I have not told this story publicly, and Joelinda and I have not been sure of how/whether it was helpful to share. A version of it has been sitting in my blog drafts for well over a year. But. MLK weekend seems as good a time as any.
You see, there was a time before Joelinda and I were dating that we had the police called on us.
We were walking through the front yard of an apartment complex because a friend, Britt, was letting us in the side door of the apartment in which she lived. We did this regularly.
We were let inside, and about half an hour later, there was a knock at the door. An officer, who I will make a point to say was very kind and professional, was called because a neighbor expressed concern about the safety of the elderly woman who resided in this apartment (our friend looked after and lived with this elderly woman, a dear and sweet servant of Jesus who went home to her Lord a few months ago). The officer left after figuring out the situation. And all was fine.
Our friend, Britt (who is white), and myself, were both confused and puzzled. Nothing like this had ever happened before to either of us white adults. Nurses regularly came in and out of this side patio door with no problem. We thought it was just a random misunderstanding. Joelinda, on the other hand, was worried that it was because she was black. Britt and I thought that that was ridiculous, we told her she was being overly sensitive.
A few days later, through a few conversations with neighbors, it was found out that a neighbor had called the police to report “two black men breaking into the elderly woman’s apartment.”
I look back on that experience as the primary moment in which my worldview began to crack, and I began to see the very different worlds black and white live in in relationship to police, perception of danger, etc. After this, I took the time to listen more closely to the experiences of black americans and began to understand how extremely different their relationship to the criminal justice system (beginning with that first stage of why and when people call the police) is from my own.
I wish that this was a fluke. I wish that the times my now-fiánce has been yelled slurs from across the street, or the times my mixed group of friends has been the recipient of ambiguous shouts from passing cars, were also flukes.
I wish I was merely “race-baiting,” and not telling the truth.
For a brief moment on that night, I was a black man in someone’s eyes, and the way the world saw and treated me was very different. Or, another way to look at it, Joelinda and I were perceived to be up to no good and “black men” was the category that was grasped to account for us, even though it was a category far from reality. I was wearing shorts, I should have been glowing in the dark with whiteness. But perception was more powerful than reality.
And now, with my coming marriage, I have the prospect of being the father to darker skinned boys. And I am already anxious about how to raise them, knowing that they will live in a reality very different than my own that I do not know how to prepare them for. I will tell them to work hard, to make good choices, to be kind and respectful and be better-than-perfect to avoid suspicion (but oh, what young man should ever have to live with that much pressure? To be better than perfect. Could I blame him if he snapped from under all the pressure? How do I also teach him grace? And how do I let him know that I love him even if he’s imperfect…but I’m afraid to say so, because imperfect could get him killed?). If he goes through a rebellious young adulthood phase as so many do, I hope and pray he could be loved back on track but all it could take is one night wandering the street high on the weed he took from his white friends who would never be arrested for it, and shot in cold blood 16 times, before I ever got a chance to hold him, to ask him what was wrong, to find him help from the drugs. If he was white, maybe society would have given him more of a chance to start over, to try again. But, statistically, if he is not shot he is likely to just be thrown into prison over and over again. And that sucks your hope away. That takes away any hope or incentive you have of trying for a better life.
I want a world in which my son is afforded the same fair treatment and opportunity for reform as any other American. If he makes a mistake, or appears to have made a mistake, I want him to be treated with equity and dignity, treated as innocent until proven guilty, treated as a life that still has so much potential, not tried and executed on the street or thrown in prison for long periods of time for minor offenses, as is the reality for so many black men.
As a historical aside, let us not succumb to the danger of turning our ancestors into cartoon villains who gave no rationalization for their actions, and thereby distance ourselves from them artificially. What were the justifications for lynch mobs? “Black men are out of control.” “He stole something.” “He harassed a white woman.” “He was unruly.” Sometimes these were based in reality, sometimes not, but in all cases men were tried, brutally tortured, and publicly hanged with kids and picnic blankets and photo-ops abounding…without due process, without trial. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now. The real or imagined crimes of black people cannot be an excuse to have two distinct criminal justice systems…one harsh, unrelentless, and vigilante, the other cautious and with benefit of doubt.
He could be twelve years old, playing with his friend Jonny’s pellet gun that he was borrowing for the weekend, and be shot in the park. So many of my friends think guns should be a normalized part of life. It’s a hobby, or even a moral necessity. I’m glad you have the freedom to have that conversation, it will be too risky for my sons to play with toy guns, much less ever own real ones. As adults they will make their own decisions about guns, of course, but my preference would be that they not own them. Maybe that will change. Maybe my mind will be changed by the prospect that they could be unarmed and shot at church in South Carolina. By the prospect that they could be shot by a solitary police officer alone on a backroad, even if unarmed, so maybe its better for them to have a last-resort protection in that impossible situation (isn’t that what all my white friends say guns are for? In case the government abuses its power?)? By the prospect that one of those white kids at the University of Missouri posting social media comments about ‘killing all the blacks’ might actually get serious? But no, no, it’s not worth the risk is it? My son seen with a gun could be the end of his life. Doesn’t matter if he’s safe, if he’s “a good guy.”
I have a brief taste of the anxiety and impossible choices so many black parents know so intimately.
We still live in two Americas. Any progress must begin with the courage it takes to drop our defenses and preconceived notions, and step into the world of another. Dropping the assumption that clearly we know what they think, believe, how they act, what they value. The assumption that black communities don’t care about crime among their own is a particularly disturbing assumption that has no basis in reality. These are largely brothers and sisters in Christ that we are talking about, and we do not give them the benefit of the doubt about their moral convictions or their desire for better for themselves, much less go check for ourselves.
We must resist assuming we know their diagnosis from our perch high above them. It saddens me how much of race conversations rely on stereotypes and lack of intimate knowledge with the ‘other’ that is being described (myself included, I know very little outside my own bubbles).
And we must always begin with the logs in our own eyes before ever daring to mention whatever is in our brother or sister’s eye.
With every word we speak, with every action or decision of inaction that we make, let us remember that Jesus sees. Jesus is weeping. And Jesus calls us to something greater.
He calls us up the mountaintop, together.
“In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.” -Dr. King