June 4, 2020

An Untreated Cancer

On May 25, 2020, the world viewed two recorded incidents that crystallized an untreated cancer in American society. They first witnessed an escalating argument between city dwellers in which a white woman chose to wield the power of the state, fear, and history as weapons, when she called the police on a black man who simply asked her to follow the rules of the public park they were in. On the same day, the world of TV viewers witnessed the arrest of a black man in which a white officer kept his knee on the neck of the handcuffed and restrained man for 4.5 minutes after he fell unconscious, all the while ignoring the pleas for mercy from a multiracial cast of bystanders.

These incidents are not unique. Sadly, they represent an untreated cancer in our nation’s social mindset. For many, especially minorities, the incidents are painful markers of the kind of society we live in. Guidance and hope are available for people infected with this murderous virus. But first, we must admit we are sick.

The cancer I speak of is a system and ideology in which people identified as White often wield overwhelming control, power and material resources over others called Black, Brown, or otherwise. Conscious and unconscious ideas of White entitlement and non-White non-entitlement are widespread and endemic, so that relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are continually reenacted across a broad array of social institutions and social settings. Importantly, one need not overtly support this system to be infected with the cancer. Merely benefitting from and failing to challenge this system makes one sick.

This week, our news brought us two serious episodes of this societal sickness: in one, a tax-funded resource was frivolously deployed against an innocent citizen; in the other a uniformed public servant crushed to death under his knee a member of the public he has sworn to serve.

Simply stated, one result of being infected by the virus is seeing other people differently—often as morally weaker, in a way that leads to treating them differently — often as deserving less care, respect, rights or other. Benefitting from such a system, being the power wielder in such a system leads to appalling tragedy for everyone, including abusers, morally degraded by their abuse of their fellow humans. But beyond being appalled by racism’s crude and cruel results, we should humbly accept that however we see ourselves, we are not impervious to this cancer. 

What can we do once we acknowledge our condition? How willing are we to change? How ready am I to act? 

Conversion, the willingness to change, to turn from evil to good, from good to great, is as fundamental to America’s future as it is to any Christian’s: “Come, let God clean you up,” is Isaiah’s invitation to an entire nation (Isa. 1:16). And cleaning racism from America will be no easier. But why should America be afraid to be better? Hear Isaiah again, America, daring his people to act against a murderous virus: “Is this not the fast which I choose? To loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free? And break every yoke?” (Isa. 58:6).

Standing against wickedness, abuse and oppression is not meddling between church and state; it is not becoming inappropriately political. Ask Jesus; and hear Him answer, “Thank you; you did it to Me” (see Matt. 25:40).

Dr. David Cort is Associate Professor, Dept. of Sociology, University of Massachusetts/Amherst and Senior Lecturer, Dept. of Social Sciences, Walter Sisulu University, Mthatha, South Africa. A lifelong Seventh-day Adventist, he was born in Jamaica, West Indies, but grew up in British Guyana; the Commonwealth of Dominica; Queens, New York; and Detroit Michigan. He currently serves as head worship coordinator for the Takoma Park Seventh-day Adventist Church, where he also assists with the church’s social justice outreach activities.