Dear fellow white friend,
We’re all in this together. That is the phrase I’ve heard the most in the midst of pandemic and stay-at-home orders. It is a nice phrase to say, isn’t it? A phrase that seems obvious in a time like this. It’s what we are expected to say. It’s what white folks like myself and you like to say in times like this.
We’re all in this together. It is a sentiment that expresses what we hope for, even as we know that reality doesn’t really match up with it. Can we be honest about that or am I already touching a nerve you’d rather not have touched? While the thought is nice, if we are honest we would admit that we’ve never really all been in anything together despite the words that we say.
All one needs to do is look at the following chart to see the reality that we aren’t all in this together. Some are more in it than others.
But this chart isn’t a stand-alone statistic. It is just one piece in the puzzle that we have been putting together for a really long time.
Maybe you can stomach thinking about the many men and women who have died for the “crime” of being black. In recent years, we’ve had so many examples. All you have to do is list off the names. How does we’re all in this together fit into these scenarios? Take Ahmaud Arbery, for example. He was out for a run and was fatally shot by two white men because they took the law into their own hands; they thought Arbery looked like a person whom they suspected in a series of break-ins in the area. They chased Arbery down and struggled with him, finally shooting him with a shotgun. I could go on, showing stats about how African-Americans suffer from significant health problems, higher incarceration rates, and so much more. But really, what’s the point? We’re all in this together, right?
What does it mean to be all in this together anyway? We could just as easily shout out a similar phrase: All Lives Matter! Remember that slogan? It is the same sentiment, isn’t it? If all lives matter, then we should take a good hard look at that chart again and pay attention to the data that shows that blacks are dying at a rate that is twice as high as any other ethnic group. And we should ask an obvious question – why?
Charts like the one above aren’t just data collected for a specific time period. Stories like the shooting of Arbery aren’t just isolated cases. Articles about health problems and incarceration rates aren’t compartmentalized instances that have no relationship to anything else. They are all pieces in a large puzzle that we have been working on for a really long time. A puzzle that has been coming together to show us the picture we have been making all along. We handle the pieces and act surprised at the picture they form. But why?
We’re all in this together, right? I doubt Martin Luther King, Jr. thought so. He certainly wished we were though. All one needs to do is read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail to know that he understood that not everyone was in it together and how desperately he wanted everyone to be. Here’s what he said:
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” (Source)
It seems that MLK, Jr., didn’t see everyone all in this together, especially not from his jail cell where he wrote the letter. To him, it didn’t appear that the white moderate was all in together with him and other blacks of the time. It did not look like all lives mattered.
But, we’re all in this together now, right?
Go back and look at the chart. Look at the numbers. See how all in you are compared to blacks when it comes to this pandemic. Ask yourself why the chart shows what it does. And then ask yourself this: what can we do to show we are really all in this together like we claim we are? Or is it just an empty phrase designed to coddle and comfort us from a painful reality we’d rather not deal with?
Crisis doesn’t create all new problems. Often, it just exposes problems that were already there for a long time. COVID-19 doesn’t target blacks. It just brings to light the challenges that blacks already face. It shows the vulnerability that already exists and has for a long time. It exposes the broken systems that have been impacting black lives for a long, long time. We don’t come to a point in which a virus is twice as deadly for blacks than for anyone else overnight. The death rate is higher for blacks for a variety of reasons, reasons that have been building for centuries. It is almost too easy to look past all of that though because there is too much.
But remember, we’re all in this together.
If you look at the chart apart from the larger picture, you are missing so much. If all you do is look at it as a piece of compartmentalized data, then you are deluding yourself in short-term thinking. You see, short-term thinking allows us to see the chart, to hear the stories of black men and women being shot just for living, to hear about long-term health and criminal justice challenges, and to not connect the dots (dots that create a painfully obvious picture). Short-term thinking creates convenient throw-away phrases and slogans that give the appearance of caring, while their real purpose is to distract people from the painful reality of inconvenient truths, truths about ourselves that we don’t want to face.
We’re all in this together, remember?
When are we going to stop looking at scapegoats to blame for anything that goes on in this nation? When are we going to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, “we are to blame, ourselves?” We are to blame because we refuse to do anything about this. When are we going to look at a chart like that and deal with it?
We are to blame. We are all guilty, not innocent like we want to believe. Yes, you and I have never owned slaves. But we are to blame for so much because we refuse to do anything to change the current situation.
We are to blame for gun violence that continues in this nation, killing innocent children and men and women, because we refuse to do anything about it.
We are to blame for the destruction of the environment, impacting the lives of humans and animals all over, because we refuse to do anything about it.
We are to blame for poverty because we refuse to do anything about it. It is always someone else’s fault. We see nothing wrong with bailing out billion-dollar companies but withhold basic life-sustaining needs for someone experiencing poverty.
This will continue until we are willing to stop believing the lie we tell ourselves that someone else is to blame. This will continue and get worse until we decide to repent, to be radically reoriented in how we see the world and one another. Until we are willing to be honest about the broken relationships we have with one another, with ourselves, with God, and with the rest of creation. This will continue as long as we think that we are special, anointed, different, better.
This will continue as long as we continue in our privileged life of not having to worry about getting shot while driving, or jogging, or pulling a cell phone out of our pocket in a public place. This will continue as long as we remain blind to the image of God in people who look different from ourselves. This will go on as long as we accommodate and coddle people because we believe they can’t handle self-examination and difficult questions. This will go on as long as we believe that accepting current circumstances is more convenient than changing them. This will go on.
But I won’t. I’m tired of it. Black men and women deserve better. They deserve the best we have. They deserve to be heard. They deserve the truth. They deserve a better life. And they are intimately connected to us. They are us. We are them. Our survival is linked. We thrive together or we will suffer separately (some more than others). But in the end, we all lose.
By doing nothing about these situations, we aren’t screwing them. We are screwing ourselves. Remember, Paul said “We are one body, but may parts.” Our safety is intimately tied to theirs. Our very lives are tied to theirs. When a black person dies because they committed the crime of living while black, we should not see it as a far-off tragedy. We should see it as if it was our own mother or father, brother or sister, son or daughter who was killed, whether we are talking about COVID-19 or anything else. Until we, white people, see ourselves as a black person, this will continue to get worse and we will be impacted in ways we would prefer not to be impacted.
Remember, we’re all in this together. Now let’s actually live into that. Do you have the courage to do that? Remember, you aren’t alone. You don’t have to do this alone – you and I can’t.
But, we’re all in this together.
Pastor Matthew Best serves as pastor of St. Stephen Lutheran Church in New Kingstown, PA, USA. He is dedicated to showcasing how encounters with Jesus change people’s lives. Pr. Matthew can be found online where he blogs, writes prayers, posts videos, and podcasts.
Photo credit: Sally John.