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Black lives do matter

The Rev. Canon Gregory A. Jacobs, Canon to the Ordinary

Some of you may remember back to a couple of years ago, when President Barack Obama delivered what was considered then to be a pretty remarkable speech at a commencement address at Morehouse College.

It was a speech that focused on the responsibilities of the young black men who were about to seek their fortunes in the world as graduates of one of the leading black educational institutions in this country. The young men were exhorted to take personal responsibility for their lives and to resist blaming this country’s racism for the obstacles that they may encounter in the future.

The President intoned, “There is no longer any room for excuses… nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned… Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination.”

It was very similar to the lessons that I learned first-hand growing up – lessons that were relentlessly reinforced by my parents.

But there is another life lesson that out of necessity has been repeated over and over again by black parents for generations, and disturbingly that lesson was not communicated to those impressionable young men who were about to seek their fame and fortune in the world. What was missing from the President’s address was a warning. A warning of just how dangerous it is to be a black man in America today.

There was no mention, for instance, of Trayvon Martin. No recounting of the history – the hundreds of lynchings of innocent young black men like Emmett Till, or the countless miscarriages of justice that befell young black men like the Scottsboro Boys. And more recently, to that list can be added the names of: Erik Garner, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and James Blake – all victims of abuse of power by those in authority.

The President issued no words of warning about the reality in this country that young black men are more than three times as likely to be stopped on suspicion of having engaged in criminal activity than young white men. Nothing was said about the reality of mass incarceration of black men at a rate that defies rational explanation.

Nor did our President draw attention to the fact that in the very city in which he presently resides, Washington, D.C., 3 out of every 4 young black men can expect to serve some time in prison. Moreover, in some cities over 80% of young black men have criminal records which will most certainly lead to a lifetime sentence of hopelessness and poverty.

My brother has three sons. And as a black father, here are the realities that he has found it necessary to teach his sons.

  • Regardless of how many privileges they enjoy;
  • Regardless of what prep and Ivy League schools they may have attended;
  • Regardless of the fact that they are the offspring of two highly educated parents (one a doctor, the other a consultant to non-profits);
  • Regardless of the fact that his family regularly attends a predominantly white professional and upper middle class Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina;

their black bodies, as Ta-Nehisi Coates so astutely observed, are always at risk.

My three nephews are constantly reminded that despite having “made it,” they can never escape the fact that they are and will always be the object of an irrational hate, fear, bigotry, stereotype and discrimination that they played no part in creating.

This is after all, presumably the Year of Our Lord 2016, and not 1916. And yet, we have a Supreme Court’s decision that effectively emasculated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and otherwise signaled to the so-called Red States that they can re-impose Jim Crow through restrictive voting requirements. Not unnoticed is the fact that with each case that comes before the courts, affirmative action for people of color comes a little closer to extinction, while the “affirmative” privilege that whites continue to enjoy is presumed as the right order of things.

Sadly, no one, including our own churches, is calling this nation, its leaders, or indeed its people to account.

No one questions why our schools and neighborhoods are now more segregated than they were in 1954 when “separate but equal” was supposedly exorcised from this nation’s psyche.

No one demands to know why the gap between black and white children’s educational test scores has not narrowed significantly in recent years.

No one condemns the environmental racism that systematically locates toxic waste sites in our poorest urban neighborhoods where black people disproportionately live. Witness Michigan’s deplorable conduct in the Flint drinking water tragedy.

No one wants to confront the realities of racial profiling, the mass incarceration of untold numbers of black men in our prisons, nor the persistence of a system of racialized social control known as the “criminal justice system” that is every bit as pernicious and destructive of black lives as Jim Crow ever was.

What Martin Luther King called the “congenital deformity” of racism is still embedded deep within the American psyche. Our House of Bishops, as early as 1991, called racism a “sin,” and acknowledged that it is a reality not only in the wider society, but also within our own beloved Episcopal Church. Simply put, It is a sin to act as if “Black Lives” do not matter.

It is so simple to label this pervasive sin of racism a “black problem” – to perpetuate the myth that if only “those people” would just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, there would be no problem. Yet we fail to see how this country systematically denies the marginalized the opportunities it must have because our nation’s failed economic and justice policies and ever-growing wealth disparity decrease any chance of success.

We must begin to acknowledge our own complicity in this tragedy. The privilege we deny that we have, the power we unthinkingly assert over the power-less, even the callous disregard for the rights of others that don’t look, act, or speak like we do.

So here is my challenge to you, and our congregations – issued by one black man who does not presume to speak for all people of color, but looks at the arc of past and present racial injustice and inequality that has been the sad legacy bequeathed upon generations of black Americans.

A legacy that compels my brother and countless other parents to beg, plead, and otherwise warn their sons that very lives could be forfeit through no real fault of their own – being in the wrong place at the wrong time is reason enough.

What must we do to affirm that Black Lives Matter? (And if you want to read a primer on why all of this protest seems so necessary, please read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – a black father’s epistle to his son, noted by the Bishop at our recent diocesan convention).

What better place to carry on God’s work than in our own congregations – to move beyond our expectations that the “Other” must be culturally assimilated and made to conform to our norms and our value systems as if their very beliefs, values, and identities – dare I say it, their very LIVES do not matter?

Instead, let us ask how can we endeavor to create a “beloved community” of all God’s people who are prized and valued for who and what they are as Children of God.

It is not enough to say that “All Lives Matter” and leave it at that. Certainly, all “lives” matter. God decreed that when all of creation was declared “good.” What God left for us to do was to fulfill God’s deepest desire – that we treat one another as if each life was infinitely precious regardless of the skin color or culture, or place of origin, or religion of that child of God.

That “preciousness” is a privilege bestowed upon all of us by God, our Creator, our Redeemer and our Sanctifier. And just as that “preciousness” (God’s grace) was not earned by us, no one, no community, no society has a right to deny that “preciousness” in thought, word or deed to any of our brothers and sisters.

The history of these United States is a continuing saga of the systemic and systematic denial of the “preciousness” of People of Color – those of the African Diaspora, of Hispanic/Latino origin, of Asian descent, Native People cultures, and most recently to Muslims, Syrians and people of Middle Eastern origin. The lives of each of those peoples matter in spite of what people aspiring to lead this nation might tell you.

And until this country affirms the “preciousness” of the lives of People of Color, the insistence that “All Lives Matter” will ring as hollow as the promise of liberty and justice for all.

Excerpted from Canon Jacobs’ remarks at the NAMASTE anti-racism dialogues in September 2015.