Silence is not an Option: The Murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile

Silence is not an Option: The Murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile
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Alton Sterling, left, and Philando Castile were both shot and killed by police this week.
Alton Sterling, left, and Philando Castile were both shot and killed by police this week.
(Alton Sterling/Philando Castile/Facebook

In a world where walls keep breaking relationships, we need to sit back and examine where we have come from and where we are going. During this election cycle, we have seen and heard that Donald Trump wants to build a wall the US Mexican border. This is not good. It is ugly. But what he is narrating is not just his maniac viewpoint, he is voicing the racism that is ingrained in our country.

Racism is ugly. It destroys lives and it is killing our nation. Racism is based on white supremacy—the belief that whites are superior to other people. The systems and structures of U.S. society was created based on this belief and to reinforce this belief. Racism others and marginalizes people who are not seen as white.

History shows that the peoples marginalized by racism ebb and flow with history. Once, Italians, Polish, and Irish immigrants were marginalized. Now, those ethnicities have been annealed into the western European block of Caucasians, allied against African-Americans, Hispanics/Latina, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. Muslims and Sikhs have also been racialized and marginalized. The pervasive reality of racism will often lead people pushed to the margins to believe its message and internalize oppression. Racism, like a disease, will seep into one’s existence and can be undetected as it presents itself as a guise for how society exists in the western world.

Racism claimed the lives of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile this week. These blatant executions of black men by police officers are extensions of the violence that sustains the white supremacy and systematic racism which has dominated this country from its birth. In addition to the enslavement of Africans, this country was built on genocide of the Native Americans. This policy is rooted in colonialism that led to the appropriation of the land and resources of the Native Americans.

White Euro-centric Christianity also played a role in this genocide as it spread the idea that the Native Americans who did not convert were in some way evil. One result was the near destruction of rich and diverse Native American cultures, spiritualities and religions.

We need to examine our past to see how we are to move to the future. The police are supposed to protect us but too often the system seems designed to maintain the status quo of racism as police profile people of color, judges have their hands bound by unfair mandatory-sentencing laws, and jails exist for profit. Private prisons use prison labor to make money and laws politically disenfranchise those who have been convicted. Some 5.8 million ex-felons can’t vote. The journey from profiling to extensive prison time to political disenfranchisement is a tortuous journey. As we recognize the institutional inequalities in our system, we must transform the conversation and the agenda from “freedom” to “equal opportunity” to “equality.”

The system of mass incarceration with its exploitation and disenfranchisement provides a reminder that racism has always been institutionalized. The “separate but equal” doctrine in education and the internment of thousands of ethnic Japanese during WW II are other examples institutional racism. Racism promotes domination of the vulnerable by a privileged group in the economic, social, cultural, and intellectual spheres.[1] It is built into the systems and structures of society that shape individual actions and expressions.

As we move into this election cycle and hear the racism perpetuated by Trump, we must stop the hate speech and work towards inclusion, love and embrace. We as a country need to renew our efforts to address white supremacy and the hatred and violence racism it creates. This involves loving our neighbor, including those from whom we differ. It involves reshaping values and beliefs and transforming systems and structures. We do not have to choose between reshaping values and transforming systems. We cannot. Both are needed.

Many people have worked hard and long and well to address racism. Strides have been made. But much work remains. Silence and inactivity on racism is not an option. It never has been. Now is the time to grieve, to revive our commitment, and to renew our efforts to eradicate racism and build a country where all are equally welcomed and valued.

[1] Fumitaka Matsuoka, The Color of Faith: Building Community in a Multiracial Society (Cleveland: United Church Press, 1998), 3.

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