Is racism reasonable? Americans seem to think so

Community members gather during a vigil at the Triple S Food Mart after the U.S. Justice Department announced it will not charge two police officers in the 2016 fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge, La., on May 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jonathan Bachman

(RNS) I was sitting in a restaurant when I learned that the police officers who killed Alton Sterling would not be charged with a federal crime. The banner that came across my iPhone read, “Justice Department official criticizes officers tactics, but says officer did not act unreasonably.”

At that moment, I knew that my news app was saying something very true about our country: We don’t believe it is unreasonable to treat black people the way Alton Sterling was treated.

That was true in 1619 and it is true today.

In America we do not see racism as unreasonable. However, if progress is to be made, we must acknowledge that racism balks at the very concept of reason.

There has been much conversation in Louisiana — the state where Sterling was killed — about the removal of Confederate monuments. Those who want us to “preserve history” find it reasonable to maintain structures that pay homage to an institution that went to war over the right to desecrate the black body. It is reasonable to citizens there that the figures of the Confederacy be held in high esteem.

We are supposed to look to history to see how far we have come. The irony here is that holding on to this piece of history really proves we have not moved that far at all.

From 1619 until the slave trade was abolished, people did not think it was unreasonable to capture humans from the coasts of West Africa, shackle their hands and feet as they walked hundreds of miles to the Atlantic shores, and then stack them like sardines in the belly of slave ships for months at time.

They did not think it was unreasonable to build an economic system and almost split the sacred union in half over the continuation of the slave society.

In the 19th century, people did not think it was unreasonable to lynch and burn at the stake, to destroy and pulverize black bodies for the sake of maintaining domination.

They did not think it was unreasonable to bash Emmett Till’s head and leave his brutalized and maimed body in the bottom of the Tallahatchie River.

In the dark times of Jim Crow, people did not think it was unreasonable to create laws that relegated where different races could sit, eat, drink and swim. We did not think it unreasonable to have signs that read “Whites Only.”

In the 1960s, they did not think it was unreasonable to bomb churches and pin German shepherds on schoolchildren protesting for their parents’ right to vote.

We did not think it was unreasonable for our leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, John Kennedy and Medgar Evers, to become martyrs simply for the cause of human equality and black dignity.

We did not think it unreasonable to endow the police with the power to brutalize Rodney King, to riddle Amadou Diallo with 41 bullets and ignore Eric Garner’s last plea for a human breath.

In 2017, Americans still cannot fathom that the black body is not something to be controlled or handled by the state, but deserves liberation, opportunities and resources offered to others.

Protesters demonstrate outside the Triple S Food Mart where Alton Sterling was shot dead by police in Baton Rouge, La., on July 7, 2016. Photo corutesy of Reuters/Jonathan Bachman

It seems to me that in our country we have a history of making the unreasonable feel reasonable and the reasonable feel unreasonable. Nothing shows this more than our failure to secure racial justice once and for all. But this misunderstanding is not permanent. With every new day, there is a new opportunity for us to see what is reasonable and what unreasonable.

On July 5, 2016, Sterling had an altercation with Baton Rouge police because despite everything his country told him, he could see that he was not the unreasonable one in that scenario. Officer Howie Lake and Officer Blane Salamoni were.

Sterling was not unreasonable for standing at that corner selling CDs. He was not unreasonable for interrogating the police as to why they were bothering him. And he was not unreasonable for resisting an all too soon death.

Lake and Salamoni were unreasonable for taking his life.

And we are unreasonable because we let it happen to him then, and we keep letting it happen every day in America.

But, I thank God for the reasonable witness of Sterling and every other person who protests the unjust brutality of the black body by the state.

Their reasonable protests cry out for us to join them and end the unreasonable tradition of our society. Today I am choosing to be reasonable. Will you?

(Elijah Zehyoue is director of programs and communications at the New Baptist Covenant and is the pastoral resident at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.)

About the author

Elijah Zehyoue


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  • I fully agree that racism is an evil, and NOTHING about it brings anything good and decent. Racism, is like a fog we keep punching at in an attempt to remove it, but cannot seem to really get at it. Legislation alone will not defeat it either. Like all evil, it is a fight that must be fought for each heart and mind to understand how wrong it is. What makes racism like a fog, something we cannot get our hands on, is that there are various shades of it, as well as misinterpreting somethings that are not racist as being such. It lacks real, tangible, examples that all can agree upon. Can anyone even place goals to achieve to mark progress made?

    Marches, riots, public shaming, removing icons of it, have only seemed to divide and entrench rather than open dialogue and listen to the suffering of our brothers and sisters. What has been totally ignored in the current attempts to remove it from society is God, Jesus, preaching of its evil. While there is inherent righteousness in ridding all of racism, without God the subject is reduced to my vs your opinion, my vs your experiences. We need the higher truths, the inclusivity of God’s love of all, to bring this need above human will.

    There are aspects of the current incarnation of anti-racism that may be doing incidental damage. The theory of white privilege that many so firmly put forth, has the negative effect of implying there is no redemption for whites, that whites are inherently evil and cannot be anything else but racists. So where does that leave the prospect of getting to that place where people genuinely care and love people from different cultures? Has this now just turned into a place of dominance over another thereby negating a society of authentic respect of others.

    There is so much that needs to be discussed, but no one has captured or has embodied a true vision of life without racism especially when God has been removed/ignored.

  • There has been some push for an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission that avoids the pitfalls of those created elsewhere as a way of providing healing and moving forward. What I find sad is that it took Black Lives matter to make a real dint as to the number of whites who believe racism to be a problem.

  • The Bible was used to support slavery and Jim Crow. America’s largest Protestant denomination, the SBC, was founded for the sole purpose of supporting slavery. The man in charge of the Justice Department that dismissed Sterling’s murder as “reasonable” is an extremely devout Christian.

    God has nothing constructive to contribute here.

  • Those who take the bible and use it for their own means does not make it the source of racism or slavery. MLK was an ordained minister and often quoted from the bible. He spoke of God and deliverance. Your extending the same error to the bible as those who extend their own error of racist views. Can anyone even find, beyond the few nutcases, that uses the bible today to support slavery or racism? Have we not move anywhere or is this still pre-1970’s? Do we still define people or groups by their worst representative?

  • Unfortunately in Baton Rouge the white community generally saw what happened to Alton Sterling as reasonable. While the black community saw it as unreasonable. Generally the police in Baton Rouge are seen as working for the white community to keep the black citizens of the city “in line”. It’s a racially divided city politically, religiously, socially, and physically. Whites go to LSU. Blacks go to Southern University.

    However, Baton Rouge in it’s racial attitudes and division is not unique at all. Generally white Americans find the mistreatment (and killings) of black Americans at the hands of the police to be reasonable. They can’t seem to find an incident they consider unreasonable. The reasons that whites find for justification of that mistreatment are never ending. (shakes head sadly)

  • The tinge of racism absolutely hangs over law enforcement like a cancer we can’t seem to rid ourselves of. But articles like these are impossible to take seriously when they omit pertinent information, like: (a) someone called the police alleging that Sterling had threatened him with a gun; (b) the police are heard on the video stating that he has a gun and was going for it; (c) a loaded revolver was found on his person. All of these factors, and others, had to be taken into consideration by the Justice Department. Further, the article uses extremely tendentious reasoning, such as: Slavery was racist, slavery was considered reasonable, the shooting was considered reasonable, therefore the shooting was racist.

  • Generally the whites community…all police officers…the black community… I’ve told TT a million times: Stop exaggerating!

  • “From 1619 until the slave trade was abolished, people did not think it was unreasonable to capture humans from the coasts of West Africa, shackle their hands and feet as they walked hundreds of miles to the Atlantic shores, and then stack them like sardines in the belly of slave ships for months at time.”

    I truly hate to see highly emotional pieces like this one. The quotation above is among the most egregious I’ve read in several decades. These do NOTHING to honor the gradual progress this country has made over the past 50-60 years–and keeps on making today.

    How sad that articles like this one just rips off the scabs so further racial healing is not allowed to take place!

  • Hmm. You can’t even guarantee that your sorry self will still be breathing in an hour, and yet you think you’re in a position to throw shade at the God who (*very* mercifully) woke you and I up this morning? Sure don’t look that way to me.

    If you care so much about racism and community policing, go join a black church. You can contribute to their social justice, and they can teach you to stop hating on God. A fair exchange!!

  • BLM still needs to get going with those overdue public apologies, for all the law enforcement officers (of all races) who got killed, injured and shot at as a result of BLM.

  • I generally find that people read what they want to read. In spite of my use of “generally” three times, you skipped right over that. People seem more interested in being outraged these days.

  • As a gay man, let me inform you, the answer is definitely yes. We see it over and over again in these very pages. But the “worst representative” doesn’t even have to be a gay person, let alone “a representative.”

  • Racism is certainly not reasonable for genetic racial markers have few real impacts on determining behavior outside the influence of a shared culture.

    Shared culture on the other hand, which can overlap geographically with a high density of a particular race, does impact behavior and can correlate with race if said culture provides an identity marker to being of a particular race. There are areas with a strong cultural identity which is predominantly of one particular race in our world. It isn’t the race
    that gives rise to a common behavior a geographically shared culture.

    To build a threat matrix of a shared cultural matrix that is geographically fixed cannot be considered racist just because it may also correlate to a high density of a particular race. Historical data on typical behavior expressed in a particular culture and/or geographical area may provide empirical data useful as predictors of future behavior from representatives of the population. This is largely dependent on the level of entrenchment of the culture, its boundaries, bread and depth and how resistant those values are to modification when introduced to a new environment. Some culture generate highly resistant value sets with strong values and narrow focused behavioral requirements that can generate both positive and harmful behavior sets.

  • I don’t find a lot of reason in the article above unfortunately. No one forced the individual in question to repeatedly break the law, resist arrest or present a threat to law enforcement officers who would like to go home to their families at night.

    Everyone has an equal opportunity to not break the law. Whatever injustice exists in our world, and it has plenty, we are still responsible for our behavior.

  • Generally, there has been a rise in politicized violence against law enforcement regardless of ideology or race so it is not just black extremists. But in terms of apologies, how about this understanding instead.

    “Black activists have raised the call for an end to violence, not an escalation of it. Yesterday’s attack was the result of the actions of a lone gunman. To assign the actions of one person to an entire movement is dangerous and irresponsible. We continue our efforts to bring about a better world for all of us.” July 2016. taken from the BLM website.

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