Thursday, September 11, 2008

Not Here, Not Now, Not Ever Again

(From the September 11, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune)

“On the night of August 17, the word "nigger" and a caricature face were spray-painted on the driveway of a Park Township family. This was discovered the next morning by the teenage son; one of the daughters asked her mother, "Does this mean we will be killed?"”

These were the words in an ad that ran in this newspaper this past weekend. They brought to my mind the original news account of the defacing of a local family’s property, and my reaction to the incident when I read about it last month.

At one level it is hard to believe that in 2008 we are still confronted with the unfortunate and hostile use of the ‘N’ word. It would seem that we have come so far from Martin Luther King Jr’s exhortation to judge one another by the content of character, no skin color. We have seen so many African American and other racial minorities excel in this country, in business, the arts, education, journalism, and governance. Indeed, we have an African American running—and seriously contending--for the highest office in the land. This is part of the shock of encountering the overt racism in our community so recently.

Then again, sadly, perhaps we should not be surprised that racism has reared its ugly and ignorant head once again. The successes of racial minorities I mentioned are celebrated by many of all races—but there are some who see the success of others as a threat to themselves.

Or perhaps, the perpetrators of this spray-painted crime had a bad experience or encounter of some sort with one person of black skin color. They reacted the only way they could with their lack of courage and intellect—name calling in the dark of night.

It may be that the juvenile graffiti goon thought what he or they were doing was funny. I hope they now realize, in silent shame, that their judgment is as immature as their sense of humor.

What makes me shudder most was the question of the young daughter in this family: “does this mean we will be killed?” What a question! It all at once reflects innocence and a grievous loss of it. Just as racist attitudes can be learned by its perpetrators, the potential consequences of bigotry are absorbed by its youngest victims.

A long time ago, a chaplain taught me a valuable life lesson. I was complaining to him about the inability of some people to get along peacefully. He pulled two pens from his pocket and asked me to describe them. I played along: one was black, one blue; one pall point, one felt tip; one opened with a click and one with a twist, and so on. He smiled, and told me I was typical running through a list of contrasts and differences. I could just as easily have described the similarities of the pens: both were made of plastic, from his pocket, used for writing, and so forth.

Such is an unfortunate reality of human nature. We have a tendency to focus on differences rather than what we have in common. First of all, differences among people are not only not that threatening most of the time, they are what adds strength to society, innovation to business, and excitement to our daily lives. In fact, the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, offers a view of Heaven as an extraordinarily diverse place, filled with a multitude of people “from every tribe and tongue and nation.”

We humans have far more in common than we have that distinguishes us. In fact, the word community is derived from the Latin word for common. We all need food, shelter, and jobs. We all desire to have friends, live in peace, get an education.

We all hope to never hear our children ask if we will now be killed.

In the end I was pleased by the ad I saw in this paper last weekend. It appears that a “multitude” of people in West Michigan would rather stress our commonalities than our differences. These people signed their names under this statement:

As concerned residents of West Michigan, we extend our support to the Park Township family whose driveway was recently defaced with an offensive racial slur and picture. We want the family to know that anyone who did this does not reflect us or what we want our community to be, and we support efforts to bring the person or persons to justice. We will work to see that no other family living here now or in the future experiences the same shock and pain. A diverse and welcoming community creates economic and wonderful cultural benefits. But inclusion depends on all of us. We, the undersigned, pledge to promote justice, celebrate our diversity, and act as anti-racists in our personal and community lives.”

Good. The real ‘minorities’ in this community are any who think of racial differences as a negative thing. Let’s hope there are fewer of them with each passing year.