In the last few years the United States has seen numerous tragedies related to race, the police and young black lives. The words Ferguson, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner and Black Lives Matter evoke a picture of the U.S. police force treating men of colour with anger and hostility.
It has generated a lot of discussion. One voice points out the reality that parents of African American boys have to teach their children that the police are not always their friend. In the United States a young black man is 21 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than is a young white man.
Another voice, coming largely from the white community, emphasizes that law enforcement is a dangerous job. Statistics show that police use of excessive force against all groups, including minorities, is lower now than has it has been in the past.
Who is right? Is the U.S. a racist society getting worse, or are these tragic events uncommon in light of the bigger picture?
For those of us living in the midst of this it’s difficult to know. I admire law enforcement and I know that it’s a really tough job. At the same time I have great empathy for parents that explain to me that raising a boy of colour includes dangers that the mother of a white son can never understand. It’s true, I do not understand, but I have a better grasp of this situation lately because I have been listening to Bryan Stevenson.
‘Because I am broken’
Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a group dedicated to righting wrongs in the criminal justice system. He is a lawyer who stands with those who need a voice. Stevenson is playing a role in President Barack Obama’s initiative on community-based reform and he has been called “America’s Nelson Mandela” by Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
Stevenson spent much of his childhood poor, in the still-segregated South. He attended Eastern University in Pennsylvania, a sister school to places like Redeemer and Kings in Canada. At Eastern and in law school Bryan became convinced that Christians have a responsibility to use the law as a tool to care for those neglected by society.
One of the reasons racism is so complicated in the U.S. is that we have never come to terms with our past. Stevenson explains that other countries – such as Germany, South Africa and Rwanda – have experience with slavery, discrimination and genocide. But, he says, those countries dealt with their past in a responsible way. In other countries, memorials, museums and national repentance acknowledge past wrongs. In the U.S. you can live in a city never even knowing that every day you are strolling along a street where the biggest slave auctions used to take place.
Moreover, Stevenson says that our narrative of race limits our understanding. He tells us that the evil of slavery was not just the slavery itself. A lot of countries had slavery. The challenge of American slavery is that we connected it to white supremacy. And in American history it was often Christians who justified this, arguing that white supremacy was biblically justified. Our narrative of white supremacy allowed us to move unreflectively from slavery to the Jim Crow era of legal segregation of races. Then we moved from Jim Crow to an era of mass incarceration, where one in three black boys will one day be in jail.
This is a terrible legacy for Christians and I think we have a particular responsibility to work to counteract it. Fortunately, many Christians are already working in this direction and Stevenson shows us what we have to do if we want to be part of this healing work. We have to reposition ourselves. If we see the injustice we will act, but we are unlikely to act if we never put ourselves in a position to witness our legacy. Stevenson tells us to get closer to jails, poor neighbourhoods, poor schools – anywhere injustice prevails.
Of course, when we do that, we risk anguish. It is uncomfortable. It makes us angry and frustrated. But it is clearly our job.
I was at a reception with Bryan a month ago right after yet another tragic police killing of a black man. Someone asked, “How can you keep going? Don’t you get frustrated?” Bryan’s answer was profound. He said, “I do this because I am broken.”
That resonates with me. We are broken, but we follow Christ. Understanding the complexity of racism is part of following Jesus.
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