George Floyd, Racism and Transformation

June 2020 – Eco-Justice Ministries by Rev. Peter Sawtell (retiring at end of July)

The murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis on Monday, May 25, 2020, has triggered ten days of mass protests around the US and internationally, much of it non-violent.

Mr. Floyd’s death is the centerpiece of each of those protests, but it isn’t just about him. In an image suggested by an African American pastor in a radio interview this week, the murder of George Floyd was the added bit of heat that brought an already simmering pot to a full boil. There was already a lot of anger and tension.

Mr. Floyd’s death has put a spotlight on the widespread and persistent crisis of police brutality, but it isn’t just about cops. The vigilante killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and the Central Park conversation between a birdwatcher and a dog walker which rapidly devolved into racially privileged threats, are just two of the high-profile examples of racism in modern America. The violence isn’t new; the now-common videos of such violence have made long-standing atrocities undeniable and emotionally agonizing.

And it’s not just about explicit and interpersonal violence. Statistics are clear that people of color have been hit harder by the coronavirus than have white folk, and the economic fallout from the pandemic has clear racial disparities.

The past couple of months have vividly revealed the racism in our society.

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It was in 1975 that I came to a profound awareness of my participation in institutionalized white racism. I look at the insights I gained from my mentor, Horace Seldon of Community Change, Inc., as a genuine conversion experience. Those seminary-era years of learning and involvement changed my identity (I am a racist.), my view of the world, and my lifelong commitment to action and social change.

Horace was always careful about his use of language. He, along with many scholars of the time, used three different words to describe aspects of race relations.

Prejudice is a matter of personal opinion. It sees one’s own race and values as the appropriate standard of acceptability, and locates a problem in the other who doesn’t conform to those standards or ideals.

Discrimination builds on prejudice, and acts to deny access to goods, services and opportunities. A store clerk with prejudice may not trust Black youth (that’s prejudice); discrimination is present when the clerk follows those youth around the store, or forces them to leave.

Racism is systemic, not personal. Racism — certainly in the US context — has “White” standards of acceptability, and locates the problem in non-white people and institutions. Not only is access denied to goods, services and opportunities, the power to enforce decisions is denied by laws and social structures. Being embedded in institutions, systemic racism can function without specific intention, and is reveal in statistical realities as well as individual offenses. The profound statistical disparities of income and wealth between white America and black/Latino/indigenous America continue and deepen, even when many white folk wish that were not the case.

The three words express important distinctions between opinions and actions, and between individual and institutional power. These terms can help us consider if police brutality is a matter of “a few bad apples” (discrimination) or of “a diseased tree” (racism).

When Derek Chauvin put his knee on the neck of George Floyd, that could, at the simplest sense, be seen as a brutal act of discrimination and bigotry. But Chauvin wore the uniform of the Minneapolis police department, and was acting as a representative of the police. He was backed up by three other uniformed officers, only one of whom, perhaps, voiced objections to what was going on. The Minneapolis police department, I’ve heard, has a long and ugly reputation for racially biased police brutality. Chauvin has been the subject of at least 17 misconduct complaints over the last two decades, only one of which led to a letter of reprimand. What happened on Monday, May 25 was not just one prejudiced individual acting on his own to cause harm to a black man. Institutional values and policies were entwined with those actions.

There have been protests around the country through the last 10 days because what happened to George Floyd was not unique to Minneapolis. In far too many cities and communities, the police are seen as defenders of property and power, not as protectors of the citizens. A system in which police who kill are almost never prosecuted — and where those deaths are disproportionately of people of color — is racist by result, if not by intention.

When disparate policing is added to the racial disparities of education, health care, wealth and opportunity, we see the indicators of institutional racism. The rules of the system are set up in a way that benefits and power tend to flow to white people and white-led institutions, and heavy costs are carried by those who are not white.

There are some “bad apples” who act with bigotry and discrimination. There are cops who intentionally cause harm. There are white supremacist organizations which are flagrant in proclaiming their explicitly white standards, and they are active in spreading hate and harm. But if all of those bad apples were taken away, or if they all had a genuine change of heart, much of the damage of racism would continue. The whole tree is diseased.

Many of us decry the systems of which we’re a part. We hold values of pluralism and diversity and acceptance and opportunity, we seek justice and equality for all, and we know that the system in which we live doesn’t mesh with our values and hopes. We are racist because we participate in and support those racist institutions — with our complicity, with our votes, with our tax dollars, and often with our silence. We can be anti-racist — as well as racist — if we are active in working to dismantle the systems of racism and oppression.

In these weeks of turmoil, I am heartened that the public conversation has named systemic racism, and it has gone beyond the narrow question of police practices. The blatant execution of George Floyd has shaken the conscience of this country in a way that other recent events have not. Yesterday, in a eulogy for Mr. Floyd, Al Sharpton said, “When I looked this time and saw marches where in some cases young whites outnumbered the blacks marching, I know that it is a different time and a different season.”

We must not let this season of awareness and opportunity slip away without transformative action. We must confront systemic racism, and bring change which transforms institutions and which converts social values. That will be a long and hard task.

For guidance in that work, I first call on all of us — and especially those of us who are white — to find time and opportunities to listen carefully and respectfully to those who experience the violence and disparities of our racist society. Hear the stories of exclusion and hate, of struggles to succeed against a system which works against them. Hear the pain and anger, and accept that as real.

On a larger level, I point you to an excellent and well-curated collection of anti-racism resources assembled by my colleague, Rev. Dr. Jenny Whitcher of the Juniper Formation. I highly commend her listing for your study and engagement. She writes, “From immediate actions to long-term work, you can find ways to engage the spiritual and relational work of antiracism and an end to police violence. We invite you to look through these resources and identify your next step, and then the step after that …” About a third of the way through the document, there are some specific resources for the current crisis, on how to advocate for solutions to end police violence.

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I am also compelled to note that today is World Environment Day, which the UN (perhaps dubiously) says “is the most renowned day for environmental action.” A follow-up statement is not at all dubious. “This year, the theme is biodiversity – a concern that is both urgent and existential.” About a year ago, I wrote about the crisis of extinction, and the need for transformational change.

On this World Environment Day, recent figures tell us that global CO2 levels hit their highest point in human history, averaging 417.2 ppm in May, far above the “safe” level of 350 ppm. The pandemic — with the dramatic reduction in travel and industry — had only a negligible effect on the consistent annual rise of the readings.

And on the eve of World Environment Day, took twin actions to curb environmental regulations. As the New York Times reported, Mr. Trump signed an executive order that calls on agencies to waive required environmental reviews of infrastructure projects to be built during the pandemic-drive environmental crisis. And the EPA proposed a new rule that changes the cost-benefit analysis used by the Clean Air Act, “effectively limiting the strength of future air pollution controls.”

It is entirely appropriate to name these assaults on the global biosphere in the same context as an analysis of systemic racism. Liberation theologian James Cone wrote many years ago:

The logic that led to slavery and segregation in the Americas, colonization and apartheid in Africa, and the rule of white supremacy throughout the world is the same one that leads to the exploitation of animals and the ravaging of nature. It is a mechanistic and instrumental logic that defines everything and everybody in terms of contribution to the development and defense of white world supremacy.

For those who identify as Christian, I name yet again that the work of transformation is at the very heart of our faith. We proclaim, with Paul, that “God was in Christ, reconciling the cosmos.” (2 Cor. 5:19) We have been less likely to accept the mandate where “God has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” We are called to be agents of God’s reconciliation — working personally and systemically to break down domination and disparities, and to work for the presence of justice and opportunity, the establishment of God’s shalom.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that times of disorientation can make it clear that we can never to back to what had been “normal.” We must reorient toward a different vision and a new reality. Racism in our midst and ecological devastation around us should be so profoundly disorienting that we can never hope for the way things had been.

Let us me moved in this moment to embrace personal and systemic transformation.

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