By Ken Wheeler
I have wrestled with whether I should write this, because I know that there are some of my White brothers and sisters who will never understand anything an African-American expresses about being vulnerable and at risk because of the color of our skins.
How I wish that I could wake up and not have to ever think about race, but I know that is a hollow and empty wish given the fact that, at some point within the course of any given day, I will be reminded of who I am as a Black man by some comment as innocent and innocuous as it may seem.
And sometimes the racism is much more overt, as was the case recently when we had a service person in our home to connect our cable. Anyone who has ever been in our home will know immediately that we have great love, respect and admiration for President Barack Obama. In fact, we have a very beautiful portrait of the faces of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Obama together.
As the service person came upstairs he saw that portrait and said audibly, “The only reason that I watched the inauguration was to see if someone would assassinate him.” I immediately asked him if he knew where he was – did he know whose home he was in, as I felt the blood boiling in my veins?
I was not trying to hide my feelings or to be diplomatic at that moment. He finished his work and left quickly. I will be writing a letter to the company about him, but that encounter left me and my wife shaken and beyond surprised. Put that together with the unrest that continues to happen in Ferguson, Mo., as that community continues to demand that justice be done. They are pressing for humane policing in their community. They hunger and thirst for economic justice.
We have recently moved from Wisconsin and now sit almost at the backdoor of Ferguson. You can feel the anxiety there and in surrounding communities as the city awaits the grand jury decision in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a White police officer, Darren Wilson.
Businesses are boarding up windows; schools will probably close. Neighboring communities have been sent letters advising residents to keep their cell phones charged, stock up on bottled water and food and stay home. But the most troubling is that gun sales in those communities have gone through the roof.
And all of this is fueled by fear. And the fear is rooted in racism. The great amount of disrespect that has been shown toward this president has its genesis in racism. That young, White service worker in our home thought that he could say what he did and get away with it because he grew up in that kind of culture, and he believed wrongly, of course, that there was no objection that I could make that he had to hear or honor or that anyone would believe.
As parents of three sons, we can’t help but worry about them. It would be foolish not to. Each one of them is accomplished, holds responsible positions and is in a career where they make a difference. But, unfortunately, what White people see when their eyes behold them is just another Black man who may be there to do harm. So yes, we worry when they are out on the road and driving through some small town where they may be the only Black person. We worry because there are White people like that service worker whose attitudes may lead to unexpected and horrific acts of violence toward some innocent and unsuspecting Black person for no reason other than that person’s hatred of Black people.
Now let’s be clear – Black people aren’t looking for White pity. And I didn’t write this to make White people feel defensive. I’m describing a reality that is my reality. And yes, I feel anger and I think the anger that you see in Ferguson, in Milwaukee, on the part of many in the African-American community is there in part because White people have refused to hear – to hear the deeper pain in our community, pain that is there because our humanity has been stereotyped out of us.
The solution to the racial dilemma in America has generally been one sided, as if Black people are the problem. White supremacy is the problem, so let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about that disease that has infected the body politic and the body of the church. Let’s talk about how we get real about this and then commit to seriously eradicating this epidemic, which is just as deadly as Ebola.
Ken Wheeler is a retired pastor. He most recently served at Cross Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Milwaukee. He was also an assistant to the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA for 18 years.