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Pursuing Justice Requires Boldness

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This article is adapted from a plenary speech given at the 2016 FGC Gathering of Friends.

It’s truly a privilege and an honor to be here tonight. I’m so glad and thankful and blessed that I was able to make it. I had no idea what would happen over the last 24 hours after finding out about the shooting death of Philando Castile at the hands of the Saint Anthony Police Department outside of Saint Paul. Most of us didn’t even know that Saint Anthony has its own police department until last night when we saw the chilling video on Facebook. And so I have only had 30 minutes of sleep in the last 24 hours.

I want to take you on a journey with me tonight. I like storytelling. I think that we learn best when we hear about others’ experiences.

I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1976, eight years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It’s important for me to give that context because so often when we’re taught about the Civil Rights Movement in school, we learn that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, that Dr. King was a great civil rights leader with a dream, and that people protested and demonstrated. We are taught that laws changed and that the Jim Crow system came to an end. Then we are told how things are so much better now.

My community in Mississippi was a mostly poor black neighborhood, but it was a very vibrant community, rich in other ways. People had different trades, and skills, and talents. Sometimes they would barter with each other.

But I watched my family struggle. Most of the people in my family worked. My granddad did construction. My grandmother was a cafeteria lady. A lot of times, they worked odd jobs, but the reality is that they were still poor. And part of that is that while there were quite a number of gains during the Civil Rights Movement, there was not a major shift in the division of wealth in this country.

Most of the black folks who lived in Mississippi were descendants of slaves. We weren’t necessarily taught that when we were younger. Black people in the South really didn’t share a lot of family information. One reason was the terrorism that black people endured. They knew that saying the wrong thing to the wrong person could cause someone to be lynched or run out of town. A lot of things were on the hush‐hush.

So growing up I had no idea that I was a descendant of slaves. I just knew I lived in a poor household. School never explained that to me, and my family never talked about it. It took me a long time to begin to understand the cultural context in which I was living as a black child in the Deep South in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement.

Imagine being a part of that system as an ancestor and knowing that once slavery ended, you were promised, at a minimum, 40 acres and a mule. This payment was really just a drop in the bucket—a very minor token of all of the labor that people had put forward. But even that 40 acres and a mule were withdrawn, the promise snatched away.

There’s no way for the descendants of those people to catch up in society, especially if the society is not willing to do anything to affirmatively address the head start of those who were not subjected to the institution of slavery. As a descendant of those people, you are bearing a lot of the same burdens one generation after the next. And all the while, you’re living on the margins of society, facing exclusion, and continuing to be denied access to economic opportunity while being treated as less‐than‐human.

In the aftermath of slavery, you’re told to try to achieve the American Dream. “You can do it.” “Just work hard.” “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” even if you never had boots in the first place. We have to begin to understand that that is the bedrock of white supremacy ideology in America. Most of us have internalized this false notion of achievement, whereby simply working hard and applying ourselves, we have been able to rise to the top. It is a false notion and the first lie that we have to begin to deconstruct.

Many of us have been indoctrinated into a white supremacist ideology. But most of the time, we’re unaware of it because those messages about white people being superior hit us hard every single day. Whether we’re reading the newspaper or textbooks or magazines or watching the news or movies or having conversations with friends in person or on social media, the ideology of white supremacy continues to creep in. Before you know it, your perception of yourself has changed and your perception of the people around you has changed. It is very difficult for people to unlearn a white supremacist ideology unless they’re willing to do so. It’s not going to happen through osmosis. It’s not going to happen by happenstance. It takes intentional effort and action.

It’s easy to tune out injustice. It’s easy to tune out poverty. It’s easy to tune out issues of mass incarceration and the impacts of the war on drugs. And I would argue that’s exactly what our society has done, even within our faith communities.

 

Is faith just showing up on a particular day and worshiping and singing the right songs and rubbing elbows with the right people? Is it just singing to a God that you claim to serve, or is it something deeper? Does it actually require putting your faith into action? I would argue that most of us refuse to go that far. It’s not that we can’t go that far—we refuse. Why? Because putting faith into action is going to result in some level of discomfort in how we live our lives. Many of us talk a good game, but we don’t want to get uncomfortable. We don’t want to challenge our own privilege. We don’t want to look over the open casket of the ugliness of racism in our own hearts. Rarely are we challenged to hold that mirror up to ourselves.

As long as you’re making above a certain income, have a certain education level, and live in a nice neighborhood, drive a decent car, and send your kids to college, you’re doing all right. I would argue that that is a false notion of God’s version of what it means to be doing all right. I do not believe that God is pleased with the fact that many of us have so assimilated into mainstream culture that it is difficult to differentiate a person who is practicing his or her faith from one who is completely secular agnostic. Something is wrong with that picture—not necessarily with appearing to be agnostic but with the fact that we claim to serve a God yet give no evidence to prove that, other than our religiousness.

 

I began to grapple with these issues in my childhood, first as I watched the struggle of my community in Jackson, Mississippi. When I was eight‐and‐a‐half years old, we moved from Jackson to South Central Los Angeles. That was like moving into a whole other world. I thought we were poor in Jackson, but when I moved to South Central Los Angeles, there was a whole other type of poverty. As soon as we drove into the community, I saw graffiti on the walls. I saw people standing on the corners. I saw people in gangs. I saw heavy police presence. I saw dilapidated buildings, and it looked and felt like a land of desolation. I couldn’t quite understand how this could be happening in Los Angeles. It’s the place where people want to go and experience the good life. But when you are poor in South Central Los Angeles, you experience anything but the good life.

I see innocence as a gift, and for many black children, that gift is taken away at an early age because of the ongoing and persistent inequities that exist in our society. By the time I was nine, I decided I wanted to become a lawyer to effect change. I didn’t know any lawyers. I had only seen them on television advocating for people. I thought maybe if I can do that, then I can begin to change things. And so that was the path that I was on.

When you are poor and you don’t have access, it means that you are not going to connect with people who have a different socioeconomic lens, and share knowledge and contacts and use their networks to open doors for you. Think about our social institutions, especially those churches where everybody is white. Maybe there’s a token African American or two thrown in, or another person of color, perhaps someone who migrated to the United States. But the institution itself is still white.

It’s still white in how it lives out its faith, its practices, and its policies. I’m not just talking about the physically white bodies present. I’m talking about the ideology of white supremacy. For a person of color, being invited to the table can feel more like being a token at the table. When everyone else at the table thinks in the same way and has the same set of experiences, and when they have been challenged about who they are, it can be difficult to offer a different perspective and have it valued. You’re often seen as the outlier or the troublemaker.

You can imagine I’ve been called the troublemaker. There’s no shame in my game at this point. When I’m invited to sit at these white power tables, the first thing I say is “Are you sure you want me at the table?” I refuse to be a token at the table. If I see something that does not make sense or excludes the voices and perspectives of people of color, I am going to say something. That puts the burden back on the institutions: What do you really want when you invite a person of color to the table? Do you want the truth, or do you want an anemic version of the truth?

 

We’re made in God’s image, but God is a God of diversity. That’s why you have different hair colors in a room, different eye colors, different skin tones, different complexions, people who are good at math, and some who aren’t.

We have to understand that society is the enemy of difference. Society tells us to conform in just about every way. When you go to some suburban communities, every house on the block looks exactly the same, and people are proud to live there. They’re all rolling out their trash cans on Monday night smiling and waving at each other. They’re walking their dogs, smiling, and just living the dream.

Think about the notion of whiteness: all white people have some type of an ethnic background. American society tells them to throw that ethnic identity out the window, along with their cultural norms, family traditions, languages and accents, and put on a cloak of whiteness. Why? Because whiteness is a form of power. Most of the time, we’re not taught to recognize the power.

Let’s say you do live in an integrated neighborhood and a black family has their music up a little bit louder: white people use their privilege when they call 911. When dispatchers hear the voice of a white person on the other end, they are going to treat that call very differently. They are going to think about who’s asking for help, who is the potential perpetrator. And when officers arrive on a scene, we see how those families are being treated. Most of the time we ignore the racial implications. We think, “Well, it’s because their music was too loud.” Well, maybe your music wasn’t loud enough.

I’m a person who likes some bass in my car. So even though I’ve been a law professor for 14 years, I might be driving down the street, and you’ll hear a boom, boom, boom, boom. I don’t know if my love of bass is because of my African ancestors; all I know is that that feels natural for me to have rhythm and bass. Many of my white friends listen to talk radio. That’s just the difference in style and taste that we have to accommodate for within society.

 

If we want to take bold action, what risks are we willing to take to get it? Taking bold action requires bold faith. Are we willing to exercise our faith? Are we willing to potentially give up something? And I would argue that if we make the decision to give up something, God will multiply whatever we place in God’s hands exponentially.

That’s what we have to begin to understand. We can’t outgive God. We can’t. So often, when we try to hang on to what we think is important, God will say, “Give that over to me. That has become an idol in your life. You care more about this thing than pleasing me. You care more about that thing than doing my will. You care more about that person’s opinion than doing what I asked you to do.” We lose out when we refuse to open our hands and give God what God is asking for. It’s a simple choice. If we have difficulty making that choice, God is such an awesome God that you can ask for help in prayer to be able to release that thing. I’m not just talking this. I live it on a regular basis because I made a conscious decision to go on a journey with God.

If we’re saying that we love God, and if we’re saying that, as human beings, we’re made in God’s image, then how is that reflected in the choices that we make about the lives that we value? I learned that lesson too early in life at 14 years old. That seed was already planted in me. It impacted how I saw the world.

If it hadn’t been for obeying God, I might have missed out on an opportunity to see God be God. I challenged myself by going off to Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was shot in 2014 and to the Minneapolis apartments where Jamar Clark was killed last year and to the street where Philando Castile was killed just this week. Before I left to travel to this conference tonight, I stood with hundreds of people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds taking a stand. I’m very thankful for that. That joy filled my heart and gave me the power to deliver this message to you despite only having 30 minutes of sleep in the last 24 hours.

I thank you all for allowing me to be here. I pray that you obey the call of God like never before. Take bold action and challenge yourself to walk in the power, authority, and the beauty of the Almighty God. Thank you.

Web extra

FGC recorded the full plenary talk:

Dr. Nekima Levy-Pounds is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, the founding director of the Community Justice Project, and the president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP. She is a nationally recognized expert on issues of race, public policy, economic justice, and the criminal justice system.


Posted in: September 2016

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