Black people face real disadvantages and difficulties when it comes to crime and law enforcement. As soon as some people – usually white people – hear those words, they begin to switch off and act as though they are not interested in the problem, or in even admitting that there is one sometimes. But there is one, and if you’re a person who, like me, wants to be a follower of Christ in the world, then you should care because people are hurting over this.
I’m talking about the United States, where I have never lived. I’m not immediately affected by this, but it’s an issue that has come to the public attention a lot of late. I care about it because (I think!) I care about people, and because a lot of people I have encountered who do live in America need to examine the way they think about this. Online social media has made the world a much smaller place. Some people, in true collectivist style (just the kind of collectivism, unfortunately, that breeds racism), have told me that I shouldn’t be commenting or have strong views on this, because I’m “not even from this country.” I hope nearly everyone sees that kind of ad hominem attack for what it is. Besides, maybe the fact that I’m an outsider means that I am less inclined to be partial or to protect any group in the situation from condemnation.
So, to the point: All other things being equal, black people are more likely to be poor, which is associated with higher crime rates (for some types of crime, e.g. theft) for a variety of reasons (e.g. greater need and desperation). Coming from a poor family is obviously a huge factor in this, and it is not one that can be controlled by a person born into a poor family. Social inequality has been demonstrated to have a clear correlation with many social ills, including crime. Black people are more likely to have violent crimes (including theft) committed against them. Due to being less wealthy, they are more likely to live in areas where other unwealthy people live (many of them black, since black people are more likely to be unwealthy). This creates neighbourhoods where poverty is endemic. In the United States where higher education is less subsidised than in New Zealand, poverty has a major impact on future education opportunities, and the effects of poverty on young people also affects the opportunities for development while at school, which in turn contributes to future poverty, or at very least markedly lower income than that enjoyed by other demographics.
The existence of neighbourhoods with a high concentration of this sort of socio-economic demographic results in a different approach to those who live in these neighbourhoods on the part of law enforcement, and by extension a different attitude to those who are relevantly like those who live in these neighbourhoods (which, let us be honest, will often mean associating people on the basis of colour). That low wealth is a contributor to crime means that a natural attitude to take is that those from this demographic are more likely to commit crime or to be guilty, meaning that even if in fact the person standing in front of a police officer is not guilty of anything, he is more likely to be treated as guilty than somebody from another demographic. This means that rates of arrest for this demographic will be higher than the rates of arrest for demographics that are not thus affected in a ratio that outstrips the actual difference between the likelihoods of guilt in the different demographics.
All of this and more (I trust my readers to fully appreciate how very brief this summary is) is the background to what I am talking about when I say that young black men are at a concerning risk of being suspected, harassed, harmed and sometimes killed by law enforcement.
And yet, when I have voiced these concerns in any measure at all in public, the responses that I get have suggested to me that many people have not given much, if any, thought to the background issues here. Instead, I get responses like:
My head wants to explode when this sort of hasty retort comes from people who think that they are using the facts to silence race-baiting troublemakers (yes, those words were actually used today).
Not all of the cases that matter involve shooting. That should be obvious. Eric Garner, regardless of whether or not his physical condition made him more vulnerable, was choked, causing his death while he pleaded with the officer, “I can’t breathe.” The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.
Rodney King wasn’t killed at all, but was beaten by a posse of officers as he lay defenceless on the ground (an action defended to me by some because King led police on a car chase.
Well clearly, the officers had no choice but to beat him more than fifty times with their batons). In fact the King beating is a classic case of a black man actually being guilty of a crime (King was on Parole) but the violence he suffered not being directly related to that crime at all. One of the officers in that case notoriously referred to blacks as “gorillas.” So the problem is larger than the problem of “unarmed black man shot by police” (and in some cases the victim might not be unarmed, like 12-year old Tamir Rice who had a BB gun on his body, but was shot dead within a couple of seconds of police arriving on the scene and certainly without being warned, told to get to the ground, or even showing his gun).
This list does not make pleasant reading.
- Rumain Brisbon. He was killed because police assumed he had a gun, when all he had was a bottle of pills
- Tamir Rice (see above)
- Akai Gurley. The officers don’t really know what happened. Lol, they just shot him.
- Kajieme Powell. Video footage shows that police blatantly lied and claimed that Kjieme approached them with a knife in an overhand grip. He did not approach them, and his hands were at his side when he was slain.
- Yvette Smith. Police were called to a domestic disturbance. Ms Smith opened the door for them when they arrived, and they shot her dead. Officers falsely claimed that she had a firearm, but this statement was later retracted.
- Aaron Campbell. Campbell was reported as suicidal and armed with a gun. When police arrived, Campbell was not armed. They walked him backwards with his hands behind his head. When he was ordered to put his hands straight up in the air and did not comply, he was shot dead.
Examples like these show us why many young black people are less gleeful than other people about any involvement at all with law enforcement and are more likely to feel the need to scape.
Already you might be involuntarily reacting to what I’m saying. It might make you bristly. You may want to start trying to convince me that Michael Brown was no angel and that the officer had good grounds to use potentially lethal force. But I haven’t mentioned Michael Brown (pretty much everyone who has reacted to me lately has made the assumption that I am suggesting that I am denying these two things). It’s the Eric Garner case that fired me up. Actually, Mr Garner’s killing was part of the reason that people reacted so strongly to Michael brown’s killing shortly afterward. People were already outraged by the slaying of Mr Garner, so Michael Brown’s death pushed them over the edge in a way that it otherwise might not have.
You may want to convince me that rioting and looting are wrong and ineffective. I agree, so you can save your breath. That would be a distraction from the concern that I am raising.
It is as though there’s an involuntary, almost chemical reaction to the thought that black people could be treated wrongly, as though that’s an inherently “left wing” concern.
Of those who are taking me to task in conversations about this lately – and I am sorry to say that with perhaps two exceptions, they are all fellow white Christians, as best I can tell none of them have even sympathetically considered that this might be a problem faced by black men (rather than being no more and no less than a problem created by black men because of their criminal tendencies). Instead they have instinctively reacted by hunting as hard as they can for a method by which they can argue that there is no problem, and that the troublemakers should stop being so uppity. I haven‘t always thought this way. When the Rodney King case was big news in 1991 and I was in high school, I assumed, because I didn’t know better and it was in my interests as a white male to assume, that there was probably no race issue here and that the officers were found not guilty, so this was just a case of ignorant, violent black people making trouble. That’s what people have been telling me lately about the whole concern about black men facing greater risk from law enforcement in the United States.
My fellow white Christians, in large part, are not only unable to relate to the experiences that their black brothers and sister relay to them because what they hear does not align with their own experience, but they are also genuinely not listening to what is described to them by those who have had these experiences.
One of the reasons that my fellow white Evangelicals are not listening enough to their black brothers and sisters is that they are not giving themselves enough opportunity to do so.
One problem is that most white Christians have not heard the cries of the oppressed. Sunday mornings are said to be the most racially segregated moments of the week. Whites worship in white churches and blacks worship in black churches. On Sunday mornings there’s little visible evidence that we are all one in Christ.1
It is easy – very easy, and expedient, to see the havoc wrecked by some people as they react to the building frustration and the sense that they cannot change things for the better, and to, on that basis, dismiss the concerns themselves. Don’t let that be you. “Empathy” and “compassion” are words that should mark our lives. They both mean suffering with. They evoke the instruction of St James: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.”
Behind all the hasty, ill-though responses by gesturing to select numbers without giving a thought to the real problems that lay behind them and how you might be misusing those numbers, lies this heart issue. We don’t want to put ourselves in the position of the other and consider that some people with whom we identify might be doing wrong to some people with whom we do not identify, or that others might be suffering because of disadvantages that we do not suffer. We shouldn’t be resistant to these things, but we are.
EDIT: For those who are not all that interested in the issue that I am driving at here, the ethic of love and empathy when it comes to people who express their concerns about how members of their community are treated, and are more interested in scrutinising claims about race and crime stats, I hope you can see that is not the focus here, but there is plenty of interesting reading that you can do to explore that issue further: