I cry every time I think about the murder of Eric Garner at the hands of New York police officers. “I can’t breathe” echoes over and over again in my mind, the music to which the image of a father facedown on gravel pleading for his life is set, and before I’m aware, I’m sobbing. I’m angered each time I think about the sickeningly numerous deaths of my brothers and sisters and I become enraged when I consider the all-too-predictable non-indictments that follow.
Since it is likely that you don’t know me all too well, allow me to clarify something: this behavior is quite unusual for me. I come from a debate background and have always been very rational when voicing my opinions; I am always passionate, but I do not cry. I avoid letting my emotions affect my rationality when it comes to political issues. I suppose this is still the case, though, because this particular issue is not political: this is personal. My fellow black Americans and I are in a constant state of danger and appear to have little recourse for the injustice we face.
In order to directly address these injustices, I must provide two further clarifications. First: nothing is an isolated incident. Second: we–Claremont College students, Claremont residents, and beyond—are not living in isolation. The murders of Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride and countless others, the continued discrimination people of color face, and even the defacing of Walker Wall and the quilt at Scripps are all connected. From micro-aggressions (small, often unintentional acts of racism) to blatant acts of racism and ignorance, we see evidence of a larger institutional problem. Historically, the systemic treatment of Blacks has operated on the conceptualization of Blacks as inferior individuals, even as property. Slavery has, of course, long since been abolished, but the prevailing idea of inferiority lingers and is still evident in our criminal justice, education, political and other systems. Over time, black lives have been systematically subjected to devaluation.
Those who seek to effectively combat this devaluation must understand that “Black Lives Matter” isn’t simply a trendy hashtag circulating the interwebs. It is a movement, established by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, rooted in actively acknowledging the need for black bodies to assert that our lives are important. Consider this: if“all lives mattered,” no such movement would be necessary. The problem lies therein. These are real issues and our communal attitudes toward them have real implications for their continued existence. Even in Claremont, we as a community are affected by the “Black Lives Matter” movement, regardless of whether or not we choose to acknowledge it.
Perhaps it’s simply my perception, but I feel a large sense of apathy from my fellow 5C-ers, including the Christian community. I was initially surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response, manifesting itself in the turnout for the Ferguson rally, social media posts, etc., but since then I’ve seen the enthusiasm dwindle. No one seems to be talking or even thinking about these issues anymore, despite the fact that they have far-reaching and shockingly powerful implications. No one seems to care. I feel scared, heartbroken and powerless, and all the while everyone seems to be going about their daily lives as if nothing has happened. As if nothing is happening. The violence I’m describing is ever-present: reduced media coverage and public consciousness does not mean that nothing is wrong anymore. On the contrary, they are indications that the violence is so normalized that it isn’t even newsworthy—if it ever was.
Am I wrong? Is everyone secretly thinking about the systemic violence against black bodies and the institutionalized racism we continue to face? Are others silently hurting with me? I wouldn’t be completely surprised if this were the case; I often silently think about systems that oppress others, maybe even those that oppress you. But even a short conversation with me would usually reveal my silent thoughts, and in light of the conversations I have engaged in and observed, I remain skeptical that people care—whether silently or not. Perhaps we as a community are missing a certain depth in our relationships that would allow for these kinds of conversations to take place. I sense a perceptible lack of reflection regarding these issues that only upholds these systems of injustice.
Delving deeper into this lack of reflection, I also sense the presence of what can be termed disingenuous openness. Perhaps there’s a general understanding that institutionalized racism is real and harmful, but only to some ambiguously large extent. How many people have stopped to think about what this actually means on an individual level? I’ve had many conversations with people who claim to be open-minded but have internally settled on a very limited worldview that they are uninterested in reconsidering. A commitment to genuine reflection and open-mindedness is essential if we’re ever to make any progress or have substantive conversations. Without such a commitment, you might be even more likely to become part of the problem than those who are explicitly close-minded because your ostensible openness leads others to believe you’re on your way to being part of the solution.
In leading lives that are void of genuine reflection, we often miss the larger point. For example, why are we so quick to sign up for community service and opportunities to help those we identify as ‘others,’ but reticent to meaningfully engage with those around us when it comes to discussing these systemic issues? Don’t get me wrong: community service is great and can be an enriching experience for both you and the people with whom you’re working. But don’t be fooled: the people you’re helping are suffering from the same systemic injustice you are regularly (consciously or not) refusing the opportunity to think about and discuss. As I’ve mentioned before, it is all connected; nothing happens in isolation.
As I see it, the reality of the situation is this: we are one family and collectively comprise one body (Mark 3:34-5, Romans 12:4-5). Thus, it is fundamentally our responsibility to care deeply about and for one another. If the idea that all human beings are equally valuable and worthy of respect does not persuade you that these issues are worthy of your time and consideration, the fact that we are all closely related should. We often view the charge to be family as symbolic or only embrace it when we feel like it. Inevitably, there are times when it is more convenient to acknowledge other individuals as our brothers and sisters and love them as such. Perhaps these are the times you choose to give the issues that affect your surrounding community some thought. The problem with this approach, though, is that we are required to go above and beyond the natural human inclination to only occasionally think about others. Anyone can do the bare minimum; the challenge to care more than that is intentionally difficult. Ponder this: if we were naturally motivated to constantly think about others, the scripture would not have needed to pronounce us “family,” because our lives would have already reflected that reality. Christianity isn’t only about pursuing and maintaining a personal relationship with God or doing community service or being an overall “good person”: it is an active stance we take that demands a (binding) notion of constantly engaging with and being sensitive to each other. This means imagining issues that aren’t your reality as if they were actually happening to you. This means recognizing that those issues actually are your reality because they’re attacking a member of your family and hurting a part of your body. This means, as much as your instinct might be to kick and scream and claim otherwise, ignorance is not an option that is readily available to you. In the same way, disingenuous openness is unacceptable.
The problem I’ve identified is serious. However, I truly believe in the power of community and I have faith in our ability to create a family where we relentlessly and genuinely support each other. I’ve seen glimpses of this in the Inter-Varsity Fellowship, one of the most welcoming groups I’ve encountered in my short time here at the 5Cs, but there is, as always, room for improvement. In this spirit, let us all be cognizant of our role in systems of oppression, recognize our obligation to be present in each other’s lives, and work towards building the community we’re called to live in.