Friday, September 5, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson, MO and what it means!

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute
August 29, 2014

Today as tempers have cooled, as fears of Armageddon have faded, it is hard not to step back and think everything will be ok. There remains the desire to be really angry, but few of us can carry our anger for long periods without it eating away at our integrity.  The overly optimistic had proclaimed a post-racial era when we elected our first black President. There are those who claim they have reached a state of color blindness. And then there those who understand what Samuel Taylor Coleridge meant when he wrote:

“If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us. But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us.”

I think there are some things we can learn from history so long as we recognize that party and passion do blind us. Today as we gather the lantern light is cast on the life and death of Michael Brown. That is what has brought us here to think of Ferguson, MO a community that most of us had never heard of before the death of Michael. But the lantern may as well cast light on the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida who was  17 years old. Or we might remember Jason Moore in 2011 also from Ferguson who was older but died as well in police custody.

The lantern on the stern of our collective boat may also cast light on events in New York when a  bachelor party led to the death of a groom to be in a hail of gunfire by police responding to a report of a non-existent gun. The lantern casts light on the police in Albuquerque and the light reaches back to Mobile, Alabama in 1981 when Michael McDonald was picked up at random on a street by three men who were angered by the fact that a black man had been acquitted of a murder charge and wondered if they killed a black man would they be acquitted. They were not. The lantern casts light back to 1946 to the deaths of two black couples at the hands of a mob-the last recognized lynching in the United States. Three of the victims were members of the same family; all were in their 20s. We know the pattern has remained the same and only the designation has changed.

It is a pattern that calls us here today; it is a pattern that tells us that for more than 400 hundred years to be black in the west has meant to live in danger when you move beyond constrained boundaries—beyond family, communities and even then you are not safe. The black neighborhoods of Tulsa were bombed from airplanes. The name Rosewood comes to mind and the story is the same: destruction meted out because of racial hatred and fear.

The lantern casts light over the past to reveal that the disparities of wealth are a constant. To be poor is dangerous to your health. And when we see the realities of poverty laying burdens on generations now unborn we know this is not simply a problem for our day, but for years to come. We recognize that forces are being unleashed that turn poor people—black, white, brown—against the interests of the other. And the other shifts shape to become whatever can be defined as a threat.

The lantern reveals that too often the power of law enforcement is the
power that we give to those who protect us. When we are afraid we look the other way and allow people just like us to exercise power we have given them. We are surprised when the power is misused because we have forgotten the notion of accountability.  ” Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” has been forgotten in our desire to be protected from the evils that abound in our world. We cannot live with ambiguity and turn to the unambiguous acts of violence unleashed by the use of weaponry better suited to the battlefield. And we wonder why we do not feel safe.

When you are afraid of the other-however defined- and you place your trust in weapons the lanterns arcing light over the past reminds us of how inhumane humankind can be. So we are here today asking where to begin. We want to understand and we want to act. Where to begin?

Let me suggest a few things to keep in mind.

First, the notion of a post-racial society is a notion that is false and unattainable. We are to value one another with all of our differences. Here our religious traditions give us guidance. Human kind is shaped in the image of the divine and is to be valued as such. Here at MIT we talk
about the values of family, the worth of one another and that is the kind of tapestry of meaning we can aspire to see. A tapestry has a pattern visible on one side and on the other are the broken knots of good intentions gone unrealized, of projects that did not work, but still we work to make the pattern clear, the picture inclusive.

Secondly, at the same time we acknowledge our differences we need to recognize the benefits of privilege. To be white and tall and of loud voice has its benefits! To be blond and slight of modest voice also has its benefits!  Privilege plays out in many ways to benefit those of us of common ancestry –male and female. When privilege comes responsibility and that means we adopt an ethic of care for the other.

Third, we must acknowledge and understand the role of poverty in the issues we raise today. To be dropped into the maw of hopelessness and then told to pull yourself out of the abyss is a thoughtless exercise of privilege. We celebrate Horatio Alger, but do not account for the countless nameless casualties unremembered in our celebrations.

Finally, we are technocrats who solve problems and our solution at hand is education, but education that only advances the individual is not enough. We flirt with elitism unless we recognize that a 22 year old graduate of MIT who is black is still at risk when he or she walks down the middle of the street in the Fergusons of our nation.

If we leave here today with nothing else let us leave with a commitment to widening our friendship circles so that we maintain a commitment to
empathy for who are different than we are. Cultivate friendships that push you to see the world through other eyes. If you are not intentional about doing that your world will always remain defined by folk like you. Homeboys are important but being captured by a clique is still to be a prisoner. We can do better than that.

When I was younger I thought we would have solved all these problems by now. That we have not is terribly disturbing and yet experience tells me I should not be surprised. Human kind is flawed. We hear that in different ways and see it often. We care for me and mine and lose perspective on and empathy for the other. And there are those who tell us that is OK. I am here this afternoon to tell you that that is not OK.  Ferguson tells us it is not OK and that is what this afternoon is all about.

This is important work.  May we be guided today by powers that are greater than we are.