'Can we switch for just one day?' my friend Sean jokingly asked me as we were working out at the gym. 'No, way' I said firmly. You see, Sean is black and I am white and Sean was suggesting that we swap races. In his plea, Sean was none-too-subtly commenting that living life as a white man might be easier than living as a black man. In my unwillingness to switch, I acknowledged the privilege -- and safety -- that comes with being a white person in 21st century America.
There are a lot of events vying to occupy the American mind these days such as Gaza, Iraq, Ukraine, the immigration crisis, hate crimes against Sikhs, Ebola, and Robin Williams' death. But in one way, the ability to switch among these traumas is a white person's 'luxury.' For Sean, and for many black Americans, the recent spate of black male deaths at the hands of police in America is forced to occupy the primary place.
There is an epidemic in this country and its victims are black men. Eric Garner died after being put in a stranglehold in Staten Island in New York City, Michael Brown, was an 18-year-old teenager killed in Ferguson, MO, and Ezell Ford was killed while reportedly lying down in the street in Los Angeles.
Black Americans are rightfully outraged, but it will require all Americans to be mobilized before the racism that undergirds these killings will end and the deaths along with it. White Americans like me have to stop channel surfing all the outrageously bad news from around the world and focus on the death that is happening in our own cities to our fellow Americans.
I spoke to Rev. Tony Lee who is an African-American pastor at Community of Hope AME Church in Prince George's County, Maryland. Rev. Tony and I went to seminary together and he has been a colleague I trust to speak the truth to me about race in America. He called the recent deaths 'disturbing but not surprising.'
"The reason people are responding so strongly is that these are examples of daily antagonisms felt by black people on the street. This is part of a wider school-to-prison pipeline and the ghettoization and de-humanization of black bodies. Social media gets the word out much quicker and people are responding to dead black men on the streets in LA, Ferguson and NYC by saying 'wait, that is going on in our streets too.'"
But social media is part of the problem according to Rev. Lee. "The challenge is for this to become a movement not just a moment. People are expressing outrage with hashtags but they are not organizing. Movements need organizing."
Given that we are both pastors, I asked Rev. Lee what the church should do and he offered some very practical steps, including becoming advocates for police training, holding police departments legally accountable for deaths, and connecting with the efforts at a community level. Rev. Lee also pointed out positive organizations that are doing great 'movement' work like Black Youth Project that churches should be supporting and partnering with.
Rev. Lee was quick to mention that his church has positive relations with the local policing because they have been proactive in creating encounters where police can meet the community and the community can meet police -- not only in crucial moments when tensions are high -- but also during normal times when the two can see the best of each other.
According to Lee, the church also needs to reclaim and proclaim the narrative about the worth of black lives in the face of the criminalized depiction of black people on TV, movies and in music. The wider church should be involved in the celebration of the breadth and richness of the black experience.
I asked Rev. John Vaughn, Vice-President of Auburn Seminary, what kind of response he would like to see from white Americans. Rev. Vaughn responded via email that he hoped his white friends would be vocal and articulate why these killings are not 'yet another isolated incident' and 'explore the premise that racism is not a thing of the past.' Perhaps most importantly: "Listen to your friends and colleagues of color about their experiences and analysis of racism in America."
I also pressed Rev. Lee on what he would like to tell white Americans on how to show solidarity. I was humbled by his response:
We need to lock arms amidst all of this. If the police feel they are above the law with any one group, they will feel they are above the law with others. We need to learn from the civil rights movement. It wasn't just black folks, it was everybody, because it wasn't a black problem it was a moral issue. We are remembering 40 years after the Freedom Summer. That wasn't just black people risking their lives, it was a community that went down to Mississippi because they knew that when any group within the nation is marginalized then we can't be the nation we want to be.
The way I translate Rev. Lee's generous invitation is 'show up.' White people need to get off the computer and get involved with our voices, feet, votes and resources to help make sure that this epidemic of black deaths in America ends. This is not a 'black problem,' it is an American problem and it will take all of us working together to solve it.