Andrea Ayvazian: Make ‘Ferguson’ a movement, not just a moment

Last modified: Monday, December 15, 2014

HAYDENVILLE — Over the past few weeks, I have been part of several gatherings to respond to Ferguson — now the code word for institutional racism in American society. These have included a large protest in downtown Northampton, a meeting of clergy who lamented and prayed, a dismantling racism workshop at church and a circle of friends who talked about grief, sorrow and redoubling our efforts to combat racism and injustice.

In every one of the gatherings, people have asked some version of the same questions: How could we be here again, or still? Doesn’t this pain and struggle feel horribly familiar? Haven’t we moved forward at all over the last 50 years? Why haven’t we, as a nation, made more progress?

Like everyone else at these meetings, I have wrung my hands with despair. Then this week, I spoke with the Rev. Da Vita McCallister, a pastor and anti-racism educator in Connecticut, who helped me understand what is happening. Rev. McCallister offered this metaphorical story to illuminate the tenacity and durability of racism in this country:

Imagine you own a farm. Imagine that your family has been growing corn on that farm for many generations, in fact for hundreds of years. During that entire time, the farmers in your family have been pouring toxic chemicals on the corn — huge amounts of pesticides and fertilizers.

At some point your family decides to stop dumping toxins on the corn. What do you think the soil is like? Still toxic. Highly toxic. You have been growing crops in the toxic soil for generation after generation, you have been ingesting the toxic corn and you have been selling toxic corn to other people to eat. So how long will it take for the soil to become free and clear of toxins?

Rev. McCallister’s metaphor of the toxic soil reminds us that this country was founded on racist laws, practices and policies, and that we have not rid ourselves of that legacy. Every system and institution in America — education, criminal justice, banking, government, health care, housing, mass media and the military, to name a few — was founded by white people and incorporated benefits intended to give whites unearned advantages.

David Wellman, author of “Portraits of White Racism,” has written: “Racism is a system of power based on race.” Whites in this country have had the social, political and economic power since this nation was founded. In fact, that dates back to before this nation was founded — all the way to when Columbus “discovered” an inhabited land. And so we wonder: How long it will take for the soil to become free and clear of toxins?

I am unsure how to tackle the national scourge of racial injustice. But I believe that the following things do not help: White people not recognizing or simply denying their own racism.

White people not recognizing or simply denying the subtle and overt benefits, advantages and rewards we (I am a white person) receive daily.

White people confusing personal racism with institutional racism — which is imperceptible to most whites.

White people speaking or writing about a “post-racial society.” White people talking about “how far we have come” and “the strides we have made” because President Obama is African-American.

White people shifting conversations about racism to include the ways they have been hurt by people of color.

White people dismissing the power of cultural racism.

White people failing to grasp that we are the source of the problem and so must be partners in creating the solution.

When Darren Wilson was not indicted for killing Michael Brown and a rally was held in front of City Hall in Northampton, signs were distributed for folks to hold up to passing cars. The sign I was handed read “I will work to stop racism.”

One of the rally speakers challenged the white people in the crowd to live up to that pledge — to live the very words on the sign I was holding. We were urged to understand that this is a “movement, not a moment.” Several speakers pressed the white people to commit deeply to this movement for justice and stay focused in the months and years ahead.

To confront and dismantle the institutional racism prevalent in this country today, we will need to strengthen the movement for justice sweeping across our nation. We will need strong coalitions of people of color and white folks who hunker down and do the necessary work that brings about change: marching, rallying, chanting, strategizing, meeting, writing, disrupting, demanding, praying and organizing.

We will need to keep doing what folks are busy doing nationwide: interrupting business as usual; staging die-ins in malls, city streets, town halls, and the Capitol; risking arrest and filling the jails; and naming with relentless diligence the ways in which racism is diminishing and actually taking the lives of people of color.

This is a movement, not a moment. And if the movement stays strong, the soil will eventually, someday, be free and clear of toxins.

The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church, writes a monthly column on faith, culture and politics. She can be reached at


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