As I follow the news reports of the protests and sometimes riots that have spread across the country, I often hear media pundits ask, “But what about minority owned small businesses?” They lament how these people bear the brunt of the violence that has broken out in a few cities. My parents were themselves minority small business owners who operated a variety of stores throughout Chicago, and so I am familiar with that context. And since people appear to be interested in that perspective, I thought I would share my thoughts. Of course, I hardly speak for everyone in that context, and my opinion is simply that—my opinion.
Being a store owner in the inner city is inherently dangerous, and looting a real fear. My father-in-law owned a store in Los Angeles, which sold beautiful musical instruments—guitars, pianos, and violins—all of which were looted during the riots of 1992. But these kinds of stores are not dangerous just during isolated periods of unrest, but every day of the week. When I was young, my father was robbed at gunpoint at his hat store. The robber struck my dad with the butt of his shotgun and then sprayed bleach into his eyes to expedite his getaway. I know half a dozen close friends whose parents have either been severely injured or murdered during robberies at their stores.
So when I see people looting during protests, I feel sick to my stomach. Breaking into a small and somewhat shabby store might seem like a victimless crime to the looters, but it is most certainly not. Those stores represent hundreds upon hundreds of hours of dangerous and hard work for those owners, all of which was performed exclusively for the benefit of their children, children like me. I have little patience with looters who break into stores during political protests, and even less for those who do so during celebrations for local sports teams, which is far more common. For me, the question "What about minority owned businesses?" is an all too familiar lament.
But I wonder when media figures suddenly express solidarity with store owners in the inner city. I have never heard them express such support previously. In fact, people seem to be content to altogether ignore store owners' situation until a race riot takes place, and suddenly a crowd of defenders appears from nowhere to raise up the cry, “But what about the poor minority businesses?!” It's tempting to view this as solidarity, but I suspect that these people bring up store owners not because they care about their harrowing experiences, but as a convenient means to criticize protestors and to bolster their own point of view.
Please, stop doing this.
If you have always supported and patronized minority owned business, that’s one thing. But the stories of people like my parents are real, and so it’s dehumanizing for their experiences to be used solely as fodder to make a point, or as a means to play one type of suffering against another. The same could be said about black-on-black violence. Black-on-black violence is real and destructive, and if it is an issue close to your heart, I understand. But if you have never spoken up on that issue ever before, raising it now seems like an attempt to deflect attention away from an essential problem that confronts our nation, which is the fractured relationship between African Americans and the police.
True and sincere sympathy is wonderful. But please don’t bring up an issue that you have never cared about previously, or express solidarity with people whom you have never before supported, simply because it happens to align with your point of view. That is not solidarity—that’s manipulation. And please don’t ask the question “But what about...?” as a means to diminish and avoid the suffering of others. The use of real human pain for these purposes is degrading and dehumanizing, and even more, un-Christian. And I say it’s un-Christian because Christ makes clear to us in the parable of the Good Samaritan the way we should respond when we encounter the suffering of others.
In the first century, Jews and Samaritans shared a contentious, even violent relationship with one another. And when the Samaritan traveler in Jesus’ story happens upon the injured Jew on the road, he could have easily looked upon him and remarked, “But what about Jew-on-Samaritan violence?” and smugly went on his way. But he does not do this. Instead, he is moved with compassion and takes his enemy's suffering upon himself. He binds up his wounds, sets the injured man upon his own animal, brings him to an inn, cares for him there, and even pays for his continued care. At the end of the parable, Christ commands those who are listening: “Go and do likewise.”
You see, followers of Christ are not supposed to be “But what about...?” kind of people. We don’t look to make excuses in order to hold the suffering of others at arm’s length. And we don’t compare one person’s plight to those of others, as if sympathy towards one group is mutually exclusive with sympathy towards others, as if a person could not possibly care about the welfare of African Americans, store owners, and police officers, all at the same time. We are commanded by Christ to do as the Samaritan: to be moved by compassion, stop, and do our best to bind up the wounds of the wounded.
This brings to mind a story about Elie Wiesel, the writer and Holocaust survivor. He was sharing publicly about his experiences at Auschwitz when a young Palestinian boy stood up and defiantly challenged him, asking him about the misery of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Rather than offering a sharp retort and a counterargument as to why his own experience was worse than that of Palestinians, Wiesel embraced the young boy and weeping, told him, “Don’t compare, don’t compare! All suffering is intolerable.”
We need to stop asking the question, “But what about...?” and start asking the question, "Who is hurting in my midst?" We need to stop playing the situations of minority business owners, African Americans, and police officers off of one another, and start working towards the healing of our whole communities. We need to stop making excuses and start paying attention to the brothers and sisters who lie broken in our path, no matter who they are and whether we are sympathetic to their cause or not. After all, Christ commanded us to bind up the wounded, not to be blind to them.