Black Lives Matter
At the beginning of this sermon, pictures of the five black people killed by police officers were projected for the congregation to see as each was named. At the end of the sermon, photo portraits of each were placed on chairs as candles were lit for them.
This is Tamir Rice. Tamir Rice is twelve years old and lives in Cleveland, OH. Correction, Tamir Rice was twelve years old and used to live in Cleveland. Two weeks ago Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun in a public park, and a bystander called the police. The video from the surveillance camera shows the police car pulling up, and two seconds later, one of the officers shoots Tamir Rice, killing him. A twelve-year old boy, playing with a toy gun, shot within 2 seconds of the police arriving on scene. One Mississippi, two Mississippi. That’s the length of time this police officer had to exit his vehicle, assess the situation, decide that this 12-year boy possessed such a likely lethal threat that he couldn’t wait to talk to him or investigate further, and he shot him. Tamir Rice is no longer twelve years old, Tamir Rice no longer lives in Cleveland, because Tamir Rice is dead.
This is Eric Garner. You may have heard of him—he was approached by police for allegedly selling un-taxed cigarettes in New York. There is video of the entire encounter available on the internet—the following facts are not in dispute. Eric Garner did not attack the police officers interrogating him. He was not physically aggressive; he was entirely unarmed. He didn’t make a move towards the police, or towards any possible hidden weapon. The police though, they were aggressive towards him. One officer put Eric in a choke hold—an illegal choke hold banned by the New York Police Department two decades ago—and helped bring him to the ground. You can hear Eric on the video, shouting as best he can over and over, “I can’t breath. I can’t breath.” The officer choked him to death. The medical examiner evaluated the evidence, pronouncing the choking as the cause of death, and designated his death a homicide. The grand jury came back with no indictment. Not even a trial where the police officer in question was acquitted of the charges. No, the person who killed Eric Garner isn’t even being charged with a crime. Eric Garner is dead.
This is Michael Brown. We all know the general outlines of his story by now, though of course there was conflicting evidence and testimony in the grand jury hearing. Michael was jaywalking, walking in the middle of the street, and when Officer Wilson stopped to remedy the situation, it somehow escalated into violence to the point where Michael was shot. Michael Brown was 18 years old, he just graduated from high school, he was killed back in August of this year. Facts of the circumstances remain in dispute, but one fact is indisputable - Michael Brown, another young black man, is dead.
This is Rumain Brisbon, age 34. You might not have heard of Rumain, but he’s dead too. He’s another unarmed black man, shot by the police five days ago in Phoenix. This is recent enough that the details are still being sorted out, but Rumain’s friends are quoted as saying he was just trying to bring fast food to his children in the apartment outside of which he was shot. Another example of witnesses and police officers having different stories, but Rumain only had a bottle of pills in the pocket he was reaching for, and the officer thought it was a gun. Again the circumstances are murky—Rumain apparently ran when confronted by the officer—but he did have fast food with him. The Arizona Republic newspaper reported that 24 hours after the shooting, there were still french fries all over the crime scene. Rumain Brisbon, another young unarmed black man, is dead.
And this, this is Akai Gurley. You might not have heard of Akai either—but as you’ve probably guessed, I don’t have a happy story to tell about him. Less than three weeks ago, Akai and his girlfriend were leaving his girlfriend’s apartment in a public housing complex in Brooklyn, and the elevator didn’t work. Akai’s last decision—a decision many if not most of us would make—turned out to be fatal. He and his girlfriend, they decided not to wait for the elevator, and to take the stairs instead. Two officers were doing sweeps of the public housing to try and prevent crime, and apparently according to NY Police Chief William Bratton, one of the officers had drawn both a flashlight and his weapon for safety reasons in the darkened stairwell, even though his partner had not. When Akai and his girlfriend entered the stairwell, the officer accidentally shot Akai, kil ling him. The officer and his partner were then unreachable by the New York Police Department for over six minutes, during which time the officer who shot Akai was texting his union representative. Akai Gurley, another unarmed young black man, is dead.
Sadly, I could go on, listing many more cases, but I’m sure by now my point is more than made. We are killing too many young, un-armed black men. Or, young, un-armed black teenagers, as the case may be. We can debate the merits of this case or that, argue the conflicting testimonies in some of the cases, or simply shake our heads in disbelief at the ones that are unambiguous. Some of us might try and argue that some of these young black men made poor decisions in the moment, and maybe some of them did. But there is no doubt that they are paying a much higher price much more frequently for their poor decisions than if they were white.
One analysis completed by Pro-Publica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism, found that over a two year span from 2010-2012, young black men were twenty-one times more likely to get shot by police than young white men. Twenty-one times more likely. Other studies show similar dis-heartening results. In 2012, black people made up 33% of the population of the city of Chicago, and yet 91% of the people killed by police that year were black. The 2012 results for New York city are just as bad—in 2012 28.6% of the population of New York city was black, and they accounted for 87% of people killed by police. Too many young, unarmed black men are dying in our country. We have a problem.
“There are some things in our nation and in our world to which I'm proud to be maladjusted,” said the great Martin Luther King, Jr. “And I call upon you to be maladjusted and all people of good will to be maladjusted to these things until the good society is realized.” King made these remarks during his Ware Lecture address to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1966, titled “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution.” And his remarks hold true for us today, just as they did back in 1966, in the middle of the civil rights movement. We must continue to be maladjusted to the systemic racism which pervades our society, which pervades our institutions, which pervades our very culture. We must not sleep through the revolution, we must be maladjusted, and we must do something about it.
But before we can do something about it, we have to be able to name it, and even just be aware that it exists. Travis Gettys writes, “White supremacy is so deeply ingrained in American life that institutionalized racism doesn’t even need racists to persist. Most Americans understand that racism is considered wrong, but many white people fail to see more subtle forms of racial prejudice that are more readily apparent to blacks and other minorities.” Following this same train of thought, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociologist at Duke University, said, “The main problem nowadays is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits… The more we assume that the problem of racism is limited to the Klan, the birthers, the Tea Party or to the Republican Party, the less we understand that racial domination is a collective process and we are all in this game.” Bonilla-Silva calls this “racism without racists,” which also happens to be the title of his book on racism in America.
Unconscious bias is a fact of life in our country. Scientific study after scientific study backs this up. Babies as young as three months of age, regardless of their own race, when given a choice between playing with a white baby doll and a black baby doll—they almost all without fail express a clear preference to play with the white baby dolls. It’s actually heartbreaking to watch those videos, which you can find online. At three months, our culture has already trained them, all of them. Other studies have been conducted that show that the exact same resume submitted for the exact same job position, with only the name changed, will receive a significantly higher percentage of callbacks if the name sounds white as opposed to black. Researchers actually sent identical—except for the name—identical resumes to real world companies, and received significantly different rates of callback for interviews. Black-sounding names got called back less . The list of these studies could go on and on. No one is immune, myself included. A few years ago I took a test, freely available to the public on the Harvard website, that tests for bias against black people based on word associations and the speed with which the test-taker correlates positive adjectives with white people and negative adjectives with black people. Sadly and unsurprisingly, the test consistently shows the same results for adults as the baby doll test did with the 3-month olds—people of all colors, white, black, latino alike—everyone has been trained by our culture to be biased against black people. My test results were no different—despite my best intentions, despite many years of hard work to the contrary, I have a subconscious bias against black people. To be maladjusted, I need to be aware that despite my best intentions, I have something to be maladjusted to.
And so this leads to one of my main concerns with our police officers and our police forces. Let me be clear. In general, I am incredibly supportive of them—our police officers, their bravery, the work they do to protect us, and the very real risks they face in the line of duty. And, they, like me, like all of us in our culture, are racist—they and we have subconscious racial bias. Another one of those scientific subconscious bias studies, found in Howard J. Ross’s book Everyday Bias, involves pictures of two men fighting with knives. In Travis Getty’s description, participants were “asked to look photographs of a fight between two white men—one armed with a knife and the other unarmed. Then the researchers showed a photo of a white man armed with a knife fighting an unarmed black man. Most participants correctly identified the white man holding the knife in the first photo, but the study found most people—black and white—incorrectly said the black man had the knife in the second photo.”
Ross reflects, “The overwhelming number of people will actually experience the black man as having the knife because we’re more open to the notion of the black man having a knife than a white man… This is one of the most insidious things about bias. People may absorb these things without knowing them.” There is without a doubt a stereotype in our culture about black men that most of us—including our police officers—have absorbed. According to the myth—and remember, this is most often a subconscious belief, a subconscious belief held by many who consciously would state otherwise—the subconscious myth leads us to believe that black men are more likely to be violent criminals than their white counterparts.
The second concern I have with our police forces is their lack of accountability around their use of force. Yes, force is necessary to use sometimes, even lethal force, but it would seem based on the numbers and statistics we’ve heard already that the use of lethal force is not being applied consistently or objectively. We’ve seen the statistics reflect this already, but here’s an anecdote to re-inforce it, shared by Leonard Pitts in an article in Thursday’s Star Press. Remember Tamir Rice, the 12-year old kid who was shot for holding a toy gun? Compare his case with that of Joseph Houseman, a 63-year old white man who stood on the street in Kalamazoo, MI this past May with a rifle in his hands. When the police arrived, he refused to identify himself, he gave them the middle finger, and he cursed them out. Did they feel threatened and shoot him down on the spot? No… they spent 40 minutes talking him down, eventually convincing him to hand over the rifle peacefully. In fact, not only was Joseph Houseman not shot, he wasn’t even arrested. Not only was he not shot or arrested, he was given back his gun the very next day. This is what we would hope and expect would happen, except for maybe giving the gun back, with all people of all colors of course—but sadly it’s not the case. As, Ann Hart, chairwoman of the African American Police Advisory Board for South Phoenix, said in response to the shooting of Rumain Brisbon, “We need to take a deeper dive into why police officers are feeling compelled to shoot and kill as opposed to apprehend and detain, [as opposed to] arrest and jail.”
People of color have been and continue to work on their parts of this issue—white people are the people with significantly more power in our country right now, yes even despite having a black president, and so I’m going to address now what we white folks need to do specifically. In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from peo ple of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” In this passage King is responding to critiques of the use of direct action, saying essentially that the methods they used were simply bringing existing injustices to light. Substitute “liberal” for “moderate” today, and I fear you could make much the same critique of many white liberals, especially when it comes to understanding and acknowledging the structural racism that lies at that root of so many of these deaths.
At our best, we white liberals are maladapted to the disproportionate killing of unarmed black men, and we educate ourselves about this racism, we set aside our preconceptions, we listen to those suffering from racism and oppression, we learn about what’s really going on, and we take action. We white liberals offer up a shallow understanding from people of good will though, when we ignore the structural and institutional racism at the root of these deaths, and find arguments and reasons to dismiss it and set it aside—when we in effect, adapt to the disproportionate killing of unarmed black men. There are so many verbal and logical ways to do this, it’s impossible to list them all, but here’s the most insidious one—when we blame the victim. We say things sometimes like “well, they should have made better choices.” And yes, some of these young men should have made better choices—and, it doesn’t mean racism is at the root of their getting killed. Joseph Houseman should have made a better choice last May than standing in the street with a rifle and cursing out the police, but he didn’t pay for that poor choice with his life. The thing is, white people make bad choices involving the police too, and they don’t pay for those mistakes with their lives at anywhere near the same rate. Using this argument is like saying, “well, all the millions of black people stuck in jail right now on drug charges are there because they made bad choices.” Yes, they did make bad choices, but so did their white counterparts in equal measures, except that white people aren’t incarcerated at an incredibly high rate for their bad choices. Unarmed white people are occasionally killed by the police because they made bad choices, but it’s nowhere near the incredibly high rate for unarmed black men.
So no, it doesn’t matter if Michael Brown might have just stolen cigars from a convenience store, because Officer Wilson wasn’t even aware of that. And even if he was aware, and even if Michael Brown did steal them, killing an unarmed teenager for stealing cigars is not the appropriate level of response. It doesn’t matter if Rumain Brisbon, who was shot and killed in Phoenix last week, it doesn’t matter if he ran when he shouldn’t have. He was unarmed, and there was no reason for him to be killed. And no, it doesn’t matter what Tamir Rice’s parents might have done, or what kind of influence they might have been on him. He was a 12-year old boy, playing with a toy gun, and he was shot within 2 seconds of officers arriving on the scene. That’s simply indefensible.
If we fall prey to these and other adaptations and deflections, we become the stumbling block instead of part of the solution. If we are to avoid sleeping through this revolution, if we are to become our best white liberal selves, if we are to throw down the shield of ignorance and step fully into the difficult truth of continued racism in our country, we must educate ourselves and we must take action.
To become truly maladjusted to the disproportionate killing of unarmed black men and the underlying structural and institutional racism in our country, we must, like the person in the Story For All Ages who is overflowing with his own ideas, we must empty ourselves of our preconceived notions, and go and learn and educate ourselves. We need to seek out and then listen to the experiences and stories of those most affected—people of color.
We also can’t rely on people of color to be our teachers. We need to do our own homework and educate ourselves about racism. The green handout you all should received this morning on your way in contains some basic resources to begin doing so. And once we educate ourselves about the basic principles of racism, we also need to educate ourselves about the history of racism within Unitarian Universalism—for sadly, despite our high ideals, we have not always handled issues of race well. We need to educate ourselves, for example, about the Black Empowerment controversy of the late 1960’s that embroiled our faith tradition—again, those are resources listed on your green handout. We need also to educate our children about racism and the system we’re part of. Most mothers of black children feel the need to have conversations with their young black sons on how to behave around police so that they don’t get shot—be humble, do whatever they ask, make no sudden movements, and never, never run. They are, essentially having conversations with their young black children about how to live in a world with racism. If we are to create change in our world, we need to have the equivalent conversations with our white children—about how to be non-racist in a culture of ingrained and subconscious racism.
To become maladapted then, we must educate ourselves in a variety of ways—and then we must take action. One of the things you could do is join the task force that I’m going to ask the Board of Trustees to create at the next Board meeting in December. The task force will work on anti-racism and anti-oppression issues and hopefully lead us to take more action to make a difference. There is a sign-up sheet on the easel in the back of the sanctuary if you’re interested. You could also sign up for the e-mail list, also on that easel, to get e-mails and information about other resources and other ways you can take participate in taking action against racism. Other things you could do include going to the die-in at Ball State on Tuesday, it’s going to happen at five o’clock at the bell tower. We can also work, and maybe the task-force can work on this, towards creating an anti-racism coalition here in Muncie. Other things you could do would inc lude becoming a member of Allies for Racial Equity, which is the white ally group in Unitarian Univeralism to help combat racism - liking their Facebook page and getting their updates would be a great way to start there.
Essentially, we must stop being passive, and become active white allies. As you heard last week if you were here for Elizabeth’s sermon, we are all bound together. We’re all bound together, and because of that, there is an emptiness in our lives. An emptiness where all these young black men should be. Vilma Harrington warned us this morning in our reading of the idolatry of the cause—because people, real live people, they don’t ask us to get involved, their very humanity demands of us that we get involved.
So let me us remind ourselves then, in closing, of humanity.
This is Eric Garner. He was 34. He died in July of this year. He was an unarmed black man. We light a candle in his memory.
This is Michael Brown. He was 18. He died in August of this year. He was an unarmed black teenager. We light a candle in his memory.
This is Akai Gurley. He was 26. He died three weeks ago. He was an unarmed black man. We light a candle in his memory.
This is Tamir Rice. He was twelve. He died two weeks ago. He was an unarmed black teenager. We light a candle in his memory.
This is Rumain Brisbon. He was 34. He died five days ago. He was an unarmed black man. We light a candle in his memory.
This final chair remains empty. It holds a place for all the other unarmed black men who have died, and all the unarmed black men who will still die, because of racism. We light this final candle for all of them.
There is a hole in the fabric of the universe—an empty space where these five black people, these two black teenagers and these three black men, belong. And we need to do something about it, so that we don’t create more of these terrible, awful empty spaces in the lives of daughters and sons and mothers and wives and husbands and brothers. We must start acting as if black lives matter.
Friends, we cannot sleep through this revolution. We must open our eyes to the structural and systemic racism in our country that infects each and every one of us, despite our best intentions. We must become maladapted to the disproportionate killing of unarmed black men by our police officers. We must do the work of educating ourselves and learning about racism in our country and in our faith tradition. We must take action, attend protests, create coalitions, and work for change. Cornel West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” May we make our love public, may we transform the world, may we work tirelessly to create justice in our city, justice in our state, and justice and in our country.