For years I drove out of the city of Washington several times a week, along the highway past the Pentagon into Virginia, and would see black men stopped along the road, patrol cars flashing their lights. Because of the speed, I could never see what happened, but I always wondered if they had honestly broken a law, or whether they were stopped for “driving while black.” DWB.
A matter of systemic injustice, it is so very hard to protest. Blue or red lights blinking, someone with a badge and a gun walks up to your car, asking for your license. What have I done?
I know something of this, in part at least, because I have been stopped for DWW, driving while white. Once in Pittsburgh years ago, and once on Capitol Hill here. The feeling of powerlessness is profound. The lights, the badge, the gun, all together make for a sense of alienation. What am I going to do now? Who will hear my cry? My experience has been very irregular, so I don’t know the experience of a black man driving the roads of America, always wondering if I will be stopped, always wondering what might happen if I am.
Things are not as they are supposed to be.
In my senior year of college I gave a lot of attention to a vision I had for changing the world. With some friends we called it “Reshaping the American Dream,” 1976 being the bicentennial year, remembering our two hundred years of nationhood, complex as it is, full of glories and shames as it is. My desire was two-fold: 1) to criticize what had gone wrong, and 2) to redefine what might be, what could be, what should be done. I had hopes for changing everything, the very way we understood ourselves as a people; being honest about our history, at the same time stepping into our future with responsibility born of love.
It didn’t all happen. Maybe we lit a candle, but that was about it.
One of the plenary speakers was John Perkins, at that point not well-known beyond some small circles, but already a man with an important story to tell about where we had come from, and where we ought to go. Son of a sharecropper in Mississippi, he came of age in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Along with his brother, he was wrongly accused of a crime, jailed and beaten almost to death by the sheriff and his officers— and tragically, his brother was killed that night, alive while black, dead because of being black. AWB…. DBBB. The acronyms get all messed up here, don’t they?
The story goes on, and there is a surprising grace that finally came for John and the world, a hard and difficult grace as it was. Some years later I met him, and began to listen. For most of the decades since then, I have drawn him in again, and again, and again, still listening as I must.
Of course I thought about all this over the last day, with the horrible horror of Ferguson, Missouri. The questions from my undergraduate experience still ring true: what went wrong? what can be done? Social analysis requires both, always and everywhere— but the questions cannot be left to the academy. They belong to all of us, and we all have to answer them.
The problem is not only an American one, of course, and the word tribalism may be more of the global issue than racism. Think about Hutus and Tutsis, Pakistanis and Indians, Jews and Palestinians, the English and the Irish. Color is not the defining dilemma in most places among most people. It is tribes and tribal traditions that divide us, all over the world– even in Ferguson. A thousand thousand times it is Cain and Abel, all over again, and sometimes the divisions have heart-wrenching affects, with conflagrations roaring through hearts and homes, neighborhoods and cities.
There is more to say, but I’m not sure how to say it all here.
Lord, have mercy.
(The Potomac River, along the C&O Canal, a place for pondering the world and my place in it.)