A cop pulled me over when I was a Catholic seminarian for driving while Black. Thank God I was with white friends.
I watched the parents of Daunte Wright speak about the moments that led to his killing by a police officer. His mom was on the phone with him when he was pulled over. I watched her relay a heartbroken response, realizing that her son would be dead in 10 minutes, because former officer Kim Potter shot him in the chest, allegedly mistaking her gun for a taser.
It reminded me that I could have been Daunte Wright. In 1980, I was pulled over in Worthington, Ohio, after a cop saw me pass his parked car. I had Illinois license plates. He asked why I was driving through the town at 11:30 at night and told me that I had been driving erratically. I told him that we were on our way to a 24-hour restaurant and that we were students at the nearby seminary. He then looked into the car and saw two white men, my fellow seminarians, riding with me.
The stop ended with him handing me a warning slip, telling me to be careful. On the slip it said “single Black occupant in vehicle during suspicious behavior.” My friends couldn’t believe that “we” had been pulled over for doing nothing. They just didn’t understand. But I did.
I knew that by the grace of God a racist cop had been stopped from giving me a ticket, or worse, that night because he saw two white males in my car. I cried later that night after we got back to the seminary.
I knew that by the grace of God a racist cop had been stopped from giving me a ticket, or worse, that night because he saw two white males in my car.
Over the past few years, many in America have come to see that some Black men and women never make it home after a traffic stop. Yet many still do not see the emotional scars carried by so many more Black people who have had a bad encounter with the police. My seminary friends did not understand that another wound on my soul had been created that night during the encounter with the police officer. I knew that once again I was seen not as a “regular” person just out doing regular activities but as a “Black occupant” doing something suspicious.
Too often in our country I have been made to feel like simply living and acting like anyone else might live or act is suspicious or dangerous because of my skin color. The emotions that I must too often carry—of worry or cautious fear or heightened alert—drain me and rob me of the ability to just enjoy living as an open, loving human being.
Recently a popular television series, “This Is Us,” highlighted the tragedy of the divisions and emotional scarring that happens because of racism and the failure to have an honest dialogue about the pains this has created in our societies and in family life.
Two adult brothers, Randall, who is Black and was adopted, and Kevin, who is white and feels lingering resentment that his brother received special treatment from their parents, become estranged from each other. Kevin says that he regrets the day Randall was brought home to be a part of their family because “everyone” thought Randall should receive special attention. Randall responds with sadness that he never wanted any “special” attention. However, because he was a Black person in a white family, he was seen as different even though all he wanted was to be treated as an equal. Randall says that no one ever asked him how he felt about being seen as different; no one ever asked him if he was in pain or scarred because he was Black.
I sadly believe that too many Americans are afraid to ask this question, especially to their fellow citizens of color in the country: Are you in pain or are you living in fear?
In 1980, during that innocent outing to a restaurant, I was given another scar to carry because I was Black. No one—not my friends, nor anyone else at the seminary who heard of our encounter with the police—ever asked me if I was O.K. after that event. I was not. But like Randall, I still had to go forward in life while wounded and crying inside.
Bad policing and racism in the United States inflicts many scars on people of color within our society and within our church. I am a victim of bad policing caused by systemic racism, and by the grace of God I’ve never faced a situation in which I might have lost my life because an officer drew a weapon and fired. But too many times, the United States has witnessed the tragic loss of life following a police officer’s decision to shoot now and ask questions later.
I do not wish for any person to be hated for committing a crime—only that justice be served. I want justice to be served for all the tragic killings that we have witnessed in the past few years when policing went wrong, from the actions of Derek Chauvin, who has now been convicted for the murder of George Floyd, to those of former officer Kim Potter and the devastating pain her family will go through next because of the shooting death of Daunte Wright.
I sadly believe that too many Americans are afraid to ask this question, especially to their fellow citizens of color in the country: Are you in pain or are you living in fear? We must have an open dialogue if we want to prevent another George Floyd or Daunte Wright or even a Bruce Wilkinson. In order to stop the hatred and violence of racism we must acknowledge the present pain and begin anew to find ways to peacefully change our society.
One excellent place for such a dialogue to begin is in our houses of worship. In these places, we are called to a higher morality and way of life based on love of God and neighbor—and we profess to be people of reconciliation. The only question remaining is if we are trusting enough in God’s graces to lead us to open our hearts and be changed.
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