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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ferguson: Reading from a Script

Sometime on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., Michael Brown and Darren Wilson lost their unique identities as individuals and picked up a script as old as America itself. Older probably.

Seconds later, Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown.

Michael Brown was just 18 years old the day he died, the son of Lesley McSpadden and Mike Brown, Sr. He had just graduated high school, hoping perhaps to attend trade school or own his own business.

Brown was, like the rest of us, neither entirely sinner or saint. Video surveillance earlier that morning showed him stealing cigars from a local convenience store. Not legal, but nothing to die over.

He was a young black man making his way in North St. Louis, which is about 95 percent black.

Ferguson is 67 percent black. Its police force has 53 officers. Three - or four, depending on who you talk to - are black.

Darren Wilson, a young white man, was 28 years old the day he killed Michael Brown. He'd been a police officer in Ferguson for about four years, but he lived in Crestwood, Mo., which is about 91 percent white.

Wilson is, like the rest of us, neither entirely sinner or saint. He received a commendation from the department in February for "extraordinary effort in the line of duty." He was divorced last November. His parents divorced when he was 3. His mother died when he was 16.

Two men. Two stories. One gun. One dead.

Their individual stories and perceptions were layered over by an America tainted by racism.

I grew up in a Minneapolis suburb, where African Americans stood out like signposts poking out from a heavy cover of white snow. I hardly knew any black people. Racism was covert, like sexism and classism and homophobia. It's easy to pretend you aren't racist when you never see anyone who isn't white.

I went to college at the University of Missouri, just two hours down the road from Ferguson. It was at Mizzou where I got my first taste of in-your-face racism.

We played basketball at the Rec Center almost every day. The afternoon crowd was an even mix of black and white players. We all got along, were friends even.

But sometimes the white guys I played with would make jokes. About how the black players only picked each other up for teams sometimes. There was a division, a line between us that dated back to Civil War and slavery.

I'll never forget the time someone - I've tried but I can't recall his face - sat near me on the bench and said: "Oh I never go in the (rec center) pool and lazy river. The black people get in there all the time and the water gets all greasy."

The bile rises in my throat as I read that because those words - probably said without intended malice by a person who "had many black friends" - haunt me now.

It's attitudes like that. Words like that. Scripts like that - that killed Michael Brown.

Racism is convenient because it allows us to put entire groups of individuals into one box and make sweeping generalizations and decisions based on that one box.

Racism is not thinking so much as it is suspension of thinking, of reverting to an age-old evil script that enabled slavery and beatings and lynchings and murders.

As I learned later about my seemingly innocent snow-white Minnesota town, we are all racist.

Tobias Wolff says this about racism: "In order for us to live comfortably with ourselves while living on unjust terms with others, we have to tell ourselves a story that makes us innocent. The only possible story is that those others are not fully human and must be held apart, if not in subjugation, because of the danger they represent to persons and morals and social cohesion and themselves - for they are like children, the story goes, and must be treated as children. Every unjust society tells itself that lie, and over time the stain touches everyone."

America has told itself this story since the time of the Declaration of Independence: which declared all white, land-owning men free; and the Constitutional Convention: which declared each black slave was to be counted as 3/5 a person.

The stain of the story has touched us all.

In moments of tension and confrontation, the ugly story resurfaces. Like a horse struggling out of its mantle - the civilized, color-blind society we think we've built - the story rears its horrific head and overtakes the narrative.

Michael Brown, an 18-year-old high school graduate who just stole some cigars, becomes the Black Threat of yore. Darren Wilson didn't mean to think about the past, about the white husbands who tarred and feathered young black men who walked past their wives. He didn't mean to think about those racist books and studies, that predicted "the rising tide of color against white world supremacy," those ideas so popular in KKK meetings and corporate boardrooms and even sometimes Ivy League universities.

The story uses different words, some profane, some not - but it's the same story. Michael Brown was different, less than, to be feared even - because he was a young black man.

Darren Wilson wasn't the only one who must have picked up the storyline. Michael Brown, it seems, must have picked it up, too.

Darren Wilson was no longer an anonymous cop standing in front of him, another young man just 10 years Brown's senior.

Instead his police officer uniform became in Brown's eyes the uniform of oppression. Wilson was no longer a righteous cop, who wanted to protect and serve and won commendations.

As the two young men confronted each other and confronted their blackness and whiteness, Wilson loomed in Brown's eyes as Oppressor. It wasn't his fault. It was the story.

The story that police officers are corrupt and racist, especially in the South and Missouri is the South.

Maybe it wasn't conscious but Brown couldn't help but see the old film footage in front of him as he confronted Darren Wilson. This was his Race Moment, and the anger of generations of young black men who were wrongfully accused, wrongfully imprisoned, wrongfully convicted, wrongfully killed at the hands of police officers - that anger rose up inside of him as he stared no longer at Darren Wilson but instead at the White Oppressor.

This time he'd robbed a store but maybe last time, maybe in his friend's stories, they weren't doing anything - just standing with too many young black men their age in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After years of being confronted by cops for doing nothing, maybe they figured they might as well do something.

It's tempting to imagine that this story doesn't impact us anymore. We have a black president. A black attorney general. African Americans coach and quarterback professional football teams. Segregation was yesterday. We've moved forward. Forward, wasn't that the President's slogan anyway?

Racism was so 1965. Today it's all about gay rights.

And then another young black man dies.

For every story of Barack Obama and Eric Holder and Oprah Winfrey, there is a story of Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin.

Perhaps it's almost worse today, to grow up in neighborhoods the Civil Rights movement seems to have forgotten. Here police officers are still largely white and the accused are still largely black - and poor. Absent opportunity - joblessness was rampant among young black men in Ferguson - the narrative seizes people and takes hold.

The script is still playing, mind you. Days of looting and anger and protests are finally coming to an end, while white folks across the country alternate between guilt, sympathy, confusion, or outright dismissal and hatred.

A confluence of folks descends upon Ferguson, some looking to get richer or more famous by adding their voices to the narrative. It got louder for many days but now it's starting to move into the background yet again as other stories threaten to take over our frenzied, schizophrenic news hole.

In the background is where the story is most dangerous. Inside of us, black and white, it lies unexamined and ready to pounce: like HIV, attacking our immune system and making us vulnerable to hatred and death.

Maybe you're wondering, if it's a story - an overall narrative - that's at fault, then why aren't they equally to blame? Why does Darren Wilson bear all this responsibility and Michael Brown none when it seems in that moment that they were both being racist: viewing each other through a racist narrative of young black thug and white racist oppressor?

This narrative - this American story - does not kill white people. It doesn't even hurt white people.

This narrative keeps things the way they are, where despite very obvious and visible examples to the contrary, the corner on power in this country is still overwhelmingly grasped by white men.

The narrative, underlying and insidious as it is, protects white people from our racist hearts; says "just another gangbanger, what a shame."

The narrative kills young black men, over and over again.

America also tells another story, this one more Middle Eastern in origin.

In this narrative a young man from a poor family was wrongfully accused and killed by government authorities.

He said he was from God - that he was God - and that he had come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.

Three days later this young man named Jesus rose again, changing the narrative of life and death forever.

In moments of confrontation, of fear, of racism - Jesus offers us a new script.

In it white folks and black folks - but especially white folks - have the scales removed from our eyes and as blind we recover our sight to the ugliness of racism that has enabled our race to snatch power and control for centuries.

In it young black men like Trayvon and Michael are given new life, are released from the script that says whites are oppressors and they are thugs destined to captivity in jail or an early death on an urban street.

 In Jesus' script Trayvon and Michael see themselves - not in the hopelessness of those left behind but in the hope of a Savior who came to set them free, again.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Ebola, Inequality, Serums, and Hope

A couple of weeks ago, when news of the Ebola crisis in Africa first broke, my husband Ben said something surprising to me.

"You know," he said. "As soon as somebody from America gets that virus, all the sudden you'll see some miraculous vaccine."

I didn't believe it at the time, but sure enough, after American doctor Kent Brantly and aid worker Nancy Writebol contracted the disease in Liberia and were transported to the United States last week, news reports began to surface of an "experimental serum."

The drug cocktail, called ZMapp, is currently in development by American and Canadian companies. It hadn't previously been tested on humans, but both Writebol and Brantly have improved since receiving it.

Meanwhile, hundreds die - last count according to CNN was 932 - spreading across West Africa. More than 1,700 cases have been reported in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. A  businessman in Saudi Arabia died after visiting Sierra Leone and contracting the virus. A nurse's death in Nigeria has stoked fears that the virus is beginning to spread to Africa's most populous country.

Among the epidemic are children: their gaunt, haunted faces stare up out of news photographs. They wait in line to wash their hands at well stations set up to combat the virus.They play in the dirt. They walk on the edge of the street, avoiding dead bodies of ebola victims everyone was afraid to touch.

The L.A. Times writes that sometimes, young children are placed in isolation units in their cribs. If they can, health workers place them next to windows, so people can wave. They give them toys to play with, keep them hydrated, and wait for the deadly virus to run its course or claim another helpless victim.

A nurse named Sayah who spoke to the L.A. Times said she'd never seen a child younger than 4 survive ebola.

I look across the room at a blown-up canvas of my 22-month-old son, Jake. 

I'm not afraid that Jake will die of ebola.

I'm afraid that he, like so many of us, will fail to see the abundant blessings he's been given, and instead live in fear, clinging tightly to what he has, and ignoring the priceless humanity of an unequal world.

Jake will grow up in a community with clean water, God willing. He will hear about suicide bombings and stories of 9/11, but most often war will be far from his home. He will be able to dress for school without worrying if the colors he's wearing will offend a neighborhood gang. 

If he wants fresh fruit, I can go to grocery store and buy him some.
If he gets sick, with a common childhood illness like an ear infection or strep throat, I can take him to the doctor and he'll receive antibiotics.

When members of our family die, their bodies will be either preserved in a grave or cremated according to their wishes. Jake will not have the task of washing their bodies in a nearby river, especially if their bodies were infected with a deadly disease.

Lack of access to an experimental serum alone is not the only reason children in Africa are dying of Ebola and children in America aren't. Believing that is to ignore a vast system of inequalities that shape one's life from the moment you're born.

Arthur L. Caplan, the director of medical ethics for NYU's Langone Medical Center, writes for the Washington Post that: "privileged humans were always going to be the first to try (ZMapp, the experimental serum that fights Ebola)." Caplan explains the logistics of administering this serum, the required facilities and knowledge and procedures, all of which are difficult to maintain in the impoverished and sometimes nearly lawless countries of West Africa where ebola is currently raging.

This is, of course, about money. Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the group of American and Canadian companies who is developing the serum, is sitting on a potential goldmine after years of work and research. They won't give away the drug for free.

Our humanistic sensibilities as average - and perhaps naive - Americans rage against this heartless drug company. Certainly Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol would not have counted their lives as worth more than a poor African's. Yet for money and privilege Brantly and Writebol live, and 932 Africans die.

What ebola does is point starkly to the inequity of life on this globe. It's not a win-win. We may think Mapp Biopharmaceutical heartless for allowing the serum to be given to Writebol and Brantly, and not to the thousands infected in West Africa. 

What we don't often do, in the midst of a terrifying crisis halfway across the world, is look in the mirror.

No, not to examine oneself for any hint of ebola.

Look in the mirror. You benefit from inequality. I benefit from inequality. So do our children and our parents. We live in a vastly unequal world.

We tell our children: Life's not fair, but mostly we say it when they confront someone who seems to have it better than they do. Life is full of examples of those who are better off, at least perceivably. The student in class next to you who received a full-ride scholarship. The guy on the train whose salary is double yours. The mother who hired a nanny to watch the kids while she got her nails done. The family who owns a lake cabin, a beach house, and a downtown condo. 

The marriage that seems happier. The organization that's doing better financially. The fancier house. The nicer car. The most enviable Facebook vacation photos.

Rarely do we see the other side. Life's not fair - and most of the time you're on the winning side.

A little realization of our relative security goes a long way. The first thought anyone has, including myself, when you hear about the ebola epidemic is OH NO I THINK I HAVE A FEVER.

Maybe after you think about it awhile though, you realize. I've got it pretty good. Maybe I don't have to be so scared. Maybe for every person I think has it better than me, thousands of parents in West Africa are lining up and washing their children's hands at a local well to try and avoid their premature death without hopes of the experimental serum that was saved for privileged me.

Maybe the world doesn't become a better place when I get more.
Maybe the world becomes a better place when I give more. Maybe it won't ever be fair. But in the midst of unfairness, maybe I can be generous.

See there are signs that in the midst of unfairness and self-protection, generosity and selflessness is making a comeback.

The L.A. Times  had another story about ebola last week. As the Peace Corps evacuated and the State Department issued travel warnings, and as infected Americans were shipped back to safety and advanced treatment in the homeland, the L.A. Times ran this headline: "U.S., foreign health workers flock to West Africa amid ebola crisis."

Over the next month, the U.S. and the World Health Organization will send hundreds more health workers to West Africa, joining the valiant workers already there.

Human bodies are equipped with the well-known "fight or flight" response in the midst of crisis.

When it comes to ebola, we're tempted to take flight. To fear. To pull ranks around ourselves and hunker down.

Yet we are also tempted to fight. To run in where others fled. To risk one's own privilege for the sake of another, equally valuable in the sight of God, human life.

It's the same fighting, loving impulse that led Christian nuns, monks and priests to remain in their villages during the Black Death plague of Europe. When all others left, they would come in and care for the sick, loving them even to the last moments before death.

This impulse comes not from this world, but from a man who died to save this world. 

The hope those brave health workers have: that in the midst of death one more might live, that just one person giving up privilege to come help fight not only ebola but also inequality and indifference - comes from a man whose death was never the end of the story, whose lack of privilege only served to make his improbable resurrection all the more miraculous; a man who knew one man's death would bring countless others life.

This man's name and the faith he inspired has been the fastest-growing story of religion in the 21st Century, on the continent where ebola currently rages. 

Even amidst ebola, and inequality, and apartheid, and exploitation, and diamond mines and famine and religious war - this man's name continues to inspire improbable life in the midst of death; and Christianity has become most alive in Africa, a place most Americans associate with death.

This man's life, death, and resurrection; and the actions of His people in America and Africa - more so even than the experimental serum that saves the privileged first, then women and children - is what gives me hope in the face of inequality and ebola.