Saturday before last I attended religious training. At the close, the leader gave a brief and moving sermon. He spoke of the unspeakable pain that he, as a white man in America, could never feel. He spoke of the shooting down in Ferguson, Missouri of a young black man, Michael Brown. The following day, I attended my church, where a visiting white cleric also pointedly touched on Ferguson. The avuncular preacher spoke of how much we still needed to do in Obama’s America. Racism is alive and well.
Almost every black man of my acquaintance has his testimony; these range from my Hong Kong-educated Senegalese financial planner to my twenty-something nephew. I have my own story. Thirty years ago, while running down a freezing street on Chicago’s North Side, I was stopped by police with guns drawn. I froze and raised my hands. I was given no answers to my questions about what was going on. Instead I was led through an alley to a brownstone. A woman, who looked shaken up, was in the doorway. “Is this him,?” the cops asked her. “No,” she replied. “He’s too old.” I was then a thirty-something junior professor at Northwestern University. Had I not stopped running initially, I am sure my career would have ended then and there. No black man can be sure he is proof against the crime of running or driving while black.
Since the summer of 2014, Ferguson has become burned into our national discourse. Like Trayvon Martin a year before, Michael Brown has become a symbol of the American Race Problem. Indeed, the Ferguson incident has reached media saturation levels and has been accompanied by calls for even more “conversations on race.” The Attorney General, Eric Holder, flew to Missouri, the “Show Me State,” to see for himself. Later Barack Obama himself mentioned the incident from the podium of the United Nations. Pundits and others drew lines from Ferguson back to Emmett Till in 1955 and even Dred Scott in 1857.
Ferguson is and is not a global story. If police brutality is all about shadow of chattel slavery, we need immediately to send investigators to San Juan (Puerto Rico abolished slavery in 1873). However, I think the matter is somewhat more complex. The biblical phrase is reversed in that we see the beam in our own eye and ignore the systemic class and ethnic violence that cover our planet. We need to know that our national obsessions may obscure our transgressions elsewhere. Only yesterday my pastor noted that the issue is not totally whether the young man in Ferguson was black and the policeman white (I have seen camera phone videos of younger men being shot down with impunity in São Paulo and Karachi). Pastor spoke of systems of oppression. They are unholy and they are persistent. They haunt our lives in myriads of ways and with myriads of “isms” (racism and sexism among them).
To most of the world President Obama is neither black nor Muslim (in drone-ravaged Pakistan, he is more disliked than his predecessor). The images and concerns of our racialized American world do not travel well. In the so-called Third World there are other systems of oppression. More disturbingly, the responses to them are often clothed in the language of militant religion. We have to remember that, while a gaggle of media pundits and former American Civil Rights advocates descended on Ferguson, a curiously named African American (Douglas McAuthur McCain) was killed in the sands of the Middle East. He was fighting in an international movement contemptuous of the pieties of America, black or white (ISIS). The movement ominously promises solutions to present oppression based on thirteenth-century theology. We must come up with better solutions based on global economic justice and respect for international law…soon.
When the Prophet Mohamed first led his forces out of the Arabian Peninsula he sent emissaries to the warring Byzantine and Persian Empires. The Prophet announced a new order and requested their adherence. Both empires were too wrapped up in their internal wrangles and their international conflicts to pay much heed. Both were characterized by growing class inequality and arcane theological debates. Both were swept into the dustbin of history.