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The following is an adopted from the transcript of a speech delivered at Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Sunday, September 28. An audio recording is available here.
I always brag to my friends that Westside Unitarian has the largest black congregation of any Unitarian Church in Washington State. And when I told one of my friends I was nervous about giving a sermon on racism here, he asked me just how large it actually was.
Five, I told him.
“Five percent,” he said. “That’s not bad for Washington!”
“No,” I said. “Five people.”
He said, “Marcus, I know you claim to be agnostic, so you’re kind of on the fence on whether God exists on not. But if I were you I’d get down on my knees in some intense prayer to him to plead you’re not lynched.”
It wasn’t just that one friend. Tons of people told me to stay away from the subject of race altogether. People said I was bound to offend someone, and that I’d anger more people than I’d inspire. And yes, they said, black lives matter. But so do white lives, and Asian lives, and Native American lives. All lives matter, they said.
I understand the reluctance to discuss race in this country. The topic challenges the fundamentals of our American narrative, and threatens to undermine its dictum of personal fortunes determined exclusively by hard work, grit, and perseverance. In this narrative, the role of pigment is absent or insignificant.
For most, it is better not to speak of race, nor assess its prominence in our society. As Socrates knew, it is easier to live in a world that goes unexamined. Typically, that is a necessity in order for a society to tolerate reprehensible treatment of its members.
I do not stand here in judgement of that mindset today. I stand here as someone who once held it.
I used to believe, or wanted to believe, that racism was nothing more than the personal prejudices of the ignorant, who did not get the memo that the 21st century had arrived. I used to think our society had bigger fish to fry. That’s how I learned to navigate being black in this country.
In first grade, I remember being told it was OK that I was stupid, because God didn’t intend to make “people like me” as smart as my other classmates (all of them white). When I was 13 years old, a police officer stopped me as I crossed the street near my home for the heinous crime of jaywalking, so he could press my face into the hood of his car and whisper in my ear: “Nigger, I’ll rape your mother and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
While in prep school, I was the only one to ever face punishment after fights with my white schoolmates. (I never started these fights, but for the record I won most of them.) When I made a six-figure salary working at a hedge fund in Los Angeles, I was told I was “one of the decent ones.”
“Marcus,” my manager told me, “Don’t ever think we’ll try to bring more of you in here. We don’t want to be confused with Harlem.”
For me, it was easier to live in denial. I latched onto the grand American gospel that says every ill you face can be traced back to personal responsibility. I told myself that if I acted more politely, didn’t have a chip on my shoulder, and adapted well to different circumstances, I’d be fine. I felt the need to act more passive and less threatening.
I repeated this mantra so often that it became my truth. And that imprisoned me. It shackled me with self-hatred, and I began to extend those feelings toward my own race.
Every time a black person was shot down on the street, I shamelessly joined in the chorus: “If only they had pulled up their saggy pants.” When a black person spoke out about injustice, my rapid-fire response was to apologize on behalf of black America.
I distanced myself from anything that was controversial. I found myself in a constant waltz on eggshells. I measured and weighed everything I saw and did not in relation to who I was, but to who I hoped white people saw me as.
My own thoughts, feelings, and dissatisfaction with this world no longer mattered.
I had so deeply internalized my own inferiority that it took a white person to rattle me back into reality.
I’d just begun my career as a reporter. She was a contact for a story I was working on. She called herself an antiracist organizer, which I thought was a code word for white-guilt cheerleader. She was organizing against the disproportionate numbers of black and brown youth incarcerated in King County’s juvenile justice system, which includes the city of Seattle. Black and brown people made up a little less than 12 percent of the youth population, but 60 percent of the population in detention.
She explained that this pattern was common, and that this was a piece of a larger system that had long ago replaced explicit racism in America. It was a system that harbored racial biases in its policies and practices. It did not require racist people to achieve racist outcomes.
She broke down a system that allows black infant babies to die at twice the rate of white ones. A system that expels black kids from school at five times the rate of white kids. A system where black teenagers are more likely to die than graduate from college. A system where police kill black people 21 times more often than white people. And a system that cages more black men today than were in bondage during slavery.
It didn’t take long after that discussion for me to dislodge myself from the illusions I’d harbored. The illusions that had kept me safe in this society kept me from being seen as just another angry black man.
But the thing is, I am angry. And I do not apologize for that.
My question is, why aren’t you? Why are you willing to accept the lie that all lives matter in this country? All lives do not matter in this country, and rarely have they ever. And it is absurd to state otherwise.
And I know that some believe that to spotlight the plight of one race is to dismiss those of another.
But I hope you would not think that speaking of the Holocaust would somehow reduce the impact of the genocide done to Native Americans. Or that to speak of the persecution and mass bombings of Muslim mosques belittles the shootings and hate crimes at Jewish synagogues. I hope you would not think to mention the plight of migrant workers in America diminishes those of migrants from Syria traveling for their survival to Europe. I hope you can appreciate the uniqueness of these crises, rather than dissolving them into one another.
To say “Black Lives Matter” does not promote superiority. It gives a voice to people who continue to struggle to be heard and seen in this country. That is why we must shout, we must interrupt, and we must inconvenience, so it can say that I am here too, and I am dying, but I am trying so desperately hard to live.
To group these problems together with all others is to be as foolish, and as delirious, as to deny medical attention to a stuttering heart because your kidneys and lungs also ail.
To continually deny someone’s humanity, someone’s suffering, is to eventually deny your own humanity, and to invite suffering on yourself.
I’ve heard the things that often trail that statement. “I did not own slaves.” “I did not kill anyone.” “I have never been prejudiced against anyone, and therefore I should not be made to feel guilty.”
And that may be true. You did not own slaves. You did not pull a trigger.
You are not responsible for being born into a country that exterminated Native Americans for land, enslaved Africans for work, exploited Asians, Mexicans, and Irish for labor, treated women as second-class citizens, and outlawed marriage for homosexuals.
No, it is not your fault that you have come into this world as it is. But it is your fault if you leave it that way when you go.
What you are responsible for is the same exact thing that everyone is responsible for, and that is the world as it can exist.
It is our fault if we allow black lives to be disproportionately punished, pillaged, and destroyed. It is our fault if we continue to live in a world that offers life rafts to some while leaving others to drown. It is our fault if we refuse to extend our consciousness beyond our own individual lives. It is our fault if we keep this system intact.
I know that there is pain in acknowledging racism. I know it requires good intentions be balanced with patience and deference. I know it requires silence at times in letting others speak. I know it requires self-examination that can take you to places you never wished to go. I know it requires the fortitude to be willing to be offended, to be called out, to feel uneasy—and to seek understanding through that uneasiness.
I know that’s a lot to ask. But I’ve discovered that’s how you articulate love in the clearest way possible.
I am looking forward to the day when that very thing is articulated by our hearts, our actions, and our institutions. When that day comes in this country, there will be no need to ever utter the words “Black Lives Matter” again.