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captureI’ve been reading and listening to so much response since the Ferguson decision came down, that it’s difficult to process it all.  The responses have been wide and varied — some who supported the protesters, many who condemn them.

As a friend of mine and I recently discussed, I really hope the criminal element who used this opportunity to loot and pillage for personal gain are not lumped in and associated with those who were clearly protesting the sociopolitical conditions they find oppressive. Clearly these looters were not part of the protest and had no agenda beyond selfish gain, even targeting their own people.

The comments that confound me the most (and perhaps the most frequent I hear) are those who try to claim there is no racial bias in America. They usually try to support this with some argument that black cops kill white kids just as frequently, but nobody complains. (Of course, statistics don’t bear this out.  ProPublica’s analysis of FBI data shows blacks are 21 times more likely to be killed by cops.) Some take the approach that the kid was a thug and had it coming (which to me is akin to saying a woman deserved to be raped because she wore a short skirt or was flirtatious). One woman recently responded to me that she didn’t see what they have to complain about, that all she sees in America is equality and freedom.

I want to explode every time I hear these things, but I don’t.  Most people are not flaming KKK members. They aren’t blatantly and overtly hateful racists. Many of these people are sincerely blind to their own racism. Most of us remember the days when there were separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks, separate schools for whites and blacks, separate restrooms, and so forth, and we say, “Yeah, that was racist.” But now that we’ve taken the signs down, we still secretly check to see if there are black families in the neighborhood before buying a house, when we pull into the grocery store if there are 3 black kids on bike talking to each other, we decide to wait until tomorrow to get groceries. If we are driving down the street and see a black guy on the corner waiting to cross, we reach over and lock our door. We can pass 10 whites kids standing on the corner and never think to lock our door, but we don’t think that’s racism. We don’t hate blacks, as long as they stay on their own side of town, go to their own church, and frequent their own bars and night clubs.

Folks, that is the essence of racism. That was the very reason for segregation. The civil rights movement didn’t end racism. It simply took the signs down and forced racism to continue existing in secret — forced it to operate in the dark.  The fear and suspicion that drove segregation is what still drives racism today. It’s the impetus behind black kids shot on playgrounds with toy guns. It’s why we keep seeing Trayvon Martins and Michael Browns in the news. White cops aren’t any more exempt from this fear and suspicion than are white plumbers or housewives. When they see a black kid in a hoodie, or hanging out in a parking lot, they immediately assume the worst, they are on edge, expecting to see a sub-machine gun at any second; the kid flinches wrong, waves his hands the wrong way, and we have another unexplained fatality. No, I don’t think they woke up planning to kill a black kid, but it was still their deep-seated racism — their fear and suspicion — that made it happen.

Now, I’ve seen worse, and yes, there is blatant abuse. I once saw a black guy walking down the street. Two white cops came out of the store across the street from the store I came out of. They stopped the guy and one cop put his baton under his arm and told the black guy to take it. He said, “No way, man.” The cop said you either take it or I arrest you for possession of cocaine, and who do you think they will believe? You or me? You’ll be doing 25 for possession. The guy hesitantly reached his arm toward the baton and before he could touch it, the other cop hit him over the head with a black jack. They proceeded to beat the stew out of him, then arrested him for assaulting a police officer. Now, in all likelihood, he had a previous record and the cops knew they could hold that over his head, but that day the only thing he did was be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and taking another 18 months in jail was better than doing 25 for planted evidence that he knew he couldn’t beat.

Look, so much was made publicly of Michael Brown’s dad having a record. My experience says that if you are black in any major city in America and your brother or dad has a record, you are guilty before you are even born. This is true for white kids too, to a certain extent, but the problem is exponentially greater for blacks. My guess is that his whole life he had been shooed off property, questioned, patted down, pulled over, and more than likely arrested on trumped-up charges, for no other reason than he was black and had a less than fortunate family association. And if at any point he ever crossed the line himself, then his life was even more intolerable than that.

I’ve never lived a day as a black man, but I did spend several years working in the ghettos when I was in ministry. People who tell me they see nothing but equality and freedom in America are either blatantly racist themselves, or naive and ignorant, having lived the most sheltered of lives.

Much has been made of Martin Luther King’s remark that a riot is “the language of the unheard.” Look, if you listen to Dr. King’s speech it is very clear that he condemned violence, but the point is that if you oppress and frustrate people long enough and they can’t get relief through normal democratic channels, sooner or later they are going to rebel and lash out. The question in the Ferguson protests isn’t whether they were right or wrong, but what were they so angry about? And why so much anger?

The people who continue to condemn them and criticize them simply prove Dr. King’s point that not only have they been unheard for a long time, they are still not being heard by many. Some are hearing. We are now hearing discussions about police wearing vest cameras, and making the ethnic makeup of police departments more congruent with their demographic, maybe even having white cop/black cop teams. None of these discussions would be taking place if the people of Ferguson just kept silent and took another injustice lying down. Their protests have put some of these issues into the national forum, and that’s a good thing.

It still troubles me when I hear people like Morgan Freeman, Pharrell Williams, and other black celebrities say the way to deal with racism is to essentially quit talking about it. I know they don’t want to give black kids an excuse to give up, to not make something of themselves, and I agree with that. If you are a black kid, you have to overcome it–and you can overcome it. You will just have more obstacles than my white children. But not talk about it?  I couldn’t disagree more. Racism has been alive and well, operating behind the veil of the civil rights bill for decades, and white Americans are more than happy to continue sticking their heads in the sand and let it continue. Those of us who care about freedom, equality, justice and democracy can’t let that happen.  We have to confront our demons, be honest with ourselves, and work together — whites, blacks, Mexicans, Asians, and others — to create a world where we can not only live together peaceably, but every person is given the same benefit of the doubt, given an equal opportunity to prove his/her worth based on his/her character.

Martin Luther King never lived to see his dream come to fruition, but that dream is still alive. It’s up to each one of us who shares that dream to do our part to make sure it becomes a reality.  We still have a long way to go, but let’s work to make it happen. We can’t do that if we stick our heads in the sand and say it’s already here.

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