PART I : THE INTERNAL BATTLE
I thought I was ok. I thought I had gone through the mental acrobatics of trying to process what I witnessed on social media last week: A police officer murdering a Black man named George Floyd. I have seen and heard this story many times. It is something many people who look like me and come from neighborhoods like mine in Oakland have come to expect, another landmine we hope to never accidentally step on. Somehow, for the last 37 years, I have avoided it and been able to graduate from UC Berkeley, play 15 years in the NFL, be married for 12.5 years, have 4 beautiful children, and serve my community. But because the color of my skins precedes who I am, some people will always view me as a threat. But that is my reality and regretfully, I have accepted that for my own life. But as I thought about my own children, in particular my boys, my body was overwhelmed by sadness and fear as I shared a story about one of my sons during an interview on a local Phoenix media outlet.
Everything that could go wrong flooded my mind and I could no longer hold back the tears as I tried to explain how I was feeling when my oldest son Mason had ridden his bike around the corner and was gone much longer than I felt comfortable with. Would someone see him and think he didn’t belong in the neighborhood? Would someone think he was vandalizing property? I could not fathom the thought of someone seeing my 10 year old son as less than the awesome person he is and feel the need to call the police on him. So I jumped in my truck and went to make sure my son was okay. A few short blocks away I found him in a construction site playing in the dirt as he used the holes in the ground as a cool dirt bike race track. I played it cool so he would not sense my fear and made sure to let him know not to go on someone’s property without permission. All the while, in the back of my mind I was relieved that no one had approached him. Eventually, I was able to push back the tears and finish the interview. But the reality of the situation remained. So where do I go from here?
I know the first step is remembering who I am and who God has created me to be, and not what man expects of me. I’m reminded of 2 Timothy 1:7 that God didn’t give me a Spirit of fear but of love, power and sound mind. And when I have allowed the Spirit to dwell within me, everything I have done has been amplified. I relate to people better because I’m leading with love and not my pain and fear. I realize all things are possible even when faced with opposition, and I’m not overwhelmed because I have the energy, focus and discipline to sustain. And when called upon, I will have the ability to discern and make wise decisions based on truth and patience. And so I remind myself of this scripture daily because when I turn on the TV or scroll through social media it is easy to feel discouraged. However, when I’m abiding in Spirit, I can walk daily with the conviction, confidence and consistency needed to conquer racism.
Part 2 : The External Battle
The assault on racism and the systemic oppression in our country is the main objective. But how did we get here? Why is it so hard to eradicate racism? I’ve had the luxury of sharing my perspective with a lot of people over the last three weeks, especially with my White friends. I’ve attempted to provide my perspective on White privilege, Black Lives Matter and crime in the Black community, and afterward, there is a better sense of understanding. Defensive walls begin to come down because they no longer feel under attack. They begin to receive the message that All Lives Matter cannot be true until Black Lives Matter, or that White privilege does not mean you haven’t dealt with adversity. Life is hard! However, having White skin shields them from having to talk to their 10 year old son about how people may treat them because he’s Black even though he’s a great person, or when applying for a mortgage, having to decide whether or not to reveal their ethnicity in fear of a higher interest rate or being denied. To me the explanation is that simple, and that’s why I have felt frustrated, shocked, you name it, when I have to keep coming up with another analogy to explain something that is so obvious. But the more of these conversations I have with White people, the more I realize how different our life experiences have been, and why when we see and hear the same message or event, we perceive them much differently.
For the most part, our country is segregated. People mostly live with people who look alike, think alike and believe the same things. Those communities develop shared experiences and their own perspective of how the world works. And until recently, we have been having a conversation as if White people should understand our oppression, and White people have had a misunderstanding of what the Black community has been saying, and in some cases denying the Black experience because it devalued their accomplishments or made them feel uncomfortable and insecure about their connection to a racist heritage. As a result, everyone is offended and guarded which prevents the possibility to collectively move towards change. So clear communication is essential, but how the communication takes place is just as important. I know we can all relate to our moms telling us, “It’s not what you say but how you say it.” This bit of wisdom I learned from my mom years ago has helped me reassess my approach and instead of being locked and loaded with points and counterpoints, I’m asking questions and listening, which has helped me articulate my perspective better. I have to meet people where they’re at. Some are further along than others, but wherever they are, I’m responsible in helping to cultivate an environment and relationship that will lead to understanding, empathy and ultimately, reconciliation.
But before we move forward we need to come to grips with our ugly past and acknowledge that the system is not broken, but working as it should, which is to oppress the Black community. The point isn’t to make White people feel bad, but for them to better understand why there is an outcry for why Black lives need to matter too.
Recently I was listening to Pastor Brett Fuller speak as he led a diverse panel in a discussion on race relations in our country. I thought he did a great job defining terms before they started so everyone was using the same language. He defined three terms: prejudice, bigotry and racism, which in today’s vernacular are unconscious bias, racism and systemic racism. An unconscious bias refers to someone’s preconceived notion based on opinion, not fact. And if not addressed, the root of the biased thought can transform into racism. Racism is defined as hate or disdain for someone merely because of their skin color or culture. And systemic racism is the outward acts of oppression which can manifest itself in many ways, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration. Racism is intertwined in every aspect of our society: the police, the legal system, politics and education. And this shouldn’t come as any surprise since our country gained its power and its place in the world on the backs of enslaved people.
For over 250 years, Black people were enslaved and not seen as people, then as only 3/5 of a person, then endured Jim Crow laws, and if being oppressed was not enough, anytime Black communities pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, as they did in Tulsa, they were massacred. But that was years ago and things are much better, some might say. I would ask those people, how so? We may see successful Black individuals, but still oppression and racism remain. Let us not forget that LeBron James, one of the most respected, successful and impactful people on the planet, had a racial slur spray painted on his home. So let’s not be naive and think racism doesn’t exist or somehow disappeared; it hasn’t! The only things that have changed are the tactics and the methods used to oppress the Black community. Instead of voter oppression being carried out by the KKK verbally intimidating and physically abusing the Black community, we see voting locations in Black communities understaffed and with broken machines. Instead of utilizing slavery, we watch the legal system incarcerate Black men 19.1% longer than those of White men convicted of the same crimes, and instead of slave patrols capturing and lynching people running for their freedom, we witness police officers murder and brutalize Black people.
So how do we eradicate something woven into the fabric of our nation? I know the powers that be are not going to submit and allow the Black community the opportunity to thrive on equal ground. I know racist hearts won’t change quickly, if at all, but just acknowledging that Black lives matter isn’t enough. Black people are deserving and worthy of much more, such as equality, peace and hope. But in this current system, a lot of things have to happen to even scratch the surface of achieving those rights. As I previously mentioned, I have been fortunate enough to be successful, but it only takes one person who doesn’t know me to steal my life, joy and peace because of the color of my skin, my children’s skin, my community’s skin. Turning a blind eye isn’t an option. For a long time I stayed in my lane, and maybe you have too, and focused on issues where there wasn’t any push back. For me, that was serving our young people and rarely addressing the systems and individuals maintaining status quo over the Black community. Well no more just staying in my lane! In order for us to maintain this momentum and create sustaining change, we need everyone.
Part 3 : The Battle
Whether it’s an officer murdering George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, or someone assuming I cannot afford an expensive item merely because I’m Black, it is all part of the problem. So how do we mobilize, strategize and sustain a movement strong enough to create systemic change that promotes equality? And more importantly, how do we change those hearts rooted in fear, anger and hatred running these systems and living in our communities? Both are necessary, but the latter is more important as seen in the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which was established to promote Black head coaches being hired. In a league where 70% of the players are Black, only 4 teams have minority head coaches. (Hyperlink https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/sam-acho-upstairs-and-downstairs-nfl-rooney-rule). Legislation reform is progress, but if the hearts and minds of those implementing the policy hasn’t changed, then progress will be minimal. Both heart and policy reform are part of the solution, and as we have these hard and honest conversations, we need to make sure we are truly being vulnerable.
Generally in times of chaos I don’t wait to figure out what’s going on. Instead, I rush into things, make stupid mistakes and feel deflated, especially in areas outside of my expertise. I feel like I need to do something but don’t know what to do, so I just respond in the moment, which tends to not be impactful or sustaining. I have come to realize that it is best to be patient to gain a better understanding. This method has allowed me to work through my pain, pray, invite God into the situation and establish a vision for how I can best serve moving forward based on God’s wisdom and not my will.
There are so many areas in our country that need to be addressed, but it will take intentionality and collaborative effort from people of all ethnicities. Police policy reform has been at the forefront of the conversations, but we need to make sure we have a holistic approach as we move forward. I encourage everyone to identify an area where their skill, platform and privilege can be leveraged to best promote change. During my time of prayer and reflection, I have identified three areas where I can help move the needle in a positive direction. Politics, discipleship and education are areas in which I plan to help because they intersect with many issues impacting the Black community.
Regrettably, one of my blind spots growing up was politics. I never paid too much attention. It never occurred to me to consider the power and control politicians had and how their policies impacted the Black community. Black codes, mass incarceration, and the militarizing of the police are all government policies that have had a negative impact. And even when I got involved, it was later in the campaign process and I would vote along party lines. My vote counted, but it was lackluster in many ways because I wasn’t completed invested. I was choosing on the basis of public opinion. I hadn’t done my homework. I hadn’t invested the time to identify a candidate I felt most aligned with politically and ethically. Moving forward, I will take ownership of the process on a local and national level, educating myself on the issues and the candidates, not just by what they are saying at the time to draw favor, but what their body of work looks like. How are their policies going to impact the collective, especially those who are not represented?
Too often our assessment is too narrow and focused only on policy and how it will benefit ourselves. But I’ve learned that what’s good for me isn’t always what’s best for the whole, and good policy without principled leadership will be disastrous. Part of my process will include finding out who the candidates are. What have they fought for? Who are the people and organizations advising them, but more importantly, how have they led? Are they inclusive and bring people together to inspire solutions? Have they demonstrated humility and a willingness to place qualified advisors around them? I realize there are no perfect candidates, but if we identify and support men and women who have demonstrated a high standard, then we will have more deserving individuals to vote into office to influence change.
If we are able to replace current leadership and policy, the plight of the Black community will improve. But people like myself have to continue to be intentional about going back to the places we grew up, or to similar communities, and disciple and educate young people about how to find success, which is a hard thing to do. If you have achieved any type of success, you realized that it is buried under a pile of failure and distractions. We all know the quickest path from point A to point B is a straight line, but nothing about my life could be confused with a straight line. I have made bad decisions, suffered injuries, and been told I wasn’t good enough. There was a point early in my NFL career I thought about giving up after not being drafted, not playing and eventually being cut. The beginning part of my career was filled with failure and it took some encouraging words from my mom and uncle to see past those setbacks to believe in myself and realize the dream I had since I was 5 years old. Unfortunately, not everyone has the same support and it’s up to me and you to fill the role as mentors and help young people see past the failure and oppression, realize their power and potential, and walk alongside them to help them achieve their dreams.
In 2008 I started ACES (hyperlink lorenzoalexander.org) to help provide resources and relationships to underserved youth in Oakland. We have collaborated with various organizations around the country and impacted thousands of people. But my greatest growth occurred when I invested my time and shared my experiences and wisdom. I remember a couple enrichment trips where young people saw a different future for themselves, a different reality and how that changed their habits and mindset. You don’t have to have a ton of money to create change; all you need to do is build a relationship and walk through life with someone providing love and wisdom along the way. Moving forward, my plan is to develop a disciple group of young student athletes.
One of the hardest things to come to grips with is that our time is limited. I really enjoy discipling and educating young people, but it became apparent that our interactions were a small part of their day, and at times lack consistency. Honestly, sometimes I forget how hard growing up in an environment like Oakland was and how many people it took inside and outside of the home. Being a parent reminds me how hard raising children is, but it is still easy to forget what my mentee has to go home to and become frustrated with their decisions and lack of progress. But then the Spirit smacks me in the face and I’m reminded of the hardships of parenting and the village of people it took to keep me on the right path. This is why I’m all in on discipling young people, but if I don’t hold people in power accountable for their words, policies and actions, I’m failing to optimize my influence and platform to help change Black youth’s daily experiences. Educating and providing guidance helps, but it could be so much more impactful if young people didn’t have to overcome the adversity naturally produced by living in systemic racism intentionally designed to keep them from what they were created for, greatness.
This is the way I plan to change the world and hopefully create a legacy my children can be proud of. But it isn’t the only way. We have all been gifted in different ways. So go! Have these uncomfortable conversations to gain understanding and after some serious prayer and discussion you can establish the best ways to use your skill set to promote change. This is an all hands on deck moment and will require everyone intentionally doing their part to see real change.