[Finally, after a long break, I am re-launching my BrianJones.com blog and its e-newsletter called Non-Religious Devotional Thoughts. It will be sent out via email every Tuesday. I hope you find the content both encouraging and challenging. Here goes…]
If you’re angrier with rioters for looting and pillaging in the aftermath of an unarmed black man being killed by police officers, there’s a really good chance you just don’t get it.
Let me explain.
One of my favorite memories growing up was going to the police station with my grandfather, who was a Franklin County Sherriff in Columbus, Ohio.
He pretended to lock me up in cells, fed me prison food, introduced me to all the guards, and allowed me to sit in his cruiser and turn the siren on. My grandfather was a pretty big deal – corner office, dozens of people reporting to him, walking around and joking like he knew everyone.
I trust police officers because my grandfather was a kind, gracious, strong, fair man. I simply expect every police officer I meet to embody the same characteristics as my grandfather. Few have disappointed me.
But if I’m being completely transparent, my experience with law enforcement was quite literally formed from the inside, and from a uniquely white perspective. In fact, I never remember meeting a black police officer as a child. Police officers were all white, and kind, at least to me.
An Alternative Perspective
An equally poignant memory I have of my childhood is that for all 18 years of my childhood, all my best friends were black. In fact, writing that my friends were “black” still, to this day, kind of grates on my senses. They weren’t black to me. They were just my friends. My mom still tells the story about when she came to school to drop off cupcakes for my birthday in first grade. I was so excited to have her meet my best friend Brian Hunter.
“Mom, you’ll know him when you come in,” she tells me I told her. “He’s a little shorter than me. His hair is curly and he likes to play dodgeball too.” She was surprised, after meeting him, that I didn’t simply tell her that he was the only black kid in my class.
The first time I ever heard someone call a friend of mine the N-word was in seventh grade. My best friend Eric and I were walking to school when we both got jumped and beaten up by a group of 10-15 stoners. As they pushed us around, they kept calling him that word. I, on the other hand, was just wealthy and skinny, so they called me other names.
This pattern of bullying continued until it escalated into more severe violence towards both of us, resulting in prolonged, extensive legal action that lasted into eighth grade.
Eventually my intense, year-long bout with anxiety subsided, partly because of the injunctions by the judge, and partly because between seventh and ninth grade I grew from 5’7” 120 pounds to 6’3” 205 pounds.
My friend Eric, while growing to similar proportions, never outgrew being called the N-word.
It wasn’t until much later that I fully understood why Eric’s mom moved him and his brother to an all black high school in Cincinnati to start the ninth grade.
The Book On Racism
The Bible tells us that because God purposely created human beings to be ethnically diverse (Acts 17:26), he judges everyone impartially (Romans 2:11), looking only at their hearts (1 Samuel 16:7), and demands that we do the same (James 2:9), including fighting against injustice and inequality when we see it (Micah 6:8).
Both my white Christian and black Christian friends agree upon this.
Why, then, don’t white Christians understand the antipathy many blacks have against law enforcement?
More pointedly, why don’t you, as a white Christian, get this?
Understandably not everyone reading this article is white (I know this because Google Analytics tells me I’m the David Hassellhoff of blogging in Jamaica, Latvia, and Tajikistan – who knew?), or Christian, but let me speak to you as if that’s the case.
I think there are three reasons why those of you who are white Christians don’t “get” black antipathy towards the police:
1. As a white Christian, you’ve never been targeted by police because of your skin color
You’ve never been shaped by that experience.
I remember riding in the back seat of my friend Eric’s older sister’s car. Not once did it occur to me that she might get pulled over for having a white kid in the back seat, simply so the officer could peak in the window and ask, “Son, are you alright?”
In our congregation we have a number of mixed couples, and one woman has shared numerous stories about being pulled over by the police so they could make sure her car wasn’t carjacked and so that she, a white woman, wasn’t being held hostage by her husband, a black man.
I’ve never had anything remotely close to that happen to me, or to anyone in my family. You probably haven’t either, unless you’re black. Having a memory bank full of those kinds of experiences has a way of shaping a person, not the least of which is to make one feel “on edge” whenever a police officer approaches.
2. As a white Christian, you’ve never been presumed to be character deficient because of your skin color
Chances are, as a white person, you’ve never walked into a store and been thought to be more likely to shoplift because of your race.
It took me a while to realize that whenever I went into stores my senior year in high school with my best friend Donny, that he was being watched the whole time. Storeowners were less vigil when I was with him than when he was on one side of the store and I was on the other. It makes me sick to my stomach to this day to think back to that.
My other black friends tell me stories about how even now, as educated, wealthy, middle-aged professionals, they still go into establishments and are treated differently. Hearing their stories enrages me.
This is important, as it pertains to this conversation, because police officers are only half of the law enforcement process. The other half involves the very people who often show the bias described – people who call the police, give testimony after an incident, and who sit on a jury.
For the average black person, a police officer that mistreats them is simply a manifestation of the entire community’s prejudicial attitudes.
3. As a white Christian, you don’t realize that complete objectivity does not exist
Yes, you can be objective when it comes to flipping on your television and seeing looters ripping apart stores, for which many good, decent, hard-working business owners have worked their entire lives to build.
“Where’s the justice for that store owner?” you may ask. And I will agree with you. It’s senseless. It doesn’t help anything. It is stupid, and needs to be met with calculated force to restore order.
At the same time we must acknowledge that for all of our objectivity, and for all our supposed ability to carefully weigh the pros and cons of each of these cases, we do so as outsiders.
As an educated person, you can render objective judgment.
But as a white person, you cannot render genuine empathy.
That’s because we’ve never lived a day in a black man’s shoes.
For all my time spent doing life with my black friends and being welcomed into their beautiful, gracious families, I recognize that I’m still not one of them. And neither are you. Their stories are not our stories.
Ground Rules For Future Conversations?
If you’re white, chances are that you don’t have relatives who have told you stories about what it was like to not be allowed to vote, eat wherever you wanted, or marry whomever you pleased.
You’ve never been pulled over for your skin color, trailed by security in a store because there was a “group of you” that suddenly descended into a store, or have been called violating, soul-numbing words.
As you turn on CCN, you pride yourself with your Cartesian, linear logic, in your objectivity, your enlightened ways of being able to see both sides of the coin at the same time – the police officer and an unarmed black man – and the strengths and weaknesses of a case. You debate what you would do as a juror. You make it a point to lecture your kids on the lessons learned from these incidents.
But how many actual black friends do you have?
I’m talking about that 14-year-old boy living in inner city Baltimore who’s selling crack because it’s the only way to feed his two little sisters. The one who goes home at midnight on a school night to no parents, no food, and no heat in the house.
How many actual people do you know who live in the kinds of circumstances you are so objectively kept abreast of while watching that flat-screen television with that exorbitant triple-play cable subscription from Comcast? How many conversations have you had before you so flippantly pontificate on Facebook through your $600 iPhone made possible by your $300 a month Verizon family-share cell phone package?
I can honestly say I’ve had ZERO conversations lately with the kinds of people caricatured on the news reports.
And it is this exact hubris – the kind that boasts about being able to be objective without actually knowing a person – that God addresses in scripture.
Our problem as white Christians is not so much our discrimination, as it is our presumption.
As I said above, if we’re angrier with rioters for looting and pillaging in the aftermath of an unarmed black man being killed by police officers, there’s a really good chance we just don’t get it.
The way to start to get it is to stop sharing our opinions, and to become friends with an actual live human being in this situation.
In fact, that ought to be our rule of thumb, whether we’re black, white, hispanic, or whatever – never will we share our opinion about people with whom we’ve never shared a meal.
Doing so will guard us from becoming what G.K. Chesteron in his book Orthodoxy called “the madman” – a person who lives without “healthy hesitation and healthy complexity.”
Until that happens, we will respectfully remain silent, no matter how insightful we consider our opinions.
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