Note: The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations with which the author and endorsers are affiliated.
When was the last time you read the headline “Unarmed white (emphasis mine) man killed by police”?
I found a similar question hanging among the many posts on Facebook in the aftermath of the Mike Brown killing in Ferguson, Mo. Obviously its author, like many of us, is struggling. I can imagine the core of the author’s internal wrangling is not attached to a twisted desire for that headline to run across our dailies. Rather, the author is haunted by another concern. That is the fact that we do read headlines that tell the story of the unarmed black man killed by the very hands that are trained, commissioned and pledged to protect us all.
In the wake of the killing of an unarmed 18-year old black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., I remain at once sad, angry, scared and confused. Paradoxically, I am feverishly searching for answers as to how such a travesty could occur and at the same time raising a cynical eyebrow that says, “Here we go again.” Like Mike Brown, there was Amadou Diallo (1999), Ronald Madison (2005), Sean Bell (2006) and others. But lest we think this an intermittent and tragic occurrence along law enforcement’s journey to protect and serve, let us consider the past eight weeks:
• Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., July 17.
• John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio, Aug. 5.
• Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 11.
• Dante Parker in Victorville, Calif., Aug 12.
All were killed under under circumstances that were, at least, dubious and, at most, clearly unjustifiable. What is clear is each of them was a black male and essentially unarmed. Crawford had a BB rifle while in a Walmart.
Clearly the Mike Brown case must be investigated. Prayerfully, the justice system and all involved will proceed with honesty and integrity. I also pray protesters of good will in Ferguson will coral their righteous indignation and channel it toward peacefully challenging the powers that be.
However, I realize there must be vigilance and commitment from us all to foster real change.
It is my prayer that we as a country would cease to allow one incident and particular individuals – parts of a larger problem – to consume us such that we do not confront real issues, namely the issue of systemic racism.
I understand race as a social construct, contrived to perpetuate an inequitable economic system and born in the founding of our nation. Overtime, race has taken on a life of its own and manifested in the marginalization of blackness. This has not happened because of an inherent moral decadence of black people, for we know there are bad individual actors of all races, ethnicities and colors.
Rather, the devaluing of blackness is the result of a dominant narrative that says it is inherently inferior. There is a persistent interaction between history, culture, ideology, policies, practices and personal behavior that supports this narrative. As a result, race wields a power that, although it is not true, allows it to be real. That is, race is a fabrication that has significant impact on us all. One such effect is the killing of unarmed black men.
In order to help erase “Unarmed black man killed by police” from the headlines, we must ask the critical questions:
Why is it under these circumstances are there attempts to make the unarmed the threat and the armed the victim?
Why is it the question of black-on-black crime is often raised in these times while there is no mention of white-on-white crime or crime within other ethnic groups? Moreover, what does this question really have to do with unarmed black men losing their lives at the hands of law enforcement?
What does the treatment of black men in these cases have to do with the high incidence of their criminalization as young boys for behavior for which their white peers are excused or receive lesser punishment?
Beloved, we have an American problem. Let us not be paralyzed by fear of the label “unpatriotic” and refuse to raise questions about the ways of our great country. In fact, it is patriotism that requires us all to take the Stars and Stripes to task.
I pray that we all will take the initiative to educate ourselves on the reality of systemic racism. With acknowledgment and learning comes the capacity to talk about it and eventually the courage to act to interrupt it.
Let us begin by looking at the record in the killings of unarmed black men and ask the question, “What’s race got to do with it?”
The Rev. Sterling E. Freeman is pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Smithfield. Others endorsed this column, including the Rev. Kenneth D. Cooper, Christian Faith Baptist Church, Raleigh; the Rev. DeAshley Curtis, Green Chapel Baptist Church, Smithfield; Dr. Haywood Gray, General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, Raleigh; the Rev. Polly Lamberth, First Missionary Baptist Church, Clayton; Dr. Haywood Parker, Truth Tabernacle Ministries, Rocky Mount; Dr. Lacy Simpson Jr., First Missionary Baptist Church, Clayton; and Dr. J.B. Woodhouse, Red Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church, Stanhope.