I’m sure most of you have heard of the arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, an African American professor at Harvard University. A neighbor called police because they thought a black man was trying to burglarize a neighbor’s house. Turns out Dr. Gates was the owner of the house and was simply jarring his front door open. (This isn’t the most tight-knit community I’m guessing.) Gates got rather irate toward the white police officer who was questioning him and he ended up getting arrested. This arrest of an African American man in his own home raised the charge of racial profiling which quickly erupted into a national controversy when President Obama commented on the matter, saying the policeman acted “stupidly.”
Fortunately, Obama wisely put out the fire on Friday by inviting both Dr. Gates and the policeman out for a beer.
Though I’ve read several accounts of this episode I confess I can’t for the life of me figure out why this police officer arrested Dr. Gates. But I wasn’t there, so I’ll leave that for President Obama to sort out when (if) Dr. Gates and this officer get together. What I find very significant, however, is the radically different way white people and African Americans tend to respond to events that involve conflict between African Americans and the law. (Anyone remember the O.J. Simpson trial?) These two groups tend to interpret such events through the lens of very different life experiences. (I could include other ethnic minorities at this point, but want to right now keep the focus specifically on the difference between whites and African Americans.)
As a white person, I’ve never been pulled over or questioned by a policeman for no obvious reason. In my experience, the police have always been fair and safe. But this has not been the case for most of the African Americans I know. Almost all have at some point in their life been harassed by white police officers for no apparent reason — some of them numerous times. A good example was recently shared by my good friend Efrem Smith in a blog in which he discussed the arrest of Dr. Gates. Check it out here.
When white people don’t have relationships with African Americans that are deep enough to allow them to “get on the inside” of the black experience, they tend to assume their white experience of the police force is the universal experience of the police force. Our “white normal” becomes “the normal.” We white people thus tend to believe a white policeman’s side of a story and we often assume those who allege racial profiling are “playing the race card.”
The thing is, if racial profiling is real, the last people who would ever know about it are white people such as myself! The only way we can expand our horizon — and the only way we can begin to bridge the racial divide between whites and blacks in our country and in the church — is for white people to humbly acknowledge that our experience is a myopic, privileged experience and to listen and learn from the experiences of people who in many respects continue to live in quite a different world from our own.
Obama did the right thing. White people and people of color need to hang out together a lot more and have a beer (or coke) as we listen and learn from one another.
I encourage you to seek out diverse relationships in your life.