Mount Vernon Column: Still Much Work To Do on Race Relations

Mount Vernon Column: Still Much Work To Do on Race Relations

Commentary – Working on Race Relations

As a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ I am supposed to bring my congregation Good News. But recently I have struggled to do so with all the bad news. Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Dallas! “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations and subsequent arrests are taking place in cities all across America.

Lately my heart has been filled with pain, and grief, and the anger and frustration that come from despair. I have not seen our nation this divided on so many issues — political and cultural — and unwilling to even try to understand each other since the 1960s.

There are so many people that just don’t get it.

I am obviously not black but I want to understand why so many law-abiding Black Americans fear racial profiling by a police officer. Most white Americans have no idea of “the conversation” that Black mothers have to have with their children about how they are perceived by white Americans, and in particular law enforcement.

In 1972 a young 23-year-old man is driving down a neighborhood street; legally obeying all traffic laws and regulations. He notices a police cruiser in his rear view mirror and about the same time the white officer turns on his flashing lights and pulls him over. This was the first time the young man had ever been pulled over by the police. Innocent of any violation that he was aware, and curious as to why he was stopped, he wants to show the officer his willingness to comply with the police so he gets out of his car with his license in hand and starts to walk toward the officer. Immediately the officer pulls his gun and points it at him yelling for the young man to stop and put his hands in the air. The young man did not know he was supposed to stay in his car and wait for the officer to approach him. It could have cost him his life.

Fortunately the officer checks his license, asks him a few questions, and then tells him he matched the description of someone who had just robbed a 7-11. He lets him go.

That young man was me! The only reason I was pulled over by the officer was because I had a beard and long hair down to my shoulders blades. I was not being “racially” profiled, but I made the connection that if I can get stopped merely for having long hair an innocent black person could get stopped, or worse, simply because of the color of their skin.

Most Americans don’t get it. We are still dealing with the fallout of one of America’s greatest sins — slavery. I am 67 years old. When I was born in 1949, there were older Black individuals still alive who had been born into slavery. Most of America doesn’t get it. It has not been that long. Changing racial attitudes takes time and real commitment to heal.

Philando Castile was shot after being pulled over for a broken taillight with his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter in the car. The officer feared Castile was pulling out his firearm and not his wallet. Even the Governor of Minnesota admitted that Castile would probably still be alive if he had been white.

Most of America doesn’t get it. A significant portion of our nation is in pain because they fear Alton Sterling or Philando Castile could be their son or daughter. The racial rancor in America caused Micah Johnson to snap, shooting 14 people and killing five. He told the police he wanted to kill white people, particularly white officers.

Investigators have discovered that Johnson had emotional and possibly mental health problems. We know his actions in no way define black people in America. Just like we know the racist actions of some police officers is only a very small portion of those who serve and protect our community with honor.

But we have got to wake up to the fact that we as a nation still have a lot of work to do around race. When will we engage in the long labor of listening, building trust, and insisting on equal treatment under the law?

Saying “Black Lives Matter” does doesn’t put black lives above all other lives. It actually means “All Lives Matter.” Those of us who profess the Christian faith should understand that better than anyone else. After all, Jesus didn’t say “Blessed is everyone,” but “Blessed are the poor.” He did not say “as you do it to everyone you do it me,” but “as you do it to the least.” Jesus did not say “love everyone,” but “love your enemies.”

Jesus encourages us not to love people "in general" but to specifically care for those society discounts or condemns. This is a way he draws us into understanding their life matters too. "Black Lives Matter" is exactly the kind of thing Jesus would say at the same time condemning the evil in Dallas and calling for us to respect the police and their role in society.

In fact when the police become stereotyped, blamed and condemned for doing their job, I can hear Jesus saying “Blue Lives Matter.”

We need a lot more conversation around race in this country because most of my white brothers and sisters cannot see that “white privilege” is real. Our society is arranged for the benefit of white people. Denying white privilege isn’t going to get us anywhere. White America needs to stop and listen to Americans of color to hear their stories of trying to get ahead. It is important to understand why so many feel it is easier for whites to get ahead than it is for blacks.

Something is really wrong in America. Something is killing us from the inside: Fear. The goal of terrorists around the world is to induce fear because fear divides us. Yet the news media, pundits, and politicians are fanning the flames of fear just fine without the help of terrorists.

And there is a lot to be afraid of. But it is possible to stand up to our fears and face them with real strength. We succumb to our fears when we throw fear back at others or use violence as a means of control. This is not the time to give into our fears. It is never the time to think that violence is a way to resolve our fears or resolve anything.

The greatest prophet of our age, Martin Luther King, Jr., once said:

"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,

begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.

Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.

Through violence you may murder the liar,

but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.

Through violence you may murder the hater,

but you do not murder hate.

In fact, violence merely increases hate.

So it goes.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,

adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness:

only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

And Jesus once said:

"By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

The “Black Lives Matter” movement is the new civil rights movement. Why are we afraid to acknowledge that racism still exists, especially within our systems of justice? We have nothing to lose (except white privilege) and everything to gain if we just begin the process of understanding each other.

  • What if, in love, we seek to understand what we fear?

  • What if, in love, we helped others understand what they fear?

  • What if, in love, the Black community and the police department engaged in public dialogue around “Black Lives Matter”?

This could be one small step in bringing this world around to be the kind of world God intended.

The Rev. Dr. Kincannon is pastor of Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church, a racially mixed congregation serving the homeless and the poorest of the poor along the Route 1 Corridor of Fairfax County.