The day after Daunte Wright was killed by a Minneapolis policewoman Agape folks travelled to our customary protest vigil station in downtown Ware at Veterans Park. We came to protest the killing of Daunte and support his family, the Black Community in Minneapolis and indeed the entire Black Community through the United States as there seems to be no cessation of the murdering of Black men (and women) by white police. The timing of this horror magnified the trauma throughout Minneapolis as this killing occurred in the same town as the trial of Derek Chauvin was riveting the nation.
As we have regularly stood in our protest vigils over the years, it is rare that anyone walks right up and spends a half hour challenging us on why we are there. The following exchange took place during Agape’s presence in early May. Jesse, a white man in his forties approached Suzanne, Katya our intern and me. The following exchange took place.
Jesse: Hello… Can I ask you a question? What brings you out here today?
Brayton: We think it is important to stand with Black people, in this case Daunte Wright. Black men are continually being killed, without significant reason by white police all over the country.
Jesse: Did you know that this dude is a dangerous? He had warrants out for his arrest. Then he resisted arrest. The police had a right to consider him dangerous.
Suzanne: The policewoman did not know any of that. He was pulled over for hanging an air freshener on his rearview mirror (police later claimed he had an irregularity on his license plate).
Jesse: I don’t know about that. I am just saying that the man was dangerous. There were videos of him on Facebook with gang members. It wasn’t a racist incident. You know the woman didn’t mean to shoot him, right? She thought she was grabbing her taser. Did you see the video? She was shocked and upset when she shot him. But race had nothing to do with it.
Brayton: Why was he treated so aggressively, viciously by police? Black people have been complaining about police brutality for years now. Black people, especially Black men grow up traumatized by these incidents. They fear for their lives every day. They are terrified when police stop them. Black men have been killed after being pulled over for no apparent reasons or for very minor traffic violations.
Jesse: That’s not true. The police are not racist. People get that from CNN and MSNBC. I tell people not to watch those channels. More white people are killed by white police than black people.
Brayton: It appears that white cops are afraid of Black men and their training is not in de-escalation of conflict but proficiency in using firearms too often as a first resort. This looks like fear to me.
Jesse: (Jesse hesitates, slows down his speed of delivery–instant, rapid fire. He looks straight at me, his face is full of pain)
Brayton: Jesse, I appreciate that you have the guts to want to talk to us, we are clearly people you do not agree with. It is very rare that people who oppose us have the time or genuine interest in really hanging in there and discussing our differences. But let me suggest, that if we are going to discuss this, then, when you talk I will listen. When I talk, you listen. No cutting me off. Neither of us can just talk on and on either. We must allow the other enough time to respond. OK? Fair?
Jesse: Yeah …I get shouted down a lot by people who disagree with me… I do think racism is exaggerated.
Brayton: Black people are very often seriously poor and they carry as a people the trauma from slavery. Black people went from the horror of slavery, years ago, to enslavement in poverty in today’s ghettos. It is a 400 year-old living nightmare.
Jesse: Slavery was a long time ago. I am not responsible for that. How long will people be using that as a reason?
Brayton: If you are an African American born in poverty in the US you stand a 5% chance of ever getting out of that poverty. Therefore, there is a 95% chance that their black children will be born in the ghetto.
Jesse: I grew up poor. I had to fend for myself. It wasn’t easy. Through it all I was able to change my circumstances and now I actually own my own house.
Brayton: Do you know that black people are denied mortgages in white neighborhoods, especially white suburban neighborhoods, not because they do not have good credit, but because they are black? As black folks move into white residential neighborhoods, the houses lose value.
Jesse: (Avoiding the question) You know you couldn’t be more white yourself! (He breaks into a slight smile, I smile back. This is the first point he has made that is true.)
Brayton: Yes, that is true. I grew up in a very white, wealthy suburb of New York City. I have a lot to learn about the evils of white privilege that perpetuates systemic racism by living and perpetuating my unearned advantages that keeps Black people from moving out of the ghettos.
Jesse: I have never felt privileged. In my experience, I haven’t seen racism against Blacks. I’ve experienced reverse racism. When I moved into a Black section of Ware, there was only one other white family in the neighborhood. And someone knocked on my door, and they told me to move out.
Brayton: Jesse, we have something in common. I see you are wearing a good size metal cross around your neck and I too am wearing a cross. I wear mine to remind myself that Jesus wanted me to be more like him. I think of his compassion for the poor. What do you think he would say about the plight of Black people who are poor?
Jesse: Yes, he would be concerned. Concerned about black people taking drugs. Black people committing so many crimes. Black men who are leaving their families, making bad decisions.
Brayton: This doesn’t sound like compassion, Jesse.
Jesse: Oh, I am. I am a very generous, compassionate man. Ask anyone who knows me.
Brayton: Didn’t Jesus say, “woe to you rich and blessed are you poor.” Aren’t too many African Americans trapped in poverty?
Jesse: Yes, some of them. But let’s talk about the Black Lives Matter, their leadership. Some have made millions of dollars in their movement. These same leaders who have made millions have spent millions on buying houses for themselves. Are you OK with that?
Brayton: I support Black Lives Matter as a powerful truth that organizes a movement. Black lives are being discriminated against and killed, murdered, by police all over the country as if “they do not matter.” Therefore, as a result… it is also true that Black Deaths Matter. African-Americans are prevented from moving out of violence of ghetto poverty with very little hope that they matter at all.
(Historical fact: After the Civil War when they were freed from slavery, Black people were promised land, 40 acres and a mule, that they never received. African Americans with adequate credit scores can’t get mortgages to buy a home because they are Black. If they cannot make a living and save money to buy a house, they cannot accrue capital and generational wealth. If you are stuck in the ghetto, then you are educated in vastly subpar schools, never able to make social and economic connections with people who can improve your living conditions like people of privilege can. Therefore, African Americans can rarely go on to higher education, own a house and accrue capital the way white people can. The average black family income in the US is $14,000. The average white family income? $144,000. (This is a convincing case for reparations).
Jesse: You know, I have African American friends who are embarrassed by the Black Lives Matter protests and all the violence.
Brayton: Jesse, you just seem too angry. Black people in their oppressed circumstances need your compassion. You need to soften your anger. Soften your heart.
Jesse: (Listens without a response.)
Brayton: These suffering people need your help. Isn’t that where Jesus is?
Jesse: (pauses then asks a question) Do you think Black people can be racist?
Brayton: I think every person is a potential racist. But some can be racist and oppress and kill others with their racism. It is a matter of power over people.
Jesse: (Excited with a sense of relief, almost cries out) Now you are a Christian!
As Jesse walked away I wished I had continued with the conversation with the query: Why did you say, “Now you are a Christian?” He seemed so relieved that I said, “everyone potentially can be a racist”. In similar discussions with other white males, I often see the overstated denial that they are racist. Some can become enraged at the suggestion that they even sound racist.
I came away from the encounter impressed with Jesse’s courage to challenge me throughout the dialogue with a manageable, emotional tone. He seemed to appreciate that I didn’t shout him down as many others had done. I wonder why they shouted him down. At the end of our time together he admitted he was a Trump supporter. I have come to see many Trump people as aggressive, angry, and certain of their positions. Their loud, often defensive positions can be a sign that they are defending something that is almost impossible to defend. Jesse managed his hostility well enough to continue our dialogue. In discussing the issue of racism with “All Live Matter” people, I have found it has the best results the longer I can cool my jets and keep the conversation going.
Katya’s Response to the Jesse Conversation
It was interesting to hear Jesse’s point of view as it gave me a look into the mind of those who claim that they are not racist. A few things stood out to me:
Throughout the conversation, I could see that Jesse was clearly feeling underlying pain that he wasn’t acknowledging. It seems that Black Lives Matter triggered these sensitivities within himself. Unfortunately, instead of looking at his pain and dealing with it, he chose to look elsewhere to distract himself.
Opposing the idea of Black Lives Matter and sharing his beliefs with other like-minded individuals makes Jesse feel affirmed. Throughout the conversation, he seemed to be saying “What about me? Why aren’t you paying attention to me?” Although he didn’t talk about it extensively, he did say that he grew up poor and implied he struggled in his early life.
It seems that he feels hurt by the focus on only African Americans when he and many others who are not Black are suffering too. It would serve him well to recognize that acknowledging another person or group’s suffering does not diminish or eliminate the importance of his own pain. They can and do exist simultaneously.
It becomes clear through these types of conversations that the lack of love for oneself drives people to find someone that they can be above to reassure themselves that they have some amount of value.
Jesse’s black and white thinking persisted, clearly focused on winning the conversation and being right. He wants to prove to himself and others that he is a good person who is doing the right things. Brayton’s saying: “Jesse, you need to soften your heart” was perfect because acknowledging someone else’s suffering and having compassion for them, does not take away from one’s own self-worth and suffering. We are no weaker, no less than, or less rational by doing so. What we are doing instead, is choosing to love rather than to fear (fear of being unworthy and not valuable and unloved).
Jesse was dying to be told that he was not a racist, but he clearly does not understand the everyday experience of African Americans. His comment on slavery shows that he lacks awareness about how painfully devastating the injustice of the slave era was and continues to be– a persisting trauma in the experiences of African Americans today.
Brayton and Jesse had a respectful conversation and Jesse was present throughout the conversation, doing his best to listen to the points Brayton was making.
Katya has been interning at Agape for the past six months lending her deep insights and many skills to the community.