On Sunday I gave a sermon titled, “Facing Our Fears: A Spiritual Practice.” The topic had been on the docket for a month, but after Mike Brown’s death and the subsequent police state in Ferguson, MO, I reworked the sermon to what could have been called “Fear and Ferguson: Talking to Each Other About Race.”
Two nights after I led the service, my friend Eric “DJE” Jackson called from Chicago. He had watched my sermon online. (It’s on YouTube here.) He took me seriously when I said white people, myself included, need to rise above the tendency to take the race and equality discussion personally, that we need to seek out and be present for the perspectives of people of color. He gave me the chance to listen.
I’m a talker. I’m a reader. But to simply sit down and listen — first for 40 minutes on the phone Tuesday night, then for almost two hours last night — was truly a gift.
This is a long but, I assure you, compelling read. When we were done, it felt like no time had passed. We could have kept talking and listening for so much longer. But it’s a start.
I encourage anyone—whatever skin color, whatever background—to put your feet up and experience one person’s heartfelt perspective on where America is, how we got here, and where we can go next.
The Admiration Society readers, I’m pleased to introduce you to Eric Jackson, 43, a DJ from the South Shore area of Chicago’s South Side.
Here we are at live band karaoke in Chicago circa 2008, trying to squeeze in for a selfie back before that was a term (L to R, me, Eric, and our dear friend Ky).
Here’s Eric and his dad in Chicago, after going to see the recent James Brown biopic.
Eric had never shared his thoughts on race or America or any of this with me before. We have been friends for eight years. We agree it is such a shame it took a tragedy for us to have this conversation.
We hope our conversation will help inspire more friends and neighbors and strangers to really talk, listen, and get to a place of compassion and unity.
ERIN J. WALTER: Thank you so much for calling last night and for agreeing to do this interview tonight. I’m really just excited for me to get to listen some more—and excited for other people to hear what you have to say, especially about the opportunity we have here to finally move forward with the race discussion.
ERIC “DJE” JACKSON: Whites and blacks come to race with preconceived notions. Sometimes you have to step back, not put yourself completely into it, not worry about, “How does this make me feel?” and instead think about, “What is going on and how does this situation affect others?”
I know what I’m going to feel, so I don’t always have to put it out there. I guess some people would call that biting your tongue, but I try to listen and take in another person’s perspective. That’s what people really want. They want you to hear it from their perspective, to understand—”don’t try to change what I’m saying, just take it in and see where I’m coming from.” When you have disagreements, a lot of times neither party is willing to step back and say, “I will see it from your perspective right now. You can listen to my perspective another day.” In the heat of the moment, everybody wants to strike with their best arguments.
EJW: Is that what you think is happening now?
DJE: America has been at this point before. Since blacks were freed in this country, it has been a situation of, “What do we do with them?” You can’t deport us. You brought us here. We’re here. But back in those times we weren’t even considered fully human, a whole person. When you have a society that looks upon another group of people as not really human, what do you do? We’re free: What? Tell us what? "You get 40 acres and a mule." OK, well, where’s my 40 acres and mule? “We can’t give that to you.” OK, well we’ll work. Pay us a fair wage. We’re no strangers to hard work. We’ll pick cotton—just pay us our wages. “No, we can’t do that.”
We keep getting to these crossroads negotiating with a group of people about how they’re supposed to survive in this land. “Just don’t bother us. Go do your thing.” OK, but when we do finally go off and make our things, we make our own cowboy town or something like that, corporate greed comes into play. “You’ve got your own little town over there. The railroad’s coming through town. We want that town. You gotta go. We’re not going to share any of that profit with you. Move along.” No, we don’t want to move along. We’ve got families here. And you get to this point where there’s violence and displacement.
Eventually people move. Then during the years of the Jim Crow era, it’s, “Y’all stay there. Don’t use our washrooms or water fountains. Two separate worlds. Black people over there. White people over there.” But white people were always crossing the tracks into our world. “Ooh, what are y’all doing down there? What’s that music y’all are making? That’s cool.” [Laughs.] We’ve always been exploited. Modern rock-n-roll, you wouldn’t have without Little Richard.
You always get to this point of almost wanting to have a discussion about racial equality and then it never takes place.
Fast-forward to now. Even with the Rodney King situation, America was so on edge. It was a great time to really get this out—let’s talk about it. “No, we’re just going to give Rodney King some money, put him in front of cameras and have him say, ‘Can’t we all just get along?’”
No one has the answers. That’s the problem, I think. It’s such a garden of snakes. No one knows how to fix it. So let’s sweep it under the rug until later. Maybe people will forget about it. Maybe in another 50 years it will go away.
Same with the Trayvon Martin situation. I hate the fact that it always takes a martyr to get it going. Without those martyrs we don’t get to this point.
I’m so afraid right now — not of the violence and what’s coming down the pike. I’m afraid that once again people are going to get too frustrated and we’ll miss the window of opportunity. Someone on my Facebook was posting, “Can someone please stop posting these police brutality videos, I’m tired of it.” Well, imagine how tired people are who actually deal with police brutality in their lives?
DJE: Where are all the true community leaders? We need to have a real dialogue. The outrage and violence [in Ferguson]—it’s because of the violence that’s already there. I feel sorry for the parents of the young man who got shot in the streets. It shouldn’t have to be something like this that we have to piggyback [on to have these conversations].
We get to the point and we say, “See we’ve been telling you this has been going on.” I’m not down there in Missouri. I don’t know all the circumstances in that town. But this situation has made national attention to the point that you have to have the discussion. Because if we don’t have the discussion it’s going to go away and it’s going to happen again. It takes something extreme to get us to this point.
EJW: How can we have the conversation? What kind of conversation do you think needs to happen?
DJE: When it comes to talking about race, I’m not talking about just having blacks come with the golden list of problems of everything that’s wrong in this country. We know it’s messed up. We need to come to the table with how we can get on more equal footing.
What is it that these urban communities need? Everyone says it’s voting. But how can you fix it without the discussion—if you don’t know the needs of the people? If we get the communities to a level where they don’t fear or feel outrage… I’m not living in a fairy tale. I know we’re not going to be there right away… . But we at least need to feel respected and know that our rights are going to be protected as human beings. If we can get to that, we can have more discussion and get to a point of “you’re no different than I am” and figure out how to work together.
Everyone talks about the 1%. There’s more poverty-stricken people in this country than rich people. Why are we still taking orders? It’s a lack of communication. Whatever distraction there is — fear, hate — that distraction is not letting me see you and have compassion for you. That’s what’s missing is compassion.
I can’t speak for all black people. My god, I sure can’t do that. But from what I observe, we don’t have compassion because we’re continually lied to. When you get lied to so much, and railroaded so much, you tend to lose that compassion. The compassion, I believe, is going to have to come from white people. White people are going to have to have that compassion and say, “We’re going to do this” and stick to it. Not feel pity. Not feel pity. Not guilty compassion. Just, “we know you don’t get a fair shake and I’m going to figure out how to use my white privilege to help you.”
When you have compassion in place, then we can move forward. Both races will then see, “you’re not the problem.” If you have a person of one skin color living in house A and a person of another skin color is living in house B, and the king is causing the problems for both houses, but the houses are not allowed to talk to each other, the king is up there saying, “I’m glad they’re not talking to each other, because if they ever find out, they might come after me.”
This thing is bigger than just race. It’s about the haves and have-nots. Look around. We have to fight in Congress just to raise the minimum wage. “Oh, we can’t do that.” What do you mean you can’t do that? You make millions — billions! And you can’t give me a living wage? You’re putting a boot on my neck.
I really don’t worry about the white people in my neighborhood. The simple fact that they live in my neighborhood means they’re in the same situation I’m in. If anybody had a choice to live where I live, they wouldn’t be here. If someone said you have three wishes, pick anywhere you want to live, the best scenery, whatever your heart desires, it’s not here, the heart of the ghetto.
So it’s not about — it’s not just about — race. It’s not just about color. It’s about rich and poor. The people who are supposed to protect us — “to serve and protect” … Well, you see all the examples of police brutality and you have to ask questions. If you’re shooting unarmed people—if you’re not “serving and protecting” us—who are you serving and protecting? So, now you have to look at the money. Follow the money.
It’s so sad to see people tear up their own communities out of frustration. But these incidents keep coming back around. If you don’t learn a lesson, you’re doomed to repeat the experience. Obviously we keep repeating this experience because obviously somebody is not learning the lesson.
EJW: What do you think the lesson is that people are not learning?
DJE: Compassion. But it’s hard to ask the people who are being oppressed to have compassion, so it has to start from the other side. That’s not necessarily saying it has to come from white folks, but it has to come from the people with money and power. Still, that’s almost like asking a corporation, “Could you please start being nice to us?”
You might say, how do we fix this? I feel you can vote until your fingers turn blue. It’s going to do something, but it’s not going to do everything you need it to do. Everybody comes out to vote on the big league election, for the president. But the elections you need to worry about are the ones for your alderman, your congressman in your area.
What do they call it in Austin?
EJW: City council.
DJE: OK, so city council—start making those the elections to watch. You can get at your alderman. You can go knock on the door and go, “Hey! You’re fucking up!” You can go tap on the window of the office and say, “Hey! What are you doing? You’re messing up!”
You work up from the community level. Start getting your community together. You start putting your city council on alert, like, “Hey, we’ll vote you on out of here! If you don’t do right by us, you won’t do but one term here.” When they catch wind of that, you’ll be a force to be reckoned with. You gotta send that shot across the bow that if you run for office, you’d better do right by the people.
When it gets to the presidential point, the game is already rigged. Go back to when George W. Bush was going to leave office. You talk about missing the golden life raft! That was the moment! When George Bush was finishing out his term, everybody was mad. Everybody was feeling the pinch. It was like, “Oh my god, this dude is messing it up for me and I’m white! He done messed up the whole game!” That was the one time I know in my short little life when I felt like, “Wow! Change can really happen!” Everybody felt like that because everybody was in the same boat. Everybody was getting screwed over at the same time. That was the opportunity for discussion about race and this and that, because everybody was just about on the same page finally.
And I hate to use those little conspiracy words, like “they” and “those” because it makes you sound like a nutball. [Laughs.] But you know what I’m saying. The haves, that 1% that have money, I think they actually saw, “Hey, if we don’t get control of this situation, it’ll all come crumbling down.” They played the one card they had: “Let’s simmer this down. Let’s give ‘em a black president.” Everybody was walking in the street, smiling, like “Yeah! Yeah! Black president!” [We both laugh now because, both living in Chicago at the time, we remember. People of all races truly were high-fiving on the trains on their way to work in the morning.]
And now come to find out, he was just a puppet head. I’m not dismissing the work he has done, but it’s nowhere near what people expected and hoped for.
So that’s when I get back to the point of violence. I don’t condone it, but it’s very necessary sometimes. It’s a shame that it is. But when you get to the point of rioting — not looting or smashing things but protesting in the true sense of the word, and not just walking down the street singing “We Shall Overcome” — we have to show that we are really upset.
Have you seen the movie Network?
EJW: Yeah, totally.
DJE: You have to get mad. You have to be upset. You have to be frustrated. You have to say, “Enough is enough!” People are getting frustrated to that level because now you’re at the end of your rope. You’re like, “I don’t care if I get arrested. I’m going to make my voice be heard.”
Hip-hop songs used to talk about this all the time. That’s the reason why I used to love rap music. It’s so sad that I can constantly find a rap song from the ‘90s or even the ‘80s to describe what’s happening 2014. True rappers have been telling you this is happening, this is coming, for so long.
DJE, far left, at Chicago Hip Hop Legends ReUnion 2013
They’ve been doing all these simulations of urban combat, urban assault. They’re coming for somebody. I don’t know what it’s going to be, if the whole civilization is going to be on lockdown. But if we don’t start coming together as a unified people, it’s going to be too late. We’ve got to stop letting the distraction game keep us from coming together.
The media is owned by big corporations. How are you going to get someone to be biased against their boss? It’s not going to happen. They report what people are supposed to hear so they stay pacified. That’s why I love people like you who write their own little blogs and spread the word themselves. If you keep relying on corporations to tell you the news, you’re going down the wrong path. Right now, people who eat up the mainstream media, those are the zombies in The Walking Dead.
EJW: So what’s your favorite news source?
DJE: Quite honestly, I don’t have a favorite news source. What you have to do is what you’ve been taught to do—No, I can’t say that because they took it out of the urban schools. But there used to be a time when they taught you this: critical thinking. “If you sit around doing some critical thinking, you ain’t working. And we want you working.” What I do is I examine information. That’s what everybody should do, instead of just taking it. God gave you the best tool on earth, your brain. You need to start using it.
Bottom line? The truth is the truth, and the truth will always stand out. The truth cannot help but stand out. No matter how many lies you surround it with, the truth is like, “What’s that right there?” With lies, you can poke holes if you ask the right questions. But the truth, no matter how many times you flip it, smack it up, rub it down, the truth is what it is. [Laughs] The problem is deception can get people off the track of what’s truth. How you discover that is—when someone leads you down the wrong path, they gotta keep putting the path down in front of you so you can keep going. You have to do long-term thinking. It’s like CandyCrush.
EJW: I’ve never played CandyCrush.
DJE: Well, no matter how far you get on the game, they keep adding more levels. It’s like a game you can’t win because you can never get to the end. The truth is at the end, and the truth should never be that hard to find. If it is, you know you’re being deceived and you need to step back and re-examine. In CandyCrush, they just keep adding levels. When I figured that out, I stopped playing.
EJW: What is missing from the reporting and analysis you see right now?
DJE: The window is closing. I’m curious: How are they going to pacify the people? You know it’s coming. We don’t know what it is. But they need something so everybody says, “Oh, it’s OK now. Go to sleep now, little babies.” I’m not saying we need to go on forever in the streets. People in Missouri need to get some kind of organizing—some kind of organization needs to come along to keep dialogue going. It can’t be like, “The cop goes to jail! Yay! It’s over!” If that happens, a couple months from now you and I are going to be on the phone having another conversation. It has to turn into real dialogue.
The mainstream media is trying to figure out how to pacify people, like, “Let’s get a hold of this situation.” And then what interests me is the mass amount of deception that’s still going along with it, the misleading information. The way they always portray the young person that got killed—the way they released the police information [Darren Wilson’s name] but also, “here’s the video of the guy robbing the store.” But from what I understand, that video is not even him. The media’s job right now — they’re creating the air of doubt — so when the case comes out the kid is painted as a thug or a criminal. But none of that matters because there’s no reason why a young person with no weapon should be shot six times. Even if he did rob a store for cigars, what would justify shooting him 6 times?
Anybody can look like a thug. And on top of that, it’s trendy to look like a thug. Let’s be real about it. Society plays this game. They sell these images. You’ve got your Justin Timberlakes and your Justin Biebers dressing urban because they think it’s cool, and then they charge you oodles of extra money to look like a thug. If you want to look poor, if you want to look like a thug, go to the Salvation Army, buy a box of used clothes — let me stop playing. Come on. They are selling you an image and people are buying right into it. I’m selling you a thug image and you’re playing your game at your own risk. You’ve got to get away from stereotype snap judgments.
EJW: Is there anything else we talked about last night that you’d like to get on the record tonight?
DJE: I would like people to understand that this is not an isolated incident. It’s not, “Oh, this young man is so uppity or crazy or on drugs.” You have to understand that this can happen to anybody, not just a black person. Anybody. Hispanic, white, Asian, it can happen to YOU. It’s just that when it happens to us, no one speaks up for us. When it happens to white people, someone is there to file charges and get their day in court and get money and maybe the cop will get fired. But we don’t have that.
The system is broken and it needs to be reexamined at the local level. People, understand, you have to get at your councilman. At your alderman. At the local level. If we keep trying to go fix the top, it’s never going to get fixed.
You can file your reports, but if enough people go to the alderman and complain and say, “Your election is coming up,” they’ll get the message. It’s not a threat. It’s just saying, "Why do we need you if you’re not taking care of us? Your job is not to oversee us. Your job is to take care of us when things aren’t working."
For everybody, understand, slavery is still alive. The plantation is just the whole country now. At first you used to be able to see that if you went past the fencepost, you were off the plantation and they would send the overseer to come get you. Now there are no borders. It’s an economic slavery. Everyone is in the same boat because of the economic engine. It’s an economic slavery, so to speak. That’s the best way I can put it. [Book recommendation: The New Jim Crow.]
It’s so sad. I feel so sorry for the parents of this young man and parents of Trayvon Martin and parents of anybody who had to be the martyr. Because we have to piggyback this frustration on top of that. In actuality, everyone should be enraged because this cop did this terrible thing, but it’s packaged with all these other things. Why does someone need to get killed? Why does someone have to die to get to this point—to piggyback all my other frustrations on top of that? It’s too much to dialogue.
The dialogue on diversity is a long one. It’s not a short one. It’s a lot of clearing weeds. It’s going to take some time, probably another generation, to make sure checks and balances are in place, because it’s so ingrained in this country. I know I might sound like I’m somebody who hates this country. No! I love this country! But I know it’s not meant for me—at least that’s how I feel at this moment. And I know other black people wake up feeling that way.
KRS-One put it best, “We are like homeless people in a country.” Ignorant people say, “Why don’t you just go back to Africa?” We’re not from there. We’re not of there. But we’re not from here either. It’s like, “Dang, I’m not even home at home.” The best comparison is like being a homeless person. We can’t be kicked out. We can’t be deported. But we almost can’t be here either. It’s a long, interwoven discussion about black people in America, and that’s the discussion no one really wants because no one knows how to tackle it.
Every time it gets pushed off to another generation, it gets deeper and deeper. Nothing should be that big. Nothing should be that complicated. But it is. How do you unwind this thing? I don’t have the answer. Maybe one of your smart readers can answer. How do we tackle this? What are the questions? I find if we ask the right questions, we get better answers. It’s like playing a crazy game of Jeopardy. What’s the right question to ask? That’s something people have to sit and think about long and hard.
At some point this country is going to have to accept us. You say you do, but you don’t. At some point there’s got to be true acceptance. Having a black president is not it. This country is so driven by the economic engine, what has to change is releasing some of that wealth from the upper class. This is not just for blacks.
I genuinely believe people don’t really want much. People have this dream of being rich, and the only reason they really want to be rich is because they’re tired of being poor! You get tired of getting up every day just so I can live “comfortably,” but I’m stressing about bills. When I start talking to people, just really talking to them, most people don’t really care about being rich. But if all my bills can be paid and I don’t have to worry about getting money together for getting my car fixed—if I knew I had some money saved, my kids could go to school, and I could pay for things and take an occasional vacation—most people would take that. They just need enough, enough to be satisfied. I don’t need my gold house and my rocket car like on the Simpsons. [Laughs] I just want to buy groceries and take kids to the doctor and enjoy a few trinkets without worrying, “Did I go over today?”
If the people who have all the cards in their hands would release a little, it would get easier to have this discussion. Right now they have us fighting over crumbs. It’s sickening. It’s tiring.
Why does the corporation have the same rights as a human being? Why is a corporation considered a person? That needs to be shut down. That’s what we can tackle once we get unity. We need to get unity at the bottom and then we can challenge these policies like “a corporation is a person.” I don’t need a book to know this stuff. I’m just paying attention.
EJW: Thank you so much, Eric. I really appreciate your time.
DJE: How was it, on this journey through my mind? [Laughs.] I don’t usually let people come in, I just took you around the hotel lobby and down some hallways.
EJW: Ha! Thank you for letting me in. [Pause.] There is so much to unravel and it’s so complicated and—
DJE: No, really! How was it?
EJW: It was awesome.
DJE: It’s a good thing to have somebody documenting. It’s really sad that more people can’t take the time out to document, especially in our community. Obviously white people do that really great. All movies are is white people telling their stories. We’ve got more than 100 years of white people telling their stories. It’s easy for me to say, “I kind of know you because everything here in this country is you and I’m kind of forced to learn it.” Our big blockbuster movies—I mean, watching white people is even our enjoyment! We go to the movies to watch you guys! I watch you all the time! [Laughs.]
You don’t watch us. Y’all like the way we sing and dance. You will listen to us. You might not understand what we’re saying because we use a lot of slang. [Laughs.] You know I say that with good intentions. But y’all don’t watch us the way we have to watch you.
So much love and thanks to Eric “DJE” Jackson, and to anyone reading. Please share the link and tell us about conversations you are having, questions you’re asking, and opportunities for action. - Erin
Erin J. Walter is a writer, mother, musician, activist, and Master of Divinity student at Unitarian Universalist seminary Meadville Lombard in Chicago. She lives in Austin, Texas. You can follow Erin on Twitter and Instagram @erinjwalter.
Eric “DJE” Jackson is a Chicago DJ. Check him out online at http://reverbnation.com/dje. (The last photo above is his DJ logo.)