It happens all too often. I turn on the evening news and cringe at another killing involving a white officer and an unarmed African American victim. Victims such as Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor and now George Floyd have become household names. These names serve as reflections in the mirror for many African Americans as we see these tragedies and think, “It could have been me or someone I love.”
Unfortunately, our thinking about these victims and discussions about these tragedies is fraught with polarization and division. Some people are pro-officers; others are pro-black lives matter. Lots of people are just angry. And competing voices urge us to decide: Whose side are you on?
As the daughter of a retired police officer, a former officer myself and an African-American woman, I have a unique perspective on these events. Here are a few things that are helpful to keep in mind.
Why All the Shootings?
Why are unarmed black people killed with such frequency? Why do so many of these killings seem so avoidable? Before we point the finger at our officers by assuming they’re all untrustworthy racists — and before we vilify their black victims by digging up criminal histories — we must take a step back. We must look at the criminal justice system and the framework of our larger society in which we all operate. It is time we consider the imbedded systemic racism and implicit bias existing covertly within our society — so we won’t misdiagnose the problem and apply an incorrect solution.
First, consider the historical framework. Having studied criminal justice at NC State and criminology at the University of South Carolina, I became very familiar with our justice system. In our not-so-distant past, officers were hosing black protestors in the streets, and black people perceived as a threat were murdered in alleys or bludgeoned beyond recognition with batons. At one point in America’s history, our law enforcement was an extended arm of the government to enforce “societal norms,” which often meant “keeping the blacks in order.” This mentality even influenced our laws, sentencing and prison systems. All the while, the black community realized that assistance must come from within their own communities.
Thus an ever-growing tension has been growing for years between the black community and the officers employed to serve them, and many African-American are taught to distrust (or even hate) police officers and view them as the enemy. Since the 1970s or 1980s, our law enforcement system has been slow to make necessary adjustments. My mother, a retired officer, tells me how she was the first female African-American ever hired in the town she served for 25 years. Though she had to work two jobs and take care of a newborn, she was determined to become a police officer so that members of the African American community could see faces like their own serving their communities. Of course, history alone doesn’t explain the shootings; it merely helps us understand that these issues aren’t recent developments. Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun.
Second, consider our cultural framework. The media often portrays African Americans, particularly black males, as dangerous criminals or predators. From “Birth of a Nation” to “Juice” to “Menace To Society” to “The Wire” to “Power,” black men in our media have been depicted in an overwhelmingly specific way. Both popular culture and entertainment are often fettered with the images of the black man as a threat. Evening news is no different, further perpetuating stereotypes.
Society often buys into these perceptions. Think about it: In many instances, an officer is dispatched to an area because of a citizen’s phone call. Now, who observes a young black child playing in a park and assumes he’s dangerous? Who sees a black man sitting at an elementary school and assumes he’s a predator? Who sees a young black man running down the street and thinks “he must be up to no good”? Simply put, why do many of us see African Americans, and our first inclination is to fear for our lives or property? Most often, the answer to those questions depends on how a person has been taught to see black people in the aforementioned situations.
Recent events with Mr. George Floyd paint a very grim picture. Sadly, too often our biases and negative views of African-Americans lead to situations like this — in which a black man’s life is taken over a $20 counterfeit bill. Such killings have furthered a pervasive narrative in America. But I believe change is possible.
Whose Side Are You On?
The media will show us images of slain officers in uniform and burning patrol cars, meanwhile broadcasting images of distressed family members, city-wide protests and even riots. In an attempt to vilify the “enemy” and deify the “heroes,” the talk of the day will center on, “Whose side are you on?”
Many voices will say the victims are at fault. They should have obeyed the officer’s commands; they shouldn’t have run or resisted arrest; they shouldn’t have committed a crime. (But in some of these cases, they were in their own homes!) Other voices will argue that the officers are at fault. All officers are racist and not to be trusted and we should abolish the police.
But both viewpoints are wrong. We must be careful not to allow the few to represent the whole in any case. We cannot see a few officers who have misused their power, operated with racial bias and assume that all officers adhere to such practices. We cannot see a few African Americans that committed a crime and assume that we are all dangerous and up to ‘no good.’
When I was an officer, I recall many sleepless nights researching ways to improve the community I patrolled. I visited schools to talk with young people, had tough conversations with prostitutes and drug-addicts, spent countless hours listening to the elderly in crime-ridden neighborhoods about when their neighborhood was a safe place.
And I know I’m not alone. I know many officers who are weighed down by the evil they see day in and day out; they see the worst that people do to one another and to those they claim to love. I know many who suit up every day and kiss their spouse and kids knowing it could be their last memories with them, knowing they may face a life-threatening situation. I know all of the little moments they miss, all the lost time they’ll never regain. I also know the feeling of having my weapon drawn at another human being made in the image of God who was intending to or already harmed someone else and wondering, “Am I actually going to have to shoot or kill this person?” We cannot fathom the emotional burden many officers carry and the expectation to make decisions and act with precision at every call, on every stop, in every encounter, every day. We need to pray for our officers, pray that those who shouldn’t be policing are swiftly removed and pray that the Lord would send and keep those who truly do put the lives and needs of others before their own, regardless of race or class.
However, I also know the very real struggle of being black in America. I am all too familiar with the hateful rhetoric and negative treatment of black people. I’m mindful of how people can expect the worst of black people, despite their efforts to ‘be a good person.’ I’ve felt the awkward feeling when something is stolen from a coworker and I’m the first person everyone looks at. I’ve been followed in stores. I also know what it’s like to be treated as a second-class citizen whose representation is welcomed, but not my voice. I know what it’s like to have people walk right by you as though you didn’t just say hello, to be considered someone’s “black friend” though you’ve never been invited to their home, to notice that you’re the only person who looks like you in a crowded room, to know that your actions could shape someone entire view of your race, to know with certainty that the system was not built for your success and sometimes wonder if there’s any people group or place in the world that’s safe for black people. Walking this path can be exhausting and deeply grievous for me and those who share both my hue and lineage in this country.
Nevertheless, we don’t have to choose a side to sympathize with. We can be both pro-justice and pro-black lives matter. We can value officers’ lives and have just cause to question their decisions and motives. We can acknowledge that, yes, all lives matter and that black lives matter. So as we process these tragedies, may division not rule the day. This needs to end. But forging a path forward will require all of us. We will all have to use more than just our words, but our efforts to bring change, and we must all strive for true unity — even if it’s costly.
The Way Forward
How do we move forward? First, we need to understand that these shootings are symptoms of a much larger deep-seated problem. Unfair sentencing within courts, biased hiring practices, gentrification, racial zoning and unequal access to opportunity and education all point to a larger, systemic issue.
Second, we need to understand our responsibility as Christians within our society. We need to pray for our broken world, advocate for the inclusion of minority voices in our culture and churches, seek unity, make informed decisions about who we vote for, consider how their policies affect all people and believe that total silence is not an option.
Within our churches, we can also intentionally develop deep, healthy relationships with church members who look nothing like us. We honor them as image-bearers when we recognize that they are who they are ethnically and culturally at the will of the wise and good God that made them. Rather than being content with simply having ethnic minorities in a room, we must intentionally seek to include them in positions that both bless the church and allow them to share their gifts. We’ll be tempted to fear the loss of personal influence or authority, but we can reflect our Lord who both shares and uplifts those on the margins so that they may participate in God’s grand plan to redeem a people from all nations to himself!
We reflect our Lord as image-bearers when we do justice and pursue peace within the church and outside of it. We bless the world when we do these things together. As the late Dr. King says, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pray, reflect, listen, empathize, speak and act for justice.
A version of this article originally published on July 26, 2016.