By Kristeen A. Bruun
I am a Caucasian, born and raised in northern Wisconsin, the product of a union between a Dane and a German. You can’t get much more white than that.
We lived near a reservation, which means the dominant minority (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) in our area was Native American. I was in high school before I even saw an African American. We moved to another part of the country then, slightly more cosmopolitan, but it was still easy to live in the white bubble. We heard the news of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr as if it were news from another country – nothing to do with us, nothing to see here, move along now. And I did.
Attending college at the University of Oregon, I met activists for the first time. This is where, as we used to say, my consciousness was raised. There was a Black Student Union as well as a Mexican-American group providing support to Latino students whose parents had been migrant laborers who had struggled to put down roots in Oregon.
My alumni magazine came last week. A current student had decided to compare campus activism in the wake of George Floyd’s death to the Black Student Union demands of the past. She was shocked, as was I, to find that the demands were the same – nothing, she reported, had changed.
Over time, living in racially mixed areas, I had African American roommates and shared their lives. I registered voters in the inner cities. I worked with Ethiopian refugees. I marched and picketed over a variety of issues. I internalized the idea that racism pervades our society. I knew that by experience.
A friend showed up late to a dinner party and explained that he had been involved in a traffic stop for DWB – Driving While Black. Another time, I suggested that a friend and I shop at a certain establishment. She didn’t want to go because the last time she shopped there the security guard followed her around the store. I sent our African American employee to pick up a check at the business office and the cashier wouldn’t release the check to him, although we had never had this issue with any other employee. I could go on and on, listing events that I witnessed, stories that I heard.
Part of the problem is that each event is idiosyncratic, so it’s easy to write the whole thing off if it’s not happening to you or to someone you know.
When George Floyd’s death was transmitted by social media around the world, cataclysms resulted. Here in my Mostly White City, we held a prayer service with a pretty good turnout. Prayer is real; it is not a non-action. But on the other hand, we weren’t able to forge an ongoing direction from that prayer gathering.
Responding to the George Floyd incident, a group of black pastors wrote a letter asking us to “Listen. Please just listen.” They listed the ways in which they felt their needs and the needs of their communities had been marginalized by their fellow Christians. In response to their encouragement, and from the swirl of confusion coming to me through the media, I chose the following commitments to action.
(I feel like I have an advantage because at least I KNOW that racism is real, and that it is pervasive. Still, I have been quite content to live in my white bubble for a number of years now. Like the Israelites, I have forgotten the lessons learned in the days of my youth. So I decided, as I wrestled with these issues, to do a few things.)
I was fortunate to be linked to a more local group of black pastors and lay leaders in a nearby city who are trying to use this moment to put together a stronger support structure for African American ministry. I can’t do much for them because they are too far away, but they are now part of my prayer life and my awareness.
I decided to read more about the racial struggles in our society – not a radical move, I know; I got laughed at for this – but at least I will become better informed. I’m trying to listen.
And I decided to join the local branch of the NAACP. I have worked with the NAACP in the past doing voter registration. I know that they are considered, by today’s standards, a conservative organization, so I figured I could count on them to provide me with some education and not to ask me to show up with an assault rifle on my shoulder.
So that’s my action plan, as far as it goes: pray, become better informed, and join a local organization. It’s not earth shattering. But it’s something.
The NAACP held a virtual rally last Saturday to participate in a campaign to remove a statue from the county courthouse lawn. I spent two hours listening to people talk. (I do remember the days when I thought listening to people talk for two hours was exciting; not so much anymore.) The statue commemorates those who fought for the South in the Civil War, and was placed there in 1915 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It requires a vote by the County Commissioners to move it.
It seems that the African American community has been trying to get that statue moved for years. They don’t think that it speaks of the equal justice that should be available to someone who enters the courthouse. At the time of the Civil War, there were 300 slaves listed as property on the county tax rolls. Jim Crow, which followed, was pretty harsh here. Although times have changed, they have not changed enough to get the statue relocated.
I have to admit that I didn’t even know that the statue existed! The city built a traffic round-about around the courthouse and I managed to avoid circling it since moving here, so I never saw the statue. On the other hand, I haven’t needed justice from the courthouse, either….
Actually, I think the round-about is a pretty good metaphor for how I have handled the race issue. I, along with many others, have managed to avoid paying attention to our cities, our counties, our churches. Here in my white bubble, blacks make up about 1.5% of the population. At one point, someone said, “This statue is a moral issue, but it’s also a political issue.” I absolutely got that. Why should the county commissioners pay attention to a minority?
A few brave souls (black and white, a minority of a minority) have been calling for the statue’s removal by standing on the courthouse steps. During one protest, a much larger group of counter-protesters showed up carrying assault rifles. “That was pretty scary,” reported one of the initial group, a pastor’s wife.
Rumor has it (I heard it at work) that the police were told to hang back and let the initial group feel the threat of the assault rifles. “They brought it on themselves.”
No shots were actually fired, so I guess the cops thought it was OK. Or, since no shots were fired, maybe it was OK – I am not sure about the legalities of demonstrating in this county. Which is new to me: once, I knew those laws by heart.
On Monday nights, I’m leading a Bible study of the prophet Isaiah. Every time Isaiah calls out, “seek justice, correct oppression,” which he does often (Isaiah 1:17, for example), I flash on the justice issues of today. I think about how long and in how many different places I have been a very tiny part of the movement for social justice.
What did I expect? Retirement? Well, no, but I think I was hoping to pass the torch with some sense of achievement rather than “This again?”
But Isaiah also says to put your trust in God, not in princes. If I thought my retirement from the justice movement was possible, was it because I thought we could somehow trust in political leaders instead of in God? I do know one thing for sure. Whether you think that statue matters or not, it is not going anywhere any time soon.
Jesus said, “For you always have the poor with you…” (Mark 14:7) This quote has been used many times to justify turning away from those in need, whatever kind of need it may be. I hear Jesus saying that there will always be work for the open-hearted Christian to engage in, so open your eyes, look around you, and forget about retirement.
God of justice, every day I commit myself to walking the discipleship walk, following in the footsteps of your Son. I beg you to send your Holy Spirit to give me clarity of vision and the strength to move forward in the ways that will bring us closer to your Kingdom. I ask this in the name of your Son, Jesus. Amen.