Prejudice, Death, and a Movie
When I went to sleep last night, people were marching in various cities to protest another set of tragic deaths of black men in police-action shootings. When I woke up this morning, five police officers were dead in Dallas.
I think I’m still numb from it all.
Still, I’m going to attempt to share some of my thoughts and feelings in the aftermath of this week. The story begins with a movie.
The movie was Tarzan. My wife, my oldest daughter, and I went to the Regal Cinema in downtown Indianapolis to catch the flick on Sunday evening. This theater is comfortable with reclining seats and little snack tables that pull in front of you for convenience. One other interesting feature is that it has assigned seating. When you buy a ticket, it gives you a specific seat to sit in.
So, we all go in and sit down. I’m on the far left of our trio. On my left is an open seat, then a couple apparently on a date. After I sit down, the man with the date moves around and he takes the open seat beside me. The way it was arranged, it put him closer to his date than the one he was assigned, and since it was a single seat, he figured that no one would be filling it.
He was wrong.
A few minutes later, a young man came walking down our aisle with a ticket for that seat. Despite the fact that there were lots of open, untaken seats on the other side, he pulled his ticket and asked the man to move back. He wanted that seat between me and the other man’s date. I thought that was a little unusual.
Then, I noticed his briefcase. He was carrying a briefcase. Who carries a briefcase to a movie? I wondered. Immediately, I became suspicious. He wanted to sit specifically between two strangers, and he’s carrying a briefcase into a movie. With all the mess in the world, I became anxious. He could be carrying a weapon, planning to open fire during the movie, or he could be carrying a bomb that he would set off—blowing up himself and us with him.
I decided I couldn’t do anything about a bomb, but if he was carrying a gun, I would prepare myself to do whatever I could to take him down. I was seriously concerned about it. I moved that little table out from in front of me. I lowered my foot rest so that I could exit my seat easily. And, I kept watching him out of the corner of my eye.
The movie started. He seemed to be enjoying it. He chuckled a few times and reacted to scenes. Was that just a ploy to fit in before he struck? There was no way for me to tell. About twenty minutes into the movie, he opened up his briefcase. I went on high alert. He rustled around in it, moving things around. Then, he pulled something out—a bag of some sort of snack and a drink. He had used the briefcase to smuggle in snacks. After that, I didn’t exactly relax, but my anxiety level dropped several notches.
Now, here is where this story fits into the mess of this week. What I didn’t tell you is that the young man with the briefcase was black. It was a little odd that he wanted to take that specific seat when there were other open ones. It is also odd that he carried a briefcase into a movie—even if he was smuggling in snacks. Even so, as I thought about this situation during the week, I came to the conclusion that if he had been a young white man, dressed the same way, I would probably have not given it a second thought.
Folks, that is my built-in, society-induced, unintentional prejudice at work. I don’t like it. I don’t want it. Still, there it is. I, like you, have been ingrained with bits and pieces of prejudice. As humans, we cannot avoid it. White folks have it. Black folks have it. Latinos have it. We all have it. Even so, we seem awfully good at denying it. We don’t want to admit it, but it is there, and it colors our thoughts, our interactions, and our beliefs. The first step in correcting it is admitting its existence.
Some of us are better at empathy than others. I seem to have been blessed (or cursed) with an inordinate ability to empathize. When we have weeks such as this—weeks with so much tragedy, my heart aches deeply. First, I ached for Alton Sterling, a man who was minding his own business one minute and was dead a minute later—for no good reason. Then, I ached for Philando Castile, a seemingly genuine and good man who was shot by a police officer as he tried to retrieve his ID during a traffic stop—for a broken taillight. And, finally, my heart ached for those five police officers and their families in Dallas, officers who were serving their community by ensuring the protection of peaceful protesters.
It’s all senseless.
Now, I don’t have enough of the details about the two police-action shootings to accurately comment on those specific cases beside the fact that these men had done nothing that justified their deaths. However, I can comment on the pain I can feel emanating from some of my friends who happen to be black.
My friend Marvin and my friend Jewel. I have multiple friends, who happen to be black, but these two have called out to my heart and I feel their pain.
Marvin, I haven’t seen him since we were in 8th grade. I’ve written about him before. We met in 7th grade, when we both entered Wilson Middle School in Muncie, Indiana. Up to that point, I’d never gone to school with any black kids. The only experience I had with black folks was through television and maybe, once in a while, at Heekin Park or Tuhey Pool. Frankly, I was nervous. It hadn’t been that long before when there were a number of race riots at Muncie Southside High School, and our car had once been stoned as we passed through a predominantly black neighborhood. However, when I met Marvin and his buddy, James, all my fears were relieved. They were fun. They were funny. I thought they were the coolest kids in school and I truly loved being in class with them. Marvin took away any anxiety I might have had about going to school in the early 1970s with black kids. He changed my perspective and opened up my mind and heart. After 8th grade, we went to different high schools, and I lost touch with him until many, many years later.
Facebook reunited us.
I was excited. I was happy. He didn’t really remember me, but he still seemed genuinely open to reconnecting, and my heart was full of joy over finding that old friend that had meant so much to me in middle school.
Frankly, though, as much as I am still very happy to be connected, and he is my friend, regardless the conditions of this world, he is not the same happy-go-lucky, full-of-jokes boy that I knew so many years ago. Now, based on his Facebook posts, I sense that he is full of pain and anger—pain over the way he sees white folks treating black folks. Anger over the history of abuse that black folks have endured. Pain and anger, more than likely based on how he has been treated, or the way his friends and family have been treated.
His pain hurts me deeply and I cannot ignore it. And, frankly, I can’t do much about it, either. Except, I can assure him that I will always be his friend, and speak up and speak out when I can. I don’t always agree with his perspectives, but I respect his convictions, his experiences, and his pain. And, I love him because he was a friend to me when I needed it.
Jewell is a relatively new friend. She is a black woman with three young kids, the oldest being a boy not yet in his teens. She is highly educated, an engineer, and is employed at a prestigious company. She is also a member of the church where I attend and serve.
We have had a number of talks about race, and she has shared with me a taste of what it’s like being a black person who is generally operating within a predominantly white set of organizations. One thing she told me that has stuck with me is what she does when she enters a room for a meeting or other event. She looks around the room to see if she is the only one—the only black person. If you are white, do you ever do that? Walk in—look around—ask yourself: Am I the only white person? I know I’ve never done that. How foreign that concept is to me. That was a clue to me that there is no way I can really relate to what it’s like being a black person in America.
The second thing she told me that has stuck with me has to do with The Talk. I had never heard of that before our chat. I had to ask her what it was. She said that as a parent, she has to really drive home to her son exactly how to act and interact with the police—in order to ensure his safety during the interaction. This is more than the simple things my dad taught me about being polite and not arguing. This has to do with body language, and posture, and eye contact, and so many other things. I wondered why she felt the need to do that, and she told me that generally all black parents have The Talk with their kids. This was clue number two that I really could not relate to being a black man in America. I mean, I would teach my kids just like my dad taught me, but I had never had any concept of being actually fearful of interacting with police officers. Like anyone else, I’m afraid of the blue lights flashing in my rearview—basically, because I’m afraid of getting a ticket. But, that is nothing compared to being actually afraid of the police themselves.
What has our society done to make an entire segment of our population afraid of the police? This is genuine, folks. It isn’t a piece of media propaganda.
It’s history. Everyone acknowledges that most police officers are good, caring, conscientious people just doing their best to serve and protect. Still, over the years, prejudice leaks out. Sometimes, maybe many times in the past, it was overt bigotry. However, even short of that and even now, there is that built-in, inherent prejudice that is formed by our society, our family, our interactions—it leaks out, too. Over the years, after repeated examples, people become “gun-shy” to use a phrase that is probably too correct.
Fear is our society’s worst enemy, I think. Our prejudices make us fearful. The problem is that sometimes, just as we are about to put our fears aside, something happens to rekindle them. A black man gets shot in a traffic stop, or a police officer is shot by a sniper. A young, white pastor’s pregnant wife is murdered in a burglary or a black teenager is killed while walking home from a store. Those things happen and our fears find new life—and our prejudice leaks out.
So, what’s the answer?
I wish I had a magic pill to make it all better. Frankly, though, there is no easy answer. The bottom line is that we are a broken world, and only God’s influence can change our course. Jesus told us to love our neighbors, to love our enemies. I once wrote a blog post called The Hardest Command
The Apostle John wrote 2000 years ago that “…perfect love drives out fear.” I John 4:18 In context, I think he was talking about how God’s perfect love drives out our fear of being punished for our sin, but by extension, if we would all begin to love one another, perhaps we wouldn’t need to be so afraid of one another either. If we didn’t see black or white skin, but instead saw our brother or sister, our mother or father, our wife, daughter, husband, or son—family that we love, then, perhaps, we would embrace one another instead of reacting out of the prejudice that our fear creates.
Maybe there wouldn’t be so many senseless deaths. I’m willing to give it a try. How about you?