Lightning makes no sound until it strikes. #mlk

This weekend, J and I watched CNN coverage of the protests in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and elsewhere over the death of George Floyd. It was a mistake to watch: cable news is an addictive drug that does more to fuel rage than to illuminate or change minds. But we watched the same story we’ve seen play out before, with angry protestors facing off against officers in riot gear until someone blinked, blood was shed, and everybody lost.

After every senseless killing of unarmed black men, there is the same hand-wringing. White folks like me insist we aren’t racist while wondering how racism nevertheless endures. Can’t we all just get along, we ask, then we insist that some of our best friends are black. I always go out of my way to be nice to everyone, we insist, arguing that we don’t even see color.

But if white folks like me don’t see color, how can we see racism? “Not seeing color” is an excuse well-meaning but complacent white folks use to avoid the difficult and messy work of dismantling a system we didn’t design but that shields us in a protective cocoon. If I’m not racist, then racism is someone else’s problem, and I have no responsibility to fix it.

But racism is an ideology, not “just” an individual worldview, and ideologies are inherited. It isn’t your fault if you were born with a genetic predisposition toward addiction, heart disease, or cancer, but if you are aware of your congenital risk, you can make conscious choices to mitigate those circumstances. Just because you didn’t cause a problem doesn’t mean you have no responsibility for responding to it.

If you were born and raised in America, you inherited the problem of white supremacy. You didn’t cause or create it, but you were born into the consequences. Picture yourself being born atop someone else’s shitheap, and you’ve grown up your whole life breathing in that stench.

Proclaiming that this isn’t your shitheap–you didn’t build it, you don’t add to it, and you neither approve of or condone it–doesn’t make the pile and its smell disappear, and neither does trying to hide, cover, or distract from it. The only way to get rid of a massive, centuries-old pile of shit is to grab a shovel and start digging.

This is what anti-racists mean when they talk about doing the work. Yes, you can march; yes, you can wave a sign, post on social media, and vow to be a nicer, kinder, and more equitable person. But the shitpile of racism is higher and deeper than that. It’s a problem that’s bigger than a few shitty cops; it’s an entire social system that rests on the flawed, deeply rooted, and often unconscious assumption that there is something wrong, innately criminal, or just plain deficient about nonwhite folks.

American history rests on this premise. It’s how generations of slaveholders justified keeping humans as property, and it’s how generations of settlers justified taking land from Native people. It’s how countless capitalists up to and including the present day have justified policies such as redlining, segregation, and mass incarceration. The opportunity gap between white and black isn’t accidental; it’s intentionally designed.

The ideology of white supremacy explains why jogging while black is an executable offence and why a white dog-walker felt justified in calling the cops on a black birdwatcher who dared ask her to leash her dog. These individual actions are heinous, but they are not anomalous. People do shitty things to people of color not in isolation but within the context of a system that stands on a shitty foundation.

So what should we do? White people like me ask this question again and again after each upsetting incident, then we quickly return to our comfortable complacency, noseblind to the shitheap we’ve inherited.

White folks like me need to do the work of dismantling white supremacy, and that work varies from person to person: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Wherever you are, what row do you have to hoe? We each have implicit biases to understand, acknowledge, and uproot, and we each are stakeholders in social systems we can work to change from within.

If you are a teacher, how can you teach for justice? If you are a parent, how can you raise children who are more aware and self-aware? If you are a business owner, banker, or insurance adjuster, how can you do your job more justly and intentionally, with an eye toward greater equity, and how can you urge your colleagues and organizations to do the same?

The scenes from this past week prove that white folks like me are not doing enough: whatever our current comfort zone is, we each need to inch further outside of it. March if you can, but make that marching your first step, not your last. Individual action and collective change work together like two hands. Do your part, insist that your elected officials do theirs, and hold both yourself and your leaders accountable.

Since I am a reader, I start with books: if you’re white like me, educating yourself is essential. Some books I wish were required reading include Carol Anderson’s White Rage, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, Crystal Fleming’s How to Be Less Stupid About Race, Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race.

If you’re white like me, these books will challenge you; they aren’t comfortable reading, and that discomfort is the first step toward change. Cleaning up a shitheap is difficult, messy, and unpleasant work, but ignoring that shitheap is even worse.

Praying

I wake these days to an alarm on my tablet, so as I swipe to dismiss it, the first thing I see are the headlines that came in overnight. This means I awake these days to an alarm saying Wake Up and a string of news notifications saying Stay Woke.

First there was the tragedy of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, then the heartbreak of Philando Castile in Minneapolis, and now the outrage of five dead police officers in Dallas. Each of these deaths is senseless and unjustified: no one should be gunned down for selling bootleg CDs, driving with a busted taillight, or being a cop.

End white supremacy

Our polarized world and the news outlets that reflect it see reality in terms of opposites: those who are with us and those who are against. According to this worldview, you’re either pro-white or pro-black, pro-protester or pro-police, pro-gun or pro-gun-control. But from where I sit, heartbroken by the whole sad story, the only thing I decry is hatred and violence, no matter where it comes from.

I believe in the power of peaceful protest: the civil disobedience outlined by Thoreau and perfected by both Gandhi and King is just as mighty as any gun. And I believe it’s possible to both support the police and condemn police brutality. What I see in the tragic footage of both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are officers who have failed to execute their most important duty, which is to protect citizens by deescalating tense situations. What I see in these videos isn’t proper policing but a catastrophic failure to do a difficult and underappreciated job.

Black Lives Matter

If the Dallas sniper was motivated by his outrage over recent police killings–if he truly believed that Black Lives Matter–the sad consequence of his violence is this: one day after everyone was focused on the lives of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, honoring their memory by grappling with difficult questions of race and social justice, today those two tragedies have been overshadowed.

Goaded by news outlets that seem incapable of covering two separate stories simultaneously, especially if that coverage demands a nuanced balance between opposing extremes, our collective consciousness has moved on. Today, if you pause to remember Sterling and Castile, you’re seen as being insensitive to the police lives that were lost. Instead of drawing further attention to the serious problems of implicit bias and police brutality, the Dallas sniper has pushed the news cycle onto other issues. Black lives still matter, and so do the lives of cops: we have to cultivate a mindset that sees these two statements as being equally true, not opposed.

In memoriam

In Korean Buddhism, the bodhisattva of compassion is named Kwan Seum Bosal, a name that means “She who hears the cries of the world.” In Buddhist iconography, Kwan Seum Bosal is sometimes depicted as having eleven heads and one thousand eyes and hands: each eye and ear focused on the world’s suffering, and each hand ready to help. Because of all her eyes and ears, Kwan Seum Bosal can simultaneously hear the cries of black men dying in the street, the cries of police officers killed in the line of duty, and the cries of all the family, friends, and strangers who mourn. Because of all her eyes and ears, Kwan Seum Bosal is heartbroken every time she reads the news, her thousand hands wiping tears not just in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas, but also Orlando, Istanbul, Baghdad, Mecca, and Bangladesh.

Every morning when Kwan Seum Bosal opens her thousand eyes, she sees suffering in our sad, sorry world, and every time she turns her eleven heads, all her ears are full of our wailing cries. Kwan Seum Bosal has one thousand hands to caress and cradle all the brokenhearted, and the arms of Jesus are equally wide. There is no shortage of heartbreak these days, so we must respond at every turn with an abundant outpouring of compassion, hope, and love.

The photos illustrating today’s post show a Black Lives Matter display set up in front of the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain in June, 2015, in the aftermath of the Charleston church shootings. Sadly, “news” of violence and hatred isn’t “new” at all.