For the first time in Minnesota history, a white police officer has been found guilty on three counts of murder of a Black man. The killing of George Floyd, captured on video, ignited a year of protests and riots, memorials, local distress and international outrage, all during a historic worldwide pandemic. It was horrible, and the impact, frightening and exhausting. The verdict, braced as we were for more violence, gave a sense of victory and relief.
Many are hopeful that this verdict is the signal that white Minnesotans are finally ready to confront innate racism, an implicit fear of people of color in general, and Black men in particular. But while we celebrate this milestone of difference and change, the deaths of Black citizens during interactions with police has not stopped, and the trials continue. Several weeks ago, 20- year-old Daunte Wright was killed during a traffic stop and arrest in Brooklyn Center.
How did Minnesota, a state proud of its progressive politics, the land of Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone, a culture that continues to claim the Christian value of welcoming immigrants and refugees, and is proud of its tolerance and high quality of life, create a culture where darker skin color seems to automatically signal inferiority or threat, even to police officers who carry weapons and are trained in use of force?
Implicit bias began long ago with European colonialism, its slave trade, and 250 years of slavery in the South. The struggle to end slavery sparked our Civil War. What followed — Emancipation, the South’s surrender, Lincoln’s assassination, federal Reconstruction, and Reconstruction’s reversal — soon made room for the policies of widespread legal racial discrimination.
Inequity based on skin color was routinely written into American family and marriage law, banking and mortgage lending, employment, voting rights, education, housing, public transportation and accommodation laws. All of which was routinely supported by teachings, sermons and policies of most Christian churches. These practices and attitudes effectively created a two-tiered American society, based solely on perceived skin color.
Minnesota was not immune. That century of legal segregation and migration out of the South shaped where children attended school, what families lived near whom, and where Americans worshipped, worked and played. It shaped where poverty was concentrated, where resources were located, how schools were funded. It has been such a part of our culture that our religious life has unwittingly reinforced these racial divisions.
What can we do as people of faith in response to this terrible legacy? We in the Christian church are quite accustomed to speaking to our larger communities with the words of our faith and traditions. Many of us are coming to realize we have been tone-deaf to the impact of our attitude and practices on people of color. It’s time we listen more than we speak.
Remember when most churches taught that homosexuality was an aberrant, shameful, sinful lifestyle? That majority religious opinion changed only when many of us began to really listen to the life experience of gay neighbors and friends. Opinions about sexual orientation have changed faster than during any other social movement in American history. While racism is decidedly different, it is our calling, as Jesus followers, to repent and renew ourselves for the sake of our neighbors’ lives and dignity.
These times call for the courage to relax our loyalties to the past and wonder how we might better embody the grace of God in a world of diverse history, race and experience. I believe we are being called by God’s spirit to humility as we consider how Christianity has been used to bolster the cause of slavery before the Civil War, and again, during the generations since. Even in our own state, in our churches, and in our families.
It’s not easy to shift our primary focus from indifference to curiosity, from speaker to listener, from confidence to humility. It means working against our own mental habits, our language, our assumptions about people and their experience in the world. But if we want to live lives of authentic discipleship, we must respond to the world around us as it is. We can work to listen and learn from neighbors we have excluded, judged and dismissed. Even when what they tell us confuses us. We may have tried to create churches that embody the gospel of Jesus, but our own history, revealed in eyes of those we have systemically excluded, shows us all otherwise.