Race relations in America stands at a dire crossroads. The unnecessary and tragic death of George Floyd once again highlighted our country’s racial divide. The scene I witnessed in the George Floyd video I view as a first-hand witness of murder. Since his death, our world has been turned upside down. There have been many names added alongside Mr. Floyd’s and my heart hurts for each broken life. The difficulty with seeing every case at the same level as that which we witnessed in the George Floyd case is the lower number of details we can access.
I have seen a discouraging public spectacle played out in news media, on social media, and in conversation in the public sphere concerning people’s differing opinions about the way African Americans have been treated by the justice system in America. My response to these disparaging conversations has been to spend time researching policing, police stops, police searches, police searches that end in finding contraband, pre-trial sentencing, sentencing, and prison time.
One study I found is called the Stanford Open Policing Project. Since 2015, the Open Policing Project has collected over 200 million records of traffic stops from across the country. Out of the 200 million records approximately 100 million were sufficiently detailed to facilitate statistical analysis. According the to the statistical analysis of search rates and hit rates (a hit is when an officer finds illegal activity) the Open Policing Project found that the police require less suspicion to search black and Hispanic drivers than white drivers. “This double standard is evidence of discrimination” (www.openpolicing.stanford.edu/findings/).
A second study I found was from the Sentencing Project, a report given to the United Nations in March of 2018. This study concluded that black drivers were only “somewhat” more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. Once pulled over, black and Hispanic drivers were three times more likely to be searched and blacks were twice as likely to be arrested than whites. These patterns hold even though polices officers have a lower “contraband hit rate” when they search black versus white drivers. As of 2001, one out of every three black boys born in that year could expect to go to prison in his lifetimes, as could one in every six Latinos, compared to one out of every seventeen white boys. One conclusion of this study is “the United States is operating two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and people of color” (https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/un-report-on-racial-disparities/).
My conclusion as a result of studying this research is that there is evidence of discrimination in traffic stops, searches, and sentencing of people of color, especially those that are poor. This does not mean that every police officer displays discriminatory behavior and it doesn’t mean that every police agency is rife with racists. It does, however, mean that we have more work to do in educating our community. The Sentencing Project recommends that we end the prosecution of low-level drug offenses, eliminate mandatory sentencing, to reduce the use of cash bail on people who do not pose a flight risk, to fully fund indigent defense agencies, to require racial impact statements, and to develop training to reduce racial bias.
As a Christian man, I have a responsibility to bear witness to the truth. It is quite possible that people are ignorant of the facts and just have failed to educate themselves. But there’s another possible truth-that some are more influenced by their whiteness than by their witness for Jesus Christ. “Because it doesn’t happen to me it doesn’t happen to anyone,” is not a logical conclusion based upon factual evidence.
Jesus makes a point throughout scripture to break down the walls of discriminatory behavior. The problem is that we are not part of the same culture, and so often we miss the audacity of his actions. As a pastor and teacher of the scripture, I can emphatically say that we do know how Jesus would respond in situations of injustice. We do know how Jesus would respond in situations of discrimination.
In John chapter four Jesus comes to the town of Sychar in Samaria. The Jews and the Samaritans had an intense racial divide. The Samaritans were part of the Northern Kingdom when Judah and Israel separated in the 9th century BC. Eventually this area would fall to the Assyrians. Some inhabitants fled but some stayed and farmed the land. These Samaritans intermarried with Mesopotamians and Syrians. These new Samaritans were looked at as traitors and their race was despised amongst all Jews. When Jesus comes to Jacob’s Well at Sychar, he knows exactly what he is doing.
As he sat on the well waiting for his disciples to bring food, a Samaritan woman approaches in the heat of the day to draw water. Jesus asks the woman to give him a drink. The woman’s response is, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans) Jesus’ response is, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” We learn through Jesus’ further conversation with the woman that she is a woman of ill-repute in the city. So here we have Jesus speaking to a Samaritan woman in the middle of the day. Most men who spoke to a woman in this way would have been soliciting her for sexual acts. Only women who were suspect would come to the well at the hottest part of the day. Jesus breaks down racial barriers and sexual discrimination barriers, and treats an outcast as a person of sacred worth. Jesus exposes racial tensions for what they are, “sinful garbage.” Any racially motivated act that seeks to discriminate against a person whom God loves, Jesus exposes as sin.
In Luke chapter 10 an expert in the law stands up and asks Jesus a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ response not only highlights the most important truths of God’s law but his parable illuminates the preconceived notions, discriminatory ideas, and ungodly behavior of his questioners.
Jesus tells a story of a man who is traveling from Jericho to Jerusalem when he falls into the hands of robbers, who attack the man and leave him half dead along the side of the road. A priest sees the man on the side of the road half dead, and instead of rendering aid to the man he crosses over to the other side of the road, passing right by the man. A priest is thought to be as close to God as one can get, and yet this priest doesn’t act in a godly way toward the injured man. The priest is worried about defiling himself so that he will be unable to worship in the Temple. Then a Levite, a judge in that time period, sees the man half dead on the side. The Levite also passes by on the other side of the road, leaving the man half dead. The Levite was someone tasked with upholding and knowing the law. The priest and the Levite are images of law-abiding Jews who, even though they follow the letter of the law, are missing God’s full intention in providing it.
Finally, a Samaritan comes by. When the Samaritan sees the man lying on the road he is moved to compassion. This half-breed who has been discriminated against most of his life renders critical aid to the dying Jews life. This Samaritan bandages the wounds pouring on oil and wine. He places himself in danger of attack by the thugs that wounded the injured man, placing the man on his donkey. He takes the man to an inn and pays for his stay. Then he tells the innkeeper to look after him and when he returns, he will reimburse him for any extra expense he may incur. Jesus then asks the expert of the law, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
The expert in the law replies, ‘The one who had mercy on him” and Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” Jesus tells this story to emphasize to all that “have ears to hear” that it is not the color of one’s skin, or the racial divides created by one’s ancestors, nor is it a matter of what someone else taught you about another ethnic group that matters. They only thing that matters is a person’s heart. In I Samuel 16:7 God tells Samuel how he is to pick the King of Israel by saying, “Do not consider his appearance or his height… The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” As Christian men and women, we are called to educate ourselves, not with popular opinion, but with factual information. As Christian men and women, we are called to speak out against injustice. As Christian men and women, we are called to look at people’s hearts, and not at the color of their skin.