Ninety-nine years ago today the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa was on fire. Fires of injustice are still burning across the U.S. today.
On May 31 and June 1, 1921, a vengeful white mob destroyed one of the wealthiest, most influential black neighborhoods in the United States based on a false accusation against a black teenager. As many as 300 African Americans were murdered during the two days of indiscriminate violence and destruction.
Before the ashes of the destruction had even cooled, the cover-up began. For 75 years the event was mythologized and minimized. Even the name – the Tulsa Race Riot – intended to shift the blame onto the black community. In 1996, a state commission was formed to investigate what happened. The commission discovered an event that was uglier than they expected – pure evil. When the commission published its report in 2001, they concluded that the vengeance against the Tulsa black community was a massacre and recommended reparations to the survivors and their descents. The state failed to pay anything to the survivors, but finally acknowledged the ugliness of the event. As an Oklahoman by birth, I felt and still feel anger and shame about this massacre, the subsequent cover-up, and the failure to repay the losses of Greenwood’s citizens. I think the anger and shame I feel about the Tulsa Race Massacre is a step in the right direction.
You see, when it comes to racism, I am part of the problem. Our culture is part of the problem.
I don’t want to be part of the problem. I don’t intend to be part of the problem. But my culture has a ready-made retreat when it comes to racism – individualism. And this retreat is how I am part of the problem.
I lament the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. The video of George Floyd’s death is one of the most horrifying things I have ever seen. I will never forget his cries for help – “I can’t breathe.” Shame on me if I ever forget George Floyd. No one can deny that there is a racism problem in America. The violence against the Black community started when they arrived and never really stopped. First, there was the cruelty of slavery, then the mass lynchings during Jim Crow, the bombings and murders in the civil rights era, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, and on and on.
After many of the violent events during my lifetime, I have searched my heart to look for the prejudices that may lurk in the deep recesses of my soul. At times I have had to repent of what I have found. More and more my first response is lament and anger toward the perpetrators. But that is when I am most likely to retreat to individualism and that is not a good thing.
White American culture magnifies the individual and focuses on individual personal responsibility. When I see something like what happened to George Floyd, I think that the officer involved is racist and that he should pay for his crime. In essence, I am saying, “Shame on that individual racist,” but rarely do I think about the societal structures that promote racism or allow it to flourish. While I want to see an end to the violence and cruelty, I often fail to connect the dots of the corporate nature of racism. As long as I view individual racists as the problem, I won’t be able to accept my own responsibility for the racism problem and see the role our culture plays in fostering racism.
Ideas on personal responsibility and individualism cause some in the white community to balk when they hear about the barriers to success and economic security that members of the black community face. Yes, you worked hard to get where you are. I worked hard as well. But I freely acknowledge that my black friends have had greater obstacles blocking their paths. Why is this so hard for Americans to accept? It won’t change until we acknowledge it and work to fix this reality.
Next year Tulsa will gather to lament the horrific events that happen in Greenwood in 1921 and I intend to be there. I need to be there to say that I am sorry for the hurt and destruction inflicted on the parents and grandparents of my fellow Oklahomans by my fellow Oklahomans. My motivation comes from the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:36-40. Loving God and loving my neighbor should not be separated.
No, I didn’t light a fuse, throw a firebomb, or pull a trigger but I did inherit a broken society from the people who did. I need to acknowledge that my culture has made life difficult for black people, ask for forgiveness, and work toward righting the wrongs. My neighbors need to hear that I love them and my actions need to show that I love them.