By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Racism as we know it, is a special type of bullying that preys on perceived weakness. Fear draws in bullies. Bullies pick their victims based on the likelihood that the victims will not fight back. I wrote about my own experience of being bullied as a kid in my memoir, Called Along the Way (Nemesis). Just like there will always be bullies; racism is an intractable issue that will never go away.
Analysts make a distinction between a problem that can be solved and a polarity that can only be managed. The reason that racism cannot be considered a problem to be solved because the bullying instinct is innate in all social animals. Bullying is used to establish dominance, the pecking order in a group of animals, birds, or even fish. Such behavior is tolerated by all societies, but it is also regulated by convention. Deer lock horns, but they do not gore each other; military officers are allowed to yell at enlisted personnel, but not lay a hand on them.
What makes Christianity radically different is that Jesus refused to tolerate the usual ways that societies establish dominance. We read in Matthew’s Gospel:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.” (Matt 20:25-26).
As sons and daughters of the Lord, all bullying of any kind among disciples is forbidden. We are to earn respect by our service, not by bullying.
Lessons of History
The current interest in history is healthy provided the broader sweep of history is not forgotten.
The Emancipation Proclamation did not follow from a slave revolt but rather an outpouring of conscience, especially among northern churches. Slavery was inconsistent with Christian ethical values, especially the words of the Apostle Paul:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)
In todays’s language, no ethic group is better than any other, no economic class is better than any other, and no gender is better than any other. Because we are all children of the same Father God, work to mitigate the remnants of racism in our institutions deserve the broad support of Christians.
What Will Demonstrations Accomplish?
If racism is intractable, are the current demonstration pointless?
No. Not from the perspective of the recent history of demonstrations.
When I was in high school, I participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Antiwar fervor helped elect Richard Nixon president, as the current demonstrations will likely turn the fall election against our current president. Nixon attempted to end the war by escalating the fights and the bombing.
The Vietnam War officially ended in 1975, seven years after the 1968 election that brought Nixon to power. The draft was abolished and an all-volunteer military established. Still, dirty little wars continue to haunt American foreign policy.
Earlier demonstrations after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led to renewed emphasis on the Great Society legislation. The civil rights and Great Society legislation facilitated the development of a large black middle class in American that never previously existed. It also changed the tone of the public debate over race in American and made the election of Barack Obama possible.
What can we conclude from this brief experience with demonstrations? War, poverty, and racism have not been eliminated, but our public response to each of these issues has been responsive to the political aims of demonstrators.
If demonstrators continue to focus on policing policy, policy makers will likely be responsive. Virtually everyone believes that the police should treat people with respect and enforce the law in an unbiased manner. Widening objectives to other issues will be unlikely to garner the same widespread support.
Policing Policy Reform
Racism is intractable. Until everyone sees others as brothers and sisters under the living God, we will have the polarity of racism. Policing policy is another matter.
Police are bureaucrats who are, like everyone else, are responsive to those that pay their wages. In poor neighborhoods, not everyone is a taxpayer who earns their respect. In areas with a weak tax base, police are also seriously underfunded and overworked. Financing problems lead to recruitment, training, and attitude problems. This is why almost all urban police belong to a union.
The usual response to complaints about policing is to fire those responsible and hire new leadership. This may help for a while, but if the underlying problems of financing, recruitment, and training are not addressed, new leadership will not offer lasting change.
A key issue in the current debate about racial disparities in policing is the effort after 9-11 for police departments to respond to the threat of terrorism. This is why many departments now have a swat team as well as military style weapons and training. If the local department thinks of itself as a de facto chapter in Homeland Security, it is not focused on urban policing, de-escalation of violence, and coping with the psychiatric cases walking the streets. Tight budgets have already been allocated to a different set of priorities with the encouragement of national leaders.
Looking to 2021
The point in raising these issue is that racial harmony is not the only issue facing police departments today. Those impatient for reform will likely be disappointed. I suspect that large scale reform efforts will not be possible until after the November elections and well into 2021.
In the meantime, little evidence of political reform can currently be seen. We have seen no congressional hearings, no presidential commissions, no white papers, and no appointments of police reform czars, normally the staples of a reform effort. Symbolic moves, like taking down a few confederate paintings in the Capitol Building, are evidence of political impotence, not reform. The political party conventions this summer will likely give us the first taste of what to expect in 2021.
Will these demonstrations alter the balance of power in the Congress in the fall? I suspect that we will not know until the votes are counted. At what point do demonstrators become vandals in the public eye? How many people have to die before people realize that demonstrations during a pandemic are a bad idea? Protracted demonstrations this summer could fuel resentment as well as support for reform.