The Other Epidemic

See the source imageHOLY TRINITY SUNDAY

Genesis 1:1–2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

Prayer of the Day: Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

For the last three months Covid-19 has been turning our lives upside down. The epidemic has forced us to change dramatically the way we shop, the way we care for our loved ones and the way we plan our day to day activities. Painful sacrifices have been made by medical caregivers on the front lines battling the disease, by essential workers daily putting their health at risk to protect ours and by the millions who have lost their jobs in the effort to slow the spread of infection. But over the last week we have been made painfully aware of another epidemic that has been raging for centuries on our continent. It is an illness that makes headlines only sporadically and one about which we would rather not be reminded. Next to nothing has been done to combat this epidemic and there is little support or enthusiasm among leaders in either of the two major political parties to address it with more than rhetoric. I am speaking, of course, about the epidemic of police violence against black Americans.

On February 23, 2020 Ahmaud Arbery, and African American man, was jogging in his Georgia neighborhood when he was chased down and shot to death by Gregory and Travis McMichael, a father and son. Gregory was a former police officer and, for reasons that are unclear, no arrest was made and the local authorities declined to prosecute-until a video of the shooting became public. Earlier this week a white woman called the police and reported that she was being threatened by Christian Cooper, a black man who was out bird watching in Central Park after he merely asked that she leash her dog as per park rules. Then on Monday of this week, the nation witnessed a video of George Floyd in hand cuffs being choked to death under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. In all of these circumstances, the victims were unarmed and were not posing any threat to the officers involved or anyone else. The fact that in Floyd’s case there were three other officers on the scene observing this horrific event without raising a whimper of protest puts the lie to the oft asserted claim that such brutality is a freak occurrence involving a “few bad apples” within an otherwise blameless police force. We cannot deny that there exists within American law enforcement a culture of pervasive hostility, fear and suspicion of black men.[1]

Lest you think my use of the term “epidemic” is a bit too hyperbolic, understand that black Americans constitute less than 12% of the United States population. Yet they constitute 26.4% of all Americans killed by police between 2015-2019. See May 26, 2020 article “Police Killings of Blacks: Do Black Lives Matter?” by Todd Beer, Ph.D. in Society Pages. This disproportionate use of lethal force against black Americans tracks with their average rate of imprisonment. African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites. See Nellis, Ashley, Ph.D., “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons,” published in The Sentencing Project (June 14, 2016).

Of course, the systemic oppression of black Americans in the justice system form the streets to the courthouse is symptomatic of a much deeper and more insidious level of inequality. The Covid-19 the epidemic we are all fixated on right now has magnified the systemic inequalities between white and African Americans. In Chicago, African Americans comprise a third of the city’s population, but they account for half of those who have tested positive for the coronavirus and almost three-quarters of COVID-19 deaths. Milwaukee County, Wisconsin where African Americans constitute only 26% of the total population, they make up 70% of deaths due to the Covid-19. See “Coronavirus in African Americans and Other People of Color” by Sherita Hill Golden, M.D., M.H.S. These disparities point to a chronic, widespread and historical pattern of exploitation of black Americans leading to a severe lack of access to economic, educational and political opportunities. That, in turn, has placed and continues to place black American individuals and their communities at a severe disadvantage.

I am dismayed, but not surprised by the explosive anger that has erupted into violence in cities throughout the United States. What does surprise me is that such eruptions do not occur more often. As a white American male, I can scarcely imagine what it must be like getting up every morning to face a culture filled with reminders of your secondary status. These reminders come in the form of discomfort on the faces of shop owners upon seeing you walk into their store and the eyes that watch your every step anticipating theft. They come from confederate battle flag stickers prominently displayed on bumper stickers. They come in the form of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) allusions to racist stereotypes in the rhetoric of right wing politicians. As one young woman protesting in Minneapolis put it, “I’m just so tired of being hated.” Police brutality against black Americans is merely the extreme expression of violence in a culture of systemic oppression that exists everywhere, always at every level of daily life. How can one live in such a pressure cooker without exploding?

How, then, does a church like mine, one of the whitest in America, respond to this explosion of anger and the deep anguish it represents? I think the most important message to be sent right now can be summed up in three words: “We believe you.” Though I can honestly say that I have not seen a lot of overt racism in our churches, there is plenty of the softer, dismissive kind that denies or minimizes the realities of life as experienced by black Americans. The sentiments expressed in our eloquent social statements are oddly out of sync with comments frequently heard in the hallways of synod assemblies, seen on social media and uttered in our church parking lots. “There’s no racism in our neighborhood,”-as though those of us who have known nothing but white privilege would have any idea about that. “They wouldn’t have problems with the police if they just wouldn’t give them an attitude,”-easy enough to say when you have never been profiled. “Slavery and segregation are over, so let’s forget the past and move on”-much like saying “let’s just get on with the race and not dwell on what happened back at the starting line” after you have been given a commanding head start. My prayer is that these tumultuous days will finally open our eyes so that we can begin to see our country through the eyes of black Americans and find a genuine determination to join them in their struggle to change it.

That brings me to my final point. Remedying four hundred years of racial injustice cannot be accomplished by mere words. The task of removing the systemic legal, commercial and societal disparities that keep black persons and their communities at a severe disadvantage requires an effort as substantial as the New Deal and the Marshall Plan. At present, I don’t see much enthusiasm in either of the two major political parties for such seismic change. I expect to be deluged with all the usual reasons why this cannot happen. “It will increase the deficit,” “it will impose unreasonable restraints on business” “it will raise taxes” are sure to be raised in opposition. Additionally, there are those who will continue to insist that this isn’t necessary because the Civil Rights Movement ended segregation long ago and whatever problems black people have in modern America are their own. But like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I “refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt.” Speech of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington. A better America is achievable-if the rest of us begin to want it and are willing to sacrifice as much for it as have black Americans for the last four centuries.

Here is a poem by Langston Hughs expressing simply and powerfully what I believe so many protesters are trying so hard to make us hear.

Let America be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

Source: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC, 1990). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).


[1] Yes, there are many police officers who serve with honor and distinction. I am not suggesting that all police officers are racist. But I think it would be more accurate to say that these officers represent “good apples” working within and often against a culture of racial profiling and oppression.

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