Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ferguson Through Two Lenses: How Your Cultural Background Shapes How You See Race and Crime in America

Over the last few months since the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson, I've read innumerable essays from black writers, white writers, Asian writers, Latino writers, conservative writers, liberal writers, radical writers, and so on, about this incident. One of the things that has begun to become clear to me, even if the facts of this particular case are anything but clear, is that different communities are literally seeing completely different realities when it comes to what happened this summer in Ferguson, Missouri. And it's becoming clearer than ever that this isn't an isolated incident. Your demographic background deeply shapes, and more often than not, distorts your perception of reality when it comes to these two issues of race and crime.

In my title to this essay I use the image of two lenses to describe how folks might view the events of this summer in Ferguson. These two lenses I'm talking about are this: micro-cosmically and macro-cosmically, or to put it another way, individualistically or corporately/systemically. And what's fascinating to me as a concerned bystander is how these two perspectives play out demographically. We see it played out to a very large degree ethnically in that white folks tend, on average, to view these kinds of events individualistically, whereas black folks tend, on average, to see these kinds of events corporately/systemically. But it's also complicated by the factor of what ideological and religious background a person has. For instance, if you're religious background is that of a conservative white evangelical, then you're much more likely to view these events through an individualistic lens, often neglecting the larger narrative of systemic racism throughout American history. But if your religious background is shaped by the black church experience here in America, then you're much more likely to view these events corporately/systemically.

Why is that?

One major reason is that many black Americans, at least those descended from slaves, see themselves through the biblical lens of Moses and the Exodus from Egyptian slavery into the land of freedom. There's a reason why so many black churches include the name Zion in their church names! Zion is synonymous with freedom! In this sense then African American Christians are very "Jewish" in their thinking and self identity, whereas White American Christians are very "Greek" in their thinking and self identity. I'm deeply indebted to the seminal work of Marvin Wilson in his essential book Our Father Abraham, where he makes the very important point about how Greek thinking is very abstract and tends towards individualism and Jewish thinking is more concrete and is also deeply corporate/communal. So, in that light, most American blacks are very Jewish in their self conception and most American whites are very Greek in their self conception.

Consider if you will popular evangelical pietist and revivalist Christianity. The salvation narrative is inherently individualistic, focusing on one person's "spiritual" salvation from this doomed and damned world of sin so that they can die safely in the arms of Jesus, swept away from this world of corruption into the sweet by and by. By the way, this vision of salvation is also a deeply gnostic vision of the world, but that's another debate which would only serve to distract from my focus today, though it does have an impact on the issues we're talking about here.