I have come to understand that most white people do not understand what it is like to be a person of color and engage with law enforcement. Approximately twelve years ago I had a week where there was a warrant out for my arrest, and my driver’s license was suspended. During that one week period, even though it was illegal, I continued to drive to work. And was pulled over one day by a policeman. While I had an illegal weapon under my front seat. Below, I will tell the story of that encounter, and how it ultimately ended, but first, a few preliminaries.
Note: This is part 1 of an ongoing series on racial harmony. Click the links below to read the other two articles.
Part 1: A Meditation on White Privilege
Part 2: The Deadly, Draining Danger of Outrage
Part 3: Lebron James and the Tyranny of Offense (A.K.A. The Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome)
Over the next week, or two, I plan to write a series of posts here on the current racial climate in America as it relates to those who identify as Christians. Here is my disclaimer:
I get that I am a white dude writing about racial issues, and that, in doing so, I am writing about a very, very sensitive issue that I don’t fully understand. I have tried to be slow to react to things, and slow to write about them, because there is wisdom in not being hasty. I am not a wise man, but I want to be. As the Word says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19) I wanted to write about this subject extensively last Thursday and Friday – partially because it would have gotten more clicks (stupid motivation, I know), but also because I had strong opinions about what everybody was saying online! However – I felt chastened to be quick to LISTEN. SLOW to speak and SLOW to become angry.
My contributions to the issue of racial harmony and race issues in general will be quite limited. Partially because I am a white man, and I have rarely (if ever) been the victim of some kind of discrimination based on my skin color. Partially because I come from relative affluence. Partially because I just can’t see the overall big picture. That said – I want to try. I want to try and understand. I want to try and contribute. I want to try and “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3) There will be things over the next few posts that I get wrong, but I hope that they will be sincere errors – made by a man who is trying to understand and striving to be faithful biblically. One other thing: I love law enforcement, and spent my much of my entire life, even into graduate school, planning on becoming an FBI or DEA agent. I even spent time at the University of Alabama Criminal Justice graduate school to prepare for a career in law enforcement. I will write more about this in a later post, but despite my love and respect for law enforcement, I do not blindly support the police. Neither do I blindly support Baptists, or preachers, or husbands, or fathers, or Alabama football fans, even though I am part of all of those categories. More on that later…
This past week, Russell Moore, one of the key Southern Baptist leaders, wrote something that is actually fairly radical (for a Southern Baptist):
Many white evangelicals will point to specific cases, and argue that the particulars are more complex in those situations than initial news reports might show. But how can anyone deny, after seeing the sheer number of cases and after seeing those in which the situation is all too clear, that there is a problem in terms of the safety of African-Americans before the law. That’s especially true when one considers the history of a country in which African-Americans have lived with trauma from the very beginning, the initial trauma being the kidnapping and forced enslavement of an entire people with no standing whatsoever before the law. For the black community, these present situations often reverberate with a history of state-sanctioned violence, in a way that many white Americans—including white evangelicals—often don’t understand.
Dr. Moore’s comment that is so striking, and a bit odd to hear from a Southern Baptist, is this one, “there is a problem in terms of the safety of African-Americans before the law.” Without accusing any group of racism or being racist, I believe that Dr. Moore is correct in that assessment, and so do many of my Christian African-American friends. It is an inarguable statistical fact that unarmed African American males are shot by law enforcement at a disproportional rate relative to their population size – over six times that which mathematics alone would seem to indicate. As the Washington Post has noted (see below) African American males account for 40 percent of all unarmed men shot by police in 2015, but only make up 6 percent of the population. While the majority of people in America shot by police were indeed white, the majority (60 percent) of people that were shot while “exhibiting less than threatening behavior” were black or Hispanic. If I was black or Hispanic, speaking frankly, this would alarm me.
Although black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police this year, The Post’s database shows. In the majority of cases in which police shot and killed a person who had attacked someone with a weapon or brandished a gun, the person who was shot was white. But a hugely disproportionate number — 3 in 5 — of those killed after exhibiting less threatening behavior were black or Hispanic. (Source: Washington Post)
Twelve years ago, I was a youth pastor that made about $600 a week (when my church salary and part time work were combined), and was supporting a family of five on that income. Some weeks the offering was lower than others, and we would only get a partial paycheck, or no paycheck that week. These are some of the realities of working in a church situation. This particular year, our finances crumbled quite a bit. I ended up having my truck repossessed, and got into some pretty bad credit card debt. Not wise! In the midst of that, I let the payments on my car insurance lapse, and was pulled over by a police officer for a tail light issue. I didn’t get a ticket for the tail light issue, but I did get a ticket for driving without insurance. I paid the insurance and got current, but then FORGOT about paying the ticket, until one week after it was due. I finally realized my irresponsible error when I got a notice from the Trussville City Hall that a warrant had been issued for my arrest and my driver’s license had been suspended! That was a shocking experience for a guy who still pined for a life in law enforcement from time to time. I called my dad, the lawyer, and he instructed me to call the court and throw myself at their mercy. They told me that a hearing was scheduled in about 10 days (roughly) and that I would need to come and plead my case before a judge, which I agreed to do.
Unfortunately, my driver’s license was still suspended, and I didn’t have a good way to get to work. So I drove. One afternoon after work, as I was driving home, I got pulled over by another police officer, but I don’t remember why. I think it was for failure to fully stop at a stop sign, but I don’t remember the exact context. Whatever it was, when I noticed the blue lights behind me, I froze in panic. Not panic FOR MY LIFE…but because I knew I was in trouble. When the office came up to the car, the first thing I said was something like, “I am sorry sir…I am driving with a suspended license.” Of course, he began to eye me suspiciously, and I explained what happened. He then asked me, “Do you have any weapons in your car?” I told him that I had a knife under my front seat, and he asked to see it. I, without any thought of being in danger whatsoever, reached under my front seat and pulled out a knife with a sixteen inch blade.
I guess I should offer an explanation about why I drove around with a knife under my front seat, and why I still do. I should have a good reason for that, but I don’t really have a decent explanation. I guess it is just in case I am in a car-jacking situation, or terrorists try to invade the country and commandeer my car. When that happens, I will be ready with my trusty knife under my front seat. Terrorists and carjackers…Beware!
Anyway, I pulled out the knife and handed it to him. His eyes got kind of big, then narrowed at me. “Sir, did you know that you can’t have a blade longer than ten (?) inches in the front of your car?!” Actually, no, I did not know that at the time, but apparently it was either a Hoover, Alabama ordinance, or a state law, or whatever. Now, I was about to be busted for rolling through a stop sign, driving with a suspended license, AND having an illegal weapon under my front seat. I was sweating and extremely nervous by now, but at no time did it ever cross my mind that this police officer was about to hit me, hurt me, or shoot me. I just figured it would be a big-honking ticket that was about to come my way…maybe even a “ride down to the station.”
Ultimately, for whatever reason, the police officer displayed unusual mercy, and let me go without a ticket, or a tasing, or anything like that. I had to call a friend to come pick me up, because the office wouldn’t let me drive, but other than that there were no further tickets or ramifications for what I had done. Most of my experiences with law enforcement have been this way. Law enforcement has always been fair with me…and sometimes overly fair and merciful. Is that the essence of what some call “White Privilege?” Perhaps so – I imagine that it is part of it, at least. I take it for granted that when I have encounters with law enforcement, that I am not about to get shot at or beaten up, unless I have done something that deserves such treatment.
My African-American friends, however, have a radically different perspective than I do. These friends – pastors, teachers, counselors, professionals – tell me stories of being pulled over for no good reason. They tell me that they are often afraid of law enforcement – as in physically afraid. That is not my experience, but I do not want to cheapen their experience by failing to understand it, or empathize. I have come to hear of that perception from my African American friends enough to believe that it is not merely bias, but that it has a basis in fact. I believe, as mentioned earlier, that white people either deny this reality, or they are blissfully unaware of it. I believe that must change in order for our churches, our neighborhoods and our countries to achieve a higher level of racial harmony.
To those who deny the premise of this article – that white people have a different experience with law enforcement than most minorities – allow me to ask you a question and offer you a challenge. Have you ever talked frankly with some of your African American and Hispanic friends about their views of law enforcement? Not just one or two, but enough to get a good picture of what those in your relational circle actually think, and have experienced. If you have not done this, then please let me encourage you to do so. Ask in a non-argumentative way, and just listen. You might be surprised at the answers you hear, and they might be surprised that you care….and that is a good start towards “seeking peace and pursuing it.” (1 Peter 3:11) This whole situation is not about winning an argument, or being right, or scoring political points in your social media posts. It is about real, live human beings who are hurting, angry, confused, and struggling. Blessed are the peacemakers, says Jesus. Be one!
You will likely note in this post that I am attempting to take both “sides.” That is a true observation, though I completely deny the “us vs. them” narrative. This issue is not ultimately about minorities vs. law enforcement, though there are conflicting powers that would frame it that way. Ultimately, I myself side with law enforcement, AND I side with minorities who are afraid of law enforcement. You might accuse me of playing both sides of the fence, but I will, over the next few articles on race, try to make the case that understanding both sides of this issue and being in favor of each one is the only rational, logical and triumphant position to take in this situation. All other positions are doomed to failure and increasing divisiveness. Along those lines, I’ll close with some compelling and powerful words from Dr. Brian Williams, whom you might note ALSO chooses to side with law enforcement AND his fellow brothers and sisters that are fearful of law enforcement.
Dr. Brian Williams is a trauma surgeon in Dallas. He was on duty at the emergency room the night Micah Johnson murdered several Dallas law enforcement people. CNN interviewed him this week, and I find myself in wholehearted agreement with much of what he said:
“I’m thinking about the officers and their families and the men that were killed in Baton Rouge and Minnesota last week and I compare my situation to theirs and it’s hard for me to focus on myself right now. I don’t understand why people think its OK to kill police officers. I don’t understand why black men die in custody and they’re forgotten the next day. I don’t know why this has to be us against them. This is all really… it has to stop. “We are all in this together, we are all connected. All this violence, all this hatred, all these disagreements, it impacts us all, whether you realize it or not. This is not the kind of world we want to leave for our children. Something has to be done.”
“Clearly when I’m at work dressed in my white coat the reactions I get with individuals and the officers I deal with on a daily basis are much different than what I would get outside the hospital in regular clothes and my fear and mild inherent distrust in law enforcement, that goes back to my own personal experiences that I’ve had in my own personal life as well as hearing the stories from friends and family that look like me, that have had similar experiences,” he said. “I work with (law enforcement) on a daily basis; they’re my colleagues, they’re my friends, and I respect what they do. But I also understand how men like me can fear and distrust officers in uniform. “I get it, but that does not justify inciting violence against police officers. It does not justify trying to kill police officers. This incident [the shooting of police officers] didn’t fix anything; it’s making it worse.” Source: CNN.COM interview