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Guestwords: Listening Is Not Enough

Wed, 06/15/2022 - 12:06

Nearly two years ago, a series of tragic events unfolded, engulfing our nation in a wave of protests and violence. The deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd ushered in an intense summer that served as a reckoning for racial issues long ignored in this country.

For months, people took to the streets to protest that Black people could be murdered in broad daylight or under the cover of a “no-knock” warrant at night. Many Americans were confronted with the reality that the violence of history’s Jim Crow South was still very much a reality in 2020. This level of brutality could no longer be explained away, diminished, or disregarded.

The anger fueling protests around the country was an expression of moral outrage that life is not valued and protected. Thousands upon thousands took to the streets to lament what we have become as a nation and insist we do better. To put a finer point on it: They called out our capacity to tolerate injustice, and we are a better nation for it.

In our haste to look to the future, let us not minimize the significance of the past two years and the bearing of these events on our national life.

In the wake of protests and this latest moment of reckoning, we see glimpses of a better America. Let’s hold on to that vision and commit to seeing it realized. The path to a more racially just America will require a national commitment to compassion and courage. Compassion to listen and empathize with African-Americans. Courage to speak and take specific actions that can make a difference. Let’s call these the two Cs.

Through the events of 2020 and since, many in the white community have been confronted by the injustice and pain their African-American sisters and brothers face every day. What they saw stopped them in their tracks, they could not continue to avoid or disregard it. They had to listen, they had to seek understanding. We should not gloss over this because it was an expression of compassion. People listened. After listening, some asked, “What can we do?”

The result has been a measure of good. Wealthy white people donated to nonprofits and historically Black colleges and universities working on the front lines in African-American communities.

Major companies funded advertising campaigns that expressed solidarity and gave voice to African-American issues and pain. Nonprofit organizations and educational institutions convened conferences and webinars to teach the public about the historic and systemic dimensions of racism in America. Even government officials were listening and tried to be responsive. Congress voted to approve the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, the day commemorating the end of slavery, as a legal public holiday. It was an act done to correct an omission in our national history.

These are just a few examples of the positive steps taken to make a difference. It is important to recognize these actions, but as the years roll by we will not see more change unless we commit to building on them. The work is not done. As a country, we often fixate on all that is wrong and are overwhelmed by all that is left to do. This keeps us in a state of perpetual gridlock, with many choosing to do nothing. It is time to consider where we go from here. 

You may have noticed that I said, “Some asked, ‘What can we do?’ ” This is the problem I want to name. Too many white sisters and brothers lack the courage to go beyond listening. To them, I say, “Listening is not enough.”

As a country, we are slowly settling back into a status quo. Without systematic and institutional change, we cannot move forward. We need to change the laws and policies that affect policing and sentencing. We need to systematically address the distribution of economic opportunities and wealth in cities across the country. Our failure to do this leaves so many African-Americans in a precarious position, which is why we insist Black Lives Matter. We are also seeing a resurgence of attitudes antagonistic to correcting systemic racism. After years of listening, there is not only fatigue around these conversations, but also significant pushback. 

The African-American community needs more than a few listening ears if we are going to build a better America. We need allies with courage, or, as we say in the country, “with backbone.” Allies are not just personal friends but groups and organizations willing to take a stand, use their platforms and positions of power, and leverage their influence and resources to stymie the effects of systemic racism and white extremism that have become “normative” today.

What can white allies do? Call out the silence and apathy of mainstream white America. Call out the extremists in your neighborhoods, schools, and churches who seek to both quietly and loudly hijack our movement and this moment with misinformation, dog-whistling, and any suggestion that working for racial justice is “un-American.” Many want to divide and distract us over the language we employ or the way we approach the important work we have undertaken. Reject and uproot these attempts. 

Take heart and have courage to push back against fellow whites. I recognize this is hard for many white sisters and brothers. Don’t believe me? Study the history of white Americans who opposed slavery and Jim Crow segregation. They were met with virulent opposition for standing with their African-American sisters and brothers. 

Participate in coalitions and partnerships that address specific areas of need such as education, health care, economic opportunities, and policing. Vote in the best interests of your African-American neighbors, instead of your own interests. Show racial solidarity by joining or partnering with African-American-led organizations and supporting their leadership and solutions to problems ailing people in their communities.

I am not the first to insist that listening is not enough. In a real way, Jesus said the same thing. The story of the good Samaritan offers many parallels to race relations in America. The story is found in Luke 10, a chapter discussing the command to love God and neighbor.

Jesus shares a compelling story in response to a lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?”

A man was going down from Jeru­salem to Jericho and was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and fled, leaving him half dead. A priest saw the man and passed by on the other side. A Levite came to the place, saw him, and also passed by on the other side. But when the Samaritan came by, he responded differently. He took pity on him and responded to his suffering with compassion and courage. The Samaritan bandaged the man’s wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him.

Jesus then responds to the lawyer with his own question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replies, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus tells him, “Go and do likewise.”

Both the priest and the Levite come to a place of violence and pain. They witness profound human suffering and pass it by. The Samaritan does the opposite. He witnesses human suffering and shows compassion by doing something. Jesus uses these stark examples to describe what neighborly love looks like and instructs his disciples to follow the example of the Samaritan. The story illustrates how many see the suffering of others but choose not to enter in and take action to alleviate the suffering with compassion and courage.

The same is true for listening. To listen without a compassionate and courageous response is meaningless. This story of neighborly love illuminates the deeper meaning of ally work. African-American people need good neighbors, ready to listen and act. Without compassionate and courageous allies, the onslaught of racism will continue.

In a real sense, this is not just a story about a random victim of violence, a priest, a Levite, and a good Samaritan. It is also a story about us. The questions for us are, “Where are we in this story? Who are we in this story? Where is America?”

In response to protests over the tragic killings of Arbery, Taylor, and Floyd, there are many who look and hear yet do nothing to alleviate the suffering of their sisters and brothers. This has to change. It takes both Cs to build a better America — compassion and courage. Listening is not enough. We need more good Samaritans doing the right thing, so we do not lose the momentum and meaning of this moment for our national life.

I am encouraged that people in the Hamptons are listening and taking steps toward change. On Sunday here in East Hampton, Calvary Baptist Church and the Anti-Bias Task Force of East Hampton, joined by Mayor Jerry Larsen and Michael Tracey, the chief of the village police, are creating space to commemorate Juneteenth. I hope you will join us as we commemorate this holiday and the important work before us. 

Lewis Brogdon, Ph.D., is the director of the Institute for Black Church Studies and an associate professor at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Louisville.


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