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Black and White Is Not a Black-and-White Issue

The problem of black and white in our world is not a black-and-white issue.

It’s complex. It’s not about winning an argument. It’s not about an either/or. It’s not about “this person should have done this” or “that person should have done that.”

It’s about a both/and.

Believing in the Both/And 

I believe it should be possible for blacks and whites to live together peaceably in the same small town. And I believe any town that’s two-thirds black and has a 94-percent-white police force is more likely to have a race problem that erupts in violence.

I believe it must be very difficult for white cops to maintain order in a predominantly black town without legitimate police work being perceived as racially motivated. And I believe it’s likely that sometimes police work is racially motivated and biased. Both can be true.

I believe many white people look at law enforcement and assume—based on their experiences and interactions with them—that it’s good. And I believe many black people look at law enforcement and assume—based on patterns and history and experience—that someone’s out to get them. I believe both are true.

I believe Michael Brown committed a theft and ran away from Darren Wilson. And I believe that if a white man had committed the same crime and done the same, he’d probably still be alive today.

I believe we are still segregated. And I believe if we were less segregated, some would be less likely to run and others less likely to shoot.

I don’t say these things in order to straddle the line or avoid controversy. I truly believe there’s often a both/and view of events that reflects the complexity of the issue. That’s why the problem of black and white in our world is not a black-and-white issue.

Everyone Is Guilty

Both/and captures the anger and agony of Ferguson. But this story isn’t just about Ferguson. It’s about America. It’s about you and me.

You see, I believe one more thing. Though I may not know everything that happened on the streets of Ferguson that day, I know one thing for certain: no one is innocent. The town is guilty—and the cops are guilty. Darren Wilson is guilty—and Michael Brown is guilty.

And you and I are guilty.

We all have malice deep down.

We all harbor wrong attitudes toward others.

At its core, the issue isn’t about race. It’s about the heart.

We can talk forever about desegregation; about what cops are justified in doing or not doing; about what a young black man should’ve done or not done; about what a town should do or not do on the front lines of a tragedy. Despite all the talking heads, all the online chatter and media churning, this will happen again. It already has. Nothing will change.

Unless . . .

Unless God changes our hearts and minds.

What Will You Do? 

Anger is okay. The question is: what do you do with it? Do you use it to throw fuel on the fire? Or do you use it to fix the problem? Every angry person, myself included, should ponder this self-directed question.

Maybe a more difficult question to ask is whether you can use your anger as a motivation to change yourself. What do you need to do to change your own attitudes? What are the biases and prejudices hidden inside you? What are the blind spots you’re not willing to look for?

I’m talking to whites and blacks both. I’m talking to myself. We all need God to change our hearts and minds. So let’s use our anger to fix the problem. Let’s allow change to happen. And let’s start with ourselves.

Can we do that? Can we talk and listen with open hearts and open minds?

I want to talk about the historical legacy of slavery that black people carry inside themselves today. I want to talk about the indelible images of African slaves, kidnapped and brought to America, that are imprinted on the consciousness of so many black people. I want to talk about the overarching truth that black people are still not treated equal to white people, and that insidious prejudice and segregation still remain all these years after abolition.

Black and white, are you willing and ready to talk about these things?

I want to talk about personal responsibility. I want to talk about the need to let go of some images and legacies—those parts that fuel anger and violence. I want to talk about the present and the future, and about how we’d do well not to dwell so much on past hurts but rather to build for ourselves a new future. I want to talk about the embarrassment of racial violence and about how so many angry responses simply reinforce the stereotypes many white people have of black people.

Black and white, are you willing and ready to talk about these things?

Most of all, are we—both black and white—ready to admit when our anger is simply unfounded or a result of our cultural lenses? Can we be honest with ourselves and about ourselves?

The question about anger is: what do we do with it?

Let’s do something constructive.


Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Benjamin Watson’s new book Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race—and Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations that Divide Us (Tyndale, 2015). Tune in here on November 24 at 8:30 p.m. EST (7:30 p.m. CST) as Darrin Patrick talks with Watson about his experiences and insights as a Christian and an African American. Head to Twitter afterward and talk directly with Watson (@BenjaminSWatson) using the hashtag #UnderOurSkin. Then pick up a copy of the book for yourself, your small group, and even your whole church. Talk about it with believers with different experiences; this guide can help. May God help us enjoy counter-cultural community together.

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