Vail Daily column: How can we bridge chasm of clashing perceptions?
Notice the stark contrast between two pieces of parental advice given to teenage sons.
In a Washington Post article, African American Jonathan Capehart’s mother advised her son to expect police would profile him as a delinquent teen if he acted like a normal teen. He recollected her warning him “not to run in public, lest I arouse undue suspicion. How I most definitely should not run with anything in my hands, lest anyone think I stole something. The lesson included not talking back to the police, lest you give them a reason to take you to jail — or worse. And I was taught to never, ever leave home without identification.”
Contrast this warning with my father’s advice to me before going out at night in high school: “Keep your nose clean; act like a gentleman; and tap lightly on the gas pedal. Translated: Don’t get into scrapes with police. Don’t get a girl pregnant. Don’t speed.
My dad possessed rock-solid sureness that police weren’t out to get me. They protected us. That’s what I was taught in my all-white Christian school. My all-white church re-enforced this respect for law officers. Boyhood pals were all-white, too. Middle-class Dutch were the people with whom I grew up. I never thought of police harassing me.
“If you don’t look like Michael Brown or have a son or grandson or cousin who looks like Michael Brown,” says Markel Hutchins, an Atlanta African-American preacher who protested against the grand jury decision not to indict the Ferguson, Missouri police officer who last August shot black teen Brown, “you will never understand why we feel the way we feel tonight.”
Preacher Hutchins’ upset doesn’t resonate with my father’s concern about a teenage son who might step over the line with pranks or my date or a speeding car. My dad didn’t fret that the police might treat me unfairly. Police kept order. In our white neighborhood, who would ever think police might use a lethal choke-hold on me or a classmate?
I took for granted that police were color blind. Some officers might have the medical condition that prohibits them from seeing different shades, like sorting lavender from purple. Weren’t they color blind, however, in the sociological sense of fairly treating alike teens of all races?
Washington Post op-ed writers Dan Balz and Scott Clement report on protesters who are upset with police who allegedly pick racial targets. There’s a deep divide separating whites from blacks and Republicans from Democrats regarding our criminal justice system and how police enforce the law. “Only one in 10 African Americans says blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment with whites in the criminal justice system,” write Balz and Clement. “Only about two in 10 say they are confident the police treat whites and blacks equally, whether or not they have committed a crime.
“In contrast, roughly half of all white Americans say the races are treated equally in the justice system and six in 10 have confidence that police treat them both equally.
“But white Americans are hardly homogeneous in their views about these issues. While two in three Republicans say minorities and whites are treated equally in the criminal justice system, only three in 10 white Democrats agree with that view. Similarly, while more than eight in 10 Republicans say they are confident that police treat blacks and whites equally, half as many white Democrats share that opinion” ( “On Racial Issues, America Is Divided Both Black and White and Red and Blue,” Dec. 28).
Digging deeper into these statistics, we discover how our divided nation sizes up equal justice for all and police using force that fits the crime. One side protests, siding with police who protect them. Others disagree. They protest excessive force police used on African American men who commit minor misdemeanors, such as panhandling illegal cigarettes.
Formative childhood experiences shape different perceptions of how we view protesters who are for and against police force and the judicial system’s impartiality. Some Americans say the courts and the police are color blind; therefore, fair to all races. Others strongly disagree. They are suspicious of the judicial system and police who allegedly target young African American males.
How can we begin bridging this deep chasm of clashing perceptions? Remember what President Lyndon Baines Johnson urged 50 years ago when he challenged citizens to “ … acquire the discipline of wise behavior — righteous and justice and fairness … (Proverbs 1:3). He sent federal troops into the Deep South to enforce law and order against segregation.
President Johnson recoiled against a society rife with unjust privilege and power-brokers indifferent to minorities’ plight. In the 1960s, these social forces frustrated African Americans from getting opportunities to succeed.
On June 5, 1965, the president spoke at Howard University to African American students who feared the police and distrusted the courts. Yes, declared President Johnson, “ … the barriers to freedom are tumbling down … . But freedom is not enough … .
“You do not take a person who has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him up to the starting gate and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others’ and still justly believe you have competed fairly … . It is not enough to open the gates of opportunity. All of our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”
When I heard this speech as a high school senior, it made uncommon common sense. Such presidential insight still holds merit today. Upholding law and order, we must press for what’s fair and just — practicing colorblindness toward everyone.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.