“I’m sad.” Last week I texted those two simple words to my friend, with no other explanation. Immediately she called back to ask what was wrong and to talk about whatever was bothering me. It was a meaningful moment, not just because I got the chance to talk it out, but because it showed that my friend actually cared. Imagine though, had she replied back, “everyone gets sad.” Or “children get sad.” It would be bizarre and dismissive. I’d question how much she cared about me. I’d wonder why she felt the need to respond that way. If you express something important, you would presume that those who care for you would refrain from countering with a reply that pulls focus from the issue at hand. If you stated that your sister died, could you imagine a friend saying “everyone dies”? It would be unfathomable for someone to respond to a friend that way.
Yet this is the struggle felt by Black people who are grieving the fact that our lives appear expendable. We have been systematically excluded from various sectors of society through formal legislation for centuries. And though many of those exclusions have been addressed on paper, the systematic injustices that are woven into institutional structures don’t magically evaporate with the stroke of a pen or passage of a vote. They were deliberately embedded in the country’s creation, so they need to be deliberately dismantled. And the attitudes of those with authority – particularly in law enforcement – continue to perpetuate many of those injustices. Black people are disproportionately stopped by police. Black people are disproportionately killed in police interactions. Black people are disproportionately given harsher and longer sentences for the same or even lesser offences as compared to White people. Black people are often excluded from jobs and other opportunities even if they are similarly or even more qualified as compared to their White counterparts. So when Black people declare that our lives matter, we are expressing the pain of these realities and so many more that we bear on a continual basis. Black people are tired. We are distraught.
But our message of sadness is often met with “everyone gets sad.” Our cries that our people are dying are met with “everyone dies.” That’s the dismissive message conveyed by “all lives matter.” When we cry out how egregious it is that those pledged to protect and serve are the ones who are inflicting harm on our communities, we are often countered with examples of “Black on Black crime.” This is despite the fact that intra-racial murder rates are statistically similar between races. Which means that White people are killed by White people in percentages comparable to the rate at which Black people kill Black people. Yet we never hear White people talk about “White on White crime.” And it would be absurd for someone to suggest that police shouldn’t treat White people humanely unless there are no White criminals, White school shooters and White killers. Black people are saying that we are in pain, yet some non-Black people are dismissing, deflecting and participating in all manner of mental and verbal gymnastics to avoid acknowledging that pain.
Also, some still think this pain is not a worthy topic of discussion for our church. This is despite the fact that Black people are a part of the church. Do non-Black people think that Black Adventists are somehow unaffected by discrimination because our baptism insulates us? Do they think we are not endangered because our church membership acts like a protective shield? And even if the people whose murders have been publicized aren’t individuals who are members of an Adventist congregation, why should that deter us from being concerned? If a person’s non-Adventist relative dies, do you withhold condolences because they aren’t a church member? What some non-Black Adventists don’t seem to understand is that intersectionality exists. Being a member of the Church community does not preclude the fact that we are also members of the Black community.
I used to be a huge proponent of integrated conferences. And you will often hear people say that the Adventist Church has no moral authority to speak about racial issues in the wider society as long as segregated conferences still exist. But before we can be integrated organizationally there first needs to be changes within hearts and minds. The unwillingness of so many of our non-Black Adventist brothers and sisters to acknowledge the realities faced by Black Adventists is exceptionally draining. A comedy show called “A Black Lady Sketch Show” has a character, Chris, who has a hard time saying “yes”. In any given situation, he’ll say any and everything BUT the word “yes”. Then he often gets upset when people point out his failure to say the word. I feel this same frustration with people who refuse to acknowledge that Black lives matter. It’s almost as if there is an inexplicable but deliberate attempt to AVOID saying the words that Black lives do matter.
Us: Black lives matter.
Them: All lives matter.
Us: Yes. And within that “all”, Black lives matter.
Them: Children’s live matter.
Us: Black children exist too. Their Black lives matter.
Us: yes...ok you can say it...
Us: ok... you’re almost there.
Them: matter is Marxist.
Clearly this isn’t behavior demonstrated by all non-Black people. And this certainly isn’t reflective of all non-Black Adventists. There are plenty of brothers and sisters of all racial backgrounds who have committed themselves to being active allies for equality and anti-racism. However, the prominence of several who have this mindset makes it an unwelcoming environment for Black people. I’ve listened to Adventist media personalities espouse racist tropes. I’ve seen posts by prominent Adventist ministers make light of protests by joking that they should have a church service in defiance of health mandates by simply lying and claiming that their worship service is “a protest.” On articles about acknowledging Black lives, I’ve read comments by teachers in Adventist academies deflect from issues of racial inequality by purposefully attempting to re-center the discussion on unrelated topics. And there have been countless times that ministerial colleagues have echoed white supremacist talking points in public sermons as well as private conversations. Knowing that these perspectives are harbored at every level of the church organization is more than disheartening – it’s frightening. Do I want my friends to sit under the preaching of someone who thinks the Black struggle is humorous? Am I willing to enroll my child in the class of a teacher who refuses to recognize that, for Black children, growing up in a world that takes them for granted makes it vitally important for them to know and hear specifically that they matter?
It appears that some non-Black Adventists seek excuses for avoiding the declaration that Black lives matter. Some say that that they can’t bear to also acknowledge Black lives matter because there’s an organization of the same name whose founders have values they dislike. Imagine being homeless and starving. There are two buildings on the block. In one, some supposed atheists are spending time giving out food. Meanwhile, a church is spending time preaching to the hungry about how bad it is that the guys down the street are atheists. Who would you think actually cares about the hungry?
This is how folks sound when they preach about all the people who are in the BLM organization. Black people are dying yet many in the Church think the best use of their time is preaching about how the founders aren’t Christians. People who do this are only detractors. If you don’t have any solutions then you’re only impeding those who do.
Some people who aren’t Black feel that verbally recognizing the value of Black lives somehow devalues their own. In truth, it doesn’t diminish anyone else to actually say that Black lives matter too. And no, it’s not sufficient to merely declare that “all lives matter” because the “all” in “liberty and justice for all” excluded Black lives. And the “all” in “all men are created equal” excluded Black lives. And even within the Adventist church, the “love for all mankind” excluded Black lives from segregated churches and hospitals and schools. The truth is, there would be no need to unambiguously hear that “Black lives matter” if there hadn’t been hundreds of years of our society – and the church – expressing and demonstrating that Black lives don’t matter. And if non-Black Adventists are recalcitrant in their refusal to say that, we aren’t going to make any progress towards repairing the racial breach within our own denomination.
 See: https://www.ussc.gov/research/research-reports/demographic-differences-sentencing and https://www.themarshallproject.org/documents/4316517-Pettit-Sykes-2017-incarceration-report)(https://counciloncj.foleon.com/reports/trends-key-findings/overview/
 See: https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/minorities-who-whiten-job-resumes-get-more-interviews, https://www.nber.org/digest/sep03/w9873.htm and https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2019/12/05/478150/african-americans-face-systematic-obstacles-getting-good-jobs/
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and President of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at:
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10700