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Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry Headshot

Is the Life of a Black Boy Worth Anything Today?

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Several days ago my friend Michelle Alexander, author of the profound 'The New Jim Crow,' asked via her Facebook page, 'Is the life of a black boy worth anything today?' I wept when I read her question, because I knew the answer. This is an edited portion of what I wrote to her that day.

No, the life of a black boy is worth close to nothing in our nation -- and that is why I am so passionately crazed about the justice work that I do. When I loved a black man in seminary and thought about birthing a mocha child from between my legs I realized that such a child would never receive the presumptions and privileges that my brothers do -- and that my blond-haired, blue-eyed son does.

Twenty people have been shot in Chicago in just a few days, and people who look like me don't even notice in the northern and northwest suburbs. So no, "Is the life of a black boy worth anything today?" as you asked on Facebook -- no, it isn't. The only ones of my friends who are outraged on this are my black friends. It hasn't even hit my white friends' radar. And you, too, as a mother are horrified -- because you have been reminded (again) that we are not that far from Emmett Till's time.

When we last spoke we talked about what it takes to create a movement -- to move from addressing isolated incidents (the "Underground Railroad") to creating a cultural shift ("Abolition"). Obviously, it takes a change of heart and mind. But as Jeremiah Wright quoted Jim Wallis at the National Press Club, "We haven't confessed of racism, much less repented."

So how do we do that? Yes, we need more stories (as you brilliantly did in "The New Jim Crow"). But even more, we need laws that prohibit abhorrent behavior (because during the Civil Rights era it was the laws that insisted on behavior that was to protect everyone).

This article will make your blood boil. This is the quote that most outraged me:

Was Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed, posing a threat to Zimmerman's life? We may never know for sure, but in Florida -- and a growing number of states -- what matters isn't whether or not Martin was actually a threat, only that Zimmerman "reasonably" believed he was. But what is reasonable? Ekow Yankah, an associate professor of criminal law at Cardozo School of Law in New York, says that to some people, it is reasonable to be suspicious of a young black man walking alone in the dark.

Michelle, I believe it is time to talk more openly of what many of us know to be true regarding racism, privilege, etc. You've told the stories, but as you address the racism and ask questions of whether the life of a black boy is worth anything more people will upset -- because white moderates can fight for sentencing laws but to ask such a question baffles many. The same was true with the Troy Davis issue: my black friends wept and my white friends thought it was "unfortunate." The night Troy was executed/murdered, my black friends and I were screaming at each other on Facebook, shocked that the court didn't stay the execution. And most of my white friends were commenting on the new timeline on Facebook. Sorry for the typification, but really it was pretty much along race lines.

Obviously, many days later, more voices are being raised in protest -- white, black and all hues. But even today, one of my African-American friends has raised the question: Why was there so much more national outrage with Michael Vick and the dog incident, and, in comparison, silence on this issue? I suggested, "There is an internalized presumption that a Black Male may mean 'danger' and a lot of folks (even if they don't allow themselves to ponder on it) wonder if they might have done the same thing. So rather than naming that sin -- they justify it (without even knowing it)."

I yearn for those of us who have "pink skin" (as my daughter suggested, when she was little) to know the enormity of what it was for President Obama to say, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon" because President Obama spoke the truth. Even a president's son wouldn't be safe in a hoodie carrying Skittles.

As we continue into the coming weeks of conversation and investigation we need to remember that there are MANY Troy Davises and Emmett Tills and Trayvon Martins in our nation. May those of us who have white skin remember -- and live into -- the wisdom and courage of Archbishop Tutu when he said, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."