I’m in Northern Ireland at the Bangor Worldwide Missionary Convention. I first had the privilege of serving these dear saints back in 2008. I guess I didn’t scare them off because they’ve been kind enough to bring me back this year. This mission convention has been going on for nearly eighty years, attracting missionaries from around the world and participants from across Northern Ireland. The fellowship is warm, the singing joyful, the call to mission zealous!
I thought I’d come to Northern Ireland and have something of a respite from the news and opinions concerning Ferguson. But, as it turns out, events in Ferguson have been a significant part of news coverage across the pond, too. So my friends in Northern Ireland have asked me what I thought. They’ve taken a genuine interest. And as I’ve talked and they’ve listened, some have confessed that the situation somewhat confuses them. The closest analogy would be the “Troubles” between Protestant and Catholic, but nothing quite like the racial picture of the U.S. seems to fit their experience. When they ask me to explain, I take a deep breath trying to figure out where to start, and quietly acknowledging to myself that I don’t know everything.
The Beginning of My Suspicion
But for me it started at my parents’ dining room table. I must have been about the age of my son, around seven, when my parents started what felt like a campaign of encouragement. They’d repeatedly tell me, “You can be anything you want to be in life, even President of the United States.” Then they’d follow with a question, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I was trying on answers during that period of time. Professional football player. A professional basketball player, too. Lawyer. Doctor. Perhaps something exotic like a marine biologist. They encouraged every ambition. Except one.
One evening my mom asked me the question and with beaming eye I answered, “A police officer.” I don’t know where the idea came from. Maybe we’d had an elementary civics lesson on “Officer Friendly” or perhaps a visit to our class from an officer. Perhaps it was watching “Kojak” or “Starsky and Hutch” (I know; I’m dating myself!). But whatever was the source of inspiration, it all got dashed in a moment. My mother’s face grew solid, the soft flesh of her cheeks stone. She snapped back, “You cannot be a police officer.” I asked why. She said, “I will not have you arresting our people all the time.” I think she also said something about worrying and sleepless nights, but her main point had to do with this adversarial relationship between the police and African Americans. I mentally crossed the police off my list of aspirations and got on about the business of being a little boy.
Where Does This Distrust Come From?
During the last week, some genuinely concerned people have admonished me about what they perceive to be an unhealthy bias against police officers. They have with good intention taken the position that those in authority should have our trust and support. I’ve had a running conversation with at least four officers or former officers concerned that I’m spreading distrust of them and their mates. They think it’s better if people with a public platform of any size would encourage trust for officers.
I’ve benefitted from these exchanges, if for no other reason than it demonstrates once again the very different lives African Americans and White Americans live in the same country. For my white interlocutors, the thought of not trusting the police never crosses their mind. It’s the right thing to do. It’s basic civics. That’s, in part, why even the peaceful aspects of the protests in Ferguson look to them like a “riot.”
So I’ve been trying to find a way to explain the distrust and the sometimes angry protests. Let me put it as starkly as I can: For nearly all of African-American life in the U.S., the police force has been the local arm of white supremacy and oppression. Ask yourself, How does white supremacy, racism and oppression get enforced for centuries even in cities and places where African Americans were the majority? How was it possible to enforce slave codes and Jim Crow segregation? What local means of power did the state exercise to “keep Blacks in their place”?
Since the late 1600s up to the end of official desegregation, the official local means for enforcing white supremacy was the police. Oh, there were guys in white sheets and pointy hats who made their appearance later. And there were the over-zealous plantation overseers and paddy rollers that hunted down slaves. But even their actions received sanction from the state and police, or at the least a turned head by local authorities. You see, this is the story of men like my grandfather who fought in World War II, only to come back to a segregated America and be publicly harassed and beaten by police officers while in uniform. Not even a battlefield abroad proved their commitment to the country or earned them an equal place in it. There were local uniformed police to make sure of that. More often than we’d like to admit, the ones beating on the door, wearing the hood, burning the cross at night, or falsifying reports by day wore uniforms and badges.
Much African American mistrust and suspicion comes from living in a police state, a brutal and dangerous police state in which for many long centuries there was no recourse to “blind” or impartial justice. Lady Justice could see very well. She could see your black skin, assign a weight to it, and tip the scales against you.
That’s been an everyday truth for most of African-American experience. It’s a truth passed down at dinner tables between mothers who love their sons and sons wanting to play with toy guns or imagine one day being officers. It’s a truth recounted in history books—not the official books of public schools, but the books African Americans have worked to write in order to remember their names and tell their stories first person. It’s an experience that shapes generations. So the moments when little boys and girls daydream with their parents about what to become when they grow up intersects the story of an entire people. Like waters flowing from oceans into rivers, the moving memories and sediments get passed along until they puddle up in some lake and there grow with each wave that enters. Memory is long. The memory of hurt longer.
The idea that African Americans have lived in a police state in the United States may be something new to White readers of this post. That, again, just shows how different the lived experiences have been.
And you may be asking at this point, “How long?” How long will the remembrance of past injustices dog the steps of inter-ethnic peace and progress? How long will the sins of the fathers haunt their children and children’s children? How long must we keep falling into this rut, this tires-stuck-in-the-dried-mud rut of mistrust and suspicion?
I have two answers.
First, how long do you think it takes a police system and a justice system to exorcise the poison of officially-sanctioned racial animosity? How long do you think it takes people and systems to move from embraced and open racism to something resembling a true content-of-character, love-believes-all-things heart? How many years might be required before those who view the “other” as “little black perverts” can begin to view them as sharing the same precious humanity, or those who view officers as “pigs” can return the favor?
Is ten years enough? Twenty? How about thirty? Or perhaps the fifty or so years since desegregation began to crumble?
Are all the racists and the racist sentiments of a police force with hundreds of years of practice gone in one generation? Have all the attitudes and practices that made forceful subjugation of African Americans possible disappeared in a couple of decades? Does justice travel city halls that fast and that sweepingly? I suspect not. Is it possible that the basic posture of police forces—though changed significantly—continues to be one of patrolling and suspiciously judging African Americans?
Now, I know there are lots and lots of fine officers who do heroic work in the most difficult and daily circumstances. I know there are many women and men on the front lines who are honorable and who would resist the impulses of racism with vigor. And I know that there are many people–many African Americans among them–who deserve to be arrested, justly tried and sentenced to whatever terms appropriate. This is not a matter of pretending all African Americans are guiltless or that every allegation of mistreatment is true. Far from it. I am as glad as anyone when criminals are properly arrested and taken off the streets.
But our police officers work in a system. And systems don’t change overnight. Systems have a way of molding the behavior and attitudes of the best of people. That’s true of every system, and it’s no less true of law enforcement. It’s true even when you put a black man in a blue uniform. They find themselves acting out prejudices or facing the prejudices inside the force. The invisible hand of systemic prejudice is always at work on everyone in the system. So how long it takes to be over these issues depends on how long it takes us to level serious critiques of systemic injustice and do the heavy lifting of standing upright a totem leaned against African Americans.
Second, how long it takes depends on how quickly we realize that we’ve got things backwards. It’s not “race” that gives rise to racism, but racism that gives rise to “race.” The idea of “race” is what racism made up to cover up its ugliness (see here for this view). The sooner we stop pretending “race” exists and understand that the root problem is racism, the sooner we make some progress as a country.
That Bedeviling Two-ness
So I pause real long before I answer the questions of my Northern Ireland friends. I pause and I think. And I realize a story this old, told in so many ways can’t be easily explained in a few polite moments of conversation. And I realize that rehearsing the story repeats the story,entrenches the story, spreads it farther. So I try to get to the load-bearing wall of the entire problem: The problem we face is a product of the fall, which blinds us to the fact that we are all descended from Adam and encourages us to misdiagnose the problem as anything but our own corruption.
And even as I give that answer I’m experiencing that DuBoisian two-ness, that being an American and at the same time being African, that being a citizen and being outcast, that being torn between “I, too, sing America” and “Ain’t I a man?”
This week I’m singing “Ain’t I a man?” because it seems so many of my correspondents have forgotten.