Nearly 12 years ago, my friend, Chris, told me that for the first time in his life he actually felt like he belonged in this country. Chris is highly educated and very successful. He has multiple master’s degrees and a doctorate, bought his own home at an impressively young age, and has quickly risen through the ranks of his profession.
Chris is African American. He made the comment about belonging after Barack Obama was elected president. While I already knew that Chris was a big Obama supporter, I was shocked to hear his comment, especially considering he was born in this country and the United States is the only place he’s ever lived. When I pointed to his success, both educationally and professionally, he responded that I didn’t understand. Although taken aback a bit, I chose to listen.
“All of your life you’ve been told that you can be anything you want to be, and you’ve believed it,” Chris said. “For the first time in my life, I now believe it, too, because for the first time ever someone who looks like me has been elected president.”
Our conversation has stuck with me. I’ve thought about it even more over the last few weeks. I’m afraid to ask Chris if he still feels the same way. I’m afraid to ask mostly because I already know the answer.
“These latest incidents aren’t signs that the system is broken. They’re signs that the system is working exactly as it was designed.”
It was just a few short weeks ago that people were “running for Maud,” in response to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery by men who were wannabe cops in my native state of Georgia. More recently, we have watched a white woman, dubbed “Central Park Karen” on social media, call the police because Christian Cooper, an African American man, dared to ask her to put her dog on a leash in New York, as required by city ordinance, and we’ve seen the death of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers in Minneapolis.
These incidents so close in succession are forcing white America to face a reality we would prefer to ignore – that racism is not only alive and well, but that it is widespread and systemic. It’s much easier to view these incidents as isolated, but they’re not. This isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. These incidents aren’t signs that the system is broken. They’re signs that the system is working exactly as it was designed.
I can already hear some people protesting my point. And, in some cases, they’re right – specifically in pointing out that bigotry and racism are not characteristic of all white police officers. I’ve had the pleasure of serving churches with numerous law enforcement officers, and I know them to be good and decent people who take seriously their job to protect and serve all in their communities. They are good at what they do. I am thankful for them, and I know the senseless killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis – and other recent occurrences of police brutality that have made headlines – undoubtedly make their jobs more difficult. These law enforcement officers are in my prayers.
But I will also suggest that the “good cops” shouldn’t be the focus of our attention. A black man died at the hands of the police. Again. To focus our attention elsewhere is an affront to Floyd and others who have a right to live while being black. It marginalizes the pain that is felt by his family and by so many African American brothers and sisters across this nation. It also prevents us collectively as a society from dealing with the problem.
Acknowledging bad actors doesn’t mean that all the actors are bad, but if they are multiple, it does speak to a larger problem. Looking at what happened to Floyd – or Walter Scott or Freddie Gray or Tamir Rice or Michael Brown or numerous other African American men – shows us that this isn’t a one-off incident.
The Los Angeles Times reported last year that getting killed by the police is a leading cause of death for young black men in America. The article noted that “about 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police, according to a new analysis of deaths involving law enforcement officers. That makes them 2.5 times more likely than white men and boys to die during an encounter with the cops.” This is to say nothing of mandatory minimums for drug offenses or the disproportionate amount of African American men in prison relative to their percentage of the population.
We can and must do better, but to do so we first have to acknowledge that there’s a problem. Like an alcoholic who must first admit that they have a drinking problem, white America must admit that black men and boys get killed by police far too frequently, and that these deaths are just the awful tip of the iceberg of systemic abuse.
“We can and must do better, but to do so we first have to acknowledge that there’s a problem.”
Unfortunately, too many white Americans – including those who identify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ – are willing to divert attention from the real problem at hand rather than acknowledging it and working alongside persons of color to actually address it in all its pernicious forms. We have a systemic problem, one that our African American brothers and sisters have tried to warn us about year after year, decade after decade, only to be ignored.
How many more have to die before we choose to listen and help do something about it?
Related to this topic:
Paul Robeson Ford | Ahmaud Arbery and a pandemic of injustice