White, Black, and Duke Blue

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If you have ever tried to drive onto the Duke campus on game day for anything other than the game, you probably have some strong feelings about Duke Parking and Transportation Services. I remember trying to get onto campus early last spring. It was my one chance to get to the Divinity library to research for a class assignment. I was stopped and interrogated by the person directing traffic. He finally let me go, but only after giving me a condescending lecture: “Next time, check and see if there is a basketball game before trying to come onto campus…” I was incensed. I drove away muttering, “Last I checked this was a university, not a sports franchise with an incidental library!”

Here’s what I didn’t do: anything that would deny the basic humanity of the person directing traffic. I was not happy with the overall prioritization of sports events at Duke, nor with the way available parking and access to campus has been decreasing over the years. In other words, I had some serious disagreements around campus access policy issues. And I will not deny that I was so angry I couldn’t concentrate until I had sent a couple of friends angry text messages about how perhaps the Divinity school library should just close on game days if they didn’t want the (almost entirely non-residential) Divinity students coming onto campus. But I did not take it out on the (probably contract) employee – in spite of him treating me like a person of dubious intelligence and forethought.

There has been plenty of news from NC of late, so you may have missed this one: some students at Duke are calling for the dismissal of Tallman Trask III, executive vice president of Duke University, because of his abuse of Shelvia Underwood, a woman directing traffic on a football game day. I would say “alleged abuse,” since there’s a lawsuit pending, but he admits that his “conduct fell short of the civility and respectful conduct each member of this community owes to every other.” I should say so. He hit her with his car and then claimed it never happened.

Ms. Underwood (and a witness) say that Trask called her a “dumb n*****.” Trask says that he did not, and that no other witnesses can corroborate Ms. Underwood’s claims about what exact words he shouted rudely at her.

But whether or not he used the n-word, Trask already treated Ms. Underwood as a lesser human being when he began shouting at her at all, when she stopped him from trying to drive down a closed road.

He treated her as less than a human being when he hit her with his Porsche, which he claims to have done by accident. Really? Trask bumping Underwood with his car sounds to me very much like an entitled person used to getting away with things who was acting out because he has learned that he can. It sounds very much like a well paid white man not wanting to accept – even momentarily – the authority of a poorly paid black woman.

There was a further indignity for Ms. Underwood. She was treated as unworthy of consideration by all of the involved individuals at the University (including Trask) when she was pressured into dropping her complaint for the price of an apology note whose generic insincerity rivals that of a 6 year old caught doing something they’re still not sorry for.

The only thing in dispute here is whether or not he used a racial slur. He was rude and impatient, both before and after he hit a working person with his car and tried to get out of it. Don’t get me wrong – it matters a great deal whether he used a racial epithet to diminish the humanity of another person. That would be awful. There are certain words that ought never to be used. But just based on the facts that everyone (even Tallman Trask) agrees on, the students’ demands for Trask to be fired would have some basis.

I don’t have rich or “important” connections, and I don’t bring a lot of money into the university. I have no doubt that if I hit someone with my car on campus while yelling at them, and then kept on yelling at them afterwards, I would have been in serious trouble.

I would like to think that I don’t go around acting like my need to get somewhere is more important than another person’s integrity because I believe that we are all beloved children of God. I hope that I am aware more often than not that I am not more important in God’s eyes than whoever is most annoying me in the moment. I hope that I am stopping when a person is standing in front of my car not because I would get in trouble if I didn’t. But. It does strike me that when a person is treated as if he is inherently more important than other people, then he will start believing it. He will start acting like it. Trask was acting as if he was more important than Ms. Underwood. When he hit her, was Trask seeing Underwood as a nuisance? Or (as he claims) was he failing to see her at all? Either way, he was seeing her no differently than does our dominant culture.  Duke University, the City of Durham, the State of North Carolina, and the United States at large sees the working poor (in comparison to the Porsche drivers), black people (in comparison to white people), and women (in comparison to men) – as a nuisance – when they see them at all.

Trask’s race, gender, and wealth all count for something at Duke. It also counts for something that he has been a part of the financial success of the University and of downtown Durham. It shouldn’t. The only thing that should count for anything here is that one human being treated another human being like she was far less of a human being than he was. Duke President Richard Brodhead and the other folks in charge at Duke University need to decide if Duke is going to continue to be the sort of place where some people are seen and treated as less human than others.

Of course, we need to be careful to see Dr. Trask as a beloved child of God, too. Arguably the Duke administration – and any person who has shielded this man from responsibility for his actions over the years – has denied him the opportunity to grow. Perhaps, if he is sent to his room and made to think about what he has done, there is some hope that he will grow up to be pleasant and responsible, and able to graciously accept those times when he is not the one in control.

You can follow the protest on Twitter by searching #DismantleDukePlantation

White America: Delivered into our iniquity

The Lincoln memorial celebrates the president who "saved the Union" - and wrote the Emancipation Proclamation - but racism didn't end with slavery.

The Lincoln memorial celebrates the president who “saved the Union” – and wrote the Emancipation Proclamation – but racism didn’t end with slavery.

More than 100 days ago now, a recent high school graduate, Michael Brown, was confronted by a police officer for jaywalking – who soon thereafter shot him several times. Brown’s body was left lying on the ground for more than 4 hours. Everyone agrees that he was unarmed.

In our country, stories like this one are unexceptional. Several unarmed young Black men – even a boy as young as 12 – have been killed by police officers in the 3+ months since the events that we have come in this country to designate simply with the name of the town: “Ferguson.” But for a variety of reasons (not limited to, but certainly including the combative reaction of the police to the protestors after the shooting, and the nationwide (even international!) community of activists fostered by Twitter), this one death became the catalyst for a conversation that had been on the back-burner for a couple of generations: Black men and women are still held in suspicion, and disproportionately subjected to violence, imprisonment, and other more subtle daily degradations on the basis of their “race.”

Yesterday, at my church (and at churches throughout the U.S. and Canada), the reading from Isaiah included these words: “you [God] have hidden your face from us, and delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Which, if you are a White person living in the United States, was a particularly timely word. And one which was not likely expounded upon from the pulpit in your church, if you attend one.

So allow me.

My White sisters and brothers, our iniquity is ongoing. We don’t get let off the hook by saying, “I wasn’t even alive when slavery existed.” We continue to benefit from racism today. We are the beneficiaries of both conscious and unconscious racism, systemic racism, economic racism; if nothing else, we benefit simply by not being subject to the wearying daily assault of individual racist micro-aggressions. But we are not let off the hook even for slavery, because we ourselves have been taught the Race Code by the children of the children of the children of slaveholders and slave dealers (in case any non-Southern readers thought they might be getting a bye) – we have been brought up, by and large, to serve the false idols of “getting ahead.” and “having more than my parents did,” and we have shrugged off the warning of Exodus 20:5 – “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.”

We have not exactly been lacking opportunities to repent. But we haven’t been willing to admit that we have a problem – much less to examine what our problem consists of. Now with these protests that are rising up all over the country, we are once again given a choice. Will we harden our hearts? Will we rise up our voices in a self-serving counter-protest – uttering cowardly words, like: “Not all white people…” and “You’re exaggerating to make a point!” and “What about black on black crime?”

Or will we start to ask, “How am I a part of this problem, and how can I take responsibility as a White person in a society dominated by White people?”

One of my favorite Advent hymns (predictably, for a Methodist) is Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, by Charles Wesley. Every year, Methodists (and others) around the globe sing, “From our fears and sins release us…”

Our fear has too long held us captive, preventing White men and women from seeing their Black brothers and sisters lovingly. Our fear has blinded us to our sin. And in case you are not feeling particularly racist yourself, may I remind you of these words from the Book of Common Prayer, Morning Daily Prayer, Rite II: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

I can say for myself, I have left far too much undone, when it comes to working for justice in this country. It wasn’t so long ago that I was failing to even remember daily that this country has a race problem.

God of all people, give us courage. Plant in us the desire to see the world as you see it, even if it pains us to do so. Grant us the gift of hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Even as we wait for you to make all things new, show each one of us how you would have us help build your coming kingdom, that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

A dishonor and a privilege

I was in the waiting room of an urgent care this morning when I saw him. He was adorable. Vacillating between heartmeltingly thoughtful and thoughtlessly distracted and studiously disobedient, like any four year old. He was running around carrying a cup of water, and his mom seemed torn between letting him have his independence and keeping him from spilling it on the floor, like any mom of a preschooler.

My heart ached as I watched him, because I knew that on some day in the next six to twelve years, he would cross a line created by my people, by white U.S. people – the line between adorable and menacing. He would be the same little boy, but other people – white people – would stop seeing a little boy and see a threat – they would fear him with the visceral fear of a people whose wealth was stolen generations ago from the people of that little boy – a violent theft of labor, life, and dignity. They would fear him because, deep down, they would know that if they were dealt the hand he was dealt, they would feel entirely justified in violently breaking out against their oppressors. And so they would come to expect that outbreak, to project it onto him, so that one day, when he reaches into his pocket for a stick of gum (just like any teenager), some fearful white person might just shoot him. Just in case.

I do not have to worry about the day when my white daughter will be shot by a police officer. And I confess that that is a relief to me. I have never been scared of more than a bump in my insurance rates when a police officer has pulled me over. Or, when I was younger, that the officer might call my Dad, and my Dad would be disappointed in me. I am white, and my husband is white, and my child is white. My sister and brother are white, and their spouses and children are white. I haven’t had to think about police violence, or vigilante violence, or Klan violence.

That’s a big part of what “privilege” means – it means not having to think about difficult things because of who you are. I have to think about being a woman – being a woman is a dangerous thing in this world – but I can choose whether to think about being white.

White friends, if you haven’t thought about it, think about it now. Think about what it means to be white. If you are parents of white children, think about that. Think about all of the things that you don’t have to think about. Like not having to worry about whether your child will grow up to be shot by a police officer, and have the whole police department mobilize to cover it up. Like not having to worry about whether some vigilante will confront and then shoot your unarmed kid, and then be acquitted because it was “self-defense.” Like not having to worry about how your child will carry on after you are killed by white folks who tied you to the back of a truck and dragged you down a road for sport. Like not having to worry about whether you will be choked by a police officer in front of your young child for using your grill on the sidewalk in front of your house. Or being killed because your wife, the mother of your son, does not have the same skin color as you do.

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked Jesus. Jesus told him a story that flipped the question – we are to BE neighbors – to choose to care for anyone who is being knocked down and beat up and having everything taken from them. To anyone who is being shot in the street.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus discouraged the lawyer from limiting the scope of what “neighbor” might mean. For all of us white folks, who are grateful for the privilege of not having to fear violence for ourselves and our families based on what we look like, loving our neighbor as ourselves means wanting that sense of security for everyone.

Mothers know that their children are adorable no matter how old they are. They are precious. I am praying for all of the mothers tonight, especially for the mothers of black children, who knew long before Mike Brown was shot how dangerous their children’s lives are – how fragile their existence is in this country that fears them furiously and violently. Lord, may it not ever be so. May these mothers one night sleep a peaceful night’s sleep, because their children are finally free to walk in the world as safely as my own white child. Amen.