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Aug 13, 2015 | The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton

Fighting an Unholy Trinity of Racism Poverty and Violence

We Get to Get Better

We need to talk about race. Why?  Because, much to the dismay and shame of so many Americans of goodwill for several generations, our society appears to be coming apart at the seams of some very deep racial divides. As a black man, who is also a diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church, I’ve seen how racial stereotypes, bigotry and the inability to “walk in another’s shoes” have hurt our church, our nation and our communities.


On April 27 of this year, I witnessed many parts of my city of Baltimore go up in flames. Righteous anger—over the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black male who died in police custody—turned destructive and fueled a full-scale riot. Stores were looted, schools were closed, and an official state of emergency sent the city into despair. What wasn’t in the news was that many of our citizens have been living in an unofficial state of despair for far too long. The cause is what I call the “unholy trinity of evils”—racism, poverty and violence. This “unholy” trinity has erased hope and drained the life out of people and whole communities.


Do all lives really matter? When we allow racism to go unchecked, poverty to fester for generations, and violence to run rampant by both criminals and police departments, how can we say that our society values every life?


In the past four years alone, there have been more than 30 documented cases of unarmed African-American men and women who’ve been shot and killed by police officers or security guards. In each of those cases, why was the choice made to point a gun at, and shoot, an unarmed citizen?  Why do we consistently feel that grabbing a firearm is the preferred solution to a perceived problem? Each of those black lives mattered—if not to all of us, then at least to God—and all of them deserved to have the preservation of their life valued in our society.


The truth is that our nation has struggled with granting dignity to persons of color since its inception. The 1787 Constitutional “Three-fifths Compromise” meant a black person was counted as 3/5 of a human being. There were lynchings and Jim Crow segregation, and despite Civil Rights era campaigns for justice, to this day, racism has been sown into the very fabric of our society. Social scientists have published numerous studies over the last 60 years that reveal continued racial stereotypes and unconscious projections that blacks (especially black males) are essentially criminally inclined, beastly aggressive, and lack fundamental intellectual and social qualities that merit human dignity. Even with the real progress we’ve made in combatting racism in our society, we still have a long way to go.


Racism fueled by poverty results in violence. According to the latest census, 14 neighborhoods in Baltimore have a lower life expectancy than that of North Korea. Four of those communities have a lower life expectancy than the people currently living through a civil war in Syria!  There are gaps between the “haves” and the “have nots” in all cities and towns, but the gap between rich and poor in my city is one of the largest in America—twice that of New York City. Rage over this kind of abject poverty can’t be covered over by glittering condo towers, vibrant nightlife and the gentrification of downtown. We in Baltimore weren’t surprised that a riot erupted this year; we were only surprised that it didn’t happen sooner.


Grinding poverty breeds a culture of violence. We all know the tragic situation of black-on-black violence in the economic and political cages often called “inner-city ghettos.”  There is reason to be afraid of some of the neighbors in many of our communities. But when the police—the very people who are supposed to protect us from predators roaming our streets—are themselves the ones who are killing our folks—then that gives rise to rage.


When most law-abiding Episcopalians see a police car they feel a sense of security. When I see a police car, this Episcopal bishop immediately feels vulnerable and experiences a sense of danger—especially if there are no other people around. That’s not the only thing that reflects a severe divergence of attitudes between races. More than our political affiliation, our educational achievement or our religion, studies indicate that the color of our skin is a bigger factor in how we each view the state of racism, poverty and violence in America.


The good news is that we get to get better. Just like the disciples did in the Bible, we can actually improve over time. And we are getting better as a nation and as a church. People of goodwill of all races across our nation are outraged that black lives still seem to matter less than other lives in our communities. In spite of our weariness of still dealing with race issues that should have been put behind us long ago, I’m gratified that so many of my fellow Episcopalians are willing to have the difficult conversations about racism, do the work of justice, work to eradicate poverty and violence, and to seek reconciliation within their communities. I am heartened when I see my white brothers and sisters hold up signs at rallies and other public events that say, “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”


In the Episcopal Church, each time we renew our baptismal vows the presider asks, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” To which the people respond, “I will, with God’s help.” (BCP, p. 294) 


As a Church we took another major step toward living into those vows when we voted overwhelmingly at our General Convention in July to commit time, considerable resources and ourselves to combat the sin of racism in a very significant way during this next triennium.


Let’s show the world that Episcopalians really do believe that all lives matter.


Sutton is Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.