Letters to a Young Protestor, 5: The Conscience and Racism

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Dear Niecie,

How are things since we’ve last written? Are you doing well in class? How are your friendships? Catch me up on your life outside the protests. I assume you have one! You’ve heard it say, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Well, “All protest and no play makes Niecie a bitter girl”! Don’t forget it.

I thought about you as I read this morning’s paper. Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the death of Franklin McCain. Now if you’re going to continue the struggle, you’ve got to know something about those who have gone before you. McCain was one of the “Greensboro Four,” the four young men who in 1960 began the sit-in movement at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro. February 1 will mark the anniversary of the actual sit-in, which caught on like fire and spread throughout the country. Those sit-ins—and the disgraceful way those students were treated—pricked the nation’s conscience and began the slow sawing of segregation’s legs. In just six months the Woolworth’s lunch counter desegregated!

I hope this encourages you. You and your friends have a lot in common with McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond—the other three who sat-in that day. First, they were college freshmen, just as you are. Never underestimate the power of students to change the world—from Soweto to Tiananmen Square to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and others during the Civil Rights Movement. You stand in a proud tradition as you and your classmates take to the streets to protest the injustices of the police and criminal justice systems.

Second, they suffered indignities during their protests too. I remember the sense of shame you wrote about in your last letter, and the anger. These students at sit-ins had ketchup and mustard smeared over their heads and clothes, were sometimes physically beaten and bashed, were jeered and mocked, had their drinks—when they could get one—spat in, were called all kinds of names and labeled “troublemakers,” and on top of all that arrested and carted off to jail. Peaceful protest has always drawn violent and unsympathetic reaction from those in power or with advantage. You really shouldn’t feel ashamed, though. The shame belongs to those who mistreat you as you peacefully call for justice. The end of the shame will come, as it did with McCain and others, as you keep your head up and persevere to victory. The dignity is won in your demeanor, not lost in your defeat.

But this all got me to thinking about why a peaceful call for justice and fair play should ever draw such visceral and ugly reactions from people—especially from people today who all the while claim they believe in justice and equality. Such reactions make more sense in 1960, when hate is the official civic religion of the country, and bigotry was not only socially accepted but reinforced and rewarded. Up through the 1960s, whites were as imprisoned in racial dogma and practice as African Americans. If they broke ranks, they were forced back in line with a well-placed “Nigga lover” or worse. But that was the 1950s and 1960s, and one wonders why so many react so swiftly and angrily today when the social mores have changed so much and the equality of persons is taken for granted by so many.

There’s a university professor, a philosopher named J. Budzizewski, who some years back wrote a little book called The Revenge of Conscience. It’s an excellent book you should pick up. Here’s one of the things that really stuck with me when I read that book nearly 15 years ago: The conscience doesn’t act the way people tend to think it does. Most people think that once the conscience is pricked, it automatically moves us to do what is right. But J. Bud (that’s what some people call him) shows that actually the conscience sometimes double-downs. Instead of leading to repentance and contrition, it takes “revenge” by suppressing the knowledge of righteousness and pressing deeper into the problematic behavior. And I think that understanding of the conscience helps to explain some things.

The reaction you got from some people at the silent vigil strikes me as suppressing the conscience on racial justice issues and driving head long into the behaviors that demonstrate racial injustice. The name calling, racial slurs, threats and intimidation suggest their consciences were pricked and rather than repent they sought a kind of revenge. I think some people protest too much at the mere mention of racism or that somebody somewhere might be a racist. I would never say that everyone who disagrees with us about Ferguson, Garner, etc. is a racist; but I would also never say that none of them are. The truth is in the middle, and I fear a lot of pricked consciences that react in strong opposition would be better served if they’d stop and ask, “But why am I so angry? Why am I responding as if personally attacked? Why am I being disagreeable when I simply disagree?” They might see that they feel implicated because they should feel implicated for some of the attitudes, thoughts, words and actions that are upon closer inspection racist.

Don’t forget that participating in these protests isn’t simply about your conscience; you’re trying to stir the conscience of others too. There’s a great line in the new movie Selma where Dr. King makes this very point. He’s not worried about awakening the Negro’s conscience, but white America’s. Don’t forget you’re doing that, and don’t forget that’s dangerous business. People don’t like it because people don’t really like to look deep into themselves for the ugliness that may be there.

But ugliness is inside us all—including the ugliness of racism. Racism is a stubborn stain. Reminds me of your momma’s scrambled eggs. When we were kids, she used to fix breakfast for the rest of us children. We had a cast iron skillet that we used to fry most anything in. That skillet weighed about 300 pounds, and we always knew when your momma was fixin’ breakfast because she could slam that skillet on the stove—boom!—and it felt like the whole house sunk a foot into the ground. She’d scramble eggs so hard that they’d stick right down into the metal of that pan! Man, Lou Ferrigno couldn’t scrape the eggs out of that skillet when your momma was done!

Racism is like your momma’s eggs. It gets fried right down into the metal of the human heart. And you can’t scrape it out with sheer force. The last pan we’d wash after your momma finished cooking breakfast was always that iron skillet. We’d finish all the other dishes then leave the skillet in hot sudsy water to soak. Only a good long soak would bring that egg up out of the pan. You could see it loosening and waving like sea grass up from the pan. Once it softened and loosened we could take a Brillo pad or a dish rag and smoothly wipe the dregs from the pan—but not until to that thing soaked.

The human heart needs to be soaked in love for a long time before racism comes out. And the best love is the love of God in Jesus Christ His Son. Gospel love conquers racism and renews the conscience. But that love ain’t cheap, Niecie. It cost the Son of God his life, and it will cost you and me a great deal too. The thing about soaking is that it takes a long time and a lot of hot water! That’s the thing about the gospel, too. In our spiritual growth and sanctification, some things take a long time and a lot of hot water before God boils it out of us. Then when you consider you’re trying to soak a nation’s conscience—well that can take a while and a whole lot of prayer. And that time and hot water are the difference between trite Christian platitudes pretending to be gospel and real gritty gospel ministry.

Some of the people you face in these protests don’t know what’s happening to them. They know they’re angry, but they really don’t know why. They know they feel things, but they don’t know where they come from. And sometimes they know the things they feel and say are not right, but they can’t bring themselves to face it and deal with it. So it’s easier to blast you and the other protestors, to stereotype and lump everyone together as “looters” and “rioters,” to shift the blame by pointing the finger at other issues in the Black community, or to ignore it altogether. Your goal is to keep at it until they deal honestly with you, which won’t happen until they deal honestly with themselves. So don’t be surprised by the vitriol. Holding a mirror to a man’s conscience is an invasive and spiritually violent act. We don’t like it even though we need it.

Stay strong. Stay focused. Stay at it. And be sure to have a life beyond the protests.

Your loving uncle,

T

P.S.–Does your momma still fry those hard eggs in that black skillet? 🙂

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