Letters to a Young Protestor, 2: Equality and Dignity

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My darling Niece,

It was good to receive your letter the other day. Letter writing must be among the lost arts of our time. That you would take the time to actually hand write a letter rather than sending me a series of instant messages, tweets or emails made hearing from you all the more special. You imparted grace to me simply by scribing.

But you shared so many things in your letter it’s difficult to know where to begin. Rather than try answering your entire letter, let me start with a general observation and burrow into it.

Equality is too slim a basis for human relationships.

Don’t get me wrong; legal and social equality is a good and necessary goal. And, you’re quite correct to say this country never intended the African American to have such equality. That you and I should have the same rights and privileges of white men was never the design. So you correctly see that the fight for equality has been uphill all the way and that the fight is necessary. But I think that’s at least partially inaccurate and unhelpful. It’s unhelpful because there are at least two defects with equality—(1) if it can be given with the stroke of a pen, it can be taken by another; and (2) people only want equality with their superiors. Fundamentally, seeking and granting equality are acts of power and pride. Power because it locks “superiors” and “inferiors” in battle for a perceived scarcity. Pride because the disenfranchised only want more while the privileged never think to lower themselves as a viable path to equity. “Ever upward” is the motto of protestors seeking equality, and we usually want it at the expense of others.

For all intents and purposes most laws in the country now require equal treatment. We cannot underestimate how the Civil Rights Movement radically changed our standing in the eyes of the law and eventually our standing in the eyes of all fair-minded Americans. The removal of legal barriers in housing, employment, transportation and every sector of society has brought with it freedoms and opportunities your grandmother only dreamed about!

So here’s the key question: Why do so many African Americans still feel unjustly treated in the country?

Well, I think it’s because “equality” as a legal and social goal isn’t as helpful when we can no longer point to obvious signs of discrimination and oppression. Equality loses it’s body, it’s tangible substance when inequality isn’t as visible as “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs, or as divisive as segregated seating in public places. What is “equality” when you’re no longer faced with visible forms of inequality?

Honestly, I hope we can find ways of keeping “equality” out of your protests. That framing is really counter-productive and misses the point. If our concern is an end to police shootings of unarmed people, what “equal” result would we want? Is “equality” fewer African Americans killed by police officers, or more white Americans killed to even the proportions? (What a ghastly thought that is!) And who do we now want equality with, and why them? The value of Black life can’t be tabulated in comparison to White lives. Black life has a value all its own. Unless we have lost our collective minds, we know the best possible result is the elimination of deaths altogether. But how will that happen?

As I said, equality is too slim a basis for human relationships. What we need is that deeper, sturdier basis for human relationships on which equality rests: dignity. Dignity roots itself not in human law but in a decision God made before the world began—to make all people in His image and likeness. An end to police brutality and the valuing of Black life won’t happen until African Americans receive that dignity that comes from realizing we, too, bear the image of God. That’s a challenge because a great many people called to champion the idea of “equality” still find it difficult to embrace the dignity of Black life.

Have you paid much attention to how police officers describe the unarmed men they killed? The victim is always a “big Black man,” even when it’s tiny little twelve-year old Tamir Rice. Or, Black men are ascribed “superhuman strength” while being shot several times. Sometimes they pull out a raging animal metaphor like “charging like a bull.” Since Ferguson, all you hear is “thug” this and “thug” that. Have you ever wondered why the “thug” label and narrative stuck so quickly and proved so stubborn? If these folks ever met a real thug they’d think Brown a boy scout. But if you listen carefully, what you’ll hear in these labels is age-old fear and anger. And all it takes are a few well-placed coded phrases like “big Black man” to conjure enough fear in people to dehumanize and terrify.

This “thug” perception isn’t new either. You’re too young to remember this, but in the early ’90s high-ranking officials like Presidential advisor William Bennett began to describe Black youth as “super-predators.” Writing the phrase shocks me even today. And I can’t help but think of the movie Predator. It featured a dreadlocked alien! Can you believe that? This alien killed humans for sport, which was effectively what Bennett was saying about young Black men in the 90s. He argued that a certain percentage of Black men were “natural born killers” who needed to be stopped with large government investments in prisons, tougher sentences, and funding for more police officers. We were dreaded if not dreadlocked aliens who needed to be rounded up and imprisoned. Bennett fueled a lot of hysteria.

Go further back, to the late 1800s, and you’ll find that a lot of people who lynched Black men justified it by saying they were “rapists.” Again, hysteria and falsehood. From “rapists” to “super-predators” to “thugs,” we’ve been in a long fight not merely for equality but for human dignity. All these tags dehumanize African American people. That’s their purpose. And they’re trotted out like show dogs in order to make acts of injustice palatable, even justified in the eyes of some people.

So, African Americans have not been fighting these four long centuries for something as ephemeral and impermanent as “equality.” I know it’s commonplace to think of the struggle in those terms. But we’ve been fighting for our humanity, and trying to fight the most humane way possible. Our repeated appeal has been to be recognized for the human beings that we are. During slavery the signs read, “Ain’t I a Man?” Those who came along later, during the Civil Rights Movement, didn’t leave the question open. They answered with another sign that read, “I Am A Man.” Now your generation feels compelled to shout, “Black lives matter.” Those are not appeals for equality, but for something older, deeper, more precious—the full flowering of our humanity as people made in the image of God. Those are calls for dignity, a common dignity shared by everybody made in God’s likeness. There’s a logic and force even in the sequence of slogans.

But some of our white brothers and sisters sometimes fail to see us for who we are. The fail to see we are people made in God’s image, that we are therefore full of dignity and worth. Rather, too often, and often without thinking about, they look at us and see something subhuman, animalistic, and therefore something undignified and often something dangerous. The killings won’t stop—nor will the defensive justifications and the shrill denunciations of protestors—until something changes in the way some people see us. Rare are the people like Commissioner William Bratton. Did you catch what he said a few days ago?

“The police, the people who are angry at the police, the people who support us but want us to be better, even a madman who assassinated two men because all he could see was two uniforms, even though they were so much more. We don’t see each other. If we can learn to see each other, to see that our cops are people like Officer Ramos and Officer Liu, to see that our communities are filled with people just like them, too. If we can learn to see each other, then when we see each other, we’ll heal. We’ll heal as a department. We’ll heal as a city. We’ll heal as a country.”

I think he very nearly nails it. We need to see each other, and we need to see each other as made in God’s image. As a Christian, I’m tempted to say only the new life that Jesus gives can change this sight problem. But a good number of professing Christians perceive African Americans the same way as some who make no religious profession at all. I wish this were an anomaly, but seeing us as subhuman goes back hundreds of years. And to be completely honest, I don’t know what to do about that. If they’re not convinced by their own Bibles that we lay common claim to being made in God’s image and therefore deserve to be treated with the utmost dignity along with the rest of humanity, then I suspect this problem will only come out by prayer and fasting—and a whole lot of gracious influence by the Holy Spirit!

Don’t forget: You’re fighting for your own humanity and the dignity that comes from being made in God’s image. Do so in a way that confers humanity and dignity on others. It’s a heavy burden, and you won’t always feel like doing it. But it is, I believe, the Black man’s burden and a stewardship from God.

With my love,

Thabiti

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