Feeling ignored, black Christians pray, vent in national conference call

Adam Thomason is a former pastor, itinerant speaker and author in Phoenix. Photo courtesy of Alex Faith

(RNS) African-Americans often express frustration at white Americans for overlooking their grief at the deaths of young black men shot and killed by police.

On a conference call last week, hours before Micah Xavier Johnson, a black man, opened fire and killed five white police officers, about 500 Christians, black and white, tried to bridge that racial divide.

Adam Thomason is a former pastor, itinerant speaker and author in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Alex Faith

Adam Thomason is a former pastor, itinerant speaker and author in Phoenix. Photo courtesy of Alex Faith

“I believe Christians in America, predominantly in the evangelical world, are anemic when it comes to understanding historical American issues and racial tensions and how that has affected the present,” said Adam Thomason, a onetime pastor and speaker in Arizona.

“Most Christians, when you hear them — predominantly evangelicals ­­–  they live with a ‘that was then, this is now’ mentality,” said Thomason who argued that attitude is contrary to biblical commands.

Despite efforts by religious groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America to officially recognize and try to heal racial attitudes, white evangelicals are more likely than blacks to agree that “racism is mostly a problem of the past, not the present,” according to a Barna survey.

But the poll also found that 94 percent of evangelicals believe “Christian churches play an important role in racial reconciliation.”

It was that common conviction that led Thomason to call his friend, former Obama White House staffer Michael Wear, who is white and identifies as an evangelical.

Michael Wear is an author, former Obama White House and campaign staffer and founder of Public Square Strategies LLC in Northern Virginia. Photo courtesy of Cedric Terrell

Michael Wear is an author, former Obama White House and campaign staffer and founder of Public Square Strategies LLC in Northern Virginia. Photo courtesy of Cedric Terrell

Thomason wanted to know what they could do in response to last week’s deaths of Alton Sterling, 37, shot by two Baton Rouge, La., police officers, and Philando Castile, 32, shot by an police officer in Falcon Heights, Minn.

Thomason, like other African-Americans, was convinced the men had died simply because of the color of their skin — as did Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and Michael Brown before them.

Studies are inconclusive about whether police in general are biased against blacks and other minorities, although data has revealed that police departments in cities like Boston and Ferguson have disproportionately approached African-Americans for traffic and other violations.

The Center for Police Equity, a research and action think tank based at UCLA, also found that officers were more likely to use force in encounters with African-Americans than in encounters with whites.

Thomason refused to feel “hopeless and angry” after the graphic videos of Sterling’s and Castile’s deaths emerged. Instead, he reached out to his allies.

The joint conference call on July 7 included some 500 Christians dialing in to pray, listen and vent.

“From my point of view, people feel isolated, they feel like they’re not being heard, they’re not being understood and there are a lot of reasons for that,” said Wear.

Lack of communication and misunderstandings leave some blacks convinced that they are fighting on their own, which is a problem, according to Thomason, “because it creates a wedge between the black and white community.”

“Blacks are saying, ‘We have to do it ourselves.’ Which leads to the other side of the coin, so they’re saying, ‘White Christians, you’ve never spoke up for us.’ To me that is a problem.”

Brittany Packnett, an educator, Ferguson protester and a co-­founder of Campaign Zero, a campaign advocating a 10-­point policy plan for police reform, voiced frustrations she has heard from millennials on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter movement about being “abandoned” or “ignored” by institutions.

Justin Giboney, a lawyer and Democratic National Convention delegate from Georgia, expressed his own frustration at the apparent complacency of some Americans in the face of repeated tragedies like the ones that inspired the call.

“Why is it so hard to activate the conscience of a nation when you see exactly what happened, when you see the devastation, when you hear the cries,” he asked.

Before concluding the hourlong call, participants were pressed to make their interests known to state legislators, who play critical roles in establishing laws affecting how police are criminally prosecuted or punished.

Wear, a New York native living in Virginia, revealed afterward that several former Obama campaign and White House colleagues were among those who dialed in to listen.

New York State Assemblyman Michael Blake, who was also on the call, said that if courts find police officers criminally negligent they should go to prison.

“Most officers are doing the right thing,” he added, as are “most people.”

Thomason called the Dallas situation “very delicate,” but he felt it was possible to keep “taking intentional steps while acknowledging the loss of life.”

The bigger problem, he said is the ongoing lack of accountability about preserving black lives.

Wear said he was struck most by how some people used a “political lens” to process the Dallas attack.

“Sometimes our conversations can make it seem as if all of these events, all of these human lives are milestones or just turning points in our political debates,” Wear said. “We need to be really careful about what that does to our spirit, what that does to the soul of our nation.”

For his part, Thomason was certain that God had prepared Christians for “such a time as this.”

“Do not lose hope,” he exhorted the hundreds gathered on the call. “Do not lose hope.”

(Nicola A. Menzie is a contributor to RNS)

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Nicola A. Menzie


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  • “White Christians, you’ve never spoke up for us.” — Adam Thomason

    “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
    — Jesus

    Some white people look at racism and say the “real problem” is class warfare — the 1% playing “Let’s you and them fight” to divide the 99% — but it’s much more than that. Black Americans face a range and depth of oppression that white Americans can only begin to imagine.

    Logically, all lives matter. But people don’t think logically. And skin is such an easy way to otherize: “We” don’t even have to look at “Them” closely, let alone under the surface.

    Everybody knows white lives matter. Look at racial opinions, assumptions, likes and dislikes, employment, education, wealth, home and car ownership, history books, art books, literature, research, medicine, technology, monuments, politicians, celebrities, entertainment, the media, advertising, business, law enforcement, stop-and-frisk, stand-your-ground, prison sentences, voting rights, jury selection — notice who gets “selected” for what. I’m not talking merit. I’m talking opportunities, means, mentors, contacts. In this century.

    When it comes to how white Americans treat — or fail to treat — black Americans, class warfare is only 1% of the problem.

  • This will no doubt draw some ire. Without excusing any instances of law enforcement bias, why are we not hearing more about the nightmare in Chicago, where lately citizens are being shot by other citizens on the average of once every 15 hours? Or the fact that in the last few decades two parent families in the black community have shrunk from about 67% to today’s number of about 23%. Economic disparity may well play a part in this disturbing trend, and some degree of latent racism, though it’s hard to always quantify every potential factor. I am more concerned about the loss of the sense of personal responsibility which seems to plague every community regardless of demographics. A spirit of entitlement rather than perseverance pervades this country. When I look at a person, it’s not possible to fail to note initially some difference; black or white, male or female, young or old. Beyond that I take no account, I’ve always embraced MLK’s dictum that we should be less concerned with the color of one’s skin, but the content of one’s character. As I refuse to view blacks except as individuals, so also whites. Thomason’s declaration that white Christians “never spoke up for us” denies the fact that the anti-slavery movement prior to the Civil War was led primarily by white Christians, Theodore Weld, Sarah and Angelina Grimke among them.

  • Edward, you have a point about feelings of entitlement, but I’m not sure how much it is applicable in the way I think you mean, to the murder of innocent black people by police.

    I don’t think the killings are triggered by any sense of entitlement among the citizens being stopped. I think it has more to do with some cops feeling entitled to stop whomever they choose for any reason they might imagine, with no repercussions.

    I also believe a sense of entitlement is much more prevalent among white middle and upper classes than any other segment of the population.

  • I believe the numbers of death by police shootings last year were in this range: Whites: 277, Blacks: 167, Hispanics: 88. More whites than blacks died at the hands of police, however as a much greater percentage of the population perhaps we should expect that. On a percentage of population basis, the number of black deaths appears disproportionate. Yet, the greater portion of such deaths occurred in high crime areas where the populace is probably more unstable than the balance of the community. We can argue about the causes of such instability, but that’s not my point here. The point is that it sometimes makes policing very difficult. Poverty is not necessarily a “cause’ of crime. Some of the poorest people I know are honest law abiding citizens. I am member of the lower middle/working class myself. Improvements in community policing…Yes! Officers need to be trained to de-escalate more effectively, but there is always that uncertainty of not knowing what you’re getting into. I wouldn’t be an officer if I had the choice. So I don’t think racism is really what lies behind the events. And you can trust the media to spin every situation to the best ratings advantage, because high ratings mean more ad revenue, and with our 24/7 news cycle where everyone with a cell phone is a potential ace reporter we can expect more of the same. Especially as it seems there is a growing instability in our society that has nothing to do with racial issues. Rich or poor, black or white, I return to the theme of personal responsibility and sound civil judgement, not only on the part of police, but on all citizens as well.

  • We should forget stops for driving while Black and non-lethal uses of force by the police.

    If you stop Black men more often than their percentage of the population would suggest, and then are more apt to use non-lethal force against them then you do with men such as my Norwegian-American self when you do stop them, you’re could end up with more incidents of lethal force against Black men than their percentage of the population would otherwise suggest…even if police officers in general are more hesitant to use lethal force against Black people than they are with white people. (Come to think of it, the last two times I was in a car that was stopped by police was when Black male friends were driving. The police acted professionally.)

    Could the use of lethal force also suggest class and age bias in the case of white men? Could racist assumptions that Black people are lower class people, despite prominent Black people in public life, also be a factor in stopping and using force where none is called for?

  • These are good points by Edward and Gregory.

    I don’t know if either of you are familiar with “Insight” radio. It’s a political channel on Sirius radio. I wish I could remember his name, but they were interviewing a well-educated and dressed younger black man who drove a nice car. He described how often he gets stopped and how disrespectfully he is treated by cops. He told about how, as a high schooler and then in college, he was stopped and his backpack searched much more often than his white friends.

    Of course I can’t vouch for how perfectly honest he was, but as Gregory mentioned, there is statistical proof that black people are stopped too often for no reason other than skin color. That is simply racial profiling, civil rights violation and unAmerican.

  • In my own community there has been much discussion recently on the question of “driving while black,” by very solid members who happen to be black. One could hardly deny that such stops occur, but a black gentleman of my acquaintance has said that when he is stopped regardless of cause, he merely tightens his hands on the steering wheel and refuses to remove them unless so directed by the officer, nor will he reach for anything, requesting the officer to obtain his registration or license by whatever means the officer chooses. The stopping of blacks at a greater percentage than their share of the overall population is not necessarily racist if the stop occurs in a high crime area. An additional point which I will not try to put a specific value on comes from the same study I cited earlier: blacks (for whatever reason) are 8 times more likely to resist arrest than other racial groups. Without being snarky, I would hardly suggest this as a wise policy. I know that profiling has a bad name, but from a deductive perspective, when certain elements continually emerge, from a crime fighting perspective, it is foolish to not use that knowledge when appropriate. In the end, I will grant that it is not a just world, despite the best efforts of most people, police, blacks, and all others included.

  • You may have appreciated my “good points” in my initial post, perhaps not in my reply to Gregory. If so, my regrets.

  • “…blacks (for whatever reason) are 8 times more likely to resist arrest than other racial groups.”

    Or are said to, but that’s not necessarily true.

  • Edward, Philando Castile was driving in a low crime, middle class, mostly white neighborhood. He did exactly as the cop asked. The cop asked Mr. Castile to get his driver’s license. When he reached for it, that’s when the cop murdered him. What should he have differently?

    In my lifetime, I have been stopped for traffic violations perhaps 6 times. Mr. Castile had been stopped 52 times. I’m 63, he was in his 30s. I like to speed and usually do. Although Mr. Castile was cooperative and followed the cop’s explicit directions, he was murdered. I would not be inclined to cooperate after a dozen stops for hard to fathom reasons. After 52?! I’d be likely to raise hell!

    Think about this. White people say be patient, relax, do what they tell you, etc. After 52 times?!?!?!? Whites need to really consider what it must be like to be stopped for nothing at all, be made late for work, questioned, suspected, etc., for not one damn thing except driving while black!

  • I concede your point, particularly with respect to the death of Mr. Castile. In my own case, my stoppage total is higher than yours, but generally not for speed. It will not do Mr. Castile any good, but I suspect the officer who shot him will not be policing in the future. That is certainly no comfort to Mr. Castile’s loved ones.

  • I am merely citing the stated statistics nationally for the preceding calendar year.

  • Although I am 1/16 American Indian, my appearance doesn’t indicate that. I think it’s really critical that whites work to put themselves in the situation of black and brown people. That makes a critical difference in our thinking.

    It’s been a pleasure discussing this with you.

  • I am approximately 1/16 Cherokee myself on the maternal side, my father was primarily Portuguese, and a recipient (I despise the word “victim”) of racial prejudice here in the Pacific Northwest in the 1930’s because of his very swarthy skin. I am not indifferent to the human tendency to devalue the “otherness” seen not of their “tribe.”. So I do try to frame my own thinking with that in mind. Go with God.