Racial Unrest and Communication

B.A. Hart.

As today, June 17, marks the fifth anniversary of the murders of nine African Americans at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC, I am compelled to submit the following observation. I am senior pastor at First AME Church here in Athens, and this commentary is my personal perspective.

The Free African Society, which provided aid to the newly freed blacks, was the precursor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC), the first independent Protestant denomination to be founded and established by African Americans. The AMEC believes in spiritual renewal, self-help and service. We speak of a liberating and reconciling Gospel.

The AMEC uniquely understands about faith and forgiveness. Five years ago, in Charleston SC, a white young man was warmly welcomed into ”Mother” Emanuel AMEC, co-founded by Morris Brown and Denmark Vessey. Then that young man proceeded to kill nine people at the Bible study, including the pastor. Closer to home, November 2019, a white 16-year-old girl with detailed plans was arrested for criminal attempt to commit murder at Bethel AMEC in Gainesville, GA.

There is unrest in the land, awakened by the call of racism and police misconduct. Since all people are imperfect, there is no doubt in a country of over 300 million, racism is a reality. Seeing so many interracial couples, organizations, churches, etc…the question becomes, how bad is it? The paradox is many of the recent killings of black folk would have gone unnoticed if not for video and social media. However, overused, those same media add fuel to the fire, producing plenty of heat but supplying little light.

To show displeasure, demonstrations have sprung up in more than 300 cities in America. In the demonstrations are protesters, rioters and looters. Peaceful protesters should be supported for their proper expression of dissatisfaction. Nevertheless, the rioters who destroy lives and property or the looters who steal property should not be applauded or appeased. Certainly, the families of the black retired police chief killed while protecting a store or the black firefighter, about to open his own business, who saw his life’s savings burn up, wouldn’t either.

To be sure, there are real issues to be addressed. Parts are socioeconomically driven and some are behavioral. We know about the pervasive lack of respect for authority. It starts in the home and affects interaction at school and even with the police. Too often, officers are needlessly confronted and challenged by agitating and aggressive behavior, causing concern for their safety. Officers want to make it home safely every day. Yet, the police must not develop a militarization mentality but seek the deescalation of any conflict. Deescalation training and not implicit bias training should be a priority. Citizens need those in authority on all levels to be fair, compassionate and just.

In Athens, though, unwavering support should be extended to those who protest peacefully. Vigilance is necessary to watch for those who seek to disrupt and divide. Whether it’s white supremacists, the Boogaloo Boys or Antifa, don’t let them exploit the situation like a drive-by shooting. Once they target and inflame the fire, they move elsewhere, leaving the community to clean up the mess.

In addition, don’t allow those (whether local or otherwise) seeking political gain or an increased profile exploit the situation, either.

As a community, part of the problem is not having enough candid and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with one another, not to impugn motives but perhaps to gain a better understanding of the other’s worldview. Did that occur with Demond Means, the ousted superintendent? Or with a school board member who recited the dreaded ”N-word” at a program at Greater Bethel AMEC and reportedly left immediately afterward? Words with anger and accusations were exchanged but it seems little else.

If a store/business or a sports league/team has well over 50% of people of color employed/players but less than 10% in management/front office, is that racism or other factors? If a city or county is over 50% of people of color and less than 10% receive board positions or political appointments, is that racism or other factors? If alcohol/cigarette ads and abortion clinics are disproportionately placed in minority neighborhoods, is that racism or other factors? It’s worthy of discussion

The issues of race, class and justice are both simple and complex. Three things I believe would be helpful:

Communication Most should talk less and listen more. Recently, two prominent talk show hosts, Charlemagne tha God and Rush Limbaugh, put aside their differences and engaged in conversation. Though they didn’t agree on everything, still they did on some. At least the cord of communication cast was caught and not cut.

Consistency White leaders, especially clerical colleagues, must be consistent in private conversations and public settings about condemning racism and the bigotry of low expectations—not just with a black or mixed audience but more importantly when there aren’t any people of color present. 

Commitment Avoid groupthink. People need to educate themselves on the issues—an analytical look given not to rhetoric but results. Many promises haven’t been kept, and proposed solutions (for numerous years) haven’t worked. Citizens need to explore multiple sides of the issues and make informed decisions based on sound policies and not parties or personalities. After, then commit to use that same energy to vote. The heavy chains of contempt are imprisoning progress, dividing the populace and making the land restless. Who will help liberate and reconcile our communities and country? Faith and forgiveness can help forge the way. 

Hard, heartfelt and honest discussions with follow-up action plans are past due. Unrest-to-understanding might help produce peace. To paraphrase M. L. King, Jr., society has been ”a monologue instead of a dialogue.” Be mindful. People won’t always agree, but demonization of disagreements and differences is counterproductive. It’s your move.