David R. Weiss – April 20, 2021
I am on edge as we wait for a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial. But I have to be honest: my life is not likely to be any more or any less safe because of the verdict. Still, as a white man, I have more in common with Derek Chauvin than I do with George Floyd. I say that with anguish and discomfort. But it’s true. My life has prepared me to be the killer, not the killed. So this verdict will echo silently with my own name. Here are a few things on my mind—on my heart—today.
#1 I do not envy these jurors. Although, had I lived in Hennepin County, I would’ve prayed with all my might (despite not placing much stock in petitionary prayer) to be summoned for jury duty and then selected for this jury. That is perhaps a contradiction, but it’s my truth. I’ve seen many people post that it should not take longer than 9 minutes and 29 seconds to convict Chauvin on all counts, and while this is true, it is equally true that nobody honoring their oath as a juror could legitimately reckon this man’s guilt without also reckoning that this verdict will reverberate far beyond one man’s life … and one man’s death.
Of course, this much may be asked of any one of us on any given day. And we may well have less than 9 minutes and 29 seconds to make our choice. But I’m willing to grant them the time they need to be deliberate. In this court case we stand (once again, I know—hardly for the first time!) at a crossroads for the future of our country. And these “ordinary citizens” have been chosen by fate to make decisions weightier than any of them asked for. I think about that as I find myself waiting for a verdict while white.
#2 It isn’t “just” Derek Chauvin on trial. I understand the verdict will be passed on his actions and the sentence served on his life. But in some profound way, not even just policing, but the white race itself is on trial. If a jury of our peers cannot pronounce “guilty of murder” on this man’s actions, we might as well still be printing up postcards of Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck labeled, “Minnesota Nice: 10,000 lakes and more. We’ll take your breath away.” If that feels like a gut punch, I suppose it should—for all of us waiting for a verdict … while white.
#3 Even so, I would not want to be Derek Chauvin. I get it. The man kneeled on another man’s neck until he died—while “relaxed” enough to have a vacant look on his face and a hand in the pocket. He was supremely confident of the power whiteness invested in him. And he deserves to be found guilty and held accountable. That said, let’s not make him larger than life. He is little more than a gargoyle in the architecture of white supremacy. By focusing too much on the sweet taste of vengeance (and calling it justice), we settle for knocking one gargoyle off the trim while barely damaging the building itself.
Worse, we might imagine that a guilty verdict on Chauvin serves to acquit the rest of us. The same way we imagined electing Obama meant racism was over. Chauvin is fully responsible for his own actions. But right now, we’ve loaded onto him something close to the whole history of race and policing in America. And that’s not only unfair to him, but even more so it tempts the rest of us who are white to let his place in white supremacy cover over our own. And that’s something we cannot afford to do as we wait for a verdict … while white.
#4 Of course, I would ALSO not want to be George Floyd. But the very point is, I never would be George Floyd. My long hair, my inclusive theology, my radical politics—all choices I make to express the values I embrace—might make me target of some. But the unchosen color of my skin has never exposed me to the immediate abrasive social forces, or the geologic weight of racialized history, or the dehumanizing glance of policing. No small measure of my discomfort rests in the gap between my life and his as I find myself waiting for a verdict while white.
#5 I feel the rising discontent among my friends. Like a tree that groans in the storm before it snaps, I hear the creaking tension in the conversation threads in some of my Facebook communities. Like fault lines present since forever, but in recent weeks wound so tightly that the very ground even between friends now trembles and threatens to fracture. Here is the pitched contradiction of our lives: even among people of honest good will there are real differences of perspective and, just as often, real distortions of understanding bequeathed to us long ago by those who loved us. The hard truth of this moment is that the path toward justice involves relinquishing “truths” that have guided our lives and guarded our communities for so long that they have come to feel at once common sense and sacred … despite the havoc they’ve played beyond our field of vision. Will our friendships survive this verdict? Should they?
I do not post the question lightly. Relationships open up important avenues for conversation and transformation. But there are moments when affirming the messy truth right now no matter what takes precedence over tending relationships. I find no easy answer as I find myself waiting for a verdict … while white.
# 6 I am not excited about the prospects of more “looting.” I put it in quotes because the word itself drips with power. My whiteness is defined by its historical permission to loot. And my socio-economic position (precarious though it may feel) is, in fact, defined by the lingering echo of looting done on my behalf. The land I call my country—including the tenth acre here on Blair Avenue to which I hold title—looted. By settler conquest, by genocidal military actions and political-cultural policies, by unfair treaties, broken as deemed necessary or convenient. Moreover, the economic assets (never more than middle class) that secure my present are indelibly “indebted” (quaint word!) to having looted the labor, the lives, the very children of Africans enslaved to build white wealth in generations before me.
Even today, when low wages, investment practices, and a whole system of economic-legal rules penalize the poor—To. My. Implicit. But. Undeniable. Benefit.—what is that, but “legalized looting”? So while I know that the less legally authorized looting that may follow a verdict will harm specific businesses—some of them minority-owned—I also know that this looting (unlike that done on behalf of my whiteness) is at least motivated by legitimate anguish and outrage rooted in real history. Imprecise. Incidentally unfair. In some ways acts of self-harm by a community whose pain is unfathomable. But as someone awaiting a verdict … while white, it is more understandable than I can bear.
#7 I tremble for my children. More than I, they will reap the whirlwind of this verdict. And in very different ways. Altogether, when I tally up those who count as my children by genes or marriage or heart, and when I add in their partners, there are twelve. Three are white; three are brown; four are mixed heritage (some more visibly so than others), and two are black. Their lives—and their children’s lives—will carry the consequences of this verdict into an uncertain future. And I can only hope they find ways to listen across the hues of their skin and the differences of their lived experience toward a day when justice and more is available to each of them in full measure—and when the threat of racist violence that looms openly over at least five of their lives has been eclipsed.
My parental love for each of them aches—and for each one differently as I find myself waiting for a verdict … while white.
David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.