The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll whisper “no.”
One of the most insidious legacies of racism in our country is unequally applied justice. Poor black and Latino neighborhoods are overpoliced. “Respectable” black people with no criminal record have a fear of police, and most have stories about themselves or a friend getting unduly pulled over and/or poorly treated, or worse. Many white people find these stories hard to believe because they are so out of line with their own experience. In the places they’ve been, police have often been helpful protectors, occasionally even looking the other way for minor infractions.
I have lately been watching the reaction to Otto Warmbier‘s case. As a tourist in North Korea (pause to let that sink in), he attempted to steal a banner to bring home as a souvenir for which he would be rewarded. The North Korean government caught him, arrested him, and sentenced him to 15 years in their prisons. There is now an outcry to seek clemency and bring him home.
I have also seen the coverage of a recently discovered heroin epidemic here in Atlanta. The episodes of reporting are given sympathetic titles like “We All Make Mistakes” and “Please Understand”. (Seriously, go look. I’m not making this up.) The photos of victims of the epidemic are shown to humanize them, show what good kids they were before something unknown drove them into the path of addiction.
Many of my black friends have greeted these stories with snorts of derision. As black Americans, we know all too well what a mandatory minimum sentence can do, turning a youthful error into a lifetime’s failure. We have seen drugs destroy our communities in the 70s and 80s while the rest of America looks on and wags their finger, whispering under their breath, “I knew it.” or “Just say no. How hard is that?” Even now, as traffic stops turn into homicides, we see characters defamed and radicalized. Where were the cries for mercy then? Where was the humanization? Can you even imagine West Baltimore, Chicago, or South Central Los Angeles getting that kind of careful, loving analysis?
I have no objection to telling the truth. Whether Warmbier’s case warrants mercy is irrelevant to the point that he took the world to be his playground and thought that the privileges he enjoys in this country were transferrable to what is possibly the most dangerous country for Americans in the entire world. The circumstances that led the kids in affluent suburbs to use heroin neither fall neatly in the bucket of personal responsibility nor in that of externalities. That said, I grow concerned on two fronts.
I don’t want my heart to grow hard. If a white person, or any other human, is hard done by by the police, or has a hard experience that tears them apart, I want to feel compassion for them where they are. I see case after case of black injustice though, and I find the same thoughts entering my mind as those I see from my peers. “Well, I guess they’ll see now.” “Welcome to reality.”
At a more philosophical level, I am concerned that our desire to see the shoe on the other foot will lead to a tolerance for injustice. As we fight for people we know and love personally, who look like us and face the same struggles, we must never forget that our goal is to intersectionally end injustice wherever it lives. I shouldn’t want for them what I know people that look like me get. We shouldn’t want that for anyone.
I won’t deny, there is a grim satisfaction to see someone find out a truth the hard way when you know they wouldn’t believe you if you told them in advance. However, those of us who are coming from any non-dominant axes of privilege have to find an extra measure of grace to see us through, and to always see what the privileged and comfortable let themselves be blinded to. What’s worse for us, we have to see it and dispense said grace to everyone.
This is an area where I find Christian theology, properly applied, very helpful. The notion of the Imago Dei, that each human being is an image bearer of God, helps us apply this lens of grace to everyone, even those who by their actions or by our judgment may seem to be the least deserving. This is a bewildering concept to those who do not believe; how could [insert evil person from history here] be an image bearer of God? One answer: the same way a dirty and cracked mirror is still a mirror.
I also find the teachings of Jesus to be useful to help remind me. Jesus was clear about overturning systems of injustice or rules that sought to preserve comfort and ease of a few at the expense of many. Jesus went to those who, by conventional wisdom, were the least deserving, and pulled them closest to him. Then he called us to do the same.
I don’t want to take Rorschach’s stance. More accurately, I don’t want to want it. I see the wave of detritus frothing like a disaster movie, the unclean and unclaimed legacy of discriminations and denials. I see it in this election cycle threatening to choke us, set us back decades. As the authoritarian cavalcade reaches into the lives of those it was designed to protect, I want to reply to their “Save us!” with an icy “No.” But as a person who believes what Jesus said, I’m called to try to find the balance between calling out the unevenly applied care and caring for the wronged, even when they might have wronged me given the chance.
I am still figuring that one out.