Many of us have been troubled and deeply saddened by the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, beginning with the shooting of Michael Brown on August 9. This tragedy that has captured the national spotlight and we believe it raises important questions about race in our country.
Racial reconciliation is an essential part of the flourishing of any community, including Phoenix, so we want to use this platform to ask some difficult questions and seek answers that will move us in the direction we need to go. We begin with a reflection from Brian Kruckenberg, the executive director of Flourish Phoenix. Watch for subsequent posts representing other viewpoints in the coming weeks.
– The Editor
“What would you do if a huge black guy was threatening you?”
As soon as the question was posed to me, I knew something in me had changed. The way I saw the world had been altered. I knew it because I was able to recognize the fabric from which a question like this arises. Because immediately upon hearing the question, my heart leapt with the thought: “Why does it matter if the man is black?”
Yet, to most, that detail matters. A lot.
I’m a white guy from Kansas who spent the better part of his childhood as what would qualify as poor. My parents had me and my two brothers while they were young. We lived in a trailer house while my dad and mom were putting my dad through vet school. I can’t help but know that people drove by my home and labeled us as trash—of both the trailer and white variety.
The good news for me is that those labels didn’t follow me out of that trailer park and into the middle-class existence that waited for me after my dad graduated from school. I went to high school and never once thought about taking a different route home, whether the hood on my jacket was up, or where my hands were as I entered a convenience store. I spoke with white girls and never thought about what an animated conversation might look like to onlookers. I went on to college, then to grad school and to law school, and never worried that someone might think I was there simply because of the color of my skin. My professional life has involved career changes and many moves, but never once have I been reluctant to meet my new neighbors and wonder if my being white might give someone pause.
The truth is, I don’t know what it is like to be black. I know what it is like to be poor, left out, disrespected, or hurt. But I don’t really understand what privilege I have simply because my skin is white. And yet, perhaps because of my trailer-park days, I’ve never felt that comfortable being in a crowd of people when all of them are just like me. I remember researching an assignment in my early days as a corporate lawyer and I found myself looking at the Boards of Directors for Fortune 100 companies. What I saw there made me uncomfortable: I was looking in the mirror, albeit 25 years into the future. Middle-aged white men with thinning, gray hair, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a red or blue tie. I’m not suggesting that these men did anything wrong to have their positions of power, prestige and influence, yet the lack of diversity and difference was painfully obvious. And it was troublesome.
Fast-forward to today. I’m approaching that middle-age, white guy stage, yet still have more brown than grey. And I prefer plastic frames over wire. I serve and lead a church in downtown Phoenix. Our staff has six full-time employees. Three of them are black. Did we hire them because they are black? No… and yes. Not yes in the sense that others were passed-over who were more qualified, but yes in the sense that I want to create a learning environment and I don’t want the people we lead and shepherd to get comfortable. I want a staff that disagrees and sees things differently. I want a staff that reflects our community and sends a message that we want to work together because we are different—not in spite of our differences. I want my presuppositions challenged and my view of reality to be more closely aligned to actual reality.
To have these things present do you have to have a diverse staff? No… and yes. Yes if you want to deeply understand ethnicity, privilege, and prejudice. This understanding comes from everything, from discussing the cultural nuances of the BET Awards to the shooting of Michael Brown. There’s really no substitute for this. There’s no classroom or book that can push your thinking like talking daily with black men about how they see the world and how the world sees them. To be sure, I do not always agree with these men. Sometimes I tell them I think they are overplaying the “race card.” Whether I’m ignorant or perhaps helping them see a more real version of reality or a mix of both, the beautiful thing is we are having these conversations.
A few years ago I had an understanding of what it meant to be black in America. But today my understanding has changed.
If a large man is trying to intimidate a trained, experienced, and armed police officer, it seems reasonable that the officer would use only necessary force to bring the situation under control—regardless of whether the man is black or white. Four shots into the body and two shots to the head of a teen who had made some bad choices doesn’t seem necessary. If a troubled man who is holding a knife to his side is staggering toward two fully-armed and trained officers, it seems like that situation can be brought under control with something other than deadly force via gunshots from a few feet away.
Still, what’s more telling is the reaction that events like this spur. It illustrates clearly that under the surface of our culture is a massive cold war that bubbles to the surface when the heat of a moment like Ferguson, Missouri ignites it. Until we face the fact of this war, the walls that have been built will not be taken down.
Will we ever get to the point where it won’t matter if the man or boy in the street is white or black? I’d like to say yes, but my hunch is we won’t—not until the implications of thousands of years of racial prejudice and divide are once and for all behind us. Still, we are called to work to that. We are called to be restorers and renewers. We are called to question our assumptions and truly believe that we don’t have it all figured out. And, ultimately, we are called to love all people in the street, whether white or black.
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