A Suburban Response to Racial Violence


From Ferguson to Charleston to Baltimore, racial violence is alive and well in America. But as urban peacemakers seek solutions, it’s a mistake for white suburbanites to paint racial violence as a city problem. Or worst yet, a black one.

Racial violence doesn’t exist in the suburbs. Or does it?

As a white suburbanite, it’s difficult to know how to respond to the racial violence unfolding across America. Here in the suburbs, most of us don’t consider ourselves to be violent people. So, when we read headlines about police brutality and riots in the streets, we mentally line up on the side of peace and go about our business.

I’m not saying it’s right. It’s just the way it is.

Suburban living makes it easy to sidestep conversations about racial violence. As homogeneous, residential enclaves, the suburbs do a good job insulating us from the problems that plague urban centers.

While more and more people of color are moving out of the cities, suburban communities are highly segregated. Consider the disparities in the following statistics:

  • People of color represent 35% of the suburban population, roughly the same percentage as the overall U.S. population.
  • More than half of all racial groups in large metro areas (including blacks) now live in the suburbs.
  • Yet, in the suburbs, blacks and Hispanics with annual incomes over $75,000 live in areas with higher poverty rates than whites who make less than $40,000.

Physical incidents of racial violence are rare or nonexistent in white suburbs because racial diversity is a concept — not a lived reality.

But physical violence isn’t the only form of violence in America.

  1. Cultural violence tells us that it’s okay to use violence to solve conflicts. It’s the acceptance and glorification of violence in a way that dehumanizes other people and lets us slip into an “us vs. them” mindset, no questions asked.
  2. Structural violence is hard-wired into the systems and structures of our society. It feeds on the inequities that divide groups of people based on race, zip code, paycheck and other factors.

Look behind the white picket fence and you’ll find a breeding ground for structural and cultural violence. White suburbanites can’t escape the problem of racial violence because we play a role in causing it.

We’re not on the same page about the causes of racial violence

A recent Wall St. Journal/NBC News poll showed that 96% of U.S. adults believe we’re in for a summer of racial unrest and violent protests. But when asked to identify the root cause for  violence in the streets, blacks and whites have very different perspectives.

  • Among black respondents, 60% believe that rioting in Baltimore was the result of longstanding frustrations about police mistreatment in the black community, while 27% believed it was caused by individuals who used the Freddie Gray incident as an excuse to commit crime.
  • For white respondents, perceptions were reversed — 58% believed that looters were looking for an excuse to commit crimes, while 32% believed that longstanding frustrations were the cause of violent protests.

In general, white people and black people have had different experiences in America. And we’re not even close to being on the same page when it comes to our perceptions about the root causes of racial violence and violent responses to injustice.

3 ways to respond to racial violence

Ignoring violence isn’t an option for Christians. In the gospels, Jesus is portrayed as a walking billboard for nonviolent peacemaking. But the rest of scripture is rife with references about the urgency of responding to violence, too.

Maybe Psalm 34:14 sums up the Christian response best:

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

Since neither violence nor passivity is spiritually acceptable, here are three ways that suburbanites can pursue peace and respond to racial violence:

1. Look inward.

Our first response to racial violence should be to examine the ways in which we participate in violence every day, including cultural and structural violence.

For example, while protesters were filling the streets of Baltimore last weekend, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao were boxing for a record $300 million purse, largely bankrolled by white suburbanites who dropped $100 to watch the event on pay-per-view.

2. Listen outward.

Shallow people view the world exclusively through their own experience. Suburban white communities and urban black communities have experienced violence differently. As much as possible, filter out the media noise and — with an open heart — look for opportunities to truly listen to what people of color are saying.

3. Move forward.

Nonviolence is a direction, not a destination. Because of the structural and cultural dimensions, no one is completely violent or non-violent. We’re all on a path. But rather than sitting still, start taking small steps — in your words, your decisions, in your personal interactions — toward making nonviolence a more important part of your life.


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