Racism, Law Enforcement, and the Shared American Experience

rockwellLike so many who grew up like me in the rural Midwest, I have always admired the police. I come by it naturally. When I was young, my father was a deputy sheriff, and a small-time law enforcement legend. He was the young deputy who bravely chased down and arrested some criminals who had shot a state patrol officer at a routine traffic stop. My grandfather overcame extreme poverty and the lack of a high school education to become a state patrol officer and one of the first motorcycle officers in the state of Wisconsin. My uncle rose through the ranks to become the chief of police in his city. Many of my earliest memories and best memories are of riding in my grandpa’s patrol car or listening to the police scanner with my grandmother. I remember playing quietly when my uncle was sleeping on the couch after pulling a double shift and working through the night. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the inside of my grandpa’s cruiser, and it’s a happy memory.

I grew up around law enforcement, and I respect it. I have many friends who serve as policemen, and they are all men of high integrity and courage. When I got my license as a teenager, I knew better than to speed through my uncle’s town, because if I got pulled over, I’d be much more likely to get a ticket because I was his nephew. The law and integrity mattered to my father, my uncle, and my grandfather. These same principles matter to the officers that I know and call my friends. I grew up with stories of great cops and cops with compromised morals. But mostly, I’ve heard good stories. I couldn’t relate to people who talked bad about the cops or complained about problems with the system. My experiences with the system had always been positive. The system worked as it was supposed to work with every man and woman standing equally before justice which was blind to skin color, creed, or background. I knew injustice existed, but I thought of each injustice as a separate and isolated instance. I was predisposed to assume the best of the officers and assume the worst of the defendant.

I only met a couple of African-Americans growing up. I heard the N-word, but I didn’t know what it meant until I was older. When we moved to the Madison area many of my best friends were Mexican. They were children of police officers as well. I was aware of race. I learned to appreciate different cultures, but I knew little of the history of race in America. I learned about the Civil War and slavery, but I never learned about the Reconstruction or Jim Crow laws. I knew segregation was evil, but I was also taught that MLK was a communist. As a teenager we moved to the Milwaukee area. I started listening to political talk radio and became enamored with Rush Limbaugh. He exposed me to conservative black intellectuals like Thomas Sowell, but also to racially divisive thinking. I remember laughing at Rush’s parody, “Barack the Magic Negro.” Living near Milwaukee also brought me out of my white bubble. I remember being severely scolded, when I referred to a Brazil nut as a N***** toe. I had honestly never once thought of how offensive that was. I didn’t even know it had another name. In college, I worked for a moving company with African-Americans and actually became friends with black people for the first time. Their experiences were nothing like mine.

I attended seminary in Minneapolis. My wife and I got involved in a multi-racial church. We ended up buying a house in the Jordan neighborhood on Broadway in what was then, the worst neighborhood in the city. We heard gunshots every night. People were murdered blocks from our house. On Sunday we’d worship with African-American teachers, barbers, government workers, as well as former gang members and drug dealers. We saw the inside of the projects. We learned the foster care system and the criminal justice system. We were shocked to find out that some of the godliest people we met weren’t Republican. We discovered that some of our friends had bad experiences with the police. Slowly my wife and my perspective began to change. There was another American experience that we knew very little about. I wasn’t intentionally bigoted or racist, in fact, I loved and was drawn to other cultures, but I was ignorant. I assumed that every American’s experience was similar to mine, but it wasn’t.

In 2008 our family moved to East Asia and began working closely with the Uyghur people. This exposed me further to ways that a system can be rigged, intentionally or not, to disadvantage a minority. I saw the anger and frustration as my friends would get pulled over for “random” checks by the police. I saw the helplessness of my friends as they were rejected for employment and even housing based on their racial identity. I saw the humiliation they felt as even compliments were given in ways that belittled them and re-enforced ethnic stereotypes. I saw them celebrated when they kept to their designated space, and then crushed when they “got out of line.”

When I returned to the States, I became more aware of the challenges faced by my minority friends and particularly my African-American friends. Certainly, the challenges go beyond policing issues, but for many, they have had experiences with the police that I never faced. I have never been pulled over by a police officer and frisked by the side of the road, but many of my friends who are black have been—repeatedly. These are not men who are criminals. These are Christian young men and pastors who were profiled simply for the color of their skin. I’ve sat with mothers who’ve have been pinned to the wall by officers because they were certain she was hiding some street thief in her home.

It is tempting for white America, it is tempting for me, to view the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd as separate tragic incidences. Almost every person I know, views these incidents with horror and sorrow, but they don’t see them as connected to each other. They don’t see them as connected to the random searching of cars. They don’t see them as connected to the long history of legally sanctioned and then culturally sanctioned racism in our country. They don’t see them as connected to inequality in legal representation. They don’t see them connected to inequality in sentencing. They don’t see them as interconnected at all, but if we listen to what our African-American brothers and sisters are saying we would understand that the anger and the grief that we see pouring out onto our streets is the product of 400 years of pent up pain. It is all connected.

I hear those who grew up like me wonder at what the point of the protests is, when so much of America agrees that George Floyd was unjustly murdered. Many people focus on the destruction and the looting and miss the larger point. I feel like if I don’t acknowledge the obvious that the moral of this essay will be missed—yes, the looting, the destruction, and the retributive violence are wrong. The larger point though, is that many, many, of our black fellow citizens feel that they have limited access to the blind justice that I take for granted. They may have encountered officers like my dad, my grandfather, and my uncle—officers who treated them with respect and dignity in the execution of justice. But many have also encountered a system and officers that are arbitrary, prejudicial, and violent. Should we let a few bad officers taint a whole system? Chris Rock, a black comedian, makes this point about “bad apple” cops:

I don’t think they pay cops enough, and you get what you pay for. Here’s the thing, man. Whenever the cops gun down an innocent black man, they always say the same thing: ‘Well, it’s not most cops. It’s just a few bad apples. It’s just a few bad apples.’ Bad apple? That’s a lovely name for a murderer. That almost sounds nice. I’ve had a bad apple. It was tart, but it didn’t choke me out. Here’s the thing. Here’s the thing. I know being a cop is hard. I know that *@#!’s dangerous. I know it is, okay? But some jobs can’t have bad apples. Some jobs, everybody gotta be good. Like … pilots. Ya know, American Airlines can’t be like, ‘Most of our pilots like to land. We just got a few bad apples that like to crash into mountains. Please bear with us.’

This speaks to the point of a systemic problem. Systemic racism doesn’t mean that every cop is racist, but rather that there is a problem in the system that allows racism to survive and continue to spread its poison. So what is different about today? Today we have the video evidence. Like Will Smith stated so clearly, “Racism is not getting worse, it is getting filmed.” The protests beg the question, what if it hadn’t been filmed? If the death of George Floyd wasn’t filmed would they have called it murder? Would those officers still be on the streets? We know that weeks went by after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the local police and district attorney did nothing but exonerate his killers as acting in self-defense. Only the video and the subsequent outrage led to charges against his killers.

It is not because I hate the police or despise the law that I speak out. It is because I love good police and believe that a lawful society is essential for justice that I must speak out. It is because I believe that justice should indeed be blind that I must speak out. It is because I love my brother that I must speak out. It is because God commands that his people pursue justice for the vulnerable that I must speak out.

On Saturday I attended my first protest in over four decades of living. It was a peaceful protest to honor the life of George Floyd and plead for justice. We respectfully marched around the city hall. We stayed on the sidewalk. There was no violence. As I stood on the sidewalk with my family and some friends, I felt my heart drop as close to a hundred officers in full riot gear and gas masks marched in formation and took battle positions across from us. They lined up and marched forward as if to attack, stopping only 20 feet from me and my family. For the first time in my life I felt afraid of the police. And then my fear turned to anger. And now my anger turns to grief.

I grieve because I now know what it feels like to have the men and women in uniform not feel like my friends but feel like my enemies. I felt judged, misunderstood, and targeted by a force much more powerful than I. I felt helpless.

But I am not helpless. I am an American. I am a Christian. I am an image-bearer of God. Because I love God and country, I must speak out and work for change. Because I value lawful civilization and the Constitution I must stand up to oppression where I can. Because I respect the badge and the thousands of peace officers all over our country who love justice, I must speak out against those individuals and systems that pervert justice and perpetuate racism and violence against the vulnerable.

But rage and protest are not enough. We must demand and work for change. The masses cry out, “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” Because I am a Christian, I know that there is no ultimate justice apart from the miracle of the gospel. But Scripture does not allow us to take a spiritual cop out. Nor should we allow ourselves to fall back on “what about-ism.” One of the grievous sins of Israel was that they polluted justice against the poor and vulnerable. Christians can believe that the gospel is the only hope for humanity, and work to build a just and lawful society at the same time. So what needs to change? I don’t know the answer, but there are a few commonsense changes that would protect good officers and help ensure justice for minorities and all Americans. Changes to access to good legal representation, changes to the ways police unions protect bad cops, changes to mandatory sentencing guidelines, and changes to the militarization of police tactics would be a start.

While these changes in legislation would only be a beginning, they would help to create a pathway for change. Ultimately racism and injustice reside in our sinful hearts in a way that only the gospel can change. The enduring reality of sin and depravity however do not give us a pass to inaction.

It is not easy for me to write these things. I realize that many of my friends disagree with me on the problem of race in America. Even more of my friends disagree with me on the problems with policing and the legal system. I do not have a white guilt complex, nor am I trying to stir up a race war as I’ve been accused of doing. I want America to fulfill its vision of a republic “with liberty and justice for all.” I long with the prophet Amos to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

About Scott Dunford

Lead Church Planter at Redeemer Church of Silicon Valley and Director of West Coast Mobilization for ABWE International.
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5 Responses to Racism, Law Enforcement, and the Shared American Experience

  1. Jim Peet says:

    Have you thought that to the police, protesters are scary?

    • Joel says:

      Jim, the protest I went too yesterday included a large number of children under 12- several corgi puppies, and we mostly listened to speeches, sang songs and walked and chanted. If cops are afraid of people exercising their first amendment rights, than they’re in the wrong line of work.

  2. Jessie says:

    Thank you for writing this essay! I grew up with a similar Mid-west experience and am just now learning about the connectedness of all these tragedies.

    Your words will help me explain to my friends why I care so much and have started becoming involved with community groups pushing for change.

  3. Sally says:

    Thank you.

  4. Jim Hollander says:

    Christian have failed to get the gospel out. To many nominal Christians, who do not know the Lord. With what is happening in our cities, I understand why police wear riot gear.

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