Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What We Know About the Shooting of Michael Brown

What do we know about the shooting of Michael Brown? Not much. Every time there is an incident that makes national news we feel like we know what really happened. We've all seen enough of the news that it seems like surely we have enough information to render a verdict. But we don't. The most informed people are the members of the grand jury that chose not to prosecute. They don't know exactly what happened either, of course. Without having a camera on the police officer, which Michael Brown's family is endorsing, nobody can know for sure exactly what happened.

But there's something much bigger going on here. The question that needs to be asked is why doesn't the community of Ferguson, and communities across the country, trust that the right verdict was reached. That's the reason for the protests, right? If there was trust in the system then the protests wouldn't be needed. Regardless of whether or not charges should have been filed, what we know about the shooting of Michael Brown is that it isn't just about Michael Brown.

It's about the guy who called in on the radio today and said that we can't blame African-American's problems today on slavery anymore since it ended 400 years ago. Only 250 years off.

It's about the fact that 100 years after the end of slavery we still had "white" and "colored" water fountains. 

It's about the embarrassing truth that unemployment remains twice as high for African-Americans than for white Americans, and has ever since the Civil Rights Movement.

In short, the story of Michael Brown, whether or not he was ever a real threat to anyone the day he was shot, is a story of institutional racism. This is the reality - not just theory - that there are biases so deep that most of us who are in the majority aren't even aware that they exist. What makes it so pernicious is that it is invisible to us because of our social location. That doesn't mean it's not real.

There's a helpful metaphor for those of us who believe in God - God is like the wind. We don't see God directly, we see God by how God effects others like the wind blowing a leaf. In the same way, we don't see institutional racism directly - we don't hear racial slurs as often or see "white only" signs. Instead we see it by its effects. Protesters in Ferguson, unemployed adults and under-educated teens, citizens ignorant of basic history.

Michael Brown's death is tragic. Even more tragic is that it won't be the last. We have unquestionably made progress, but we unquestionably have a long, long way to go.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Thank you Kaci Hickox

You likely have heard the story of Kaci Hickox even if you don't know the name. Here's a refresher and an update.

Long story short, Kaci is a nurse who recently returned to the U.S. after treating Ebola patients in West Africa. Instead of being welcomed back, she was immediately quarantined because she had a slightly above normal temperature. She continued to be quarantined even though

  • Subsequent temperature readings showed that her temperature was normal.
  • She had NO symptoms of Ebola and a person is only contagious if they are symptomatic
  • She soon TESTED NEGATIVE for Ebola not once, but twice.
That's right, she was in quarantine to protect the community from a disease that she never had and couldn't have spread even if she did have it. Exactly 4 people have been diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. Only 2 people have contracted it in the United States. There are three countries in Africa where Ebola is truly a crisis. Every place else, including the other 44 countries in Africa, are doing just fine.

Ebola is scary. Any virus that kills is scary. But when a woman is quarantined for the sake of public safety even though there is conclusive evidence that she is not ill we have allowed fear to control us. 

So why should we all thank Kaci Hickox? Because this otherwise ordinary person resisted the absurd rules that were put in place and fought for her right to live freely. From time to time we need to remind public officials and private citizens of how easy it is for those rights to be taken away.

In 1985, a Los Angeles Times poll showed that 51 percent of Americans were in favor of quarantining AIDS patients. 48 percent believed those with AIDS should have to carry ID cards and 15 percent wanted to tattoo AIDS patients. Today those notions seem absurd, but 20 years ago when people were scared it didn't seem like such a bad idea. Think something like that can't actually happen? It was a different kind of fear but fear nonetheless that led to the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Fear is a powerful motivator, but fear as a motivator must be resisted. That's what Kaci did. Others will benefit from her willingness to take heat in the media and from residents of the town she lives in. 

So thank you, Kaci Hickox. Thank you for caring for your fellow humanity in serving the people of West Africa and thank you for resisting injustice here at home by standing up to those who tried to shut you down.