One of the stories Andy Crouch tells in his book Strong and Weak, reviewed here yesterday, is of two campus ministers, Phil and Leslie, when they were working at the University of California at Berkeley. They were returning home at the end of the day, having picked up some groceries, when they turned onto their street and saw the lights of a police cruiser light up behind them. Within minutes, one police cruiser was six. Phil described what happened next:
“A voice from a loudspeaker told me to roll down my window. The voice told me to open my car door, keeping my hands visible at all times. Take four steps away from the car, keeping your hands clearly visible, I was told. The instructions went on: Face the car. Bend down on both knees. Put your hands on the ground. Lie face down. Turn your face to the right.” (Quoted in Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak, p. 100).
Both Phil and Leslie were handcuffed, their vehicle searched, turning up only groceries and Bible study materials. Supposedly, they “matched the description” of robbery suspects and went through all this despite the fact that Phil offered to furnish time stamped grocery receipts that would provide him an alibi. The irony was that Leslie’s father was the chief of police of a neighboring community. What is neither ironic nor surprising is that Phil and Leslie are black.
What was most troubling to me as I read this account was realizing that I know Phil, who I worked with on a national task force. He is a man of character, gentleness, grace, and wit. And I’ve come to learn that his story is a common one. It is one laden with fear–one nervous move or misstep could lead to bodily harm or worse. I’ve seen several stories of black pastors subjected to the same treatment. It is a story many black men who have never committed a crime can tell. And you may be aware that there is a name for this: Driving While Black. (There is also a companion infraction: Walking While Black.)
I’ve been pulled over by police on several occasions in my adult life for speeding. The lights, cruisers, uniform and visible fire arm have their effect. Yet, even though I had actually broken a law, unlike my friend, I was never asked to step out of the car, or to kneel on the pavement, let alone be handcuffed. Twice, I drove away with nothing more than a warning. I was always treated with politeness.
I’m sure people can give lots of reasons for why I was treated the way I was, and why my friend Phil was treated as he was. But the truth is that few of us who are white who were not guilty of a serious crime have been treated as Phil was. And sadly, there are many who are guilty of nothing else than being black who can tell stories like this.
Reading Phil’s description gives me chills. I can imagine the scene, the blinding lights, the amplified voices, the roughness of the pavement on my skin, being jerked from the routines of grocery shopping and coming home, to handcuffs and being treated as a “suspect”, of having the contents of my car searched (I can feel my pulse rate increase when TSA decides to do a “random” inspection of my bags or a pat down of my person).
Sure, it could happen to me. But it is more likely that it will happen again to my friend Phil. And that helps me make sense of the anguish and the anger of blacks who are trying so hard to do the right thing, and simply want the same things I want, and face this treatment and worse.
This is the America whose Declaration of Independence describes all men as created equal, and yet whose Constitution describes blacks as “three-fifths” of a person. Jim Wallis has described in a new book by the same title, racism as America’s Original Sin. I think that is right and I think that we, and especially the church in America have tried to “heal the wounds of our people” lightly. We heal these wounds lightly when we refuse to face our sorry history, when we pretend to be “colorblind”, and when we don’t understand the differences that the accident of the color of our skin makes in our lives. Some may be put off by the language of “sin” but the truth is, sin can be acknowledged, repented of, and forgiven. Actions can be taken that are the fruit of repentance. You can’t do any of that with a “social condition.”
The question is, will we? Will this be the generation that truly faces our sad three hundred fifty year history? How long must friends like Phil wait? Will he face such demeaning treatment again? How long will this be?