The Eucharist tells us that we are all part of #BlackLivesMatter

“Mommy. I have a question. I’m not sure if you can answer it. Why are people being killed?” This is from my beloved Kiddo (not her real name).

This is the question set before me in the car, by a kid not long out of a booster seat. Kiddo is being raised in Oakland, Calif., by Catholic parents working to keep her in a Catholic school that she loves. St. Leo the Great has a student population (pre-K to 8th grade) that is predominantly black/African-American, with many biracial and multiracial students. At 8 years old, Kiddo doesn’t think to qualify the word “people” with racial language. But I know that after seeing the news, hearing her parents talk about the events of the past few weeks and being present at an open discussion at Mass about black experiences in the United States, she is asking about black people. 

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“Well, Kiddo,” I respond with a long sigh, “Do you remember when you learned to chant ‘Eric Garner, Michael Brown/Shut it Down, Shut it Down’?” I ask her about the chant because I needed to know how far back her memory goes. Two years ago can be a long time when it is one-fourth of your lifespan. I need to figure out if I am building on previous conversations or creating rhetorical architecture from scratch.

“Yes,” she replies. So this morning—July 12, 2016 at 8 a.m.—is a building day.

“It’s not everyone being killed,” I say. “For the most part it’s black people. Men and women, kids and grown-ups.”

She is horrified. “People” is a generic term, but “kids” and “women” are specific. It’s her body. Could it be her? Could it be me? She still doesn’t understand race beyond the fact that she is of Mexican heritage on my side and Irish-German-Czech on her father’s side. She is 8, but her racial ignorance is a privilege her classmates do not have. It is a privilege that I must take from her because the world sees her as white. A discussion of her whiteness is necessary for her to have a seat at the table of Americans who have had to explain and educate others on their reality. She must learn to see her own racialized body with respect to the racialized bodies of others.   

“Mom. This makes me scared,” she tells me.

“Kiddo, you are less likely to be killed by a police officer because of your skin color. I am less likely to be killed. Your dad is less likely to be killed because our complexion is light, even though it is summer and you and I get darker. This is not the case for your classmates or other members of the family.” As Hispanics and Latinos, we are pan-racial. We have peach-toned skin, blond straight hair and blue eyes as well as mahogany-toned skin, raven kinky hair and chestnut eyes. Understanding how we people fit into conversations about black lives will take more than what is left in this car trip to school. The conversation on colorism will have to wait, but I know it is coming.

“It isn’t all police. There are bad ones mixed in with the good ones. It’s just that when black people get pulled over or stopped, there is no way to know if the officer pulling them over or stopping them in the street is a good one or a bad one.” I try to educate Kiddo about the current state of citizen-officer relations in the United States, while acknowledging the fact that every male student in her classroom has already or is about to have “the talk”—meaning, how to act when encountering an officer as a black boy or man. Kiddo needs to grow up knowledgeable and justice-leaning regarding the experiences of her classmates. One day, she may date one of her classmates and be in that car or walking down that street with him.

“Men who were supposed to get a ticket for a broken tail light instead got shot. Women were arrested and died in the jail cell after officer brutality. It makes people scared and angry. This has been going on for years, decades, centuries, black bodies are being acted upon more aggressively than lighter skinned bodies, and people are rising up saying enough is enough. We don’t want this to happen to one more person. We wouldn’t want this to happen to one of your classmates.”

“NO!!!” she trembles.

“So that is the protest part. That is why people are protesting in the streets and freeways, like Miss Jean, Miss Valerie and Miss Cherri. It has to stop.” Her bewilderment seems appropriate for a child hearing that justice is not universally applied. Figures of safety are not safe for all. Something terrible could happen to someone she knows. It probably already has, but she just doesn’t know.

I mention the friends and colleagues who are protesting because she needs to have her own connection to the action taking place. Eight years old is old enough to feel powerless.

As with most significant conversations, I tie what we are talking about with who we are as Catholics and what we are as the body of Christ.

“This is also why I kept discouraging you from making your first Communion. It had to be your choice.” I am a big believer that children must choose Catholicism. As a lecturer at a Jesuit university, I regularly hear students describe how their parents gave them no option about sacraments. They were forced to make their first Communion and forced to make confirmation. Consequently, they enter university wanting nothing to do with religious practice. I strive every quarter to let them juxtapose their dissatisfaction with religion and their burgeoning adult curiosity about religion. Students were surprised this past year when they found out that I had discouraged Kiddo from partaking in first Communion preparation classes, telling her, “You don’t have to do this. We can do something else with our time.” They wonder what might have been if they had been allowed choice about their religious upbringing.   

“When you chose to become an active part of the church and the body of Christ, it means something very real,” I tell her. “You agreed to love and act on behalf of others as if they were your own arm, your own foot, your own chest, your very own heart. You would protect your arm if someone tried to cut it off. Yes? You would protect your heart if someone tried to stop it from beating. Yes? Our black brothers and sisters are our very own arms, legs, and hearts.”

Kiddo doesn’t need me to tell her that #BlackLivesMatter. She already knows that. Our home has taught her that. Her school has taught her that. Oakland has taught her that. But sometimes the theology of the church in weekly homilies can fall short of drawing the threads together, even with the kindest of priests and deacons, because there are so few African-Americans in the Catholic Church. Allies bear the  responsibility of education and action outside Oakland, New Orleans, Detroit, Baltimore and other pockets of black Catholicism in the United States. We must be overt and vocal in our commitments and teaching.

“This is why I discouraged you from making your first Communion. It had to be your choice. It is a big choice that you reaffirm every time you receive Eucharist to love your black brothers and sisters as your very body. This is a big love. Our commitment to be the body of Christ isn’t who we are, it is what we are.” We sit quiet for a while as I drive.

We are getting closer to her school. “I just said a lot. What do you think? How do you feel?” She says, “I feel better. Will you take me to a protest? I want to help.”

“We’ll talk about it when you get out of school.” I have a reprieve. I was not ready for this conversation when we got into the car. Like every other major conversation we have had, she was ready before I was.

Corinna Guerrero is a lecturer in religious studies at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., and visiting professor of biblical studies at American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley, Calif.     

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J Cosgrove
1 year 4 months ago
Kiddo, you are less likely to be killed by a police officer because of your skin color. I am less likely to be killed. Your dad is less likely to be killed because our complexion is light, even though it is summer and you and I get darker
This is just not true. i suggest you read a discussion we had last week on this. http://www.americamagazine.org/content/all-things/good-samaritan-and-black-lives-matter It is a myth that blacks are being killed by policeman in large amounts and disproportionately to other races. It is possible to argue that whites and hispanics are being killed disproportionately compared to blacks. The police are in the Black community helping them from crimes being committed there against blacks. That is why so many police officers are killed. Everyone should read Heather MacDonald's book
"The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe"
Here is the link to the book http://amzn.to/29DZFl0 Michael Brown was killed trying to assault a police officer, not once but twice. So to use his name as an instance of innocent black male killed by a police officer is just plain wrong. He was an aggressor. To do so perpetuates a myth which leads to black misperception about police actions in the black community. Nearly all black homicides are by other blacks. They are very disproportionate compared to other communities but one then has to ask what is the cause of this high rate of crime especially homicide in the black community. The best answer is explained in the following video http://bit.ly/29FGdBN If you are really interested in the welfare of the Black community then solving this problem is the number 1 issue. Blaming of the police is a distraction, and in reality it has nothing to do with the underlying problem.
Sam Sawyer, S.J.
1 year 4 months ago

Your assertion that "this is just not true" doesn't hold up, but that is probably because nobody's agreed on exactly what kind of statistics we should be comparing here.

I've begun reading the MacDonald book you recommended and also looking into some reviews of it; while the argument there presents some important considerations and data that's often skipped over by people already convinced of systemic racial bias in policing, MacDonald's argument is also agenda-driven and not without its own blind spots. I don't think it fully settles the case one way or the other. (This review goes a long way towards explaining the complexity of these questions.)

But as to the assertion above about whether or not people with lighter skin are more likely to be killed by police, that can be answered, and the stats presented here give a good overview.

White people make up 62% of the population and 49% of people killed in police encounters.
Black people make up 13% of the population and 24% of people killed in police encounters.

Therefore, overall black people are more likely than white people to be killed in police encounters.

There are a bunch of other questions that could be asked here, such as: is the higher rate at which black people die in polic encounters related to black people just having more police encounters?—which could be explained either by disproportionate criminal activity or by disproportionate police focus, but likely by some of both. Or you could try other approaches to teasing out whether or not the lethal force was justified, but questions of justification are complex and not easily measured in an even-handed way.

And while it's true that most black homicide victims are killed by other black people, it's broadly true that most homicide victims of any race are killed by someone of the same race. Saying "if you are really interested in the welfare of the black community" is simultaneously ad hominem, switching the topic, and non-responsive.

It's perfectly possible for someone to be deeply concerned about the overall rate of homicide in the black community and also to be deeply concerned about the fact that black people are more likely to experience use of force by the police; these are not at all incompatible. One problem doesn't eliminate the other, nor does one have to get exclusive priority. (It's also possible to believe that problems of crime are exacerbated by being unable to trust the police because of the experience of racial bias, so that ameliorating both of these problems may well go together.)

Before (or instead of) throwing more statistics back my way, please consider that we're not disagreeing primarily about data here; the question is about what data answers which questions. And the question #BlackLivesMatter puts before us is about the experience black people have of police use of force as disproportionate and oppressive. There's enough data there to substantiate that a disproportion exists, though identifying a primary cause of the disproportion is of course more difficult. And causes don't need to be exclusive—systemic racial bias can contribute alongside disproportionate crime rates and the effects of neighborhood segregation and socio-economic factors and everything else.


 

Joshua DeCuir
1 year 4 months ago
Apologies for the double post, but my comment above was intended in response to this comment by Fr. Sawyer: You cite certain statistical data re the incidence of lethal violence against African Americans. Are you aware of the recent Harvard study which results challenges the assertion that blacks are the subject of lethal police violence at a higher rate than lighter skinned persons? I don't disagree with your characterization of the recommended book, but the Harvard study seems to call into legitimate question certain premises, & was conducted by an African American with no discernible agenda. I would also note that the blogger Andrew Sullivan made reference to this study during his live blogging of the the RNC convention in stating that the claims of #BlackLivesMatter should be subject to some questioning.
J Cosgrove
1 year 4 months ago
Mr. DeCuir, You might want to review the comments from Fr. Sawyer's blog post last week. The link is above. This study was mentioned there as well as others that undermine the BlackLives Matter claims.
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 4 months ago
Slightly off topic perhaps, but another snapshot from a black perspective. “I would say four times a week I got pulled over. I was like 15, 16 years old. I was going to high school. You know as a kid, only one guy had a car. So we pile in that thing four or five deep, you know. But that was like the trigger for, ‘Oh, we’re pulling that car over.’ NBA Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale. https://theundefeated.com/features/memphis-grizzlies-coach-fizdale-on-police-treatment-of-african-americans/
J Cosgrove
1 year 4 months ago
No one is arguing that the Black community is not scrutinized much more than other areas. Blacks have a much more difficult life. They mainly live in violence and poverty. The argument is over whether racial bias by police results in a disproportionate number of blacks killed by police, especially unarmed blacks. The answer is no. Yes a higher percentage of blacks are killed by police as the statistics show but relative to the violent crime they commit (where most are killed by police) it is lower than expected. This violent crime is nearly all committed against other blacks. Police activity does not cause the violent crime. The violent crime causes the police activity. So the news cycle is driven by a Red Herring. So ask yourself Why? Why aren't the editors and authors here interested in what causes the violence? That is where their attention should be focused. Not on the bogus issues raised by BlackLivesMatter who do not seem to really care about blacks lives. Or else they would be all over efforts to stop the violence. But they are not. So I understand the resentment by the blacks over the scrutiny they get. That is a perception that is real. But the perception that they are racially targeted by police and there is a disproportionate number of blacks killed by police is false and a diversion.
Sam Sawyer, S.J.
1 year 4 months ago

I presume the Harvard study is the one reported here; I'm familiar with it, but it's yet another slightly different way of posing the question, since it looks at use of force relative to police stops rather than relative to population.

Here are two statistical claims, both true as far as I can determine:

(1) Relative to their share in the overall population, black people are about 2.5 times more likely than white people to die as the result of police use of force [Washington Post collection of police shootings information]
(2) Relative to their share of involvement in police stops, black people are less likely to be shot and killed, but also significantly more likely to experience other uses of force, including having a gun pointed at them, being pushed into a wall or the ground, etc. [the Harvard study]

In order for both (1) and (2) to be true, it must also be true (as it is) that black people experience police stops at a rate much higher than their share in the overall population would suggest. The ultimate causal factors here (implicit or explicit racial bias in police stops, higher incidence of crime committed by black people, greater police presence and attention, justified or not, in black communities, socio-economic factors contributing to crime rates, etc. — any or all of which also have complex relationships to the historical effects of racism) are difficult if not impossible to disentangle, and in any case are not mutually exclusive. Figuring out their relative contribution to the ultimate effect of black people having more police encounters and seeing more members of their community have those encounters and suffer when those encounters result in use of force, and thus in many situations coming to fear and distrust those encounters, is going to be difficult. Certainly there are many important questions there and Black Lives Matter activists don't have a monopoly on how those questions should be answered. But I do think they are justified in telling us that there is a problem here, that it is connected to racial disparities, and that black people currently bear more of the problem than they should.

Mr. Cosgrove: you have rejected my suggestion, above, that "the question #BlackLivesMatter puts before us is about the experience black people have of police use of force as disproportionate and oppressive." Instead you've asked "why do blacks have this mis-perception since in reality it is not true. I know they have the perception but it is a false impression." I believe the data rehearsed above explain why that is not a mis-perception, but rather a response set of questions posed from a perspective different than the one you've chosen.

In both this comments thread and the first one you've linked to above, you have used the statistical data and your own determination of which statistical questions are most important and what the "real problem" is. I disagree with your judgments there and think that other statistical questions are equally or more significant and that your choice of "real problem" is limited and in any case doesn't require exclusive attention to one problem rather than another. The possible violations of justice when the police use force as agents of the state mandated to uphold the common good are of a different kind than the violations of justice arising from private criminal acts; they have different and often farther-reaching consequences. Nothing requires that we hold the significance of these different kinds of violations in zero-sum relationship to each other. Rather, there's an argument that these violations of justice tend to exacerbate each other, and that both the historical and present effects of racism exacerbate them as well.

Meanwhile, these comments threads have been reduced to arguments over data and competing claims about which problems are real, instead of engaging and discussing the moral and religious claims made both in this piece and in my earlier piece: that the Eucharist and the Gospel make radical demands on us regarding whom we are called to love, whom we must regard as neighbor, and whom we must recognize as fellow members of the body of Christ. That radical demand also requires us to oppose racism and work against its destructive effects; I believe that has to start with listening to the people who experience those effects most directly, rather than with telling them what the "real problem" is.

Mr. Cosgrove, if you want the last word here as you had in the previous thread, you may have it. But I hope that you will choose to discuss the moral and religious questions and not just referee the statistical arguments about how we are supposed to detect which problems deserve our attention.

J Cosgrove
1 year 4 months ago
Mr. Cosgrove, if you want the last word here as you had in the previous thread, you may have it. But I hope that you will choose to discuss the moral and religious questions and not just referee the statistical arguments about how we are supposed to detect which problems deserve our attention.
But I am discussing moral and religious arguments. There is no police bias yet the black community thinks there is. Why????? The cause of this bias is what should be attacked. Here we have you and the author claiming there is police bias when there is no evidence that there is except for opinions. And these are false opinions and they are getting people killed. Both within the Black community and police officers. Where do these false opinions originate? Who promulgates them? Trying to find the underlying causes for the violence and trying to correct it. If these are not moral issues, then my Jesuit education was wasted on me.
J Cosgrove
1 year 4 months ago
Fr. Sawyer, Several comments
Your assertion that "this is just not true" doesn't hold up
It most certainly does hold up. The number of unarmed black men killed by the police is very small. A point you made in your response last week and you pointed out that such a low number cannot be used for comparisons. So how can a really small number be an indication that people are being killed because of their skin color. It is a non sequitur especially if you do run the actual numbers. So my comment is correct. You provide statistics and then you say I should not use statistics. But you know the answer to your statistics. White people make up 49% of the people killed in police encounters but account for less than 25% of the major crime, there is something to be explained. Black people represent 24% of the people killed in police encounters but committee about 55% of the hard crime in the country. That looks like they are less likely to be targeted then whites.
Saying "if you are really interested in the welfare of the black community" is simultaneously ad hominem, switching the topic, and non-responsive.
It is an attempt to get at the real issue or are you suggesting that the real issue should not be explored? If a person is not aware of the real problem, I would assume they would be happy to know what the root causes are and not consider it an ad hominem but be thankful for the information. If they already know the real problem and still make the argument that police encounters is the problem, then they deserve a lot more than an ad hominem. In the first case they should have researched the topic before publishing. Then there is this
And the question #BlackLivesMatter puts before us is about the experience black people have of police use of force as disproportionate and oppressive. There's enough data there to substantiate that a disproportion exists, though identifying a primary cause of the disproportion is of course more difficult
And I ask you again why do blacks have this mis-perception since in reality it is not true. I know they have the perception but it is a false impression. Unless the editors here explore: 1. why this mis-perception exists amongst blacks and amongst a substantial part of the non-black population 2. what is the real underlying causes of extremely high black crime. 3. how this situation came about. 4. what could be done to correct the problem. then the editors of America Magazine are not addressing the real issues and no understanding will take place. As I said the police issue is a diversion from the real issues so any advocacy that it is real is at best counter productive. That should be obvious. It is not switching the topic and extremely responsive.
Joshua DeCuir
1 year 4 months ago
Are you aware of the recent Harvard study which results challenges the assertion that blacks are the subject of lethal police violence at a higher rate than lighter skinned persons? I don't disagree with your characterization of the recommended book, but the Harvard study seems to call into legitimate question certain premises, & was conducted by an African American with no discernible agenda. I would also note that the blogger Andrew Sullivan made reference to this study during his live blogging of the the RNC convention in stating that the claims of #BlackLivesMatter should be subject to some questioning.
Douglas Fang
1 year 4 months ago
A very good analysis from FiveThirtyEight, a Web site founded by a statistical wizard. http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-are-so-many-black-americans-killed-by-police/ It seems that even though there is not a clear evidence for racial bias in the use of deadly force by police against black people in high risk encounter incidents, there is a good evidence that the probability of black people being randomly stopped by police is much higher than for other groups of people. “Black people are disproportionately the subject of random stops by police officers, called “low hit rate” encounters by some researchers because of the small probability that officers will find a weapon.“ If everything is equal, the law of probability can infer that the number of black people being killed by policy is higher than other groups of people.
Corinna Guerrero
1 year 4 months ago
I can see that a few people are having a vigorous discussion of statistics. While that is necessary, I would only hope that you have an additionally vigorous conversation about the body of Christ and how we are called to live in the care and dignity building of others. Thank you for reading.
Sam Sawyer, S.J.
1 year 4 months ago

Seconded!

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