In recent weeks, Mayor Bill de Blasio's parenting decision to teach his biracial teenage son that he needs to "take special care in any encounter he has with police officers who are there to protect him" has sparked offense from some police officers. Watching the scores of police officers turn their backs on the mayor in protest underscores the fact that we have not had enough honest conversation about the reality of black life, and certainly very little about middle class black life in America. Sadly, the type of life lessons that the mayor was imparting to his son have become part of the curriculum for many organizations throughout the United States that work with black and brown youth, and the months of protest sparked by the Ferguson grand jury as well as by the Eric Garner grand jury verdict makes clear that this approach remains relevant.
I am a privileged black man. Yet regardless of class or other social status, all black men have to learn how to navigate a society in which racism and bias can manifest even among the most trusted institutions and communities.
I grew up in Worcester, Mass., where many of my white peers and friends perceived black people and black culture as monolithic. They imagined that all black people were poor, lazy, spoke Ebonics, and had an attitude. I was the exception. Growing up, I repeatedly heard phrases like, "You don't talk like a black person," "Why are black people so angry?" and "Why can't they just get jobs and take care of their property?" For my white peers, I didn't seem like other black people, and when they would talk about them, they would often add that they weren't referring to me because I wasn't "like that."
In 1994, I spoke to my mother's psychology class at Holy Cross College about the black family and my experience as a black American in this country. Her class had just read The Rage of a Privileged Class: Why Are Middle Class Blacks Angry? Why should America Care? by Ellis Cose. The process of reading the book and preparing for the presentation caused a deluge of difficult memories and emotions I had repressed over the years. Finally, I was forced to face the rage and embarrassment I felt growing up as a black American male living in white spaces, what many disparagingly call an "Oreo."
There are many middle-class black Americans who grew up like I did -- the first generation to benefit from the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, and yet feeling isolated and misunderstood. For many years, I wasn't able to fully embrace who I was. I was afraid of being perceived as an "Oreo," struggled with my sense of racial identity, and worried about being labeled as "an angry black person." As a result, I often silenced myself, even when I was confronted with injustices.
There are others out there who feel they are grappling with these issues of identity by themselves. It wasn't until I was in seminary that I began to walk the journey to more fully claim my identity as a black American male and accepted and celebrated the diversity of the greater black community. My faith helped me in this journey. As the executive vice president at Auburn Theological Seminary, an institution that inspires and equips bold and resilient faith leaders, I have the wonderful opportunity to help leaders, congregations, and communities build bridges and work toward justice. These incredible experiences have led me to meet so many people from different walks of life across race, faith, and boundaries of sexual orientation, among others.
I have been participating in #BlackLivesMatter movement through marches and prayer services. On Jan. 21, I was a part of a group of multifaith, multiracial clergy who staged a "die-in" at the U.S. House of Representatives Longworth Cafeteria in Washington, D.C. to tell Congress the local and national demands of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This only added to my sense of anxiety, vulnerability, and fear -- but this fear is the same fear that black and brown youth and adults across the country experience every day when a police car drives by. After the action, the leader of DC Ferguson, a Muslim Moroccan-American woman, shared that organizing is no longer a choice for her; it's life and death. Her parents fear for her life every day.
Protesting has always been difficult for me -- from marching over the Brooklyn Bridge decrying the torture of Abner Louima in a Brooklyn police station to going into the doorway where Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times; from writing in response to George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin to marching in Foley Square after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The act of putting oneself out there is a challenge, yet it is my faith that gives me strength, hope, and a spirit of possibility. Each day, I remind myself that "fear does not cast out fear, love does." My own sense of anxiety might be real, but organizing is still a choice for me. I also realize that if I am not engaged and willing to put my body and faith on the line, I will eventually lose that luxury.
Recently, the killing of black men has inspired people of many faiths, ethnicities, and social classes to take action across the nation. Combined with the killing of two NYPD officers, these acts of violence reveal our country's tenuous relationship with race.
There is a commonly held belief among some that there is one black experience and one black community. Not only is this completely untrue, it's harmful. I am proof of this. The intricacies of our lives as blacks in America can enrich fuller and more nuanced worldviews in our society. We can no longer live our daily lives in the binaries of "left" and "right." Though we may belong to different social classes and communities, we all share a common struggle in this country, whether we choose to believe that or not.
Though I am in some ways privileged as a middle-class black man, I still experience the challenges of being a black American. Silence and demonization of each other must end. We will not allow the killing of African-American citizens by law enforcement to continue. The killing of law enforcement officials is also not acceptable. This legacy of racial injustice must end now -- we have to break the cycle. We're not a homogenous community, but are all in this together. I'm using my position as a black faith leader to work with people of many faiths to powerfully and peacefully raise their voices to transform our justice system.
Policing is undeniably a dangerous job and this is the moment to acknowledge the flaws in criminal justice and law enforcement systems, and reimagine new structures and strategies of engagement. It is also an opportunity to love individuals and systems into change instead of demonizing them. We need to integrate the kind of love that requires everyone to be treated as God's creations and not collateral damage in the name of keeping the peace.