Guest commentary by Jimmie Hawkins
The death of George Floyd puts each one of us in a place where we had hoped we were beyond: the death of an unarmed, non-resisting African American man at the hands of a white policeman. We have prayed for an end to racial violence, especially from those sworn to protect us. But here we are.
Before 2020 is halfway over, we have been shocked by the deaths of three persons of African descent at the hands of police officers. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have lost their lives. It is difficult for some to understand or rationalize the actions of social protest and burning buildings to the ground as acceptable forms of societal change. To better understand with an empathic heart, we must look beyond riotous actions as mere property destruction but as reactions to larger societal problems. In almost any region where rioting has occurred, especially initiated by a traumatizing event, there are common factors that coincide. Inherited poverty, struggling schools, high unemployment and low wages all pre-exist in these same communities. One of the most studied trends is the fact that cities that have experienced rebellions (Baltimore, Ferguson, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis) also have long histories of police violence and brutality.
When one travels to the Twin Cities, it becomes immediately apparent that an amazing amount of capital is present. Construction is undergoing as businesses are investing in downtown. Story-high walking bridges connect buildings to insulate walkers from brutal weather conditions. But there is another side that’s not as obvious. Study after study of the region agrees that for African Americans, the Twin Cities are among the nation’s worst place to live. The Washington Post asked in 2015: “If Minneapolis is so Great, Why is it so Bad for African Americans?” In 2019 the Minneapolis NAACP released a report dissecting racial poverty in the Twin Cities. It reported: “Minneapolis has long been riddled with economic inequality and civil unrest. From employment to criminal justice, the city’s racial disparities are among the worst in the nation.” According to Welfareinfo.org, “Minneapolis has a dramatically higher than average percentage of residents below the poverty line when compared to the rest of Minnesota.” From 1970 to 1990, the rate of poverty for residents of the Twin Cities decreased for every racial group except for African Americans, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. African American poverty statistics rose from 26.1% in 1970 to 33.5% in 1990. Today it is 32%. The city has one of the highest disparities in racial segregation, poverty, income and homeownership than almost any other metro region in the nation. Only one-fourth of African Americans are homeowners contrasted with three-fourths of white families.
The rage burning across Minneapolis reveals deep-seated frustration and anger over the difficulties to survive in a city that prides itself on prosperity and equality. Minneapolis has failed to provide its citizens of color with equal opportunity and economic advance. But the city is not unique in its struggle with the continuing issue that still plagues much of the nation: the fact that racial segregation locks people of color into cycles of poverty. Nationwide, there is minute financial investment in racial-ethnic neighborhoods by businesses and struggling, low-performing schools. Concentrated poverty is found along lines of racial homogeneity. A Harvard-Berkeley study of intergenerational mobility discovered that “both blacks and whites living in areas with large African American populations have lower rates of upward income mobility.”
We must each ask: What is the racial situation in my city, town or rural community? What elements of racial injustice exist? We must drive through communities of color and visually examine the condition of homes and the poverty. We must understand that the disrepair exists not because people don’t care about the upkeep of their homes or neighborhoods, but due to the fact that they are unable to afford upkeep. Every city in America is plagued by racist segregation caused by American apartheid policies designed to keep black and brown people in their place.
To combat racism there are several steps that need to be taken. First, believe people of color when they describe a living experience that is radically different than your own. In America, when people of color make claims of racial injustice, history informs us that there is skepticism and disbelief. The black community has complained consistently about police brutality and overpolicing in communities of color. Only the advent of accessible videography in the hands of everyday people that allowed the taping of police violence has the evidence convinced whites to the truth of past reporting.
We must dedicate ourselves to be agents of change. We must be willing to address and even confront racism wherever and however it manifests itself. It exists on personal, cultural, structural and institutional levels. As Christians, we believe that our faith changes minds and hearts on a very personal level. We must attempt to break down the institutional and structural barriers that prevent men and women from societal advance based on their racial background.
We must challenge businesses (Starbucks and grocery chains) to relocate into impoverished communities to bring jobs and resources to neighborhoods and residents. We must attend city council and school board meetings demanding equity in the application of governmental resources that should bring parity. Low-performing schools that can’t afford equipment or pay teachers adequate wages should not exist. We must hold banks accountable for redlining and ongoing refusal to make loans to businesses of color. If there is a black bank or Hispanic savings and loan in your community, invest your money there. Be willing to make sacrifices so that others might have a more meaningful life.
Remember the words written in chalk on a sidewalk in Minneapolis, “If you can’t breathe, neither can I!”
“For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit… God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” 1 Corinthians 12:13, 24-26
JIMMIE HAWKINS is the director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. He is married to Sheinita Hampton Hawkins and they have two children: Kaela Renee and James Hampton.