New Orleans Saints player Benjamin Watson penned one of the most-talked-about essays in the aftermath of last Monday’s racial violence in Ferguson, Mo. The heartfelt essay discusses Watson’s personal feelings regarding the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown and the St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict police Officer Darren Wilson in connection with his death. The Facebook post, which went viral, with Watson making national media appearances, including an extended interview on CNN, ends with the assertion that Ferguson’s crisis is rooted not in “a skin problem” but in a “sin” problem whose solution is a robust faith in Christianity.
And Watson’s efforts to walk a rhetorical tightrope—by expressing sympathy for both Brown’s death and for Wilson—is likely one of the reasons his piece went viral.
Finally, the mainstream media could exhale, because they now had an example of a young black man who attempted to see things from Wilson’s point of view, rather than—from their point of view—openly seething with judgment and condemnation.
I applaud Watson’s sincere effort to come to grips with an event that has produced varying degrees of national trauma. His interpretation of events, filtered through his personal religious belief, is understandable.
But Watson’s biggest mistake, one that has ironically fueled the essay’s popularity, is that he presented the divergent feelings of many black Americans and many white Americans around the Ferguson crisis as morally equivalent. It’s an insidious, although largely effective, rhetorical strategy. A strategy similar to the one that President Barack Obama used in his widely lauded 2008 race speech, in which he presented the history of racial slavery, Jim Crow and lynching as morally equivalent to white resentment against affirmative action, black anger and racial “grievances.”
On social media, Watson’s post is being praised for interpreting “every emotion from both sides.” And black people once again enter America’s racial twilight zone—a surreal world where racial oppression directed against the African-American community in the past and present stands on the same moral ground as white confusion over skin privilege, denial of racism, and ignorance over the depth and breadth of institutional racial violence.
From there, Watson offers an easy way out for a nation steeped in racial denial, especially when it comes to acknowledging that black bodies continue to be marked for punishment and death by the criminal-justice system.
His solution, though—probably to the relief of a lot of people who read it and shared it—isn’t urban reconstruction, jobs programs or any other policy-oriented formula that requires money or resources.
As a Christian, I find this assertion problematic for a number of reasons. While the black church has historically been a headquarters for civil rights activism, religion has also been used to justify slavery and Jim Crow. The segregated racial makeup of churches today means that black and white Americans still largely worship, pray and congregate separately rather than together. At the same time, the increasingly secular nature of the American public means that we have more people than ever who identify as agnostic and atheist, making faith in God or a higher power less of a unifying force than it’s been in the past.
Watson’s post ignores black Christian traditions, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s advocacy of a social gospel that required creative protests to deliver justice on earth; and black liberation theology, which grew out of the black power era, and imagined an ebony Jesus Christ as a crusader for economic justice and global peace.
It’s an understanding of Christianity that is infused with what scholar Cornel West has called “prophetic fire”—an understanding that’s unsettling and disorienting to many precisely because it challenges the status quo.
Perhaps unwittingly, Watson’s essay reaffirms the unequal power dynamic between black Americans and white Americans by purporting to see “both sides” of an issue in a situation that cries out for a clear moral stand.
But sometimes there aren’t two morally equivalent positions. When we examine the history of racial slavery in this country, for example, or the Jewish Holocaust, we make clear judgments regarding what lens to see events through.
The roots of Ferguson’s crisis lie in the perpetuation of a system of white supremacy and institutional racism that we euphemistically refer to as the “racial divide.” Without properly identifying how this system works in our institutions and—despite the existence of an African-American Talented Tenth, symbolized by President Obama—how truly one-sided the system is, we will never implement the broad-based and systemic policy changes that are necessary to transform America.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.