LivesLines matter. Where there are clear, solid lines without breaks or dashes to pass through there is division. Where there is division there is an “other.” Where there is an “other” there is almost always disparity, misunderstanding and distrust.
Fifteen years ago I naively walked smack dab into a powder keg of racial tension when I moved to a new area of the state for work. My new employer, it seems, was located on the “black side” of a river that ran between two divided cities. African Americans made up more than 70% of the shop; while the management was predominately white and lived on the other side. The lines were pretty clear.
This disparity was noticeable and a bit disturbing, but everyone seemed to get along inside the walls of our establishment. I attribute this to two individuals, the tough no-nonsense African American H.R. Manager “Bert” and a great people leader “Kent”– a good-hearted man who worked his tail off to keep the place running 24/7.
Kent was a local–but not obviously so as he was as white as they come. He grew up on what had become the “black side” during the white flight years. His parents were wealthy liberals that lived on “country club” drive. While all of their doctor and lawyer friends were leaving, Mr. and Mrs. G remained committed to the community and kept their boys in the public school system.
During those years Kent distinctly recalls being paddled by the school principal for refusing to attend gym class– his defiance the result of being regularly pissed on in the shower room. The black kids had become the majority in his class and they didn’t much care for Kent’s blond ass.
Despite the actions of a few bad applies, Kent was color blind and played with anyone and everyone who was up for an adventure on the river. Fishing was his thing.
And so was basketball. When he made the freshman team in high school. . .the only non-black to do so at the time, he was beaten within inches of his life by upperclassmen as his best pal, the son of a black preacher, helplessly looked on. Kent spent the two weeks in the hospital and nearly lost sight in one eye for being a white player with a great 3-pt shot. When he was released his parents pulled him out of the public school system and he was sent across the river to a Catholic school. There he experienced discrimination as a Protestant and was not allowed to play basketball because his style was far too “street.”
Some twenty years later Kent was a plant supervisor/manager in the city where he’d grown up. He had worked his way up from the lowest job to one of the highest by being extremely hands on . . .that is, willing to do anything. Outside of work he played basketball once more as “Vanilla” on a team composed of folks from the factory in what was known as the “Industrial League.” It was this man I married in 2002. We were joined holy matrimony by one of our forklift drivers in a local African American church.
Over the next year Kent and I worked many process improvement projects together and we became a dynamic duo at work. It seemed all was well– that is until a terrible event in our city rocked our harmonious existence. You see a race riot, one listed amoung notable events of this kind, broke out– sparked by a police chase that resulted in the death of a black man. This death came on the heels of an incident whereby another black man mysteriously died as police were attempting to arrest him at his home.
The morning after first night of rioting, and for many days thereafter, the factory was eery. As a white person you could feel the side eye stares as you walked down the aisles. In the months that followed some workers were quick to call normal work orders “targeting” and call on their UAW reps to intervene. We would often hear the distant sound of the preacher man singing what sounded like a old hymns . . .the kind quite possibly sung by oppressed slaves. It made us feel like horrible people.
In the years that followed, Kent managed to overcome his whiteness (again) and worked side by side, human to human to keep the factory running. Retired some two years now, he cannot go to the local supermarket without someone yelling out “Hey Kent!” followed by a hug fest. Almost always it is a worker my husband cannot recall as there were hundreds over the years, but it’s all good.
“Good” but not great. Despite the efforts of community leaders and churches tension still boils beneath. The powder keg is still filled and waiting. At any moment Kent will become just another oppressive white man who doesn’t know anything about the black experience and violence could take over our twin cities. If there is a map of cities charting where the next riot might occur we are surely on it.
And why us? Why our cities?
There are obviously many factors at play, but there seems to be something about “division” that drives people to hole up and assume what the “other side” of the equation is thinking. When we separate ourselves in an “us/them” sort of way everything seems so much worse and the misunderstandings grow. It not this way everywhere, but where it is, you will have problems.
And I think this because just before I met Kent, I lived in a city an hour east. In that city there was a river by another name– the north banks filled with older homes where a vegetable soup of people lived. There interracial relationships and biracial children were common and I never thought a thing about it. On the south side, there were newer homes where a higher percentage of white folks lived but there were really no clear lines. There were sizable populations of Asians and Hispanics peppered about and it was all pretty cool. There was a Korean church as I recall, and probably a couple of predominately African-American congregations . . .but stark contrasts were absent. This was not the case in “riot city” when I moved there and to this day I rarely see a biracial couple or children of mixed race and churches are still divided. There are very clear lines.
This experience causes me to wonder. Where we are going with all of the divisive language and talk? Are we really speaking in terms that reflect the change they want to see? Why the lines, the separation, the distrust? Calling out one or the other, separating ourselves and speaking in terms of distrust will not work.
Sadly it was never the same between Kent and his friend– the one who witnessed his beating. Adults intervened and there was too much resentment. But years later Kent would play basketball again as the only white 40-something on a team of talented young men from “his” town. Those were good times, but after the buzzer rang and everyone went home, the dividing line, the river, still ran between them. None of them wanted it, but it was there all the same and still is today.
Of course black lives matter, and I understand the reason for emphasis; but I worry about the distinction and what will come from it. I’d rather say “lines matter” and we ought to work toward desloving them.
James 2:4 (ESV)
“Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”