Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Blind to Privilege

Assigned the task of writing a story for homework, the young elementary school student began: “Once upon a time there was a poor family. The father was poor, the mother was poor, the children were poor …” Further illustrating the depth of poverty in the household, she continued, “… the maid was poor, the butler was poor, the chauffeur was poor, and the gardener was poor. Everybody in the family was poor.”

We chuckle – or at least smile – at that story as it reveals the naïveté of a child not yet old enough to understand the economic privilege into which she was born.

It is important that we come to terms with our own economic privilege, but in the past few years I have come to understand that privilege goes far beyond mere economics. Too many of us live with the same level of blissful naïveté as that elementary school child … but following Christ calls us to increase our awareness of the plight of others in our communities who—despite all appearances otherwise—still bear the burden of oppression. The situations in Ferguson, Charleston, and Baltimore should teach us that there is still a huge divide. I don’t usually comment much on politically charged topics, but I am moved to do so today.

The last week of classes, one of the students who played in the brass quintet for us on Easter was uncharacteristically late for the end-of-semester band concert – the last concert of his college experience. He had left himself plenty of time to drive back to campus for the concert, but was unexpectedly delayed because a broken tail-light caught the attention of state trooper. Despite his exemplary conduct and appearance (he was dressed in his tuxedo for the concert), the trooper asked to search the vehicle because he deemed it “suspicious.” With nothing to hide, but also aware that it would make him late for the concert, he agreed to the search … which the trooper conducted only after locking him in the back seat of the cruiser.

Knowing this student as I do, I am at a loss for what might have caused the trooper to sense anything “suspicious.” Not only is this young man an outstanding student, he is also president of the student body and holds leadership offices in several other campus organizations. He always dresses in sharp, business-like attire and always conducts himself in like manner. In his four years at the college he has earned the respect of students and faculty alike.

Let me be clear here before I continue: The job we ask our law enforcement personnel to do is more difficult and dangerous than we who are outside the profession can ever understand fully. Faced with the possibility -- however remote -- of any situation becoming dangerous, I think we all would agree that it would be better to err in the direction of too much control than too little. This it not about that.

This is about our blindness to the privilege we enjoy that folks we rub elbows with every day never experience. This is about the fact that, simply by virtue of the color of our skin, neither I nor my sons run the risk of that kind of unwarranted suspicion, but our African American friends live with that risk every time they drive. Friends, that must change. I don’t know what the next step is, but it begins with awareness.

That’s enough to think about for now. The peace of Christ to you.

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