By Harry DeRienzo
At our Annual Meet & Greet event, held on December 4, 2015, the Reverend Theodora Brooks, pastor of a local church and Vice Chairperson of the Banana Kelly board, was tapped to give the opening invocation. However, given the events of this year, she said it was difficult, if not irresponsible, not to take explicit notice of the extremism that appears to be manifesting itself in so many destructive and fatal ways in our country at this time, most recently given the mass shooting in San Bernadino and the long-delayed video of the killing of Laquan MacDonald in Chicago. Reverend Brooks called on everyone to share in and worked towards a “Vision of Hope.”
Each day we are exposed to another mass shooting – shootings with a variety of motives and a variety of targets. It seems that every other week we are exposed to incidents that can only be described as executions of black males by police. We have white extremists shooting up Planned Parenthood and even parishioners worshiping in a Church. Rhetoric is becoming more extreme as actions become more extreme – each feeding on the other. We now have some Republican candidates who have decided to go beyond using traditional code phrases like “States Rights,” or “Cultural Problems,” or “Welfare Queens,” as cover for tapping into racist sentiments, and discussing things like registries for Muslim Americans – even though most mass shootings (nearly 2/3) are committed by white males, averaging 35 years of age, many with some history of mental problems, with over 70% of the obtained weapons used for the mass shootings having been purchased by legal means. This extremism is not one-sided. Otherwise peaceful protests are often disrupted by a few outside agitators. I have listened to scholarly explanations of the motivations behind police executions, some of which are very distressing. In one such discussion, the presenter defined such killings as “crimes of passion,” which seems to be a valid point. But among all of the passions that could be identified as motivation, she chose enjoyment, stating that the police officer in Chicago enjoyed killing Laquan McDonald.
The theme for our most recent Meet & Greet, and the topic of the keynote talk published here, was Organize or Perish. Reverend Brooks supplemented that with a call for a Vision of Hope. There is another, oft-used reference to “perish” and “vision” that may be applicable here. In Proverbs 29:18, it is stated that “where there is no vision the people will perish.” Of course, this passage refers to revelations of God’s laws through prophets, and to the extent that people follow these laws they will be happy. But to put a secular spin on this, vision can be viewed as how I understand myself in relation to others; how each of you understand yourselves in relation to all who make up our society. What are our obligations to one another? How do we ensure that every life is treated with dignity? How do we ensure that benefits are shared so that opportunity is available to all? How do we provide everyone with the space and access to resources necessary to reach the potential that each and every person has. In short, how do we build a community that is based upon dignity, inclusivity, opportunity, respect – but also accountability?
We cannot hope to solve the world’s problems, but neither can we escape them. If we want to confront extremism in a positive manner, we have start somewhere, so why not start here? Historically, societal transformations have not come about through fancy speeches or even sweeping legislation. Major societal change has come about through the efforts of people seeking to understand the problems we face, confronting them on a local level, and working strategically around making a difference. As history teaches us, we are most often not alone in these efforts, which can coalesce and often have coalesced into social movements. But these movements started in people’s homes, in Church basements, and other private and common areas where people come together to envision a better world and then work locally towards that vision. That is our challenge and I believe we have the will, the talent and the determination to make a real difference in our society through the local community-building work that we do.
Racial, social, and class segments of society are becoming more and more segregated. This applies to the neighborhoods we live in, the workplaces in which we are employed, the Churches we attend, the friends we keep, and so on. This is one challenge for building an inclusive community. Without interaction and exposure, enclosed, comforting and self-reinforcing ignorance will remain a road block to community-building. Assuming, however, that we can engender that interaction there also needs to be an understanding that different segments of society may be able to understand experiences outside of their own direct life experiences, but will never be able to adequately appreciate the reasons for certain beliefs or the feelings, or emotions that accompany them. Only a belief in the necessity of association, mutual well-being, and value can bridge his gap.
To illustrate, one of my favorite episodes of South Park involves Randy Marsh stupidly blurting out the “N” word on a Wheel of Fortune game. From there, one ongoing thread of the show tracks how his son tried to live down the shame of the incident in school with the one African American student in South Park who, of course (this being South Park) went by the name of Token. At first, Stan Marsh tried to state that all must now be forgiven because his father had literally kissed Jesse Jackson’s ass. Token told him that did not work because “Jesse Jackson does not speak for all black people.” From there, Stan made successive attempts to convince Token that he could identify with how he felt, all met with rejection. Finally, at the end of the episode, Stan came to a revelation. He stated something to the effect of: “Now I get it. I don’t get it. I get that I don’t get it. I get it.”
Well, that is the point. It is impossible to really get a point without living it. To use one simplistic example from my own experience, when I criticized a black friend of mine in my youth regarding tipping practices, explaining to him that servers make hardly any money and survive off of tips, he explained to me that throughout his youth he would never be served any food in any local establishment unless he pre-paid. Of course, this requirement expressed to him that all blacks were seen as thieves and unworthy of being treated pursuant to normal, societal conventions. After he told me his, I had an understanding of why he acted as he did. But I can never have an appreciation for how he felt, because I have never been treated that way in this or other regards, at least not systematically.
There must also be a recognition, if we ever were to get to that point, that many white moderate sentiments that are not extreme, still represent barriers to social cohesion and will be difficult to overcome. Conversations about “white privilege” in isolated white circumstances are readily dismissed. “White privilege? Please, I work hard and earned everything I have. There is no white privilege.” But until things that white Americans take for granted are recognized as not applicable to entire segments of our society, this attitude will not be overcome, and we will still be met with sentiments that are couched in terms such as “If I could do it, anyone can,” or “If so or so could do it, anyone can.”
This is our challenge, which I believe, for the sake of all we care about and care for, we must meet.