As I slid my key into the front door of my parents’ Hampton, Va. apartment, I heard screeching car wheels slide to a halt about 15 yards behind me. A policeman walked toward me, with his gun pointed in my direction. “Don’t move, put your hands up,” the white officer said. His trigger-hand trembled as he approached, causing my fear meter to rise a bit higher.
“What are you doing here,” he asked.
“I live here,” I said. “What did I do?”
“Got a call saying a suspicious character just ran down this street.”
I wanted to say, “Since this is a black neighborhood, does that mean that any black man entering his home with a key is a suspect?”
Instead, I said, “Do I look suspicious?”
His response: “Yeah, you’re wearing tennis shoes.”
He then walked back to his car and drove away.
That scenario played out more than 60 years ago when I was a Hampton (Va.) University freshman. Since that time, thousands of black-men-walking have had similar experiences, and we know there will be more to come. Flashbacks of that cop’s gun pointed at my gut flicker through my mind whenever white cop/black man encounters end tragically, as one did recently for George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN. Nationwide protests and the visual of police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee pressed against Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes before he died, might deliver a sizeable payout and maybe a morsel of justice to the Floyd household down the road. Then again, they might not.
Chauvin ignored Floyd’s “I can’t breathe,” chants, just as officer Daniel Pantaleo ignored identical chants while ending Eric Garner’s life with a chokehold on July 17, 2014 in Staten Island, NY. A grand jury refused to indict Pantaleo, but after a department hearing he was dismissed from the NY police force five years after Garner died. On July 13, 2015, the City of New York agreed to pay the Garner family $5.9 million in an out-of-court settlement.
Racial protest marches during my era were comprised mostly of African Americans, who walked solemnly, peacefully, especially when headed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. The nationwide unrest stirred by Floyd’s death drew more white protestors than blacks in some cities, which was good to see. The protesters knew that Chauvin had pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes because they saw him do it. They also saw him with his hand in his pocket, oblivious to Floyd’s ‘I can’t breathe,’ pleas for relief, for life. In that moment, Chauvin projected the clearest image of cold-heartedness. Donald J. Trump, leader of the free world, often projects a similar image.
In the U.S. pledge of allegiance, which was recited daily in elementary schools years ago, the phrase “… one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all,” now lacks value, credibility. Thanks to our president, Donald J. Trump, our country has become dangerously divisible since he became commander-in-chief. His description of heavily armed white protesters in Michigan as ‘good people,’ while calling Minnesota protesters angered by the role ‘thugs,’ the president earned his nickname, ‘divider-in-chief.’ Several months before he was elected, Trump told us who he was; too many of us didn’t believe him.
In his book, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E. B. DuBois wrote, “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” It’s understood, therefore, what the problem of the 21st century is and will continue to be. Though it’s not as debilitating as it was when I was a youngster in the 1950s, it lingers still. For centuries, white America has been reluctant, fearful or incapable of dealing fairly with the racial woes of our country. Would it help if the major church organizations join forces to discuss honestly the presence of racism in their pews and the hearts of their parishioners? Is there a white bishop, cardinal, or television evangelist who can be as impactful as Dr. King was in inspiring a significant level of change? Would a true Christian defy the teachings of Christ by denying love to any human being?
The late author and social philosopher Eric Hoffer offers this explanation: “The most effective way to silence our guilty conscience is to convince ourselves that those we have sinned against are indeed depraved creatures, deserving every punishment, even extermination. We cannot pity those we have wronged, nor can we be indifferent toward them. We must hate and persecute them or else leave the door open to self-contempt.”