September 18, 2020

Understanding And Supporting The Struggle For Black Liberation In America: A Conversation With The Rev. Dr. Gregory Edwards

“We are seeing what happens after decades, dare I say centuries, of a particular group of people being systematically oppressed and unheard.”

Those are the words of the Rev. Dr. Gregory Edwards, founder and Senior Pastor of the Resurrected Life Community Church in Allentown, in reference to the wave of protests following the death of George Floyd.

On May 25, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, MN while being arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. The four officers involved were fired and face charges, including Derek Chauvin, who was charged with second-degree murder. A bystander filmed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The video spread across social media, sparking global outrage.

Seeking guidance, community members of all races have turned to Edwards, an award-winning civil rights activist, who received national press during his historic 2018 campaign, in which he was the first person of African American descent to run for Congress in the Lehigh Valley.

Edwards advises, rather than joining social media comment wars and “unfriending” those with racist views, white people interested in supporting the struggle may become good allies by finally taking ownership for the creation of white supremacy, quoting James Baldwin, “You can’t fix what you’re unwilling to face.”

He suggests the formation of “affinity groups”, to dissect and dismantle the racism embedded in the minds of Americans. The groups, he said, should be held accountable by someone of African descent, but consist of and be led by white people with the purpose of “whetting their soul in the struggle for the liberation of Black people.”

These groups, he suggested, could meet weekly or bi-weekly and he compared the process to that used by recovery groups. Meetings could be held remotely during the pandemic and at college campuses, churches or community centers when such gatherings are safe.

Affinity group meetings are a time to take a deep dive into unconsciously held views to detect and analyze microaggressions, a term coined in 1970 by Dr. Chester Pierce, an African American Harvard professor. Microaggressions include laughing at a racial joke in entertainment or social media or not actively seeking out Black journalists as a news source.

A white person in America cannot help but be racist, said Edwards. He clarified that that does not make them a bad person, explaining that white people in America have advantages akin to being born on third base. Those who deny the existence of white privilege, he said, believe themselves to have hit a triple in the game of life, but that is not the case.

One advantage of white privilege, he said, is always being rescued from feeling uncomfortable about racism.

“I’ve seen white people break down and cry because of racism or because of their own privilege and Black folk come in to rescue them,” he said, “because we are used to rescuing, taking care of, nurturing, as opposed to [saying] no, cry.“

Edwards advocates for an honest conversation about the history of the United States and warns that white Americans must take themselves out of their comfort zone to do so.

“We need white folks to lean in and push,” he urged.

While this level of self-reflection is a tall order for an intensely polarized society, Edwards pointed out that there is no escaping this moment and sides must be drawn.

Sides are being drawn. Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests are evidence of that. While most of the protests have been peaceful, many of the national media reports have focused on property damage and looting. Although much of the violence shown has been instigated by outside agitators, including white supremacy groups and the police, this depiction of protestors as destructive has caused a shift in the conversation away from the aim of the protests.

“I am seeing, overall, a greater outrage of the destruction of personal property than the actual destruction of life,” said Edwards, having observed people opting into the conversation only after the reports of violence and looting.

Edwards called out the irony of outrage over the looting of businesses after the U.S. government‘s coronavirus stimulus bills included a more than $500 billion corporate bailout fund, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers, while the average American received just $1200.

“That’s looting,” said Edwards.

A poll undertaken by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight showed that 68% of Americans believe Chauvin should be charged with murder for the death of George Floyd, but any social media site serves as a database of proof that a considerable percentage of the population is missing the long history of such murders driving the current impassioned response.

Although Black communities are not monolithic, Edwards said, what African Americans long for is for America to live up to the words of the Constitution. Liberty and justice for all should be the goal.

“That part of the preamble of the constitution, in terms of establishing tranquility, those items have never been fully actualized within America,” said Edwards, “but specifically have not been realized within the African American community.”

The protests are not just about George Floyd. Edwards explained that these events are happening because a particular group of people who are systematically deprived of justice have reached their allostatic load. He likens that sociological term to a waiter or waitress pouring coffee and asking the patron to say “when,” and he concludes, “Black folk, overall, in America are saying ‘when’.”

Edwards lists contributions to this breaking point, including the lack of reliable infrastructure in Black communities, such as in Flint, MI, where residents have been without clean drinking water since 2014, and the public shaming of NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who led protests against police violence against African Americans.

Another factor adduced by Edwards is the inequity in health care, which he said has been on display as Black people have been dying from COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people. This, he said, can be seen as a metaphor for racism in America and exhorted, “White supremacy is going to kill all of us, it’s just going to kill Black folks sooner.”

“If I sneeze on you, it ain’t no Black sneeze. It’s not a white sneeze. It’s a sneeze, brother,” he joked, asserting that a virus has no racial bias.

Race, he went on to explain, is a human-created term existing for the purpose of economic exploitation, used to keep people apart who have more in common than not. He paraphrased Lyndon B. Johnson, “If I can train and convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best Black man, I can rob him of all he has with his eyes open.”

The notion of reforming a system so entrenched in racism is a myth, he said, and remarked that policing in America has its roots in the patrols used to enforce slavery. He bemoaned the idea of police being referred to as a force, as that alone connotes a negative meaning, especially when those police are heavily militarized.

America, he said, habitually ignores root issues, while fetishizing the mere treatment of symptoms.

“You go to the doctor, they give you a pill. They cut you, they slice you, they burn you, but don’t really get to what’s going on within us to cure us,” he professed, “We’re always looking for the quick fix.”

While the importance of voting has been touted by some over the past few weeks, Edwards pointed to Donald Trump’s presidency as not the cause but another symptom of the sickness of racism in America and named other African Americans who were killed by police prior to Trump’s term.

Edwards referenced Germany as an example of a country where extreme steps were taken, including laws passed and monuments erected, in effort to apologize for and distance themselves from their racist past. Meanwhile, in the U.S., while some confederate monuments have been removed, physical and, more menacingly, institutional reminders of America’s hateful past remain.

“But because America is steeped in this deep mythologizing of a national past that really has never existed,” he said, “we continue to inoculate ourselves with lies.”

While Edwards cautions that “we are seeing the brokenness of all of our systems, that were broke before COVID-19 hit but were just exposed in the midst of it,” and “we are seeing the affirmation of Dr. King’s words in that now quoted speech that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

He assured that this is not the fabled End of Times, but America, he said, has been exposed as a “house of cards” and is either now in the morgue or the birthing center.

“If it’s going to be the birthing center, it almost has to get uglier,” warned Edwards, “You can’t give life to a new entity without there being a tremendous amount of pain.”

Although he said another possibility is that America will remain in triage, pumping money into charity, which is what is always done in the absence of justice.

That congenital absence of justice continues in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Edwards condensed the nation’s strife simply, “We are seeing people, many of whom who are quicker to rush to judgment than to justice.” 

Chris Devlin

Chris Devlin, editor of The Commuter, is a freshman at NCC.

View all posts by Chris Devlin →
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