Thoughts on the State of our Disunion

Dr. Jennifer Grace Bird closes out our  second volume on the Bible and Race in the USA. You can see the first volume here.

The local public radio station, OPB, often keeps me company as I drive, and last Friday night was no exception. In the recesses of my mind, connections between racism and biblical interpretations stirred, set in motion earlier in the day by comments an Elizabethtown College student made (Amanda Robbins’ “Black Christians and Donald Trump”). In the forefront were the opening remarks from a “Friday Forum” event, titled: #WhatADoctorLooksLike.

As you might have guessed, this event was sparked by the recent incident on a Delta Airlines flight, in which Dr. Tamika Cross offered to help an unresponsive passenger but was told they were looking for “actual physicians and nurses.” There was an explanation offered by Delta – the official line implies that she must not have been able to produce her credentials on the spot, thus they deferred to someone who could (who just happened to be a white male). Whatever the official explanation, it does not adjust the thinking that crafted the dismissal she received, born out of sexist and racist stereotypes.

The silver lining to Dr. Cross’s experience is that in sharing it on Facebook she ushered in a new level of awareness about racial discrimination in the work place (or the way racism affects our assumptions about people’s occupations). In contrast to the general tenor of #BLM, which is understandably positioned to make claims and challenge centuries of apathy and systemic disenfranchisement, the #WhatADoctorLooksLike banter invites consideration.

What caught my attention, though, last Friday night, was that the first person to speak offered a cursory political background to the status of black lives in this country. She started with the Declaration of Independence, noting that the line, “all men are created equal,” did not include women or blacks. Before moving on she noted that this declaration had an effect on the bodies and minds of the people who were defined as less than fully human by it.

In from the recesses to the forefront came this line from the blog post I had read that afternoon: “Michel de Certeau delves into this concept of history not easily being forgotten when he says ‘every power, including the power of law, is written first of all on the backs of its subjects.’”[1] Please show me an example more true than that of slavery in the United States.

She then moved on to briefly comment on the Civil War, noting that while slavery was the reason southern states tried/began to secede, it was for the sake of keeping the Union together that the North went to war. The abolition of slavery, eventually, was a fortuitous added bonus. This reality had an effect on black minds and bodies that persists.

The civil rights movement of the 1960’s is the next obvious moment in terms of human rights for African Americans. That several voices for change were assassinated due to their calling out for justice cannot be overlooked.

Today, we can speak casually of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Many of us are not required to think about, really think about, the effects of three hundred-plus years of “writing on backs” that lead to the movement. We are removed from the economic realities and social injustices that lit the fire for that movement. Anyone who has not had to come to terms with the persistence of that writing on the backs is not likely to feel the sense of urgency that racism in this country ought to stir in all of us.

Many people consider the Black Lives Matter movement to be fed by the same social justice waters that fed the Civil Rights fervor. I am among them.

In my understanding of it, the Black Lives Matter movement is a righteous anger response to the unjust, horrific treatment of humans at the hands of other humans, justified for no other reason than the color of their skin. There is something that is simmering – just below the thin veneer of civil beliefs and behavior – that triggers these reactions laden with fear. It is anticipation enervated by fear that I saw and heard in every dash-cam or cell phone video that I have watched.

When our outlook on the world is framed with fear, we are far from our best selves.

Every now and then, for a split second, I feel empathy for the men and women who marinate in such fear of their African American neighbors. For a split second the acknowledgement that perhaps they should be afraid ricochets throughout my body. The privilege of Whiteness, the persistent maintenance of this advantage, the centuries of exploitation, the ever-evolving-ever-current form of slavery/Jim Crow/incarceration of black bodies: all of these things are real, have had an effect, an effect that persists, and perhaps somewhere in the recesses of their minds they actually do know it. And thus, they are scared. Scared of the tables being turned? Scared to turn to face and deal with the systemic, economic, access-to-resources, colonization of minds and bodies injustice? Both and more?

So when I hear Donald Trump say that, “All lives matter, all lives matter,” I want to shout at the screen, “No shit, Sherlock, but that’s missing the point!” In addition to being frustrated by his willful ignorance, I am deeply unsettled because I know that he is voicing the sentiment that thousands (millions?) in this country typically just keep to themselves. I am unsettled because millions of people are cut-off from an awareness of the effects of our country’s history on the backs of African Americans. I am unsettled because they genuinely think “all lives matter,” and in staking that claim they perpetuate the very realities that lead to the need for The Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Every time I hear some form of ignorance come out of Trump’s mouth I shudder at the years it will take us to undo the damage. The thing is, his uninformed beliefs are easy (in addition to being thoroughly racist). That is a large part of what makes them so attractive to so many people. But being immersed in humanity means taking the time to understand each other, especially those whose views or experiences are different from our own, and it is anything but easy.

Then I consider Trump’s willful ignorance next to the two dummies that were hung in the front yard for Halloween, in Miami, Florida this past week. If we are to take the family seriously, “it is just a joke. It is just scary, for Halloween; it’s not racist, nothing political.” (People really need to learn the definition of “political” – if a thing is done in public, it’s political.)

Then there is the situation about the two University of Wisconsin students who dressed up as a lynched Obama/HRC and Donald Trump holding the rope. They were exercising their right to free speech, we are told. I can honor the right to free speech all winter long, but that is not the issue, not really, in my mind.

Ironically, people inherently get the political statement of lynching the United States President, in effigy. “Free speech is protected!” (Is it worse, more insidious, or more palatable that it is done in jest instead of maliciously?) A specific person, Barak Obama, and we have to acknowledge the political implications. A generic black body or two, though, and we are supposed to look past the larger implications that are still being written on bodies and minds: black bodies are supposedly as lynch-worthy now as they were a hundred years ago.

It is that people had to have conversations about nooses having been used for something other than lynching that seals the deal for me:

“People use nooses in Halloween displays all the time!” But it wasn’t a generic mummy, or skeleton, or even a disturbingly creepy baby doll.

“Hanging was a form of state execution in this country. It isn’t just about lynching.” Except lynching was a White man’s way of executing justice. The justice of hatred and fear.

The powers that be have been writing on black and brown and ruddy-reddish backs for centuries in this country. I, for one, am eager to close that chapter and begin to write something just, something new.

[1] Michel de Certeau. “The Scriptural Economy,” in The Practice of Everyday Life. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

jennifer-bird-by-jessica-johnson Jennifer Grace Bird, PhD is the author of Abuse, Power and Fearful Obedience: Reconsidering 1 Peter’s Commands to Wives (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013) and Permission Granted: Taking the Bible into Your Own Hands (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015). An expert on the influence of the Bible on contemporary society, she’s been a guest on our podcast, Broadcast Seedingand publishes frequently at The Huffington Post

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