Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A White Pastor's Letter to His White Church About Ferguson

As always, I'm proud to be your minister.  I'm proud for many reasons, but especially for the fact that you encourage me to speak my mind to you.  You don't always agree with me--nor should you--but you never censor me.  For that fact I am grateful, especially as I offer my thoughts to you about the events on the other side of our state in Ferguson, MO.

Do you ever wonder about the name of our church?  I do.  Often.  We are called Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ, because we were simply Country Club Congregational Church before our denomination, the United Church of Christ took its present form in 1957.  (Apparently no one was bothered back then by a really long church name.)  Originally we were Country Club Congregational Church formed in the 1920's when real estate developer J.C. Nichols created the "Country Club District" in what was then one of the first suburbs of Kansas City.  

We have much to thank J.C. Nichols for in Kansas City in terms of beautiful neighborhoods.  Our own church sits on its beautiful position at the confluence of West 65th Street and Linden Street, because Nichols designed the neighborhood of Armor Hills and decided it would be pretty to have a church there.  He was right.  Even though his "Country Club District" had no country club in its boundaries, the name spoke to an aspiring middle class with dreams of living like those who enjoyed such luxuries.  

There was a ugly side to the "Country Club District," however, since only white people could live in it.  The original covenants for neighborhoods like Armor Hills had racial exclusions that stated, "none of the lots hereby restricted may be conveyed, to, used, owned, nor occupied by Negroes as owners or tenants."  (I've been told the covenants still contain the language, because removing it would entail exorbitant legal costs.  Such restrictive zoning was outlawed long ago anyway.)  This "country club" was only open to whites.  (Read more about J.C. Nichols restrictive racial covenants and their effect upon housing nationwide here.)  

Do you ever wonder where the expressions "East of Troost" and "West of Troost" come from?  They come from the era of segregation in Kansas City.  Troost Avenue was the dividing line.  Through the decades of desegregation, Civil Rights, the collapse of the Kansas City, Missouri schools and more the language of "East of Troost/West of Troost" survives.  I'm told by some older African Americans who are native to Kansas City that they still don't feel comfortable coming to Brookside.  

The words "Country Club" in our church name have a history--a history that has an ugly side to it.  I share this bit of history with you to point out that our city's racist past affects our present in ways we may not even realize.  

We are an overwhelmingly white church in a neighborhood that within our church's lifetime excluded all African American people.  We literally bear the history of racism in our church name.  We claim to be a "Peace with Justice" church, and if we really mean that, we should learn a lesson from the history of our church's name: we walk around every day not realizing how the history of racism affects our present.

The history of racism has a lot to do with what has gone on in the last few months in Ferguson.  If you think African Americans in St. Louis are just upset about Michael Brown, then you need to learn a bit about St. Louis history.   The tensions surrounding race in Ferguson and other "inner suburbs" in St. Louis County are the result of what economist Richard Rothstein calls "a century of discriminatory policies at the local, state and federal level."  Zoning and housing policies systematically limited where blacks could live and suppressed real estate values of property they were allowed to own.  The wealth generated over generations by whites due to increased property values was not shared by blacks.  The net result is generational black poverty.  Rothstein says:

"As we know from a lot of recent research, intergenerational income mobility in this country is quite low. If you're born into a low-income family, the chances are very, very great that you yourself will have a low income. We don't have nearly the kind of mobility that is mythical in this country.

"So after a century of policies which denied African-Americans access to jobs that pay decent wages, the likelihood is that their children and their children's children will still be paying the price for those policies that held their parents and grandparents behind for so long."

Ferguson's more recent history shows a disturbing disparity between how it treats its black and white citizens.  A recent Washington Post article detailed how the small municipalities in St. Louis County--like Ferguson--have their own municipal courts and derive as much as 40% of their annual budgets from citations and court costs largely from low-income black residents.  Mother Jones Magazine recently laid out some of the disturbing facts about Ferguson's city government and police tactics:
  • In a town that is 60% black, the mayor and police chief are white and there is only one black member of city council and only one black member of the school board.
  • In 2013 in Ferguson, 486 black people were arrested while only 36 white people were arrested.
  • In 2013 in Ferguson, 92% of searches and 86% of car stops involved blacks.
  • Despite the fact that police stops are of black people, white people stopped in Ferguson are more likely to have contraband (1 in 3 whites, 1 in 5 blacks).  
Combine Ferguson's lousy history when it comes to race with nationwide statistics on how blacks are treated by law enforcement and a disturbing picture emerges.
  • From 2009-20013 "black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than whites."    (source: Mother Jones)
  • Another study says that blacks are "21 times" more likely to be shot dead by police than whites.  (source: ProPublica)
The death of Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer was merely the spark that ignited a powder keg of localized and national racism.  This is why questions of whether or not Michael Brown was a thug or a good young man miss the larger point.  This is why the differing witness accounts of the struggle between officer Wilson and Michael Brown miss the bigger picture.  This is why the media's focus upon looting and arson rather than the hundreds and thousands of peaceful activists in and around Ferguson ignores the real story.  Ferguson is only the local eruption of a nationwide anger over how African Americans feel about being the targets of a long history of oppression--oppression that continues today.

If you need more convincing about the systematic racism in our nation that continues to affect African Americans today, I refer you to the excellent article in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates: "The Case for Reparations: Two-hundred fifty years of slavery.  Ninety Years of Jim Crow.  Sixty years of separate but equal.  Thirty-five years of racist housing policy.  Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole." 

We are an overwhelmingly white church that claims to also be a "Peace with Justice" church, so we should be aware of our social location.  The way we view the world may be very different than how African Americans view the world.  A recent article in The Atlantic presented polling about Ferguson demonstrating the dramatic differences in perception between blacks and whites:

More than three-quarters (76 percent) of black respondents say that the shooting is part of a broader pattern, nearly double the number of whites who agree (40 percent). Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll found that overall the country is divided over whether Brown's shooting "raises important issues about race that need to be discussed" (44 percent) or whether "the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves" (40 percent). However, black Americans favor the former statement by a four-to-one margin (80 percent vs. 18 percent) and at more than twice the level of whites (37 percent); among whites, nearly half (47 percent) believe the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves. 

The Atlantic article goes on to explain why this difference in perception exists.  White people "self-segregate" themselves and their social networks are almost entirely made up of white people.  

Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 91 percent white.* White American social networks are only one percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander, one percent mixed race, and one percent other race. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent). 

Given the history of racism in our country (and our city) and given that most of us white people surround ourselves with people with the same experiences as ourselves when it comes to race, how can we claim to understand what is going on in Ferguson?  How can we understand "black rage" if we don't know any black people?  How can we understand the experience of black people with law enforcement and the criminal justice system when we do not have relationships with black people?  How can we talk about Ferguson, when we have not listened first to black people?  

In an effort to listen to African American voices about Ferguson, here are some that I found powerful.

Carol Anderson, associate professor of African American studies and history at Emory University in The Washington Post: 

"When we look back on what happened in Ferguson, Mo., during the summer of 2014, it will be easy to think of it as yet one more episode of black rage ignited by yet another police killing of an unarmed African American male. But that has it precisely backward. What we've actually seen is the latest outbreak of white rage. Sure, it is cloaked in the niceties of law and order, but it is rage nonetheless.

"Protests and looting naturally capture attention. But the real rage smolders in meetings where officials redraw precincts to dilute African American voting strength or seek to slash the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment. It goes virtually unnoticed, however, because white rage doesn't have to take to the streets and face rubber bullets to be heard. Instead, white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures and governors, who cast its efforts as noble, though they are actually driven by the most ignoble motivations."

Toure, co-host of "The Cycle" on MSNBC in The Washington Post: 

"when there's a black victim involved, the information takes a different and predictable turn: The victim becomes thuggified. This is an easy leap for many minds, given the widespread expectation of black criminality. If you become nervous when you see a young black male approaching on the street, it is not hard to convince you that a kid who was shot was not one of the "good ones," that he was scary and maybe did something to deserve it. Information wars thrive on America's empathy gap - the way some people struggle to see any kinship or shared humanity with strangers who don't look like them. . .

"But when individuals arrive in the court of public opinion, or in a court of law, the burden of being a perfect victim in order to receive justice is impossibly heavy. It doesn't allow for human fallibility. Is there any information from your past that could make you look bad? Any photo that, taken out of context, could portray you as someone you don't recognize?

"Most of us have something in our pasts we would not want revealed. And for black Americans, those facts too often are used to suggest that victims of injustice don't deserve justice, because they weren't some sort of credit to their race. In a nation where police often approach black communities with a dragnet, stopping and frisking everyone, marking as many black men as possible with a record, it would be hard to find a black male who looks like an angel.

"But it doesn't matter whether Brown was an angel. He was young and growing and human, and he made mistakes. That's okay. The real question is not: Was Brown a good kid? The real question is: How are police officers supposed to treat citizens? 

". . .Michael Brown was not perfect. But few of us are. And that does not speak to whether we deserve to die."

Brittney Cooper who teaches gender and women's studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University in

"We are talking about justifiable outrage. Outrage over the unjust taking of the lives of people who look like us. How dare people preach and condescend to these people and tell them not to loot, not to riot?  Yes, those are destructive forms of anger, but frankly I would rather these people take their anger out on property and products rather than on other people.

"No, I don't support looting. But I question a society that always sees the product of the provocation and never the provocation itself. I question a society that values property over black life. But I know that our particular system of law was conceived on the founding premise that black lives are white property. "Possession," the old adage goes, "is nine-tenths of the law."

"But we are the dispossessed. We cannot count on the law to protect us. We cannot count on police not to shoot us down in cold blood. We cannot count on politics to be a productive outlet for our rage. We cannot count on prayer to soothe our raging, ragged souls. . .

"Violence is the effect, not the cause of the concentrated poverty that locks that many poor people up together with no conceivable way out and no productive way to channel their rage at having an existence that is adjacent to the American dream. This kind of social mendacity about the way that racism traumatizes black people individually and collectively is a festering sore, an undiagnosed cancer, a raging infection threatening to overtake every organ in our body politic. . .

"Nothing makes white people more uncomfortable than black anger. But nothing is more threatening to black people on a systemic level than white anger. It won't show up in mass killings. It will show up in overpolicing, mass incarceration, the gutting of the social safety net, and the occasional dead black kid."

Jamelle Boule staff writer for

"More troubling is [Officer Darren] Wilson's physical description of Brown, which sits flush with a century of stereotypes and a bundle of recent research on implicit bias and racial perceptions of pain. In so many words, Wilson describes the "black brute," a stock figure of white supremacist rhetoric in the lynching era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. . .  That image never went away; it lingers in crack-era stories of superpowered addicts and teenaged superpredators, as well as rhetoric around other victims of police brutality. "Jurors in the Rodney King beating trial were warned early on that the black motorist was not on trial," notes a March 29, 1993 wire story on jury deliberations, "Yet they have heard King compared to a 'monster,' a 'Tasmanian devil' and a man with 'hulk-like strength.' "

". . .  Add to this what we know about implicit bias-that most people perceive blacks as more violent and dangerous than other groups-and you have a Darren Wilson narrative that reads like a textbook case of racial projection.

"Indeed, it's worth noting the extent to which Wilson's story echoes George Zimmerman's account of his confrontation with Trayvon Martin. Like Brown, Martin is aggressive; he approaches Zimmerman's SUV, circles it, and threatens him. When he tried to escape, Zimmerman said, Martin punched him in the face, knocked him down, and began beating him on the sidewalk. Like Brown, Martin threatens Zimmerman-"You're gonna die now"-and like Wilson, Zimmerman shoots him, fearing for his life.

"It's the fear that's most striking. Wilson was trained, armed, and empowered with the force of law. At almost any point in his confrontation with Brown, he could have called for backup and won control of the situation. But, he says, he was too gripped with terror to do anything but shoot. The same was true for Zimmerman, and the same was true for Michael Dunn, the man who killed Jordan Davis in a Jacksonville, Florida parking lot.

"Maybe Wilson is telling the truth. Maybe-like Zimmerman and Dunn and all the others-he faced a powerful black "demon" who wouldn't stop and had to be killed. But this would be an incredible coincidence, or more likely, evidence of some terrible, criminal pathology among young black men. Which is to say, I doubt it's true.

"Instead, consider this: Maybe Wilson was an ordinary police officer with all the baggage it carries. Maybe, like many of his peers on the Ferguson police force, he was hard on black teenagers. Maybe, like many Americans, he was a little afraid of them. And maybe all of this-his fear, his bias, and his training-met Michael Brown and combined to create tragedy.

"If so, the lesson of Wilson is that he isn't unique. That his fear is common. And that the same forces that drove Wilson and Brown to confrontation can-and will-drive another Wilson and another Brown to another confrontation with the same deadly results."

And if all these words by African American writers along with those of your white pastor weren't enough, if you think the grand jury that chose not to indict officer Darren Wilson was a fair and transparent process, I encourage you to read the critique of how St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCullough handled the grand jury by this white former public defender.

To sum up, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ is an overwhelmingly white church with a white minister and together we have a limited perspective on the African American experience.  When we look at the events in Ferguson, we have to do our homework, do a lot of listening and do a lot of praying if we really want to be a "Peace with Justice" church.  We get to decide which parts of our church name are more important to our identity.  Do the words "Church" and "Christ" matter more to our identity than "Country Club?"

Grace and Peace



Lynda said...

Pastor Chase, thank you for your diligent homework. As a real estate broker, I am aware that some subdivisions have those awful covenants that hover their past. People usually are surprised when they learn for the first time the history of their neighborhood makeup.

I believe it to be fair to say that "people can have fear based on false evidence appearing real." So knowledge is powerful. Once we know better, then hopefully we will do better.
For instance, I believe we are all prejudice in one way or another. It is when we use our prejudices to discriminate against others. And there is a difference between the two. For example, a grocery store owner might not like chocolate ice cream (prejudice), so they refuse to sell the product in their grocery store (this is discrimination towards others). Whereas, if the grocery store owner decided to sell the product in spite of they dislike, then they are prejudice, but they have not discriminated against others.

Recently I had to block someone from my Facebook page. Their comment was "people need to listen to the news, and pay attention." The problem was that person was listening to FOX News; one who shares false claims the majority of the time, and usually against minorities. This person was using their information based on false evidence, to discriminate against a group of people, when they had no idea what the people were truly dealing with. In other words, they did not know the history of Ferguson. Facts are not always facts. We have to validate our source to make certain the information is liable.
Sure the looting in Ferguson is not something that I support. But I can only imagine people who feel they are not an entity, more than likely would not believe that "stuff" matters, since the people themselves don't matter.

I pray that more people will vote. Because when we do, we gain power to elect people who will be in our best interest. Looting does not solve the problem. But educating ourselves and voting definitely will help.

Hopefully we can all take time to have meaningful conversations with people who we would not normally associate with. I am talking about a conversation where we can look each other in the eyes; a real conversation where we talk about our fears and hopes. Once we can do that, many of our barriers that keep us separate can and will dissipate.

Edward said...

Great post. I am an African-American Pastor of a 15month non-denominational African American church in Baltimore County, Maryland just a few miles out of Baltimore City. Through the wonders of Facebook, your blogpost has travelled the world and it was comforting to read. My message to LongView Bible Church tomorrow will be along a similar line as we dive into the proper response of the church to such frustration and anger in the African American community.
My prayers are with you, your family and church family as you continue to deliver the Word of God to the people of God. Blessings
Edward Lee

Rick Riedel said...

Chase, great post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the information. Hope many people read it.

Davida said...

Proud to know you, Chase. Thank you for your witness to your congregation and to all of us.

Anton said...

Terrific column, Chase. Thansks.