In the midst of this continuing pandemic, we have laid bare the rotten root at the base of the American tree. Racism, what many have called “America’s Original Sin,” is still all too alive and well. Racism built this country and made it great. The unpaid use of enslaved black and brown bodies provided the human capital to build our agriculture, which provided the cheap raw material for our factories. Enslavement allowed the South to survive and the North to thrive. And for the white people among us, that racism continues to ensure our privilege today. We are dependent on communities of color to feed us, provide our deliveries, healthcare and any number of services we now call ‘frontline.’ The reason that so many more African American and Latinx people are dying from the pandemic is because they are providing the services white people need to stay safe.
So, when George Floyd cried out “I can’t breathe” under the knee of that white Minneapolis Police Officer he was speaking for people of color everywhere in our country. They can’t breathe with the knee of racism on their necks, their backs, their sense of safety and even their sense of self. People of color can’t breathe as long as the racism we perpetuate continues. When we say “Black Lives Matter” it doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter, that rejoinder of “All Lives Matter” is just another knee on the throat of black people. All lives will matter when black lives matter as much as white lives matter.
This isn’t a proposition up for debate, this is a fact: Our racialized society kills black and brown bodies at an alarming rate. This is what we mean by the culture of white supremacy. It’s not just a culture that overtly proclaims white lives matter more, it’s a culture whose entire structure exists in order to maintain the status quo that white people matter more than people of color.
So, what do we do? We begin by acknowledging the fact that we are part of this culture. Our actions, despite whatever intent we place on them, supports this racial system. I once thought I was enlightened. I know now I have a long way to go. I am more aware of my racialized actions but I am not beyond them. Last Sunday I attended an Interfaith Prayer meeting held in a parking lot in Bridgeport. I was not on the program. Instead, there were religious leaders, most of them people of color, who were leading us in witness and prayer. At one point, someone noticed that our U.S. Congressman Jim Hines was sitting in the audience. The minister leading the prayer recognized Jim but did not ask Jim to get up and speak and, more importantly, Jim didn’t make the effort to be recognized.
I realized later that Congressman Hines was leaning into his awareness. Jim, who is white, was not there to take over the event as so many other white people have done in the past. Jim Hines was there to bear witness to this event. To bear witness to the pain and hurt racism has left us with.
So, I ask you to start where you are. If you are white consider just stepping back and letting others lead. Stop trying to do something for people of color. Just be there and support those people of color who are leading. We don’t have to solve racism. We do have to start by seeing our part in it and doing our best to change our words and actions. People of color will begin to breathe again when we stop taking all the air in the room. It starts with each one of us. In the coming months there will opportunities for white people in our congregation to learn more about our unconscious bias and how we contribute to the culture of white supremacy. In time, we may all learn to breathe together.