In the Summer of 1992, my parents and I went on vacation to Toronto and Niagara Falls. On the day that we were on the Canadian side, we decided to drive over to Niagara Falls, NY to see the American Falls. This meant crossing the border back into the United States. As we cross the bridge spanning the two nations, we stopped at border crossing welcoming us back into the United States. We ended up with a white border guard that decided to annoy us. He asked questions in a tone that bothered us. Dad was getting more and more agitated, having never been treated this way at the border before. I was at the driver’s wheel and the guard had me get out of the car to show him what was in our trunk. I was bothered and quite scared. Of course there was nothing in the trunk other than things one would see in a car on vacation. Once the guard was satisfied, he let us go on our way, but it took us a while to forget how we were treated by this man.
This was one of the few times I felt harassed by the police. It was hard not to conclude that the rough treatment we got was because we were African American.
It’s been almost two weeks since Michael Brown was shot dead by a policeman named Darren Wilson in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. The death of a young African American by a white policeman is bound to set of a fury of feelings on race in America and the events that happened on August 9 have not disappointed us. As I said in a recent post, there seems to be a lot of similarities to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman controversy that took place in 2012. As I said back then, it’s understandable that African Americans would feel this situation deeply-reminding us of some of our past encounters with white Americans.
This situation could be a time to really have that so-called conversation on race. But like it was two years ago, everyone seems willing to talk, but no seems willing to listen.
First things first: while there is much to be gained talking about how African American men are immediately seen as threats, or about how law enforcement look at African Americans or about how suburban police forces feel the need to ape the US Army, it’s dangerous to hold Darren Wilson up as public enemy number one. There is much to talk about, but the actual facts of the case still remain murky. Maybe Wilson shot Brown in cold blood. Maybe he shot his gun in the fog of war. Was Brown doing something that warranted guns being drawn? The fact is, we don’t have the clear picture yet. While there might be problems with policing in Ferguson, we don’t know what really happened that Saturday night. As much as I am tempted to view Brown as innocent and Wilson as guilty, we don’t yet have evidence that proves either way.
Even though the incident is being looked at, that doesn’t mean that some of the greivences that have bubbled up to the surface must be ignored. African American men in our society have always been looked at with a sense of fear. I know that’s happened to me. These days it happening earlier and earlier. A National Public Radio report from March of this year show black preschoolers were suspended at higher rates that white preschoolers. Some experts call this the “school to prison pipeline” where African American children, especially boys, have run-ins with the law early and frequently.
So where does the church fit in all of this?
I think that the response is mixed. I think that churches need to be able to be a listening ear and a megaphone about how African American men are viewed in our society. Sadly, there are still too many people who refuse to understand that while official segregation is gone by the wayside, attitudes still remain. Related to this, I think the church needs to thoughtfully ask whites what is it about black me that scares them. Part of the problem is that some people are afraid of black men. It might be irrational, but I think there needs to be space for that question to be asked and answered, as uncomfortable as it might be. Maybe when we share we can dispel myths or see what needs to be corrected.
But if the church is going to be an agent of reconciliation, to foster dialogue, we have to be thoughtful when we talk about white privilege and racism. Most whites don’t see themselves as privileged and having a white liberal Christian chastise his fellow whites, many of who are trying to make ends meet of being privileged, don’t expect that they are going to react with open hearts and minds. Yes, privilege exists, but pointing this out should lead to solutions not blame. Also, calling whites automatically racist is also not going to work. White folks think racist and they see some guy who decided ruin his wife’s best bedspread to where while setting fire to a cross. It’s one thing to say that society still benefits whites, its another to basically say they are the Bull Connor of suburbia.
As the African American pastor of a majority white congregation in the suburbs; I wonder if my odd intersection could lead towards some real conversation about how to heal the divisions between law enforcement and black men. I don’t know if that’s where God is calling me and I don’t think I’m going to make such a big difference, but then you never know.
I just look forward to the day when incidents such as what happened to Michael Brown will be a distant and unpleasant memory.