By K. Jason Coker
This word is for white people mostly in the United States of America.
I want to start with my own identity: I am a white, heterosexual, 43-year-old man from Mississippi. There is a crisis of belief among what feels like the vast majority of our white sisters and brothers throughout this country. We don’t believe non-white people—that’s the crisis (and I’m limited by my own vocabulary to find another word besides “non-white”.
The additional crisis of belief is that we also don’t believe the small percentage of white people who believe non-white people. We don’t believe in the statistics that say non-white people are disproportionately policed and incarcerated. And just to be clear, when I say non-white people, I’m mostly talking about African Americans, but the Latino/a community is also disbelieved along with so many other non-white communities.
When we do believe the statistics about policing and incarceration (and health disparities and economic disparities and educational disparities and and and), we blame non-white people for the problem. There must be something wrong with them to invite so much policing. There must be something wrong with their culture. There must be something wrong with them to be sentenced to such long prison terms. They must be more criminal, less committed to living a healthy lifestyle, less intelligent, less capable of economic upward mobility. They, all these non-whites, must be the problem.
If they are the problem, if they are more criminal by nature, if they are less intelligent by nature, then “we” must police them more and incarcerate them more and make sure they never move up in our society because they are so deficient. “We” must suppress their capacity to vote in “open” elections, not spend too much money to educate them, not pay them too much money for their labor, not worry too much about them being shot and strangled to death by the police.
There are a lot of white people who believe this. There are probably more white people who do NOT believe this, yet are still more bothered by the “looting” and “senseless” destruction of property than the killing of George Floyd. We white people who say, “We don’t know the backstory.” We who think there’s a backstory so horrible that it somehow can justify the killing. He must have done something terrible for a police officer to hold him down like that with his knee on his neck, right? Because we can’t believe that a cop would do something like that without good reason—because we don’t believe non-white people when they tell us over and over again that this is exactly what happens.
We can’t believe them because we believe something else. We believe that police are here to protect us. They are there when you need them most. They are there to help. And in our lived experience this has been true. When we call 911, we get help: Help is on the way! That’s exactly how the system works for us. Our experiences with law enforcement, banking, real estate, education, health care, etc. are generally good. These institutions are put in place for us to live at peace and even get ahead—and that’s been our lived experience. With that kind of lived experience, we must live in one of the greatest countries in the world. A country where you can do better by working harder. Where we are rewarded by doing the right thing.
This is what makes it so difficult for many white people to believe non-white people. Our experience in the US has been pretty good. If someone is not having such a good experience, it must mean that there is something wrong with them. We can’t believe that America is great and also believe non-white people when they describe their lived experience in the same country. We can’t believe in our country and their experience at the same time—they are truly incongruent. There is a devastating lie somewhere. Will we white people believe in America, or will we believe non-white people?
It is obvious what the majority of white people believe. We, in large part, believe in America. And it’s not just that we believe in America, it’s that we choose to believe in America. That is the white choice, and it is also the wrong choice. It is wrong because America cannot be great until there is real equity in lived experience across all our different identities. America cannot be great just for white people. If that’s the case, then it is not a great nation.
And here is what absolutely amazes me. So many African Americans and other non-white people believe in this country, too! Dr. King’s dream was of an America that lived into its professed values of liberty and freedom for all. The Mississippi Civil Rights icon, Medgar Evers, fought for this country in World War II and could not vote for the governor of Mississippi or the president of the United States when he came home from war. Even now, when there is concerted effort to suppress African American voters through voter registrations, gerrymandering, and the closing of DMVs in predominantly African American towns where one has to show their ID cards to vote, many African Americans still participate in the systems and seek to change the inequities that have been historically piled on their backs. Their belief in America is astonishing—so astonishing that even white people should be inspired by their belief enough to do something to help this country move towards its best ideals. These non-white believers are not the problem.
If non-white people are NOT the problem, if they are just as smart, just as “law abiding”, just as good as white people, then what is wrong with America is us white people. The crisis in our belief puts too many people at risk. If we truly believed that George Floyd was as good as any good white person we knew, we would be devastated. If we believed George Floyd was as good or as human as our white sons, we’d want to blow something up or set something on fire. If we believed…
Dr. K. Jason Coker is coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Mississippi and national director of Together for Hope, the rural development coalition of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.