By David Shaheed
Discussions of race and racial profiling in America sparked by the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, have opened old wounds and reminded us of divisions which still persist. As an African American, these deaths are tragic, but sadly not surprising. What is surprising is the realization by my white brothers and sisters that black life in America can differ so significantly from their own experiences. It is hard to reconcile the senseless deaths of these two men when we have a black president in the White House and Jay Z and Beyoncé trending on social media.
In contrast to the vile racial climate that existed in America after the Civil War and throughout the Jim Crow period — when racial segregation and oppression was sanctioned by law — what may be at the heart of today’s problems is a certain cultural blindness fueled by distorted media stereotypes. Many white police officers are limited in their familiarity with black life. However, the media feeds us images of rap artists with anti-social rhetoric; multi-millionaire black athletes with rippling muscles; and a litany of crimes attributed to gang members from the hard streets of urban landscapes. The common black laborer — working two jobs and trying to create a decent environment to raise a family — receives little attention in a world looking for the latest sensation. So when a white police officer is placed in a stressful situation involving a man to whom he is culturally blind, emotions and maybe subconscious bias take over. And in the split second decisions often required by law enforcement, tragic mistakes are made.
Undoubtedly, it can be difficult for white Americans to recognize how white privilege insulates them from what is common in the black experience. An analogy using the board game Monopoly may help. The goal in Monopoly is to buy and trade as many properties as possible; develop them; and collect rent from other players, until all but one is driven into bankruptcy. But imagine a Monopoly where one group of players must abide by special rules: 1) they can hardly ever own Park Avenue or Boardwalk — the two most prized properties in the game, 2) if they land on the Chance space, they have to pick from a deck that has more Go to Jail cards; and 3) if they happen to land on the Go to Jail space, they have to stay in jail twice as long as the other players. Under those circumstances, the players with the “special rules” would see the game as unfair and almost impossible to win. Those without the special rules may be completely unaware of their privilege and advantage in the game.
Data and research regarding the disparities between whites and blacks in America is prevalent. African Americans are disproportionately stopped by police. They are more likely to be arrested and get harsher sentences. African Americans in public schools are disproportionately suspended or expelled for behavior issues. Once a child is stigmatized in the educational system and falls behind, he or she is less likely to graduate from high school, which makes them prime candidates for the adult criminal justice system.
So how do we address these disparities and a history that can seem impossible to overcome? We must move beyond our differences and seek to find our common humanity. In my 30 years as a lawyer and a judge, most people I have met as a public official are cordial and well meaning. It would have been impossible for me to be elected without many white voters evaluating me on the merits without racial prejudice. I was humbled to be elected to serve in such a respected office. As a criminal judge, I also had the opportunity to observe the work of many law enforcement officers and I do not believe any of them would accept the racist label. I have great respect and admiration for police officers. They are often ignored heroes because when they perform their jobs properly, no one notices.
So what could be done to face this rift? Focolare founder Chiara Lubich says, “The world needs an invasion of love, and this depends on each one of us.” Each of us can be an instrument of healing. We must also become more familiar with others so they are no longer the stranger in our midst, but our brother, our sister and most importantly our neighbor.
We have an excellent example of this healing in the unlikely partnership of Lubich, the founder and leader of a charismatic movement in the Catholic Church, and Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, the leader of a progressive American Muslim community. Together, they demonstrated the power of love and connection to heal a modern world still suffering from long-standing religious and racial tensions.
Lubich and Mohammed encouraged their respective Christian and Muslim communities to get to know one another in a “spirit of universal brotherhood.” Getting to know each other started with sharing food, music, skits and talks of common faith experiences. Over time, trust brought them beyond the external barriers of race and religion. Through this unity of sharing, the concept of “neighbor” became real and tangible. It serves as a template for others wanting to bridge gaps, be they ethnic, religious or social — simply opening the doors in your communities and connecting to people who are different.
Judge David Shaheed has been working
on the Marion County Superior Court in Indiana since 1994.