Looking the Other Way

by The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston

Here are three names to remember: Genarlow Wilson, Stepha Henry, and Edith Isabel Rodriguez.

Each of these names has been in the news recently. Each tells a different story but with a very familiar theme. I invite us to remember them now because each name will probably disappear soon as other stories emerge with other names. And yet, if we forget these three persons we may be failing to hear a wake up call that rings clearly in all of their experiences.

Genarlow Wilson was the young Black man who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for committing a consensual sex act with a 15 year old girl when he was 17. Stepha Henry was the young Black woman whose disappearance was largely eclipsed in the media by the frenzy over Paris Hilton’s court appearances. Edith Isabel Rodriguez was the Hispanic lady who died on the floor of the hospital emergency room while her family made desperate calls to 911.

In each case, the implications of racism are unmistakable.

Would Mr. Wilson have been so harshly sentenced if he were not Black? Is our justice system fair or is it compromised?

Are white abductions and disappearances treated more thoroughly in the press than those of other racial groups? Do we have a free and equal press, or only a corporate media outlet?

Is access to quality medical care really available to every citizen in our country? Are substandard medical facilities for the urban poor a double standard for health care where those who can afford it live and those who can’t die?

These are the questions behind the names. They are the questions behind the experiences of people of color in the United States. And they point to some of the core values of our society in some of the most critical areas of that society: the public media, the justice system, the health care system. These are not trivial concerns, but deeply embedded outcomes that are the direct result of systemic American racism. They challenge us not to look the other way.

In the days to come, as our attention is refocused onto other names and stories, we should remember these three names. We should remember the stories of three of our neighbors who never knew one another, but whose lives strangely illuminated our shared reality, even if only for a moment. In a graphic way, they spotlighted the shadowy role that race continues to play in preventing our nation from ever becoming what it proclaims to be, a community where every citizen is treated fairly and given equal access to the basic rights of any human being. They embodied in a physical way what most of us already know. Young men of color going to court are constant reminders of our flawed culture and its broken system of administering the law. The extent of media coverage in America is in direct proportion to your skin color and your mailing address. Health care in the United States is a scandal, especially for those who have long ago fallen between its huge cracks of indifference. These are the foundational crises we confront and they all have the fault lines of racism running through them for any who would want to see. Genarlow, Stepha and Edith showed us those cracks. Their witness calls us to name what we see and to face the reality we have created.

We may forget the individual names, but we must never forget the story they tell.

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, former Bishop of Alaska, is president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, and keeper of the podcasting blog EDS’s Stepping Stones. A citizen of the Choctaw Nation, Bishop Charleston is widely recognized as a leading proponent for justice issues and for spiritual renewal in the church. He has been called “one of the best preachers in the Episcopal Church” and has written many articles on both Native American concerns and spirituality.

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