Hello from very snowy Massachusetts, darling pigeons.
I need to find the right tone in which to author this next post, which is about something deadly serious: racism, white privilege and policing in America. Very difficult, complicated, emotional, searing.
I have not been blogging much this past six months because quite frankly, I have been glued to social media every night following the #BlackLivesMatter movement that was re-ignited with a fury in Ferguson, Missouri, this past August. I have been obsessed about the issue of police brutality, the prison state, and racial hatred in America. I think I have been consistently enraged about it since I taught in Maywood, Illinois in the early 1990′s and got schooled in racism, and just put my anger aside (or buried it) for a long time. I have followed the river of blood that is urban Black America out of the corner of my eye for a long time, never giving myself full permission to speak nearly as much as I have wanted to about white complacency. I have served suburban congregations for a long time for whose members racism is a complex and uncomfortable reality that most of us know we have to work against in ourselves and in society. Many of us have studied racism and worked at becoming anti-racist. Our denomination has offered trainings and made anti-racism work central to its institutional commitments and made it a requirement that seminarians earn competencies in anti-racism and anti-oppression.
But we have not done nearly enough to move into diverse communities with our actual lives and relationships, content to be conceptually anti-racist and waiting for people of color to discover our congregations which (surprise! not!) they have not.
When it came time to go into search again a couple years ago, I had an opportunity to make my own world less white. I was called to serve a congregation located in a suburb but right next to an incredibly diverse city whence the congregation had its roots. I decided to move into the city rather than the suburb. My neighbors are Latino, Black, Asian, White, everything. I am more happy to be here than I can say. It has meant everything to me to live in an environment that I truly believe represents the best of this country: diveristy, hospitality, overcoming fear of difference. I speak awkward Spanish every day. Our schools and hospitals speak 80 languages. Our police force is diverse. We have old white townies and Cambodian immigrants in city government. Our churches are Haitian, African, Central American. We are the whole shebang.
I heard a couple of weeks ago about a police department where officers in the North Miami Beach Police Department were using mugshots of young black men for target practice. Like everyone else who read about it, I was furious and disgusted. Then today, I heard that a group of white clergy responded with a well-meaning Twitter campaign called #UseMeInstead. Here’s a story about it.
I want to explain why I find this campaign incredibly offensive on a visceral level and a political level. I think it is a terrible example of activism and solidarity. I am not surprised that African-American clergy stayed away from it. I am going to try not to rant, which is why I’m going to use nice, helpful numbers to order my thinking.
1. If the use of mugshots in target practice disturbs us for the obvious reason that human images should never be used for target practice, the solution is not to provide new and different human figures for target practice. The irrationality of the gesture is embarrassing. If the practice is wrong, it’s wrong. Asking “shoot at my image” is just more wrong on top of the already wrong.
1. Replacing black faces with white faces in order to call attention to racial profiling is insulting and actually racist. Do I need to even say this? The symbolism of covering the images of young black men who live with the real danger of racial profiling with images of comfortable, smiling white people is disturbing. #BlackLivesMatter does not need more well-meaning white people crowding in front of the camera waving their hands and saying, “Look at me!” In this case, the white clergy are literally saying “Look at me!” Those of us who protest the use of mugshots of African-American men in target practice owe it to those men to explain why their faces should not be used to pump bullets into, not to divert attention to our own white faces that will never be threatened by a police gun.
2. The high drama of this campaign embarrasses me. We are not Jesus. We are not even Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The resonances of martyrdom in these messages to USE ME INSTEAD are chilling in their unconscious implication. Really? You sure about that, folks? Be careful what you say. As Dolly Parton would say, “Get off the Cross, we need the wood.”
3. This rationalization that this campaign would make a cop stop and think before aiming a bullet at a white person holding a Bible accomplishes exactly zero in the lifting up of the value of black lives. The organizers may as well have called this #ClergyLivesMatter.
Think about how disturbing this really is: clergy are counting on their images being instantly recognized by police officers as representing worthy, valuable human lives they would hesitate to shoot dead. How does this in any way combat or challenge the dehumanization of young black male lives? If anything, as I read it, it reinforces racist ideology, ie, “You would think before shooting ME, wouldn’t you?” It’s a taunt, not an act of solidarity.
4. White savior complex. It is one thing to march out in front when the people who have chosen you to lead them are willing to march behind you, and to take a stand against abuses of power. The massive and insensitive error here is that no black community leaders asked for these well-meaning white clergy to take the lead in addressing the dehumanization of black men by the North Miami Beach Police Department. Note that not one African-American clergyperson participated in the campaign.
5. This campaign feels like the opposite of the kind of relational, bridge-building and community-building work clergy are called to do. The clergy who send these images to the North Miami Beach Police Department do not live anywhere near that PD and have no opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation or follow-through with the officers or leaders there. Nothing they have said to the press indicates that they have any plan to do so. Therefore, I suspect this effort will be greeted with defensive irritation and legitimate criticism that the clergy sending their images in have no idea what the police department does, how it operates, and what police officers there experience, think or feel. The police chief has issued a statement that mug shots are used for target practice that feature diverse images. If the clergy feel that using ANY mug shots for target practice is a dehumanizing exercise that desensitizes police officers to the value of all lives, and especially Black lives, they should stay on topic and make meaningful statements to that effect.
Well-meaning, caring clergy can still make mistakes. I recognize that I will upset and anger some readers with this column. I am not known for my soft touch and I hope everyone involved knows that I hold you in my heart as sincere and good colleagues even as I speak hard words about what I believe are serious mistakes with this campaign.