We are living a legacy of racial violence. Difference, in this case racial difference, then and now is understood as a problem -- a virus of sorts that must be controlled. The manner in which the USA has managed this process of control has often entailed the destruction of difference by brutalizing raced bodies whenever they are out of place or out of line.
The terror involved in this process of control isn't simply the threat of death, but the inability to anticipate what will trigger violent response to blackness. As with Philando Castile in Minnesota -- the land of "nice-ness" -- compliance can be deadly. Any sign of struggle -- even for one's breath -- can be understood as a threat to the safety of law enforcement and, as was the case for Eric Garner, can result in death. The jail cell as a place of confinement can also be a death chamber, as Sandra Bland's demise makes clear. There are no decipherable ground rules for survival if one happens to live in black flesh.
Police officers also have died because they were targeted within this matrix of racialized madness. This is tragic because loss of life is tragic. However, while recognizing the value of the life of those in "blue," it is important to acknowledge an important distinction. Context is vital: those police officers were killed tragically in the line of duty -- within a situation of risk they embrace everyday as part the job. It's a lamentable situation, but a recognized risk. Their families live with the anxiety produced by this situation, and we should keep their family members in our positive thoughts. Yet, those black men and women who have been killed by police officers died simply because they occupied time and space in a way considered threatening. They were in the wrong place, or they demanded respect and the exercise of their agency, or they perhaps were simply black in a land where white privilege codes all interactions. The anger felt by so many isn't simply the fact that some police officers have killers, but that these killers by and large have gone without facing consequences consistent with their senseless taking of life. Yes, not all police officers hate blacks, women and other "marginalized" groups, but those who do violence against these groups seem to operate without significant challenge and reprimand.
Angry, disillusioned, and agitated for good reason. So, we look for ways to speak to this injustice, to force change to a deadly system because "Black Lives Matter". We want everyone to know this, act on it, and establish new social-political dynamics that make this recognition a safeguard against abuse. Of course, in doing this work we fall back on strategies drawn from the civil rights movement -- march, make noise, call attention to circumstances and challenge the moral consciousness of the nation. I, like so many, benefited from this 20th century strategy, but it can't be denied that the fundamental logic of life in the United States hasn't changed as a consequence of those civil rights movement efforts.
That is the genius of white supremacy: it mutates and transforms, and it gives up a little in order to present the illusion of fundamental change. It finds ways to blame victims for the violence perpetuated against them. No, white supremacy and its child, white privilege, are the source and the cause. There is a desperate effort to find something in the past of the victim that will justify murder as the safeguarding of order and wellbeing. Yet, nothing can sanction the murder of black men and women whose crimes seem ill defined at best.
Activism toward change up to this point has been preoccupied with outcomes, with measurable and permanent changes that promote wellbeing for all. Strategies have assumed activism produces outcomes. Yet, while admirable in that people are putting themselves on the line, offering themselves for the sake of a larger purpose, such strategies have produced little fundamental change.
Buying into flawed ideas is the reason why so many are surprised or disappointed when racial violence committed by those sworn to serve and protect continues to occur, typically with limited legal consequences. There is an assumption this country can do better, that it wants to do better, that it is a good system used improperly. So, effort consistent and ongoing can make a difference. Such thinking is the basis for hope under girding ongoing protest and critique, and it draws its strength from an appeal to love.
The idea that love is the guiding force serving to bring U.S. citizens together is an old fallacy without historical evidence. This is theological slight of hand, a theologically driven wish without grounding. This nation is built on bodies brutalized and disregarded. Where is the love in that?
I understand there is some sense of comfort -- a type of space away from the chaos of life -- in the claim that religion in the form of love-talk points to the answer. "If we can only get back to loving each other," so many lament in a variety of ways. This is said as if religion is a type of protective Teflon coating that has prevented hate, fear and violence from actually penetrating the core values of the nation. And because of this coating, evil and injustice can be removed, the democratic process exercised, and life improved. However, such thinking fails to really consider the biblical text from which its advocates claim it is drawn. But what is to be made of the violence, the divinely sanctioned destruction of life that marks the sacred texts so quickly quoted (out of context)? If it is a love, it is love for an abuser who damages without taking responsibility for the violence. It is a love that positions the abused as the reason for the abuse. Isn't this logic found in some of the responses to the Black Lives Matter movement and other organized efforts for change? Isn't this thinking present in the vocalized assumption that protestors bring violence on themselves through their "disruptive" and divisive behavior?
These states have never been united based on a common love for humankind, for a deep and abiding high regard for the "other." Sure, there are moments of kindness called love in action, but these have been fleeting and with limited impact. No, this nation was founded on and continues to operate based on a concern with the utility of the "other," of a high suspicion toward difference and a normalizing of whiteness. "This land is your land; this land is my land," is a statement of hope but not fact.
There is a question we've ignored for too long. It is a question that challenges our optimism and demands confrontation with what has been the tragic nature of life for too many in the United States. How do we advance the cause of racial justice if the "system" is fundamentally flawed and hopelessly tied to white supremacy?
Centuries of scenarios with racialized "minorities" disregarded and brutalized forces this question. And, I believe, this question demands attention to new ways of thinking and struggling against injustice. I end with a few ways to rethink and reposition our challenge to injustice:
1. Develop awareness and recognize the historical lineage of racial injustice that under girds the advancement of the United States. Our technological advances simply allow us to witness this injustice in real time and unfiltered;
2. The system of white supremacy self-corrects in response to challenge, and it does so in a way that preserves its fundamental elements and logic. It gathers information and adjusts accordingly;
3. Related to point "2", outcome driven strategies assume the ability to end systems of injustice through struggle. It's time to de-privilege outcome driven strategies and move toward a struggle centered approach;
4. Struggle centered approaches recognize we may never destroy systems of injustice in ways that can constitute what we mean typically by "freedom," "liberation" or "justice". Rather than measuring "success" in light of destruction of the elemental nature of this troubled system, it is more useful to see in struggle our success. In our ability to foster greater awareness, to expose injustice, we find something of our agency, of our humanity, and of our fundamental worth and value. And we capture this sense of ourselves and ourselves in relationship to others all the while knowing that the system will adjust and we will have to continue to struggle. We should understand "liberation" not as an outcome but rather as a process, a process of perpetual rebellion against injustice;
5. We need a new vocabulary to describe and analyze our social situation and our struggle against it. Old theological driven vocabulary is too narrow, too confined, too drawn from a view of life as resolve by forces other than our own efforts, and it takes as its guide an unchallengeable force. Developing this new way of naming and describing requires the unleashing of our imaginations. We must privilege thinking and doing that has organic connection and commitment to clear description and an embrace of life's tensions and paradoxes -- recognizing within that marginal space we have our best chance of seeing more clearly. I'm suggesting here that old institutional allies -- e.g., churches -- are insufficient partners, and in their place we need more defuse approaches and structures of resistance that aren't so grounded in the very approach to life (e.g., "insider" groups vs. "outsider" groups) that result in the murders we lament.
We struggle against injustice and in that struggling we find something that keeps us moving despite it all.