Am I racist? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. In seasons, my closest friends have not only been black, but resembled Alton Sterling. I am often more comfortable in conversations with black people. I’d celebrate my daughters marrying a black man who loves Jesus. If and when we adopt, I’d have no preference on skin color. So, I’ve assumed I’m not racist and yet I’ve grown certain that there are prejudice values hidden in my heart. I am confident that you, no matter who you are, have the same problem. Please let me know if you disagree.
I’m writing this to hopefully identify the differences that have come between us. I think you’ll agree with at least half of this article, and there lies the problem. Both sides seem to be experts in their hurts and from my perspective, neither has done a good job of understanding the other side. We have the opportunity to fix that within ourselves. But it will take humility, commitment, and focus. I’m not an expert, just someone on a journey like you are.
I watched the videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s death and I was grieved. Then I lost a friend in the downtown shooting and I was deeply grieved. As I told my children what had happened, I wept. The pain was closer to home and the hurt was magnified. I have spent the last few days trying diligently to empathize with the black community, though I acknowledge that’s impossible because I’m not black. As I watched the videos I asked, “What if that was my son?”. Biased policing is deplorable and unacceptable, especially if it results in someone's death. The strategic murder of police officers by an enraged man is also a terrible reality. So what now?
Recently in a sermon, although I am white, I said, “I’ve felt like I was African American most of my life”. My point was that feeling black, didn’t make me black. The truth is, I’ve never had many of the challenges that black Americans have. I am confident that black people often have different experiences than I do when pulled over by policemen, when walking down an aisle alone in a store, or when driving at night with their friends. I am sure that we are seen differently in ways that I am completely naïve to. I am also convinced that the problems we see are complex problems that date back to our country’s terrible sin of racism and slavery. There is a history of oppression, poverty, and abuse that is not easily recovered from. A billionaire will impact their family for generations to come. Likewise, poverty, oppression and abuse will do the same. I’ve made judgments that have been uninformed. Asking questions or making comments like, “Why does he dress like that?” or, “If he would just respect authority.” These are bad conclusions and ignore centuries of abuse that have long-term effects on how “authority” is viewed. I repent of my ignorance, and I’m seeking to learn.
I believe “white privilege” is real, and it is inconsistent with a biblical worldview. Any “privilege” we have must be used in elevating all human life to be seen as God sees us, made in His image as equal. Police officers who have superiority complexes need to be dealt with justly. Officers with “white supremacy” values are not qualified to be officers of the law and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law they’ve been tasked to uphold.
I don’t know what it is like to fear the men who are supposed to be the good guys. I don’t know what it is like to need to be trained in how you communicate that you are reaching for your wallet, not a gun. That is honestly something that I’ve never given much thought to. I don’t have a plan to educate my son of those methods in the ways my black friends have to.
Black Lives Matter indeed. It is insensitive to respond, as I am guilty of, with “all lives matter”. Everyone knows that all lives matter, but this movement is trying to make a point and a response of “all lives matter” belittles that point. Black lives matter says, “We haven’t mattered to you and that needs to change”. If you say to a breast cancer patient that “breast cancer is painful” and someone comes and corrects you and says “well, all cancer is painful”, while their statement is true it is also extremely insensitive. Black lives do matter and our country has a history of prejudice that we need to correct.
As I attempted to sympathize with Mr. Sterling’s family, I couldn’t help but wonder about the police. If I’m an officer, I’m not sure how I’d feel if this man looks like the many other men who hate me. He looks like men who have shot at me and killed my peers. From the officer’s perspective, he looks like a thug – not because he’s black, but because he dresses in a way that is consistent to the many other gang members and criminals the officer has seen day in and day out. White, Hispanic, or Black, it is difficult to not recognize the similarities of the people who hate you and want to harm you. To make matters worse, this man is not cooperating. He doesn’t seem to respect law enforcement at all.
When two grown police officers are on top of a man with their guns drawn, and one of them shoots him at point blank range, it is an awful thing. I have to wonder what I’d do though. If I’m one of the officers and I think this man hates me and wants to kill me, this man has not yielded to anything I’ve said and he doesn’t seem afraid to die, I’m afraid. As I wrestle him to the ground, he keeps fighting and he’s strong, and then I see he has a gun and he seems to be reaching for it, what do I do?! I honestly don’t know the answer, and I don’t know if that’s the narrative. Some might say it’s irresponsible to write a fictitious narrative like that. It might be, but it seems a fictitious narrative is what the media keeps in front of us. The worst version of the story gets out and creates rage in people’s hearts, then an overcorrection takes place, then the cavern between us gets wider and wider. It seems the media is to blame for much of the hate that is stirred in this country. They aren’t telling the real story. Creating dividing lines and extreme emotion is what sells in the news world. Expressing your extreme emotion carelessly perpetuates the problem.
While I don’t know what it’s like to be black, I also don’t know what it is like to be a police officer. Day in and day out these men and women are putting themselves in harm’s way for everyone – even those who hate them. Most officers are heroes. When their spouse tells them goodbye as they leave for work, the possibility of them saying goodbye for the last time is much more real than for my wife. Maybe black people feel the same way. Maybe black people and police officers have a lot in common. Bad representatives of any group, should not define the reputation of that group. That is stereotyping, a kind of prejudice, by definition.
When I see someone who looks like a thug, I feel some level of fear within me. That makes me wonder if I’m prejudice? How do I know the difference between prejudice and discernment? I don’t ever fear someone because they are black, but if they appear to be a thug, I do unintentionally label them as a threat, whether they are black, white, or Hispanic. How do I know how to label someone a thug? I’ve been educated to do so my entire life, dating back to when I was bullied in grade school and then jumped (beat up) in high school. I was being taught when I’ve been robbed or mistreated as an adult by a “scary” person. It goes back to hundreds of news stories throughout the years displaying criminals, telling my mind, “This is what a thug looks like”. My mind has learned what a thug looks like, and I don’t know how to avoid that education. Let me be abundantly clear, I don’t think I’m talking about skin color, and yet in ways I’ve naïve to, maybe that is a factor. I repent of that right now. I’m truly sorry. I want to grow through this.
I imagine my black friends have gone through the same education as it relates to law enforcement and white supremacy. Since they were little, they’ve seen footage over and over of their heroes mistreated by police. They’ve seen stories of officers who violate the very law they swore to protect, and then it seems they are not penalized in accordance with their actions. They are continually taught a message that officers will treat you unfairly. They’ve repeatedly been shown horrific images of lynchings and slavery of their ancestors throughout the years. I can’t even imagine what this does to a person! I am certain it ingrains a different kind of perspective in someone throughout their lifetime. A perspective that is different than mine. One I’d have to experience to learn.
Here is a metaphor I've heard that helps illustrate my point. A deer in the wild responds differently to a bunny coming toward him than he does a person. A deer is not scared off by the bunny, but by the person he is. Now the person might want to simply feed the deer, or pet the deer, but when the deer sees the person, he sees a possible hunter. He sees someone who might want to kill him, and he doesn’t want to take a chance, so he reacts. Consider this metaphor when thinking about the police in an interaction with an armed black man. Mr. Sterling saw a hunter. He might have seen someone he doesn’t respect, or someone who wants to kill him. I assume, and maybe I’m wrong, that he’s been taught these guys are the bad guys.
If you are a police officer, an armed man – white or black – might want to hunt you. A policeman doesn’t know if they want to kill them or not. Until we can see the problem both ways, we can't see the problem. While bad police officers are a fact, FBI data says that a police officer is more likely to be killed by a black person than to kill a black person. Bad people are a fact. In our outrage, we need to seek to understand the other side too. To see a man and to judge him as a thug without knowing he is one is prejudice. Likewise, to see a police officer and to judge him as corrupt is also prejudice. The problem is not that this prejudice exists, it’s that it might be warranted. If it is, we all need to understand why, and give careful thought to both sides in hopes to eventually remove the sides altogether.
I’m not surprised that people are sad or even outraged. I am surprised that we have allowed this to become an issue of race. That has happened because we haven’t tried to understand each other. We need to stop drawing these clear lines of black and white, or even black and police. If the officers involved in shootings were racist, they need to be dealt with justly. If they were afraid and acting out of self-defense, even if they were overly defensive, then let’s call them incompetent and not racist. The police force needs to be outraged by officers who don’t respond well in a situation they should have been trained in. All people need to call on their brothers and sisters to respectfully submit to governing authorities and not carry unlicensed firearms. I’m not saying these facts justified Mr. Sterling’s death – not at all. I am saying he would still be alive if they were not a reality. As a wonderful creation of God, Alton Sterling’s life mattered. My dear friend Officer Mike Smith’s life mattered. We need to be able to acknowledge both without discrediting the other. Let’s talk about it and seek to understand.
Lastly, Jesus knows all about prejudice. He was in fact, the most hated man in the world, while simultaneously being the most righteous. This is a victim of prejudice like none of us will ever know. We will be persecuted though, if not for our skin color, for our faith and that’s a fact. Let us unite under that persecution and respond in a way that is consistent with God’s instruction. Christ died for all racism, the kind that kills police officers, and the kind that kills young black men. He died for my unseen prejudice values and yours. He went in the grave and came out three days later without them. There is no racism in heaven, and so as we seek to bring His Kingdom here, lets do all we can to end racism, but it starts with you dealing with your own. If you didn’t agree with half of this article, you have work to do.