Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Shrugging shoulders, shaking heads

I don't trust people who claim they're not racist. I feel those impulses in me. I admit it. I'm not proud of it either.

My first reaction to the death of Sean Taylor, the Washington Redskins defensive back, was disgust at yet another African-American athlete, wealthy as sin, getting himself offed in some late-night shoot-out.

I was wrong. It was a simple break in, which only makes this death worse.

Yesterday on the news, the lawyer for the accused claimed that the suspects are heartbroken because they didn't intend Taylor's death. They thought he wasn't home. They thought it would be simple robbery. I can't help it--I shake my head.

On Sunday Leonard Pitts, columnist for the Miami Herald, just about brought me to tears: "And once again, this is how we die," he wrote. "Fallen, crumpled, bleeding from a bullet's hole. Woman and child left to wail, left to mourn. Left."

He's so right and and a white guy like me, half a continent away, just doesn't get it.

"It was, of course, not a 'we' who died that way last week in Miami," Pitts wrote in his column, "but a 'he,' NFL star Sean Taylor, 24, shot in his home by a burglar. But maybe we can be forgiven, we African-American people in general, we African-American men in particular, for placing a 'we' where others would a 'he,' for seeing in the fate of this singular individual all the brothers and sisters we have wept and mourned and given back to the soil. Maybe we can be forgiven for feeling the only difference is that the world knows his name and did not know theirs."

It's not a burden that I feel--not really; it's not some kind of "white-man's burden." But being white and seeing things like this happen over and over and over again in the African-American community--even to its leaders, maybe especially to its own prominent folks--prompts a disgust that I'm not at all proud of--as in, "when on earth will you--meaning African-Americans--ever learn?"

It's a species of racism that's in me I'm not proud of it. I'm simply saying it's there.

In South Africa ten years ago, just after Mandela took over, a bunch of handsome Afrikaaners asked me what to them was a very serious question about race. "Affirmative action," they said, "--you've been at it in the U.S. for awhile, right? It's just a matter of a generation or so?" they said, as if the problems of race could be eradicated with some a few good jobs for the underpriviliged, as if the problems they were and are facing in South Africa could be out of sight, out of mind in say, 25 years. I was speechless--I really was. How could I tell them that, in my own homeland, America, almost 150 years since the end of slavery, we still don't have a clue how to deal with the problems that arise from racial difference.

"And this is how we die," Pitts says. "We die in profligate numbers. Just under 15,000 Americans were murdered in 2006. Roughly half of them -- 7,421 -- were black. African Americans are 12 percent of the nation's population."

And what percentage of cause here do we simply chalk up to being underpriviliged?

"And this is how we die," Pitts says. "We die young. Of the 7,421 African-American murder victims of 2006, more than 40 percent -- 3,028 -- were Taylor's age or less."
Read it and weep.

And yet, my own first reaction to hearing the news of another superstar athlete gunned down, this one in Miami--my own reaction in lily white Sioux County, Iowa, is to roll my eyes, shrug my shoulders, shake my head, and ask myself what on earth is going on in the African-American community, the same question Leonard Pitts asks, really, albeit from the inside, not from out here.

The problem with the needy--at least from the vantage point of those of us who aren't--is that often they are needy--and often.

Just Sunday, the preacher mentions from the pulpit that our prayers are requested for significant problems in a family that, simply stated, almost always face a ton of significant problems. "When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions," says the murderer Claudius, in Hamlet. And all too often, it seems, they strike, time and time again at certain people, certain families, even certain population groups.

All those admonitions to take care of the needy, to love the needy--the New Testament is full of those commands--all of them get old to those of who aren't. Disgust rises from what seems incomprehensible. Pull yourself together. Get a life. Come to class. Do your work. Get a job. Settle down. Stop doing drugs. Quit the gang. Stop smoking. Get your butt off the street.

The answers seem so obvious.

Maybe that's why they're there--all those biblical injunctions. Maybe that's why he says it so often. It's so blasted hard to listen.

Christ's admonitions to love are as unconditional as grace itself. They presume a commitment of heart and soul I confess to being beyond me. And that too may be why Jesus himself must have believed he couldn't say it often enough. For sinners like me. Maybe all those commands--they're as much about us as they are about them.

Give us hearts to do it, hands to work, minds to know how. 'Cause too often, it's just too easy to shake my head and shrug my shoulders.

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