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(c) 2019 Sherman Lambert

Today is what would have been the 91st birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was a worker not just for racial justice, but for justice for all. His words and life’s work sought to turn the collective consciousness of our society toward our nation’s inequities. His dream was that the American dream would be available to all of God’s children in their own country—and he paid the ultimate price for his dedication to improving access to so much of what constitutes the tables of this nation. As Christians, we are called not only to invite everyone to our Lord’s table, but also to full participation in the opportunities in this land.

And we might think we’re doing that just because we try not to harm others who do not look like us. But if we don’t want the sins of this nation’s fathers and mothers to be visited upon us, we have to also really hear those who have lived through different experiences—especially when those experiences have come from systems that appear to be applied differently based upon someone’s outward appearance. It’s easy for us to bristle when we hear the word “privilege” directed at us, especially when we are dedicated to working hard and to treating our neighbors as we like to be treated.

But despite our feelings of discomfort, it’s way past time for us to listen—and to open up to understanding that systems that seem sustaining and helpful to us may not always be applied equally to everyone.

There are stories out there of justice denied—individually and in a systemic manner, as you can read or watch in lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy book that is now also a movie. You can read up on the effects of the New Deal practice that graded neighborhoods based upon desirability for real estate investing, a practice whose long-term effects continue to shape opportunities within communities. According to the Mapping Inequality website: “These grades were a tool for redlining: making it difficult or impossible for people in certain areas to access mortgage financing and thus become homeowners. Redlining directed both public and private capital to native-born white families and away from African American and immigrant families.”

And then there may be stories told to you directly by people you know. In the early 90s, my husband Sherman’s employee—who was African American—cashed his paycheck and drove off down Federal Boulevard. Soon after, he was pulled over by the police who yanked him out of his car and threw him on the side of the road. There he was, a young man in his dress shirt and dress pants, with cash in his pockets, lying face down on that summer night as the commuters drove by. His crime? Apparently he resembled a man who had committed a crime nearby—eventually the police let him go his way. When Sherman and I heard his tale, we were incredulous at the violence of the encounter. After all, we knew the content of this man’s character. He, however, was not surprised—except for the fact that we didn’t seem to know how common such a threat was to him and others who looked like him.

It’s been over 50 years since Martin Luther King was shot down for trying to do something about inequities. I had the luxury of believing that much of what he had fought for had come to pass—because these sorts of challenges didn’t happen to me. That’s privilege. I get to choose whether to turn my outrage into action or not.

What will it take for us as a church to stop feeling umbrage when we hear the word “privilege” and instead take up the mantle of Dr. King’s fight?

This is my prayer—that we will hear those who are attempting to tell us that their experiences in this country have been different than ours and that we will work through our own discomfort and truly fight to break down the barriers that prevent all people from eating at the Lord’s table.

Please join me in speaking –and acting on—the immortal words of Dr. King: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Because, as he also said and as is engraved on the side of the Justice Center building in downtown Denver, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

 

(c) 2014 Sherman Lambert

(c) 2014 Sherman Lambert

For the last few months before I gave birth to my children—twins who would arrive in the beginning of June—our weather was unseasonably warm here in Colorado. But in California the world was on fire, but not due to wildfires or droughts. Los Angeles had erupted over the news that four white cops had been acquitted of beating Rodney King—a beating that had been videotaped and released to the media—in the previous year. In many ways, the King video was the introduction to a whole new populist way of promoting social justice even as it also promoted social unrest. People no longer needed to rely on journalists witnessing events for news to be shared all over the world.

Still, people only see what they want to see. Some people saw a person who broke the law and thus really didn’t have the right to complain while others saw a man who had broken the law but who in no way had done anything to bring on the type of violence he received. And in the aftermath, some people could only see the black men who beat the white truck driver—for no particular reason—at the same time they could not see the white men in positions of authority who had severely beaten a black man—for no particular reason.

Look, I personally am going to claim my own white privilege here because throughout my life I have discovered more and more situations I never had to experience, simply based upon the color of my skin. And growing up where I did, first in rural Nebraska and later in a larger town still fairly removed from the race relations found in urban centers, everything about race was pretty theoretical to me. However, as my awareness grew, I tried to root out more of my own inherent racism, especially as I was shocked to discover it in more blatant forms in others whom I generally respected.

Then I went off to my seemingly ivory tower college in Ohio where one of my first actions was to fall in love with an incredible man who happened to be black and not of any privileged background at all—lest you count his close-knit family and his faith tradition, which he did. So many of the things he told me of race relations were new to me, yet he was a peacemaker who got along with all types of people, even most of his roughest (white) football teammates. Still, at that ivory tower, we didn’t really experience any pushback from our being together.

If my life had followed the course I had wanted at that time I would be the mother of biracial children and the spouse of someone outside my race, so I can never really view race relations as theoretical anymore. And though he has long been dead, I tend to think of how certain racial situations would affect him—not as the minor lawbreaker some of these young men have been, but as a law-abiding citizen under suspicion for no other reason than because of his race.

A few years after the riots in California, another law-abiding citizen we know experienced what I see all sorts of people (white) on Facebook denouncing as either a myth or inconsequential: racial profiling by law enforcement. The young man who was my husband’s assistant came from Chicago but I think even he was lulled into thinking these sorts of things didn’t really happen that often in Denver. One day he received his paycheck and—clothed in dress pants and a good shirt with no tie—went straight to the grocery store to cash his whole paycheck. Then, with all that money in his pocket, he stopped off at the liquor store before heading home. As he drove away on a major street, flashing lights appeared behind him. He pulled over and was dragged out of his vehicle and thrown roughly to the ground in the broad daylight of an early summer’s evening. The fact he matched some vague description of someone they were seeking and the fact he had a large sum of money on his body meant he was treated with great suspicion—and when I say suspicion, I think most of the questioning was meted out with brute force and intimidation. Somehow he finally convinced them to listen but not before he was reminded that he was indeed a black man and that his education and intent and actions really didn’t matter first in his dealings with law enforcement.

Little by little the veneer of believing that my experience is no different than that of someone of another race has been stripped from me—and my knowledge of what’s on the Internet has undone my initial beliefs even faster. I have to acknowledge that racism is much greater than I knew if even white, suburban, privileged high school boys can feel comfortable saying what they said the night President Obama was first elected.

See, part of the point is my white privilege really has allowed me not to know or experience certain things. But once we see and hear those things with our own eyes and ears, how can we still not believe?

Since when do we in the United States say it’s OK to kill people for shoplifting or selling illegal cigarettes or being disrespectful to authority? We have a justice system where people should be charged for the crimes of which they are accused, and only after the proper following of procedures and once those people are determined guilty of those charges can they be convicted. These truths should be true whether or not you are rich or poor or connected or not or black or white or a general scumbag or not. In this country none of us is supposed to be judge, jury, and executioner—not even law enforcement officials. Let justice roll down like water—not fire.

I don’t condone looting and burning, but can you understand just a little bit of the rage of never, ever being seen for who you are and what you do, no matter what? No, in some ways I can’t at all understand it because that shoe is usually not on my foot.

But I’m trying—and will continue to do so the rest of my days. I had expected to bring my own children into a better world than the one that turned out to be burning in the weeks before their births. Nonetheless, I am so proud they have grown to be people who really do judge others by the color of their characters, not by the color of their faces. Those of us who do “see” must join together in that ever-flowing stream of mighty righteousness, workers for justice striving to quench these fires. Let justice roll down—indeed.

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