–by Neal Lemery
2021 is a year of change, of awareness, and a time to reconcile ourselves with our attitudes and prejudices. At the core of this work is confronting our own racism and the racism of our culture. A re-examination of our history and our culture is revealing our prejudices, our privilege, and a compelling drive to change how we think and how we act.
The verdict this week in Minneapolis has hopefully gotten our attention to these issues, and has put a bright spotlight on the issues of racism, law enforcement, and cultural expectations. It is an ugly sore to open up and drain. The infection is deep. Our attitudes and opinions are facing the light of day, of public scrutiny, and of thoughtful self-examination.
Sadly, this tragedy isn’t the latest, and stories of similar injustices and responses continue to occupy the headlines. Recent attention to our country’s history shows a long and deep saga of similar outrages and, at times, calls for reform and change. The lessons of history are still there, as opportunities to learn and to cause change.
Those of us who aspire to be people of faith and advancing a spirituality based on compassion and good deeds are wrestling with being engaged in a society that too often does not aspire to those values. It is often too easy to do nothing, and instead to merely pontificate our aspirations to be good and kindly people. Denial seems easy, and the least stony path. Change is hard.
“Walking away from something that we’re used to, even if it’s unjust or inefficient or ineffective–it usually takes far too long. Fear, momentum and the status quo combine to keep us stuck.
“And so it builds up. The cruft [junk work product] calcifies and it gets in our way, making our world smaller, our interactions less human. What used to be normal is rejected and obsolete. It turns out that the status quo is the status quo because it’s good at sticking around.”
–Seth Godin, Seth’s Blog 4/21/2021
We all want to think that we come from good families, that we had a decent childhood, and that we have grown up to be good hearted, loving people, who are working to build a better society and to do noble and important work. Yet if I want to change society, I also need to change myself, and to examine myself so that I can truly become an agent of my good values and my talents to do the Godly and charitable work that I aspire to advocate.
To not do that self-examination is to be hypocritical and untrue to my highest goals and aspirations as a “good person”. My own spiritual challenge is to understand that me acting as an instrument of change is one of my purposes as a human being on this earth. A friend calls that being an instrument of God.
As Gandhi urged us, we need to be the change we want to see in the world. And, that starts with self-examination. It is ugly, often dirty work. Each of us had a seat in that courtroom in Minneapolis. Part of what was on trial was a criminal justice system and a culture of how law enforcement officers respond to an encounter with a man, situations where a person’s race and very presence on the street were factors in how a police officer acted. Our culture of prejudice, discrimination, and bias (even unconscious) was deeply interwoven in that incident and how a cop, and everyone else who was present, responded. The scope of responsibility and accountability for George Floyd’s death casts a wide net.
My great uncle was a member of the Klan, and proudly rode his horse in Klan parades in our family’s hometown. I heard stories of racial and ethnic prejudice from family and friends, and witnessed bigotry and prejudice, often subtle and minimalized. Like all of us, I witnessed bigotry and prejudice, and felt the social pressure to sustain those attitudes.
We all learned the “code words”, the vocabulary for this thinking. The disease was labeled something else, throughout my life, ever-present yet often cleverly disguised, or covered up. After all, racism was something that occurred in the South, or the big cities, somewhere else. Not here, not in my town, my neighborhood, my family.
That denial is also part of the disease, the “stinking thinking” that nurtures racism.
Those experiences are also present-day. Perhaps they are more subtle, even disguised, conveniently wrapped in the camouflage of politics and “free speech”. And, pretending that cultural and personal prejudice and intolerance isn’t here and now is simply being a cultural ostrich, naively hoping that these tough issues will simply go away. They won’t, until we do our tough work, and change.
We need to tell our stories. We need to air out the ugly anecdotes, and look at our own attitudes and beliefs, looking deep within ourselves to learn why we believe and think what we do. We need to embrace education and deep conversations with family and friends, no matter how uncomfortable those conversations can be. We can change, and we can grow. That is what good citizens and spiritually-minded people do.
Tomorrow can be different.