Mind Matters — In Change There Is Hope

We, as a nation, are stunned that nine people—African Americans—were murdered in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. They had welcomed their killer into their sanctuary for bible study.

The sight of the perpetrator, white Dylann Storm Roof, donning a bullet proof vest as he was guided carefully into a police vehicle was also startling. Startling because I don’t recall ever seeing any person of color being so protected in police custody. In fact, the public is beginning to realize that African Americans face endemic structural/institutional brutality. Consider the video taken recently of an African American teenage girl in a bathing suit being pushed to the ground and threatened by a police officer. Others of color fare worse.

Sharon Morgan and Thomas DeWolf note the ProPublica research regarding the fatal police shootings where young black males are twenty-one times more likely to be killed than their white counterparts (Yes! Magazine, Summer, 2015).

There have been immense changes throughout the history of the United States. We have evolved from a nation that upheld slavery through Jim Crow laws to the Civil Rights Movement to electing an African American president. Nevertheless, as President Obama himself states, “We are not cured of racism.”

My experience as a family therapist has taught me that even when a system changes for the better, there is also within the system a pull to change back. Change, after all, even when it is for the good, can be perceived as loss—the loss of an old order (or disorder, to be more accurate). And so there is fear—fear about what will happen when old, rigid behaviors and structures disappear. So goes the old proverb: The unfamiliar angel is less acceptable than the familiar devil. Individuals dig in their heels, families resist change, and so do communities and countries.

Dylann Roof may have been a lone gunman who massacred nine, by all accounts, very kind and gentle people; but his actions are the tip of the iceberg of a culture of domination and violence that supports racism along with many other prejudices (sexism, intolerance of other religions, to name a few). Some white supremacists arise from that part of the system that pushes for change back to inequality and the destructive power of violence. The rest of us buy into change back when we, like many families I have witnessed, respond with denial of the systemic problems in our midst.

The tension between change and change back is palpable; but so is the hope that, as Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” The choice is ours to join in that forward movement. The hope is that we have or that we will.

For more see Yes! Magazine, Summer, 2015, “His Ancestors Were Slave Traders and Hers Were Slaves. What They Learned About Healing from a Roadtrip,” by Sharon Leslie Morgan and Thomas Norman DeWolf, and other articles there.