Our George Floyd kumbaya moment lasted longer than I thought it would.
In the weeks after footage of his murder became famous, I watched (online) the pastor of a white, conservative/evangelical church that I am acquainted with tell his congregation, to tepid applause, but applause nonetheless, that they can say the words “Black Lives Matter” without being reflexively defensive about other lives that also matter. He said that we all (white Christians) need to do a better job of listening.
Friends and acquaintances on social media who had previously posted racially insensitive (at best) content, were now saying things to their black friends and neighbors like “I was wrong” and “I am sorry I didn’t listen before.”
A whole new crop of new white faces who hadn’t been to the local protests against the Muslim Ban or the removal of DACA or in solidarity with the victims of Charlottesville, began to show up, weeping tears of lament for Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.
The school board in Tyler, TX, near where I grew up, agreed to change the names of its two high schools, which were previously named after a slave owner and the commander of the Confederate army.
Talking heads said “This feels different,” but most black and brown Americans knew better than to get their hopes up.
My most hopeful moment came when the sermon text for the church I am acquainted with was Micah 6:8: He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
I was hopeful because it was a text that teed the preacher up perfectly for a solid base hit on the issue of race his church had been engaging with during the previous few weeks. It would have been uncomfortable, but I had seen positive movement in that direction and was leaning in to see where he’d go with it. From the different ways cops patrol communities of color, to mass incarceration and the disproportional representation of black men on death row, to the racist history of the drug war and redlining and representation, the menu before him was limitless.
In a move that will surprise few of you, he went with abortion.
“I want to tell the Democratic governors in the country to stop lecturing me about wearing a mask while you sit back and allow the murder of a million babies in our country. I want to tell them that carrying around a Black Lives Matter Banner doesn’t impress me when they allow 1 in 5 black babies to be aborted in this country.”
Applause. But this time, much more robust than when they were encouraged not to be so defensive about saying the words “Black Lives Matter.”
I know some of your blood is boiling now, but I waved this off in anticipation for point two– the one where he says “And now that we’ve covered that base, let’s talk about some ways to do justly and love mercy that will make us even more uncomfortable, some things that aren’t on our Greatest Hits album of cultural grievances, things we’ve ignored too long.”
That point never came. In its place were some general words about showing mercy to people in our lives. (A more recent and troubling piece of content from this congregation used a study on forgiveness to imply that black people need to think more about it if they want things to change.)
Then people on social media started to walk back their George Floyd comments when whatever Russian-bots they follow began to leak “information”, much of it false, about his past.
Then all the qualifications and caveats and well-it’s-complicateds started to rise up again in conversations about race.
And then this week came and it feels like we have returned to where we were before George Floyd.
Yesterday the Baylor Football team marched on campus in grief and lament over the shooting of Jacob Blake. In response, Patrick Swanton, the longtime and recently retired public relations officer for the Waco PD posted on Facebook, “Funny how I’ve never seen Baylor University football players marching for a sexual assault victim or domestic abuse victim. Huh?…wonder why that is??” The comment was in reference to a scandal that occurred when most of the current players were in Junior High and High School, and none of the current staff was here. He clearly had no intention or desire to engage in the reason for their march and prayers.
The “If you just do what the cops say you won’t get shot” comments are reemerging.
Posts on social media about abortion are rising.
Many of the white people who seemed to come around after the death of George Floyd are now hedging everything they say about racism in our country with “Well, I don’t support the Black Lives Matter organization or agenda.” (Side note: I don’t know a single person of color who gives two shits whether we support the relatively small BLM organization, and many of them likely don’t even know or care that such an organization exists.)
Of all the indications that we were about to revert back to our insistence on maintaining white supremacy in this country, here’s the one (aside from the abortion sermon) that stands out to me: At the Tyler board meeting, after the vote to move forward with changing the names of the schools, one of the board members (who had clearly cast his vote for the changes reluctantly), made this comment: “I hope as we move forward in exploring new names, we set aside a desire for revenge and retribution.”
For the untrained ear, that might seem like an innocuous comment. To those of us who are fluent in East Texan, we knew that the loose translation of that comment was “Alright, we caved to the pressure. But you can forget about an MLK High.”
All of this speaks to the many bedrocks of our White Supremacy:
We can’t fathom a world in which we surrender the right to dictate the terms of conversation.
We refuse to acknowledge, because we refuse to understand, that racism can and does infect systems, organizations, and institutions as much as and, sometimes, more than it affects individuals. So, refusing to surrender the right to dictate the terms of conversation, we insist on defining racism as only a matter of the heart. Because demanding the right to define racism the way we want to lets us off the hook, and allows us to delude ourselves into believing that if only everyone got their heart right with Jesus, racism would magically fade away.
When we feel our political, cultural, or religious power slipping away from us, we recoil and return to the same conversational hand grenades to blow up conversations about justice: Abortion. The senseless murder of a white girl at the hand of an immigrant (who was arrested, charged, and convicted.) The senseless murder of a young white white boy by a black man (who was arrested, charged, and will likely be convicted.)
All of this is so predictable. And, as I have heard from so many people of color, numbing to those whose skin feels like a target.
The arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice. But God damn, it is long. Too long.