Time and time again, no matter how hard I tried, I felt excluded, talked about and ridiculed at NCU. These feelings went on and on, in a Christian school, until I found a diverse church outside of campus that loved me for me, a dark-skinned African American woman. Once I found that place of refuge, I distanced myself from the school as much as possible and was there only to get my degree and leave. Other black students who encountered the same level of hostility at NCU didn’t bother completing their degree, they just left. I am no more brave than they were scared – we all make decisions to the best of our capacity with the resources and knowledge we have in the given moment.

It wasn’t until I learned the history of my denomination, the Assemblies of God, that I started to put things together. The isolation and racism that I experienced on my college campus, which was affiliated with the AG had everything to do with history of exclusion and racism within this body of believers. With intention, the AG broke away from the teachings of William Seymour, an African American man, who was the key leader in the Azuza Street Revival between 1906-1909. With intention, they defamed his leadership and said that it was ungodly for them to submit to it. With intention, they excluded blacks and latinos from their membership. With intention, they upheld the same bigotry and racism that was commonplace in America for far too long.

But it isn’t only the AG who has this tattered and torn history of racism, so many other Christian denominations in America do too. In fact, many churches and Christians themselves, have been complicit if not explicit actors in the terrorism against black lives throughout our country’s history. Everything, from the leadership structure to theology to the way it engages in politics to the way that it conflates the constitution with the Bible, suggests that Western Christianity and more specifically, the white Church, has a strong disregard if not flat out hatred, towards African Americans in this country. Which is why incidents, like those that occurred at Bethel on Wednesday are awful but not shocking.

The white Church’s history of complicity also explains why it, as an institution, remains silent as black bodies are continuously hunted and killed. Through all of the police killings in recent years, the white Church has literally nothing to say. #MichaelBrown. Nothing. #TamirRice. Zilch. #SandraBland. Nope. #PhilandoCastile. Who? Well, that is not exactly true. The white Church has been crying #AllLivesMatter, which sounds great in theory because yes Jesus died for all lives. But in practice, this chant is nothing more than a clever ruse to detract energy and focus from one of the most important movements of our time. Because if all lives truly mattered to the white church, they would not only turn up for our crucified sons and daughters, they would also rally against the senseless police killings of their own sons and daughters.

All Lives Matter lulls a church that is already asleep to the oppression of black people into a further state of hypnosis. And if the white church feigns unconsciousness, they can neither speak or act which is really their point – a clever ruse, right? Here’s the thing though: no matter how silent the white church is or ignorant it pretends to be about #BlackLivesMatter and its importance in this hour, God still holds it accountable. In the same way, that God called after Cain asking the whereabouts of his brother Abel, God calls out to the white church asking the whereabouts of its black brothers, sisters, and sons. Can you hear God calling? Or will you ignore Him, too?

*Thursday afternoon I had the awesome opportunity to participate in a prayer service led by two black students at the site where the racist incident had previously taken place. I am horrible at estimating numbers but it *feels* like hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and alumni showed up in solidarity with the black students on campus. The rock in question has been painted again (by the president and campus pastor) and now reads ‘Us for Us’ a message that the students chose.  

 

 

Charleston

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Your oppressors forced you to carry a cross,
That they fashioned with their own hands
That killed your loved ones and would eventually claim you.
They made you say, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do”
As they mocked and spat upon you,
And persisted in nailing you to that beautiful, wretched dogwood.

Every word you spoke in that moment was precious,
We knew that life was leaving you.
The more you tried to grasp it, the quicker it left
You did not understand that the confession would not buy you any more time.
And that soon enough, the oppressors would succeed in their task
Guilt-free.

400 years of oppression and pain undone as you lay dying,
Suffocating under the weight of conquest, slavery, murder, and Jim Crow.
You became the scapegoat for a nation that did not want to be saved.
They only wanted absolution.

I mourned for us that day.

The Danger of North Minneapolis’ Single Story: The Way We Talk About Black People Matters

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Show a people as one thing and only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Danger of a Single Story.

Dangerous. Crime ridden. Littered with trash and broken glass. Infested with miscreants and human vermin. Falling apart. According to a recent commentary in the Star Tribune, these are the characteristics that define North Minneapolis.

Unfortunately, the language and the sentiment expressed in the article are not new. North Minneapolis has a history of being associated with drugs, violence, and chronic poverty. A quick google search of the community accompanies words such as, ‘shooting,’ ‘crime,’ and ‘safety.’ Yet, these words are often racially coded euphemisms for describing black people so that the user of the word does not appear racist. And in North Minneapolis, where black people comprise of 43% of the community’s residents, those who are sympathetic to the same views that the article purports use these terms to talk about black people without naming them.

When many look at vibrant communities with a large population of black people, this is all they see. Such is the reason why black people in North Minneapolis and across our nation, regardless of income, education, or a host of other factors, are stopped and profiled by law enforcement. And it explains why, black people are assumed to be guilty of wrongdoing whether we are walking across the street, attending a child’s birthday party, or helping out a friend in distress – no matter which neighborhood we live in. It also points to the reason why black people living in a community with a high concentration of poverty are identified as the problem instead of the history of structural racism and policymaking that caused that poverty. Black people are left on the hook to not only solve a problem that the system of white supremacy created but that this same system continues to benefit from.

The Danger of a Single Story

But this single story of North Minneapolis – and the people who live in it – isn’t completely true. And most single stories about people, places, or things never are – they are usually limited in scope and reflect a narrative that is most convenient for those in power to tell. Think about places like Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Queens, NY, or where I am from, Milwaukee, WI – all of these places are heavily populated with black people who are only recognized for their poverty and crime. Growing up in one of the roughest parts of Milwaukee in the 1990s, I heard the same terms applied to North Minneapolis used to define my own community: ‘at risk,’ ‘thugs,’ ‘drug dealers,’ ‘murderers.’ Our neighborhood was so badly stigmatized that after church, my youth pastor would reluctantly drop me off at home and pull off before I even reached the front steps. Family members were concerned for their safety whenever they came over to eat dinner. When we first moved in, my step-grandfather bought us bars for our front door and insisted we get a dog. But the reality is that my neighborhood consisted of much more than its negative, pervasive stereotypes.

So does North Minneapolis.

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This is what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shows us in her TED Talk, Danger of a Single Story. In the talk, Adichie tells the story of Fide, her family’s hired help when she was a child. Upon hiring Fide, Adichie learned that his family was extremely poor. Her parents would send old clothes, food, and other goods to support Fide’s family. And as a means to control her own behavior, Adichie’s family would even  juxtapose her reality against Fide’s – “Don’t you know? People like Fidel’s family have nothing.”

Poverty was the only idea that Adichie ever entertained in relation to Fide and his family. Because they were poor, she never stopped to consider other facets of Fidel’s identity. Was he industrious? Was he interested in math or science? Was he good at soccer? Did he like to draw or build things? Was he a good cook? Did he have a sense of humor? These questions never crossed Adichie’s mind because all she had grown to recognize in someone like Fide was his level of poverty.

It was not until Adichie visited Fide’s village that she began to construct a new narrative about him and his family. Seeing artwork crafted by his mother forced her to abandon the monolithic framework in which she pigeonholed Fide and all who might represent him. At last, she was able to consider that while Fide was poor, he was also much more than that, which likewise opened up the possibility for her to connect with Fide as human equals instead of relating with him from a place of hegemony.

If people would allow their deeply held sentiments about black people to be stretched, like Adichie, they would begin to see us as equals and people deserving of the same access to rights and opportunities that are afforded to them. Such a framework would subsequently give them the ability to affirm the humanity of others and would likewise prevent them from exploiting it for personal or political gain. All of a sudden society would stop defining black residents in places like Chicago, Milwaukee, and North Minneapolis by crime and see us for all of the beauty, power, wisdom, and ingenuity that we carry.

Unfortunately, this framework is missing from the article in the Star Tribune. Instead, it validates another dehumanizing narrative that has dangerous consequences including further disinvestment. In the words of Dr. Bruce Corrie, professor of Concordia, “If I can devalue you and minimize your self worth, I can exploit you.” When the narrative that this article projects is maintained, developers are able to justify investments that push blacks and other residents of color outside of their neighborhoods; decisionmakers have a platform in which to intensify the presence of police officers in already heavily policed communities; and nonprofit agencies positioned to ‘help’ continuously examine these places through a lens of pity instead of seeing the innate power and beauty that is compellingly present.

Crafting a New Narrative
We need a new narrative that breaks beyond the despotic viewpoint of places like North Minneapolis and instead offers the complexly wonderful stories about these communities.

Of a truth, poverty and crime are realities in North Minneapolis. Yes, there are safety concerns. And yes, there is a level of despair because of decades of structural racism that has stripped the community of essential economic opportunities that are needed to survive. Systematic oppression and exploitation over four centuries has surely taken its toll on the black body in detrimental ways.

All of this is true.

And yet, North Minneapolis is also much more than that. Every time that I step into the community, this is what I see:

North Minneapolis is overflowing with a deep sense of cultural pride and a spirit of resiliency. Resiliency that dates back to the 1930s, when black people first started to settle there and began to build a community that withstood highway construction, redlining, environmental pollutants, and every other malady thrown their way under Minnesota’s version of Jim Crow policy.

There are bricks and mortar institutions, created by the community, for the community, under the leadership of the community including business and nonprofit organizations. Religious and cultural institutions. Workforce training and education centers. Restaurants, barber shops, playgrounds, and recreational spaces.

And the people. The people themselves are as rich and varied as in any other community – lawyers, students, artists, preachers, poets, politicians, janitors, doctors, activists, entrepreneurs, executive directors, sales associates, imams, architects, bikers, construction workers, healthcare professionals, consultants, videographers, and so much more. And these are black people!  

And there is so much love and connectivity. A trip to Avenue Eatery on Broadway guarantees that one will see at least five people either known personally or through professional circles. Every event feels like a family reunion of sorts – a place where everybody knows somebody. The sense of solidarity runs miles deep, something that was evident in the Jamar Clark protests this past fall.

This is just a small sliver of the allure that characterizes North Minneapolis. And these exist because the people, the same people which the article dehumanizes, made it happen. People are creating and recreating all that is good and wholesome about this community every single day. In fact, if people who held such demoralizing ideas toward North Minneapolis and other urban areas nationwide could see that, much of the crime and poverty concerns would be minimized.

It is time for society to open their eyes to the beauty that lies in places like North Minneapolis. Step beyond the framework that only validates the experience, expertise, and humanity of white people, and affirm the experience, expertise, and humanity of black people as well as other communities of color in this rich community. And lest we forget: North Minneapolis gave Prince to the world. That alone has to count for something!