In the past several weeks, there has been a ton of great writing on the black experience in our country and on the history of widespread violence against blacks that continues up to this very moment. I have also seen a bit of commentary and writing that desires to defend law enforcement and describe the very difficult job police have in protecting the public. In my Facebook feed and in the comments on many articles I’ve read, I have seen numerous white people, like myself, discussing, arguing, and trying to persuade each other of what is true and what is just. I am glad this conversation is taking place, especially among white Americans.
I believe both sides are saying true things. Along with many others, I believe that black men are treated differently in our society, that they are subjected to questioning and suspicion at much, much higher rates than their white and Asian peers and that very often when they have been killed without cause, justice is never served. I also agree that police officers have very challenging jobs, and that the rest of us cannot quite understand how tricky it is to protect the public and make split second decisions in what feel like dangerous situations. Further, I agree that there is cause to look at each case individually, as we cannot determine what is just without an understanding of the details.
In the midst of all this writing and talking, there is one simple fact that I think needs to be stated even more plainly: police officers are simply reflecting our entire society’s ingrained prejudices. In them, the assumptions and fears we hold societally about black men are simply put on display in the most vivid (and tragic) way possible.
How do I know this? Because I see these prejudices in myself. Usually hidden assumptions suddenly emerge in my mind when I encounter a young, black man dressed in an adolescent way or when I interact with black women and families who dress, talk, or act differently than me and my white, upper middle class friends.
If you know our family’s history, this may surprise you. I have, after all, not lived an isolated life, one surrounded only by people similar to myself. For my entire adult life (all fifteen years of it), I have had friends of color and have sought opportunities to interact with people from cultures other than my own. For five years when we lived in Cleveland, we were members of a large church that was almost entirely black. We were blessed to worship, study the Bible, attend parties, count the offering, and share life with black people of all ages and sorts. The pastor of this church was our pastor (and always will be, in my heart); New Community Bible Fellowship was our church; the other congregants were our brothers and sisters, despite many, many cultural differences between us.
I have also had a long term black room-mate, neighbors from Uganda and Nigeria, beloved black teachers, and many black colleagues that I deeply respected and often found to be more gifted than I. My kids have spent their young lives interacting with people of different colors and cultures than ours. We have intentionally pursued these relationships and the accompanying conversations with our kids about difference. We even chose the black doll family to inhabit their Fisher Price doll house rather than the white one.
So, what is my point in noting my multi-ethnic, multi-cultural lifestyle? My progressive bona fides, if you will. Am I trying to brag, to prove that somehow I am above the racial divides and prejudices in our society? No–just the opposite. My point is that even with all of my intentionality and all my relationships, prejudice and fear of black men still fester in my heart. To (grossly) paraphrase Paul in 1 Corinthians, if I attend black churches and have black friends, but have not prejudice-free love, I am nothing. If I lead my kids in interracial relationships, but yet have racist assumptions, I have nothing (to boast about).
I am confident that I am far from alone in my prejudices. They fester throughout our country, displayed in small and large ways every day. Let us tell the truth. Starting with the truth of what festers in our own hearts. We need to get past our fear of being labeled racist and get over the foolish idea that being “colorblind” is the goal, and have the courage to look into our own hearts and see what biases reside there. May we even have the courage to begin talking about them.
And after we begin being honest, even just with ourselves, about our prejudices, we will be able to see the police in context (and we will be able to lament properly over our deeply broken society). While there may be some police departments that are particularly racist and corrupt, I suspect that many are made up of honorable men and women who are trying to serve the public and do their jobs responsibly. Cops are likely no more prejudiced than the average American. The difference is that they are armed and that they have a responsibility to act quickly under high stress. They have the unfortunate burden of putting their biases on huge display as they make split second decisions in perilous-feeling situations while carrying a gun. We may share the same societal prejudices, but I am not put in situations where I am tempted and empowered to act on mine in lethal ways.
So, I suggest that even as we question the actions of police and call for justice under the law that we also examine our own bigotries. That we peer into our own subconscious assumptions, however painful that may be. To do anything less is to throw police under the bus. And to do anything less is to fail to truly honor our fellow black citizens.
Only after we have begun to be honest with ourselves can justice begin to roll down.
© Laura Goetsch and goetschblog, 2014.