I am angry. I am mortified. I am distraught.
The miscarriage of justice in the death of Eric Garner puts another spotlight on what our nation says to Black men today in 2014: Your life is not valued. 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. 50 years after the Civil Rights Act. 6 years after the election of Barack Obama. And where have we gotten?
Regardless of the immediate events that led to Eric Garner’s death in New York, Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Tamir Rice’s death in Cleveland, or Rumain Brisbon’s death in Phoenix, the fact remains that every 28 hours a Black man is killed by the police. As Eric Garner said in his last words, “this stops today.” And we must heed that call. We simply cannot survive as a society when only some of us are free.
That is a deep lesson that we learn from the global community, none more so than the Jesuit martyrs in El Salvador who understood that we can never experience true justice and freedom, until those who are marginalized and oppressed are free.
In the Ignatian family, we learn to use Ignatian pedagogy to make sense or act on issues of justice. This process calls on us to know our context, have a lived experience, reflect, act, and evaluate. It is deeply useful. But in these circumstances one challenge faces me in this process: Experience.
As a White man living in the United States, I simply cannot comprehend or experience what Eric Garner went through. Despite all the empathy, I don’t have to suffer from the constant injustice that continues to play out in Black communities within our nation. I certainly never have to experience losing my dignity and life, simply for my race. Nor do I have to worry about teaching my daughter, Anna that she has to walk a certain way, or act a certain way for fear that she will be harassed.
So I cannot say – “I understand” or I know this experience. But I know I cannot be silent. Silence means consent, and we cannot consent to systematic racial injustice. How can we move forward to be in solidarity with those suffering from loss of life and injustice from a legal system that isn’t protecting all of us, yet something we truly can’t experience?
We need to learn the context that is driving this injustice. These deaths show our racial injustice is much more than personal discrimination. It is systemic, structural, and rooted in a nuanced and complex set of institutional and governmental policies that have created the situation we find ourselves into today. For example, housing policies of the 1950s and mortgage practices in the last two decades have deepened the segregation of our neighborhoods. Isolation from others compounds our implicit bias and leads us to act out of fear, seeing others as unequal.
The police, as an institution, plays out this bias – young black men disproportionately profiled, stopped and frisked, given much heavier jail sentences for a simple marijuana charge, and gunned down compared to young white men. This isn’t about the officer, because these injustices are not isolated incidences. So it is much bigger than individual action. This is about the policies and practices within a larger institution and a legal system that doesn’t see people as equal. It means we, as a nation, must find ways to create solutions that are driven by the premise that Black Lives Matter too. And we need to find solutions that create structural transformation, and that means overhauling our criminal justice system as a whole.
So how can we act in solidarity?
As a father I look to Anna for her compassion. Only 16 months old and she holds more compassion for others that is far beyond my grasp. And Kate and I must find ways to foster that compassion and teach her about injustice and implicit bias so she can be a better person in the world than I am.
As an advocate, it means that we must stand and act in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are suffering these traumatizing times. That action could be in standing side by side in the streets, it could be to help donate resources or time to support the leadership of youth of color who are demanding a new tomorrow.
And as a White person, it means challenging ourselves to understand our position of power and influence and how we act in spaces with communities of color. And it means giving away our power to those who have been marginalized so that they can lead the solutions that will create a more just and fair society.
Anthony is a father of two girls, Anna and Ella, and lives in Philadelphia with his wife Kate. He is currently a fellow working at the intersection of community, racial justice, and a new energy economy. Anthony is a 2004 alum of the University of Scranton, where he studied Theology and Political Science.