Friday, July 19, 2013

How Would You Feel If This Always Happened To You?

This last June I was at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America.  I was there with the Reverends, the divines, the pastors, those who wear the collar, the clergy.  I prolong this so you will get the point that these are men of the cloth who, believe it or not, are usually pretty good men.
The overwhelming majority of these men will not go to jail, will stay married to one wife, will be moral pillars of their communities, and most of their children will grow up to respect and honor them.  Do the research, check the statistics, it is real.  These men are educated, they are hard working (for the most part), and they actually do earn the respect to which their office might entitle them.
    Even as I write that I amazed that such a group still exists.  However, that is not what this blog is about.  It is about the fact that one of those men, another good man who earns respect everyday in how he lives and treats people, is a black man.  Not the only black man in their midst, but his color is relevant to my discussion here, and he is my friend.  Being my friend he shared with me what happened to him on the way to General Assembly in South Carolina.
    This, my African American pastor friend, had for many years been an over the road truck driver. I think for about fifteen years.   He knows how to drive, knows how to stay within the law.  He is also fairly large and strong looking.  I imagine if he was angry he would be pretty intimidating.  My friend rented a car, it turned out to be bright red, to make the trip down South from his home five states up.  As he went through one of the Carolinas he was pulled over by a police officer.  The officer asked to see his driver's license and my friend asked the officer, "why did you pull me over?"  "You were speeding, " was the reply.  My friend assured me he was not speeding.  "Where are you going" the officer asked.  When told he was on a way to gathering of pastors he was asked what he did for a living.  Things changed at this point as the officer asked my pastor friend to come back to his car where he asked him about how you could know if you are called to the ministry, since he was struggling with the idea.
    The officer warned my friend to be careful because about an hour down the road there was a speed trap.  Sure enough in an hour or so my friend was pulled over again, while driving within the speed limit which he was watching closely.  Again the questions were asked, and seeing a Bible on my friends front seat the conversation shifted.  In neither case did my friend receive a ticket.
    My friend is a Christian, in fact is one of the most positive, loving, and personally engaging people I know.  Those officers had put my friend and themselves in a dangerous situation, as all traffic stops can be due to traffic and due to the potential misunderstanding and possible conflict arising from such interactions.  My only conclusion is that they stopped him because he is a black man, driving a nice bright car.  This is called profiling.   There was no probable cause, this was not a road block random check point.  My friend was black, and the white officers thought they might in fact find something wrong.  Instead they found a good man, but they had still created a circumstance that might not have come to a good ending.  What if my friend had finally be irritated enough to say something antagonistic?  What if the officer(s) wanted to prove something that day, or reacted with fear?
    My friend was indeed irritated, but he knows how to forgive, he has the power of Jesus to love, and he was wise enough to be polite and respectful to authority figures without losing his self respect.  Not everyone has those strengths.  Every time authority figures profile a  person of color and put them in a position where they feel threatened, afraid, and demeaned it creates the potential for conflict, violence, and certainly anger.      We are a nation of laws, we believe in authority, we usually give the benefit of the doubt to those who wear a badge.  We expect them to be trained, wise and judicious in how they handle the use of force to control, arrest, or of if necessary, kill people.  Unfortunately we have had examples where this power invested in them has been unwisely used, or used in direct contradiction to their training and purpose.  The more confrontations the more opportunities for things to go down wrong.  One incident is too many of course, especially if someone ends up dead or needlessly in prison, and the racial reverberations set us back as as a nation, again.
    Race is a factor in these interactions.  Even good men have bad days, and this is as true for police officers as it is for pastors.  What we prejudge others to be can certainly color the way we treat them.  Certainly not everyone stopped is a good person, certainly some we suspect of wrong doing are actually up to no good, there is evil in the world.  What we don''t need is to bring any more to it by assuming authority we don't have, putting people in a situation where they feel threatened and demeaned, being surprised when they react with anger, and using deadly force when we haven't been sufficiently trained in its use.

1 comment:

  1. I wish I could say you are wrong, Randy, but you are absolutely right. Several years ago, I was teaching an MBA class that had several black students. One night, after an article I had co-authored with Gene Callahan on racial profiling was accepted by Reason Magazine, I asked the blacks in the class how many of them had been stopped for what essentially were racial reasons. All of the hands went up.

    One of them told me a story about a friend on his way to a job interview and how he was stopped, searched, and humiliated. The profiling is there, folks.

    A lot of conservative evangelicals cannot understand this issue, and many of them would be in support of "programs" such as "stop and frisk" in New York City because they are aimed at "stopping crime." I have no idea if "stop and frisk" reduces street crime, but I do know that it reduces liberty, and liberty is more precious to me. It should be precious to evangelicals, for without it, a hostile government would gladly shut down our churches or make it very hard to meet in peace.

    When authorities are not held accountable for their conduct -- and the police Randy described in this post were not held accountable -- then you can bet we will get even more behavior that is outrageous or borders on the abusive. And, no, I do not believe in the canard, "If you are not doing anything wrong, you should have nothing to hide."

    Police and prosecutors today are masters of taking perfectly lawful and innocent behavior and finding a way to criminalize it. Driving While Black is one of them.