OP-ED: Two ways police chiefs, Black clergy can help rebuild
The year 2020 is one we will long remember due to COVID-19, political turmoil and riots following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Many of us wonder if our nation has hit rock bottom. The advantage of hitting the bottom, as in the case of an addict, is the recognition that one’s life needs immediate reform and rebuilding.
Unfortunately, I do not believe the U.S. has hit bottom just yet.
At some point our nation will need to begin rebuilding. We will need to look for examples of progress that have not avoided conflict simply for the sake of being nice but have maintained civility in the face of great challenges to be overcome.
One of the more beautiful examples I have witnessed of this basic civility is in the Chiefs & Clergy Partnership. I have been privileged to help facilitate this dialogue between York County’s police chiefs and its clergy leaders of color in the Black Ministers Association. While there is still much work to do, it has been amazing to watch predominantly white police chiefs learn empathy and perspective through relationships with Black ministers. I have also seen these leaders of color, once suspicious of police, better appreciate the challenges of policing and also learn to love the men and women in uniform.
Imagine what good might come if the basic civility of listening and believing each other pervaded our society. I can see it in my mind’s eye because I have been a witness of the good that has come from predominantly white police chiefs listening to and believing their newfound friends in the Black clergy.
How did the police chiefs begin rebuilding shattered relationships with the Black community?
Lesson 1 – They listened: When York’s police chiefs first met with local Black clergy in September 2016 the air was thick with potential conflict. The chiefs could have been defensive. In part, I expected them to circle the wagons and defend department policies and their fellow brothers and sisters in blue.
Instead, they sat and listened as these Black ministers aired grievances of discrimination and unjust policing both they and their families had endured. The chiefs asked questions, expressed sorrow, and even admitted the ways in which the police sometimes get it wrong. They expressed sadness as human beings as they imagined what it would be like if their own children had endured the stories being told.
This simple act of listening was so disarming. I witnessed people lay down their arms as it became evident that this was not just a conversation between police and clergy but between brothers and sisters in the human race.
Is it not worth taking the time to simply listen to our neighbors who are Black Americans?
Open your ears. Be slow to speak and quick to hear. God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason.
Too often I see people respond to Black perspectives with a quick retort, often political in nature, in a way that brushes off legitimate grievances. I usually hear these retorts in private when Black people are not present or see disgusting comments anonymously made in the comment section online. They sound something like this:
“Why do they always complain?”
“Why can’t they be grateful for the freedoms in this country? If they don’t like it here, why don’t they just go back to Africa?”
“Why does everything always have to be about race? Can’t we move on?”
“People need to get a new attitude and not live in the past.”
At the root of these retorts is one massive problem: the refusal to listen. A deaf ear is a particularly poisonous evil. It robs our neighbor of the dignity as an image bearer of God to be a bearer of truth. A deaf ear voids our neighbor’s experience. Refusal to consider another human’s perspective means you believe they are a liar.
Listening on the other hand means you are open to the truth and not afraid of the consequences of it. A listening ear proves that you love the person speaking and are concerned about their welfare.
There is a basic civility in the art of listening. Human relationships, and the rebuilding needed in our country, cannot begin without this basic civility.
Lesson 2 – They believed: The police chiefs didn’t just listen to Black clergy, they gave them the benefit of the doubt to believe their experiences. This simple act was dignifying.
This simple rule struck me in a story told in the book Courageous Conversations About Race, co-authored by a white educator, Curtis Linton, and a Black educator, Glenn E. Singleton. When asked by white participants in his seminars, “How can I be anti-racist? How can I fix this?” Glenn’s answer is simple: “Just believe me.”
He goes on to ask that people believe that he experiences racial profiling, that his white neighbors treat him differently, that he is accused of succeeding only because of affirmative action, that he faces discrimination.
Why is believing the experience of Black people so hard in this country? The numerous relationships I have had with Black men and women has repeatedly echoed the refrain that they experience discrimination far too often. I have heard this from my Black progressive friends but also from my gun-loving, former military, conservative Black friends.
In college I was trained by a Black man while learning to drive a delivery truck. He joked one time as we got out of the truck: “Listen. As I walk by cars you will hear doors lock” (insinuating that he was a dangerous thief). Other friends have told me stories of being closely followed as they shopped, had larger checks they were trying to deposit examined by bank managers, and had business people cut in front of them in the priority boarding line at the airport because it was assumed they did not know they were in the wrong line. As I have relayed these numerous stories, the typical response I hear is that I am assuming the worst, that these scenarios have another alternative than discrimination.
Believing people means simply accepting that what they say is true, that their experience or interpretation is not invalid, that they deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Are we sometimes wrong in our interpretations? Sure. Claiming all Black people are wrong in their subjective interpretations is a heavy burden to overcome when their stories are so consistent and similar. The only alternative is to believe that all Black people have banded together in a conspiracy they have amazingly kept secret from the rest of the world.
I am not asking you to abandon wisdom, judgment, or common sense, but only to practice giving people the benefit of the doubt. Common sense would tell you that if the majority of people who have the same skin color keep retelling the same experiences of discrimination that there might be truth to consider.
To believe someone is to simply practice empathy. Empathy is the ability to feel and have compassion because we took the time to listen. Throughout the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus it is reported that he “saw” people and had compassion on them. I believe his “seeing” involved listening and believing. Perhaps we could be better neighbors who “see” each other simply by listening and believing each other.
I promise you, that if we begin to listen and believe each other, we can rebuild better friendships, communities, and a nation. These two simple rules continue to shatter the simplistic categories I am constantly forced to choose. Basic acts of civility create more nuanced, empathetic ways of seeing my brothers and sisters. I know it because I have the privilege of watching every month when the chiefs meet with the clergy.
— The Rev. Aaron J. Anderson is CEO and head of school at Logos Academy.