I missed writing yesterday, there just wasn’t time and I didn’t have the energy. And yesterday evening hit and there’s almost too much going on for me to process any of it. But I can’t surrender my obligation to speak out, to do so would mean being complicit with evil.
There is no “good” time for systemic racism to flare up–but when our entire culture is already under health, social, and economic stress because of the CoVid-19 pandemic may be the worst possible time 1. When these flares happen it often means some person of color is dead–too often at the hands of authorities who just don’t understand the root causes of pressure cooker in which they work, or how they unconsciously benefit from it. This is white privilege–the freedom to remain oblivious to another’s reality because we can’t imagine that exercising our freedoms would be accompanied with fear. And let’s be honest, most of us are used to stepping over the line where our freedom is really drawn–and expect it to be ok. If we get pulled over for speeding we expect to get a ticket, or that we’ll be able to plead down to a warning, not to have our lives put in danger. If our kids explore a construction site and get chased off, we expect them to get home safely 2, not hunted down and killed. If we ask someone to leash their dog, we can be pretty sure that person is not going to call the police on us. If we’re off work and watching TV in our home we expect to be safe, not set upon by unidentified assailants with weapons drawn.
People of color, after centuries of being shown they don’t matter as much, do not share these expectations. And when these reminders become particularly tangible it generates anger. People can only be kept down for so long before they lash out. And the longer that pressure is felt, the less force it needed to slide the valve to “vent.”
Remember, centuries. The abolition of slavery didn’t end the message of devaluation. The declaration that Jim Crow was illegal didn’t stop people from being ground down. School integration didn’t keep people from holding their evil belief that people of color were inferior by nature, rather than seeing that differences were enforced by system which ensures that non-whites have to work ten times harder to find some sort of security–and even then not feel safe.
“But this doesn’t justify looting.”
Just. Stop. Understanding is not the same as “justifying.”
In my reading on the 1918 Influenza Pandemic I came across a medical term I’d not seen before–a cytokine storm. This is an immune response which leads the body to unleash a flood of cytokines, special proteins, to fight of an infection. The problem is, when the infection being fought is wide-spread, the “storm” can cause serious complications–often ending in a fatality. People are literally killed by their own immune systems, which is what many people believe caused the fatalities in the 1918 pandemic.
We are, in effect, watching a cultural cytokine storm. And, like a biological cytokine storm, it will harm the community. It can even kill a community. But when I see white people talking about the riots they act as if the rioting is the disease. It’s not, it’s a symptom. The disease is the systemic racism which created the pressure cooker in the first place. We do need to treat the symptoms. Rioting needs to be calmed, protests need to be allowed to unfold unmolested and seen and heard. Calm the storm, treat the symptom, and stop acting like it’s the disease. Deal with the infection of racism which triggered it.
When authorities try to “dominate” this cytokine storm all it does is introduce another vector of infection. Not only does it mistreat the symptom, it makes it worse. My fear is if overwhelming force is used to bring “law and order” it will be like a patient who seems to on the path of recovery before crashing and dying.
This is a time to listen–even to the looters and those who are swept up to commit acts of violence.
Yes, order has to be brought about so people can breathe.
Yes, there will need to be some force used when people become lost in the storm.
Yes, there will be arrests when people refuse to be led to a place of breathing.
None of this erases the need to address the disease, nor does it negate the need to identify the cynical elements 3 trying to use this unrest to further their own ends 4.
In Les Misérables there are two versions of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” The first is the call to the failed revolution,
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the songs of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!
The second is a expression of hope far beyond the struggles the systems of this world inflict upon us,
Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise
As a culture, and particularly those of us who enjoy a privileged position in it, we need to listen to the first version so we can join together to strive after the second. Calm the storm, yes. But commit to the work.
For the love of God, commit to the work.
- A stress which has been felt most keenly among people of color, I might add. ↩
- Or attempt to climb on to a church roof, not that I have to chase folks for this on a semi-regular basis or anything. ↩
- Often made up of white people. ↩
- Leaving the infection intact, I might add. They get to go home and on with their merry lives when all is said and done. ↩