Ferguson and Race

November 20, 2014

On August 9, Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Wilson is white. Brown was black.

Was that shooting racially motivated?

In the summer of 1975 I worked in a program for disadvantaged high school students at an historically black university, Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte. Late one evening I was washing my clothes in a public laundromat. No one else was present. The door was open as there was no AC and it was blazing hot. A group of five guys walked by, noticed me, and yelled racial slurs through the door. A few minutes later they came back, hyped up the racial slurs, started tossing some of my clothes in the air, and then, when I leaned over to gather the clothes, slammed me against the washing machines and hit me in the face. My left eye tooth pierced my upper lip. I was able to get away and run out of the laundromat (perhaps only because the perpetrators were not completely sober).

There was no question in my mind that this event was racially motivated: I was the only white person anywhere along Beatties Ford Rd that evening, and I was the one beaten; the racial slurs were many.

Later that evening, however, after the hospital and the police, I met with my African-American boss and colleagues. They were sympathetic and helped in numerous ways.

But they also assured me race had nothing to do with this. I was alone and vulnerable. A group of thugs walked by and took advantage of that vulnerability. The same can happen – and did happen regularly – to African-Americans.

Most of my white friends said the opposite: This was an example of racial violence.

Who was right?

The point is this: We hear of a crime or a tragedy, and immediately was interpret the facts through the lens of our societal assumptions: Policemen are our friends, protecting us from criminals, or the police are instruments of the oppressive forces of society, taking advantage of their power to abuse us and harm us. Society is fair, and you get what you work hard for, or society is rigged against us and with rare exceptions we can’t advance.  Whatever our societal assumptions might be – and there are many more possibilities – we tend to interpret events in a way consistent with those assumptions.

So what was the true interpretation of this minor incident in 1975?

Undoubtedly, had I been 6’9” and 250lbs instead of 5’8” and 135lbs, this incident would not have happened. In that sense, it was my stature rather than my race that led to the beating.

But what if I had been my actual size, but African-American? Would it have happened just the same, only without the racial slurs?

We’ll never know.

Take that tentativeness to your interpretation of the Michael Brown tragedy in Ferguson. Remember the warnings of Scripture:

Proverbs 18:13 If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.

Proverbs 18:17 The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.

There were many – many of all shades on the political spectrum –who gave answers about the meaning of the Michael Brown tragedy before they heard from all of those involved. There were many who jumped on one eyewitness account or another and, ignoring other eyewitness accounts, said, “This is what happened! See, here is more evidence that my view of society was right all along!”

What then should this tragedy prompt in us?

First, prayer: Prayer for those involved, prayer for the grand jury presently meeting (which may have reported by the time you read this), prayer for genuine justice to be done, prayer for healing of the racial divide that still stains our country, prayer for fellow believers not to be used by politicians of any persuasion, but to test all through the lens of Scripture.

Second: Acknowledge and recognize the facts of the case and of our society. Here are a few:

  1. There are markedly different eyewitness accounts of what happened, stated by people who are trying to be truthful.
  2. The police in Ferguson at a minimum have made numerous procedural errors.
  3. The powers of the state have been used against many African-Americans for hundreds of years.
  4. Similarly, for many years, state institutions and even many churches taught that African-Americans were an inferior type of humanity. (I once flipped through a book, published in the early 1900s, which included a chapter entitled, “Can the American Negro love?”)
  5. Much has changed with regard to racial oppression in this country in the last sixty years, but horrible incidents of abuse of power occurred during the lifetimes of many of us. And some such incidents continue today, regardless of whether or not Michael Brown’s shooting is one of them.
  6. The church of Jesus Christ must stand up for the weak and powerless. As God says in Psalm 82:3-4, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.  Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Third: Be humble. Talk to others whose initial take on this tragedy is different than yours. Listen to each other. Don’t give an answer before you hear. Ask both white and black friends about past experiences of being the victims of apparent racial violence. Ask both white and black about past cases of apparent unfairness in school or in the workplace. Ask those from other countries about their own very different experiences with ethnic or racial tension and oppression.

The point is not to magnify anyone’s victimhood. The point is to avoid being manipulated by politicians, to be able to understand another’s perspective, to appreciate the facts and experiences that influence how we interpret events like Ferguson – and to overcome the sin of hubris that leads us to judge others and to exalt ourselves.

May God be gracious to give us ears to hear, and so to grow in our union with one another and with Him.