My 22-year-old son called me while walking his dog one morning. He goes to college in a small town in Central Oregon. "There is a man in his car slumped over. I called 911. Should I wait for them to come? They said I did not have to." I thought quickly and replied, "No, best not to. Thank you for calling 911." Two days later he called again. "It is broad daylight and someone is chopping the top of a car. Should I call the police?" "No, best steer clear of this one," I replied. Those might seem like strange responses, but in these times, I prefer my son have very limited contact with the police. You see, I am the white mother of a Black son.
We have been afraid for my son for years, but now I am terrified. For years we have heard that Black men were being killed at an alarming rate in our country. But nothing has made it feel more real for us than the recent videos of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery being killed by the police or vigilantes. We have seen it with our own eyes.
The fact is that Black men in our country have a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by the police, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Not 1 in 1 million or 1 in 100,000, or even 1 in 10,000, but 1 in 1,000. And this chance is not of being arrested, it is of being killed.
I do not believe that all cops are racist. That would be silly. But I also do not believe the danger to our Black brothers and sisters is just a few bad cops. There are systemic forces and biases that affect all of our behaviors, including the police and the police unions.
One of the reasons that Black men are arrested at a proportionately higher rate than white men is because we create opportunities for them to interact with the police at a higher level. More police hang out in Black neighborhoods. And a Black presence in a white neighborhood seems to unnaturally attract the police attention.
While driving one night in Austin, my Black son was followed by a police car a full 3.5 miles, until he turned into our driveway. To follow him, the officer got on and off a major expressway, went through 10 traffic lights and made five turns. It was not a coincidence he was followed. I, a white woman, have never been followed like that. Thank heavens my son did not speed, have a headlight out or forget to dim his lights. Who knows what could have happened had he been stopped?
Another time, my two sons (one brown and one Black) were skateboarding through our almost all-white West Austin neighborhood. They stopped to rest on the curb, and the police showed up immediately to watch them.
What I didn’t know at the time was that my neighbors, on the neighborhood email list, had a practice of emailing each other whenever a Black person was seen in the neighborhood. I don’t know how often this activity resulted in a call to the police, but apparently this time it did. My "well-meaning" white neighbors called the police on my sons. No wonder someone said to me, "You really should walk with your son through the neighborhood more often." Friends, this is a deeply systemic issue that has to change.
I am a Presbyterian pastor. As a person of faith, I believe when asked, "What does the Lord require of you," my response should be, "To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
My Jewish friends recognize this from Micah 6:8 in the Hebrew Bible. As a member of Interfaith Action of Central Texas, my friends in each of the other religions represented by iACT tell me they have similar passages in their holy books.
I believe that Americans are being called to actively work for justice and mercy regarding this issue. This is THE issue of our time.
We all need to re-evaluate our behaviors. This includes the police and all of us who have allowed justice to be applied unequally.
Examine yourself, as I am myself. Do whatever you feel faithfully called to do. We need to join our Black brothers and sisters by standing up and continuing to stand up until our police departments equally protect all our citizens.
If we do not institute change, I will continue to be terrified for my son. Other mothers will continue to be terrified for their Black sons.
Can you join us in action? We need your help.
The Rev. Carol Johnson is a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor, iACT Board member nonprofit consultant and CliftonStrengths Coach for individuals and teams. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.