Dear Treyvon,

12 08 2020

How does an old White guy like me even begin to write a letter to a young Black teen like you? Eight years ago the worlds in which we lived truly were Black and White, and even if we had an opportunity to meet, our words would have likely been few.

But today my words are many, and I write to apologize. I write to you as a way to lament, to grieve, and to simply let you know how very sorry I am . . . for everything!

Treyvon to this day, it is your murder that continues to motivate so much of my living. You are the reason my life has changed, and the reason I continue to seek to become a better ally to the people of color that God has placed in my life. In loving them, I hope that I am loving you, and even if in just a small way, I pray I am atoning for our nation’s taking of your life. My blindness to your experiences as a Black person in America is the reason you are no longer here. And sadly, that blindness, and the blindness of so many other people like me, has allowed the taking of other Black lives to continue: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philondo Castille, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the list goes on and on and on.

Your murder, eight and a half years ago this month, on February 26, 2012, came at a point in my life when I had just begun listening to the voices of people who I had long ignored: Black voices, full of pain, anger, frustration, and fear; but at the same time voices full of more kindness, grace, understanding, and even love, than people like me deserve. Those voices helped me begin to explore my blindness, and after your death they forced me to deal with my complicity, and the complicity of my church and my country, in your murder.

I had never been to a protest before, but that night eight years ago, standing on a local college campus, candle burning brightly and tears flowing freely, I remember struggling to make sense of what happened to you. Up until then, my anger had been directed towards your murderer. It was towards a police department that had neglected to take appropriate action and arrest the one who had taken your life; and towards a state that continued to put laws like “stand your ground” on the books, knowing that they would only be used to oppress the already marginalized and oppressed. My anger was towards a nation that allowed guns to be placed in the hands of law-enforcement wannabees with distorted views of ‘law and order’; and towards all those red-necked racists who lived in places like rural Florida.

I couldn’t get your picture out of my mind; and I couldn’t get the words of your mother out of my head. “My son is your son!” she told the world. But while I understood what she was saying, her words weren’t really true for me. They may have been true for other Black parents, but they were never true for White parents like me! My sons were never treated as you were treated. They wore hoodies all the time. Whenever I wanted them to look their best, I would tell them to put on a collared shirt – a demand that they still laugh about today. When they went to school or church I wanted them to look respectable! But that wasn’t because if they didn’t, their lives might be threatened. White people don’t have to worry about those kinds of things. My sons put on hoodies all the time and no one ever thought that made them appear ‘suspicious.’

So I was angry with everyone and everything: people, systems, churches, police departments, politicians, the media, and anyone else I could possibly blame for what happened to you. But looking back, that protest, that vigil that sought to honor your life, began changing things for me. In what I think was less than an hour, all of my anger began to shift. And I now realize that it was being redirected from all those other people and places, to me. I was beginning to see that I was just as responsible for your murder as anyone else; and if anything was ever going to change in this country, I needed to acknowledge that.

I wish I could blame my cluelessness as to what had been happening to Black people in America for so long, on the lack of social media, or even the failure of the news media. But in reality, that wasn’t the problem. I was the problem. I wasn’t paying attention.  I didn’t want to see the racism that was all around me.  I didn’t want to think about the possibility that my own racist thoughts had become so internalize that I couldn’t even recognize them – so natural that I didn’t even know they were there. I thought your death was their fault, not mine.

That’s how bad things were for me. American racism was. . . is . . . so systemic, that I failed to realize that it was in the very air that I was breathing, in the very water that all of us Americans were drinking. My life was saturated with racism and I didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t, see it! And while today, eight years later, I’m growing, that doesn’t change the fact that it cost you your life . . . you and millions of other Black men and boys, women and girls. It’s been going on for 400 years, and that reality should haunt every one of us.

So I’m writing to to apologize . . . for everything, but especially for my apathetic indifference to the state of race relations in our country. I’m sorry for all the times I didn’t speak up when someone in my family used inappropriate language when talking about Black people. I’m sorry for all the times I used language born in racist thought and practice, without thinking about what stereotypes I was perpetuating or what inaccuracies I was advancing. I’m sorry I sought an education that was so skewed and biased, so historically inaccurate, and so . . . White. I’m sorry that for so long I ministered in ways that failed to acknowledge America’s original sin, and that I never tackled the subject of racism from the pulpit. And I’m sorry that even now, I still remain unsure of how to either use my privilege to seek change, or appropriately surrender that privilege altogether. I’m so very sorry Treyvon, for all of it.

Rest in peace son. But also, rest in power. Rest in the knowledge that your name is still being spoken, and by people you never knew. Rest in the knowledge that the shortness of your life and the evil of your death have not been forgotten. Rest in the knowledge that whenever I eat a Skittle I am reminded of you, and the life that I need to be pursuing. Rest in both peace and in power, as I and countless other White people, finally being to wake up and learn to better live into the words of Frederick Douglas that your mom shared in the Paramount Network’s documentary on your murder. We’ve all prayed about this stuff long enough. Now it’s time to take action.

In the words of John Lewis, it’s time to seek good trouble!

Your life mattered, Treyvon. Sadly, it mattered more than you will ever know. And this old White guy is grateful for you.

Thank you, and I’m sorry. Love, Bob

America Exposed

4 08 2020

I’m hearing way too many people ask the same frustrating question these days! “If schools in Europe can reopen, why can’t schools in America?”

It’s such an absurd question, born in an arrogant American naivete and exposing a blatant ignorance of how so much of the rest of the world operates. We like to think that the United States is capable of doing whatever any other nation is doing, and probably better! So if Danish schools are capable of reopening, American schools should be as well.

But this is simply not true. And it’s not true because of the saddest part of American exceptionalism: our selfishness! That is what makes America the exception in so many other parts of our world: our selfish individualism. And Donald Trump, and the COVID-19 pandemic, have exposed this embarrassing side of the American persona for all to see.

The great Protestant Work Ethic gave rise to rugged American Individualism long ago; and the Reagan Revolution’s “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality has only modernized and further developed our national identity as a narcissistic and self-centered people. When coupled with American Evangelicalism’s obsession with the personal nature of salvation, we wind up with a populace that is more concerned with me, than us! Individual rights supersede individual responsibilities, and personal liberties transcend the general welfare of everyone. What so much of the world calls civility, we derogatorily call socialism; and while we like to talk about equality, we remain unwilling to have conversations about cultural inequity.

The preamble to our constitution reminds us of the common nature of our national identity. “We” the people, not ‘me’ the people, exalts our commitment to unity and oneness, and seeks to ensconce in the American character a commitment to the safety and security of all people. But under the polarizing leadership of the current administration, and as the corona virus ravages communities around our country, we continue to fall short of this ideal.

Whether talking about everything from the wearing masks and the necessity of vaccines, to calls for ‘law and order’ and a return some distorted sense of American ‘greatness’ — today, we in these United States are anything but united. And we do not want to be. For to be united, truly united, means that we recognize that none of us succeeds unless all of us succeed! It means acknowledging that we ARE our siblings’ keepers. It means that all lives do NOT matter, unless BLACK lives matter. It means that there is no peace if there is no justice. And it means securing the “blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” is for everyone who calls America home, and not just a select, privileged few.

Why can’t we open our schools like they are doing in Europe? Because we’re not Europe! And we have been unwilling to do what most European countries did to keep one another safe. We don’t want anyone to tell us what to wear or where we can go, and we certainly don’t want our lives to be in any way inconvenienced . . . not because of a mere few hundred thousand deaths!

The government has no right to tell us we can’t go to church – because then we’d be forced to deal with the fact that faith is about so much more than ‘going to church,’ and that might require too much of us. The government has no right to give bakers the freedom to tell us we need to wear masks in their bakeries – although it’s perfectly acceptable for those same bakers to tell us they don’t want to serve us if they don’t like the people we marry. And the government definitely has no right to tell us we can’t reopen our schools – because that’s a “justice issue,” and we’re awfully concerned that doing so will too harshly impact the most vulnerable families in our communities . . . the very same families, by the way, whose concerns about living wages, affordable housing, health care have fallen on our deaf ears for years!

This is why we can’t open our schools like they’ve done in Europe! And to selfishly do so, would only be to honor and exalt our selfish motives. Do we really believe that a few more months of home-schooling is going to harm our children’s brains? Do we really believe that our children’s social abilities are going to be thwarted because they are not in school this fall? Even if such nonsense is true, it is selfish to think that the benefits of opening our schools outweigh the risks. Everyone wants schools to open. Everyone wants to get the economy going again. Everyone wants some sense of normalcy to return. But this should only happen safely. COVID-19 it taking peoples’ lives, and dis-proportionally the lives of people of color. So nothing should be more concerting than that!

And yet this is not how we think. We’ve given up on the hard work of “forming a more perfect union.” We offer mere lip-service to our being “ONE nation under God” and fail to understand the meaning of “liberty and justice for ALL!” Our selfish individualism has us thinking only about ourselves: what we want, what is convenience for us, and what will make our individual lives easier.

That’s why we can’t open up our school like they’ve done in Europe. Our national character and identity has been exposed for all the world to see. And we’re selfish. Like our president, we are a selfishly narcissistic and individualistic people.

And it’s as simple as that!