Fifty years ago, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King stated that “America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check that has come back marked insufficient funds…” In many ways, it is true that America has defaulted on its promise to “provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare” (indiscriminately). It can be seen in the disproportionate crime statistics, the staggering graduation and incarceration rates, and the unbelievable poverty statistics that have always existed among races and social classes. It is evident in the underfunded education system that serves as a pipeline to prison for lower class students of color. And it is permanently fixed in the biased and bigoted laws that undergird our entire system. But what does that have to do with Candler, education, and theological formation?
The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that “Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity,” yet the education experience, much like any other experience, does not exist in a vacuum but is susceptible to the mores and ills of society. The most vivid recollections of my childhood education experience do not occur in a desk filled classroom with textbooks and chalkboards, but on a school bus with peers and classmates who were steeped in culture, bias, and prejudice.
One cool autumn afternoon in 1995, I was a fifth grader riding the bus home from my rural elementary school in Perdido, Alabama. I shared a seat with my friend Less Wilson a young white student who was also in the fifth grade. As we sped down the narrow two-lane country street past pine trees and dirt roads, Less leaned over to me and whispered beneath the raucous chatter, “My uncle has a gun, and he’s a member of the KKK.” I chuckled. Surely Less had failed at an attempt to be humorous but I did not make light of his failure nor of my disapproval, but instead smiled and waited for the subject to change. Then Less asked me if I knew what N.A.A.C.P stood for. As I struggled to remember if “Advancement” came before or after “Association,” Less interjected, “It stands for N*ggers, Apes, Alligators, Coons, and Possums.” I wasn’t laughing anymore. I wasn’t angry, I was hurt. My friend Less had showed me just how he felt about me.
In 1997, not long after that bus incident with Less, my mom moved our family even deeper into the rural forest of Alabama to live with my grandmother who had suffered a major stroke. It was on the 45-minute bus ride from school to the small town of Little River, AL that we learned two black churches had been vandalized and burned less than a mile from where we were living. They were churches I knew well and had visited many times with my family. Many family members and friends attended both churches on a regular basis. A Ku Klux Klan rally the previous weekend had sparked racial animus and a group of five young white teens ages 15-20, decided to send a message to the African-American community that conveyed just how they felt about us.
Earlier this summer I was disappointed but not surprised to hear the verdict in a Florida case concerning the death of a 17-year-old black teen. The Florida law was very clear, that at any time during an altercation, if George Zimmerman, the defendant, felt he was in danger of great harm, he was justified to use deadly force against Trayvon Martin, the victim. Although the attorneys did not argue a “Stand Your Ground” defense, the jury was ordered to consider it in their deliberations. While I am concerned about the legitimacy of the law itself, I am more concerned with the stereotypes and pigeonholes that exist which led to this tragedy.
In many instances, society reflects the George Zimmerman case. For many, culture’s forceful and disproportionately callous treatment of brown and black persons is justified because of a perceived fear of danger. We suspend school bus programs to keep certain children out because of fear. We pass intrusive laws such as “stop-and-frisk” that only affect subsets of the population because of fear. We enact discriminatory immigration laws that harass and profile because of fear. The fear is perpetuated because of the stereotype. Trayvon Martin died because one fear provoked another.
Since the age of ten, I have witnessed time and time again, these and other experiences that expose a fraudulent social morality. Trayvon, myself, and many others have demanded payment on America’s worthless check only to be taxed with penalties that burden us with stereotypes and assumptions—penalties that allow only a cadre to narrowly succeed in the shadows of ghettos, poverty, and the threat of deportation—penalties that fill our prisons, empty our schools, and continue to segregate our churches—penalties that demand assimilation, silence, double consciousness, and death.
It wasn’t until my first year of theological education at Candler that I experienced, with great continuity, a small portion of beloved community; or the ability to reside in a metaphorical house whose substructure is love. Whether it is genuine conversation with my white brothers George or Andrew, or lunch with my Korean brothers Jayesung and Sang Hyun, chapel rehearsal with my Black, African, or White Sisters Alisha, Shelia, or Allison, laughter filled moments with my African American brothers Shannon and Lawrence, or fellowship with my many brothers and sisters of the LGBT community, there are no penalties.
While we are not perfect, the communities we have forged here at Candler give us hope. Perpetual fear is dispossessed by meaningful discourse and the dispensation of intentional love. Each day that we strive to create this community we are sending a clear message: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt… so we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
Sam is a second-year MDiv student at Candler and a member of the Student Ambassador team for 2013-14. A native of Alabama, he earned a bachelor in communication sciences at the University of Alabama. Sam is a preacher and worship leader who hopes to purse a PhD in Sociology of Social Movements and Race and Ethnicity.