April 4 is the 44th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This week is Holy Week. So what do Trayvon Martin, Dr. King and Jesus have in common? No, this question isn’t the beginning of a bad joke — the answer is hopefully apparent. They were all killed in the midst of a political climate that justified fear and legalized hate.
This is a better question: What are we with the majority hue (though, as a reminder, we white folks will be a minority in just a few decades!) going to do about it? At what point do we stop clucking our tongues, saying, “It’s a shame,” and go on with grocery lists and yard chores as if it doesn’t matter? Do we just pretend “It’s a black thing,” while we watch various news sources remind us that black on black violence is more prevalent than ignorant, trigger-happy “neighborhood watch” folks gunning down teenagers armed with Skittles and iced tea?
Really, truly, no longer do we get to be “neutral.” As the Archbishop Tutu wisely noted during the Apartheid struggle, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Most of us who live in white neighborhoods pretend that it doesn’t affect us. But yes, it does! As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
When I think that I get to relish “white privilege” while my black sisters and brothers get subjected to unfair arrests and inequitable education, then I am participating, de facto, with the very system that oppresses. So, enough justice talk. I know, we all get tired of hearing it, right? Especially when it doesn’t affect us. And I know that a lot of folks are presuming that Trayvon will eventually become last-page news until we don’t have to deal with it anymore.
So, how about this story? In 2005, Albert W. Florence was driving in New Jersey. He was detained for a fine that he had paid (and he had the paperwork to prove it). In the course of being detained, he was strip-searched two times. As he reports he was told to “turn around” while he stood naked in front of guards, “Squat and cough. Spread your cheeks.” This story was reported again when, this week, the Supreme Court determined (with a 5-4 vote) that this was legal. (Remember: no arrest record, no indictable offense and strip search is legal.)
As I kept hearing the story, my gut knew that Mr. Florence was black, and as I researched the story I found out that my suspicions were correct. He kept the paperwork of having paid the fine because he knew what it is to be “driving while black.” Sadly, I have a unique perspective as a white person on such issues in New Jersey. Years ago I was driving with my best friend (a dark-skinned black man) from Princeton Seminary on the way to New York City. The New Jersey State Police had set up a seat belt and sobriety check. My lights were all working, my license and registration were in order, we were not speeding, we had not consumed alcohol and we both had our seatbelts on. However, the five and six officers detained us for 45 minutes. Repeatedly they came to my window and said (with a flashlight shining on my face) “You sure you’re OK?” and then shining the beam on my friend’s dark face, “You sure don’t look OK,” as they kept the other hand on their gun. We felt frightened and sickened — and knew there was nothing we could do. My friend was furious and he wanted to make an issue of it on the side of the road — and I pleaded with him not to, because I was afraid we would both end up dead.
That’s just one of thousands of stories. It’s not prosecutable — idiocy and ignorance aren’t prosecutable. So we were just quiet. I don’t talk about this story very often. But this past weekend as I told the story to a friend I felt my face flush and my heart beat fast, 20 years and several states away. The fear, sorrow and horror are still there.
So, back to this week: at what point will it matter to us with lighter hues what happens to those with darker hues? At what point do we realize that, in our silence, we have kept our foot on the mouse’s tail? The words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, who spent time in two concentration camps (including Dachau) are good to remember:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Before Jesus was arrested the apostle Peter said, “I am ready to go to prison with you, even to die with you!” And Jesus said, “Before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny me three times.” And when Peter did, indeed, deny Christ, he went away and wept bitterly. Christ was clear that we are called to love God with our all and our neighbors as ourselves. In our silence, while people like people like Mr. Florence are victimized we do not love our neighbors as ourselves.
In his speech “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” the Rev. Dr. King said:
“Let nobody give you the impression that the problem of racial injustice will work itself out. Let nobody give you the impression that only time will solve the problem. That is a myth, and it is a myth because time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I’m absolutely convinced that the people of ill will in our nation — the extreme rightists — the forces committed to negative ends — have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic works and violent actions of the bad people who bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or shoot down a civil rights worker in Selma, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.” Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without this hard work, time becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.”