Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
August 22nd, 2014

Does Black Life Matter?

Why racism and police brutality are right to life issues


Protesters hold their hands in the air during a demonstration against the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

Protesters hold their hands in the air during a demonstration against the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

Does black life matter? Once again our country is at a crossroads with its “unfinished business” of race relations. Within the past few months, headlines have described the stories of several unarmed black men killed by police. Either through blog comments, or in regular discussions, the opinions of who was at fault, usually differs depending on the race of the individual speaking. Now, I don’t want to put everyone into general categories, because not all black people think the same way and not all white people think the same way, either, but for the sake of brevity in this article, I will use generalities.

I’m writing through the lens of a young adult black male from New Orleans, Louisiana. My city’s issues with race and poverty were brought into the spotlight during Hurricane Katrina. In the storm’s aftermath, the media revealed the racial divide with two photos of people wading through water with provisions under their arms. One caption described two white residents “finding” food and the other described a black resident “looting” a grocery store.

This is the root of the problem in many race-related misunderstandings. There are two different “Americas” that people live in today — a white one and a black (or minority) one. We see the reaction in Ferguson, Missouri, to unarmed African American protesters grieving and enraged over the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man. Law enforcement vastly overreacted to peaceful protesters, greeting those gathered for a candlelight vigil in full military/SWAT gear. We recently saw a confrontation with law enforcement at Bundy Ranch in Nevada end much differently with no shots or tear gas fired at Cliven Bundy and his armed supporters. Many of the scenes in Ferguson — police with dogs, the signs held by frustrated protesters, the divide between law enforcement and protesters — are reminiscent of the Civil Rights era.

We might wonder why Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was gunned down in the streets of Ferguson, while James Holmes, a white 24-year-old who shot and killed 12 people and injured 70 others in a Colorado movie theater in 2012, was apprehended and treated humanely.

There are many more examples of police brutality leading to the deaths of black men — Eric Garner in New York City, Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, and John Crawford III in Ohio. And many other black lives lost in this country that do not receive news coverage.

Many of my white counterparts, have asked, Why are black people so mad about this? or Why is this such a big deal?

We (as black people, or people who understand our situation) shouldn’t have to explain why it is not acceptable for unarmed teenagers to be gunned down by the police who are supposed to protect and serve, not judge and execute.

We shouldn’t have to defend against the statement that some make: You all should just dress better. What was Martin Luther King, Jr., wearing when he was shot? Does clothing automatically make someone a criminal?

We shouldn’t have to explain that the right of due process — which many of the unarmed black men that were recently shot by police were not afforded — is in the Constitution — TWICE.

We shouldn’t have to explain why we fight back when attacked.

We shouldn’t have to explain that many black, and other minority, communities do not trust police, or the justice system, due to past experiences of racial bias, intimidation, and use of excessive force.

Jesse Williams from the show “Grey’s Anatomy” stated in an interview, “White people have the privilege of being treated like human beings.” Much of the anger in the black community is fueled by the media’s tendency (either guided by police reports or media bias) to make black victims out to be “thugs worthy of their own death,” Williams said.

Singer John Legend stated at a concert following the Michael Brown shooting, “One of our original sins in this country has been racism and slavery. And we still haven’t figured out how to solve that problem.” This is the root of much of the anger in this country, and ignoring racism, and the fact that much of the privilege that many white people benefit from came at the expense and exploitation of other races, leads to situations like the one that we are facing now.

We are ALL made in the image and likeness of God. Even the excuse, “I don’t see color,” isn’t helpful because by not seeing my color, you don’t acknowledge me. You don’t acknowledge my history and culture. You don’t acknowledge my race’s daily struggles, or the gifts and contributions that we’ve made to society.

This is also a reason why there is a “tension” at times between the Catholic Church and black communities. Because, many times, it seems the attention and resources of the Church are not directed to our communities. There seems to be a “disconnect” with the issues we are dealing with.

God calls us to care for ALL of our brothers and sisters. Pope Francis has challenged the Church — and the whole world — to look out for the needs of others, especially those most in need. The silence of many of our Church leaders on issues of racism is hurtful to many, and for the Church to really be an entity that values the “dignity of the human person,” we must be vocal on all issues that threaten human life.

We, as a people of faith, are challenged to look at racism, poverty, and injustice as right to life issues. Just as we are adamant about fighting abortion, we must fight to make life just after the child is born. Is this not what Jesus wants of us? This is the time for us to practice our faith. God is speaking through these situations. Are we listening?

It is never easy to discuss or talk about racism. But everyone does talk about it within their own racial groups. It is something that affects us all, whether directly or indirectly. We, especially as the Catholic Church, need to be able to share our hurts and challenges. People that benefit from society’s social structures and institutions may not see the necessity of addressing this issue, but as long as one part of the Body of Christ is affected, we all are. Only when we truly challenge the norms that may cause divisions (on both sides) will we be able to come together as the loving Church that we were created to be. We must put aside our stereotypes and fears and look at one another as brothers and sisters made in the image of God.

So what can we do?

  • Don’t ignore what’s going on: The silence by many leaders is speaking volumes. Not saying anything or not praying about injustice publicly gives the impression that it is not a big deal.
  • Admit that there is a problem: These black men did not deserve to die in the way that they did. The justice system is broken. In the case of Michael Brown, police shot an unarmed black teenager. That is unjust.
  • Know that this is an issue that affects the WHOLE Body of Christ: For some, especially those who cannot relate to the victims of these deaths, this is just another news story. But for many others — especially those of us in the African American community — it is more than that. Michael Brown’s story is a familiar story, a story that repeats itself throughout history. In Michael Brown and other victims, I see a son, a husband, a father, a nephew, a youth ministry kid, and even myself. As church folk, we need to reach out and listen, mourn together, and try to understand (not theorize, judge, or assume) with the community.
  • Continue to express Christ’s love to those who are suffering, and bring justice to those who are lost: It is time for us to be church and not just talk church. This is an opportunity for us to show others how Christians step up in the face of unjust attacks.

Let me be clear — I know that the cops who did these hurtful acts are not representative of all policemen (and women). I know that there are many officers who truly live out their motto to “protect and serve.” I have many friends who are cops, and they risk their lives on the streets of New Orleans to uphold the law by working with, not threatening, the communities they serve.

I close by asking the question again, does black life matter? It should, because this is one of the right to life issues our Church is called to address.

The Author : Dr. Ansel Augustine
Dr. Ansel Augustine is the director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministries for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He is also on the faculty of the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana. Ansel has worked in ministry for more than 15 years and has a master’s degree in pastoral studies from Loyola University’s Institute for Ministry, a certificate in youth ministry from Xavier University’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies, and a Doctor of Ministry degree.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Jon Johnson

    Okay, try asking why black people can’t stop committing crimes, and killing themselves at such alarming rates, and then want to turn right around, and blame non-black people for their violent behaviors? Stop playing the victims, when in fact you’re the real problem!

  • Woodall-Martin Rosemarie

    Why is it that a black man can go and fight for a country, that can’t respect him as equal, as a man ?

  • Kathy

    …”gunned down by the police who are supposed to protect and serve, not judge and execute.” Ansel’s own words.
    I read the whole article, and the additional articles. While I understand our country has a problem with racism, I also understand our country, particularly our youth, has a problem with respect, obeying laws, etc…
    My original post was to the fact that the Police Officer should not have been unjustly judged without all of the facts of the case. If you were not there to witness, first hand, this shooting, then you cannot justly accuse either involved.

    • Walter Bonam

      Kathy, there is certainly a need for people to “slow their roll,” so to speak, rather than rush to judgment in regard to the Ferguson case or any other where all the facts have not been ascertained. It is also a point well taken that there is a widespread lack of respect – especially among youth – regarding laws, etc. However, there is a sense in which “the color of their skin” frequently DOES matter, not in the sense that only people of a particular racial group should be taught to respect the law and its representatives, but rather in the sense that the way many law enforcement personnel have tended to treat people of color makes it easy to believe that they have forfeited the right to such respect.
      In other words, there is a history and a pattern of negative police conduct in many communities of color that makes it hard for parents in those communities to cultivate a sense of respect for the law (or rather, for the police) in their children.
      As for what Ansel wrote about the role of police not being to “judge and execute,” it is important to note that he wrote those words in the paragraph following the one in which he had listed a number of other young, unarmed black men who were killed by police, so he wasn’t necessarily referring to Darren Wilson as having “gunned down Michael Brown execution style” – although Wilson’s action certainly deprived Brown of an opportunity for the day in court that Wilson himself may yet experience.

  • JuliePurple

    It doesn’t even have to be a matter of religion, but simple humanity. That young man did not deserve to die. The police *have* gotten worse. Look, kids do stupid things. It’s what kids do. But the response should not be based on appearance. They should be treated fairly; black kids and white kids and all kinds of kids (and adults) should be treated equally. And they’re not. That isn’t right.

  • Joyce Francois

    So sad that the article needed to be written. I’m glad you decided to write it. It is unfortunate that others on this site chose to comment in such a way that would indicate their ignorance of the Gospel message and our Catholic Social Teachings. I will pray for all involved in the incident as well as those who have responded to the media coverage in such a way that brings our country back 40 some years.

  • Kevin

    Excellent article, Ansel. Thank you for writing it.

  • John Davidson IV

    This article makes a very valid point when it speaks of the disparity between white and black “suspects” of incidents involving law enforcement. If someone can say that there is equity in these situations, then they would also have to acknowledge the lie that they are telling themselves. I strongly feel that the time is better than ever for the Catholic church to meet the black community where they are and continue to remind them of the value in the struggle, the daily crosses that are designed to bring us all closer to Christ. Those who are uncomfortable due to circumstance are closer to heaven in my eyes but only when they suffer well. It is a privilege to be a minority because as you mentioned, there should always be an understanding of everything this dark skin has been through throughout the course of history. We must talk about race as often as possible to constantly gauge attitudes and dispositions because one way or another we will be forced to live amongst one another whether we like it or not. Great great article!

  • Dirk_The_Impailer

    On August 11th in Salt Lake City, UT, a black police
    officer shot and killed an unarmed 20-year-old white man named Dillon Taylor at
    a 7-11. Few facts are known. But there
    were no violent riots, burned down buildings, or looted stores. The 7-11 is still open and doing business

    In Ferguson, the only real facts that were known that day
    was that an unarmed 18-year-old black man named Mike Brown was shot and killed
    by a white officer. Immediately rumors
    swirled, and a fairly sizeable group of people used those rumors as an excuse to
    loot and destroy businesses that had nothing to do with this situation. Violent riots followed for several days,
    where the governor even had to call in the National Guard to help keep order –
    all because of rumors.

    We do live in two different Americas.

    According to the 2010 US census, whites made up 63% of
    the American population, while blacks make up 13%.

    According to the most recently released FBI statistics,
    in 2012 white people killed black people 193 times, while black people killed
    white people 431 times. While even one
    killing is tragic, out of a population of 308,745,538 (according to the 2010
    census), these numbers are extremely small and do not indicate a systemic
    racist attack of blacks by whites, or vice-versa.

    The truly tragic numbers, according to the FBI, is that
    in 2012 white people killed white people 2,614 times, and black people killed black people 2,412
    times. Remember that there were fewer
    than ¼ the number of blacks as compared to whites in this country, yet the
    numbers of same-race killings were almost the same for both races.

    I agree 100%
    with Kathy. This was an extremely poorly
    written article. Far too many one-sided generalizations
    and acceptance of rumors as “facts” to try to make a point. In reality, a black person is far more at
    risk of being a victim of violence by another black person than by a white
    person. The same is true for whites. The actual numbers don’t lie. The difference is that white people do not
    cry racism every time a black person kills a white person (even though they are
    often racist crimes, such as the two black men shooting the white Rabbi in
    Florida a couple of weeks ago).

    If Dr.
    Augustine really wants to help the black community, he needs to stop crying “racism”
    when he has no facts to back up that accusation, and start with working to stop
    this same-race violence that is tearing their community apart.

  • Kathy

    ALL life matters and I am sure the Police Officer feels that way. His life mattered too and through your article, you are making him out to be a monster!. There are so many aspects to this article which are just wrong. One being, it is UNJUST that the Police Officer involved has been portrayed in this article to be an executioner! This is a very harsh judgement on this Officer, Dr. Augustine! Without having or knowing all of the facts about this case, it would be wise of you ( and Christ-like) to submit an apology to this Officer until you know for a FACT that this young man was “gunned down execution style”, and that the Police Officer had no regard for this young man’s life. Unless you are working on the case and have all of the evidence in front of you that this officer acted unjustly, it is very UNJUST of you to accuse him.
    May we all pray for the youth in our country ( of any color) that they may have good guidance growing up and become respectable adults in our communities. And may we pray for the Law Enforcement Officers who risk their lives 24/7/365 to serve and protect even communities who loathe and despise them.

    • gooder1

      My problem with the police is how they have gone from being the Mayberry Sheriff, to being the something I don’t understand anymore. I used to see police changing tires for women, giving out directions, getting people in-line with a bark or two, then being on their merry way. Now, however, the police seem to no longer be serving the people, but themselves. They write tickets & arrest first, then ask questions later. I remember a buddy of mine had a 15 year old daughter who was in a house one Friday, with open wine and beer bottles, a juvenile party at one of the high schooler’s homes. I believe we all have those memories. But without even knocking, the police broke down the door, and arrested everyone on premise, even those not drinking. Years ago, the cops would have showed up, assessed the situation, dumped the beer down the sink, warned everyone about underage drinking, called the parents of those who smelled of alcohol, and then left. And if they couldn’t contact the parents, then they’d take the keys, and make the kid show up the next day at the police station to get them back. That was then; this is now. Sad to say, by and large I have very little respect for the police anymore. I used to give the the PBA, and fundraisers, now I try to stay out of their way. As for this article, I really don’t think it is the police against black America, but rather the police against America in general.

      • Kathy

        Gooder1: Might I suggest you go on patrol with Law Enforcement sometime ( most communities allow citizens to ride along with officers during all shifts). I am sure your view of police will change instantly. Sadly our country is no longer “Mayberry”. Law Enforcement Officers are no longer dealing with a respectable public, they are dealing with people who disregard rules and laws, who have no respect for property or life at all( not even their own), and who will go to great lengths to inflict harm on anyone and anything to get what they want or feel they deserve! Law Enforcement Officers are running into dangerous situations every day,risking their own lives ( and sometimes their family) to protect and serve even those people who loathe and despise them, while the public sits at home as arm chair quarter-backs watching reports on TV or reading on the internet how “bad” the cops are ( and most people are cheering and agreeing without proper knowledge of what the job involves)! Sadly, the most news reported on the Police is when incidences happen like the one in this article ( and then the public quickly judges, without enough evidence). The news media doesn’t want to report on the police who change a lady’s flat tire when they are off duty and on the way home, the Officer who spends hours with an after school program mentoring young men who do not have a dad, or the Officer who works a 12 hour shift and then helps out at a soup kitchen before heading home to be with his own family. They could care less about the police who will pay the tab on someone’s lunch, who will buy gas for someone stranded, or who will go out shopping for a family who lost everything in a fire. There are Law Enforcement Officers out there who do these things DAILY…it just isn’t noticed because they are cops. Theirs is a vocation which is taken for granted. They give of themselves day after day even when they work in communities where they are hated, simply because they are a “Cop”, and they must enforce the laws ( which by the way, laws they do not make). Believe me, they do not work the job because of the pay…they do it because they are called to serve and protect fellow citizens. It takes a great deal of inner fortitude to do a job like that, which most people don’t have. Law Enforcement Officers work long, exhausting, dangerous hours to protect the public 24/7/365…..take the time to find out what the job is really like these days ( if you have the fortitude), and then post your comment.

      • gooder1

        Hi Kathy,

        Thanks for the update. But yes I have soured on the police over the years. However, I also get your point. In all honesty, though, I have lived in a small town in South Carolina now for quite some time. It is a reasonably small town with, for the most part, well behaved citizens. But we now have State, county, and local police, and way more than we really need. And the police are usually brought in from other parts of the state so they have no familiarity with the local town. And in all honesty, I don’t think they really care to. They are usually hot headed, Type A personalities, and it seems they spend most of their time running speed traps and working the ticket scene. I’ve seen them drive right by people stranded on the roadside. I’ve had to stop a number of times when they would not. I do know some retired police, and those people are usually very nice, but the new ones coming on board are a new breed. Anyway, I do know that it would be a little different if I lived in St. Louis MO; there the police would actually have real things to do. In fact they would probably be so busy, that they would likely leave the people doing 5mph over the speed limit alone.

  • Joseph Brown

    This is a clear and thorough summary of the main issues that need to be prayed about. Yes, each of us is “a child of God.” Our old, old, black folks told us that, in spite of them being called out of their name. It was the single-most apt blessing they could give. When I teach, I ask the following question: Who defines the terms by which we live. And now I have to add another: Who defines the terms by which we die. Thank you for this reflection

  • Dwan Jacque

    I won’t even respond to Mr. Araujo, because Evan hit the true meaning of the article;so, no need for me to elaborate. This article expresses what the real issues are that our country is dealing with in regards to racism. As the body of Christ WE must come together and address it and resolve this. As a young black female I have dealt with racism more often than not, and I have watched my three brothers and my male cousins be racially profiled and harassed by the NOPD at ages as young as 14. My older brother was actually hit in the head with a billy club. So this issue isn’t new or uncommon; it happens everyday. From my point of view it doesn’t feel like black life matters. And the only way to change this is by the example you gave in your article, Ansel. Good job!

  • Greg Araujo

    Cry me a river Dr Augustine, the punk chose to attack a police officer, not the other way around as the picture you are trying to paint. As a result of this act the banger got his butt handed to him, which for the neighborhood is a good thing. There will be one less criminal out preying on the decent working people of the neighborhood. As for the protestestors how do you recommend handling people that are throwing Molotov coctails at you. If you do that to me I’m shooting you in the head, the police instead responded with tear gas, so don’t try to say that their force was excessive. Learn to take responsibility for your own actions instead of blaming it on others.

    • Evan

      Mr. Araujo. You just proved the point of the article. Instead of referring to him by his name, Michael Brown, you referred to him as a “punk.” Whether he committed a crime or not, attacked a police officer or not is not what Dr. Augustine is referring to. Catholic teaching tells us that all life is sacred and all people have dignity even criminals. I am assuming because you are on this site you are Catholic so your comment about a person’s sin taking away the dignity of their life is completely false and contrary to Catholic teaching. NOBODY deserves to die even if they have committed a crime.

      The fact is that police do not have the authority to be judge, jury and executioner. We have a justice system for that. Even if there was an altercation, are you trying to say that a highly trained armed officer could not have apprehended an unharmed civilian and let the justice system take its course.

      • Greg Araujo

        you just assumed am white by refering to the author’s anti-white man rant but the truth is am not. Am not even light skinned and have dealt with bad cops before.

        You are correct that I am catholic but am not neo-catholic, there is a big difference between the two. I pay no lip service to the false faiths and call them brothers as many modernists do, I take a historic catholic church view in the use of lethal force. Read st Aquinas and others that supported the use of the lethal force for the sake of the community. And from the current Catechism you find

        2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to
        their responsibility.

        Face it, the police have the right to defend themselves while in the commission of their duty. Micheal Brown, or whatever street name he used to refered to himself as found out that the hard way. I’m not assuming he was a gangbanger based. on his color but on photographs of him flashing known gang signs and on his actions of robbing a local merchant. Minority communities have problems, and one of the biggest is the infestation of gangbangers. Its for the righteous to stand up and cast out the sons of satan (1 John 3:10)

      • http://an-expatriate-in-cambridge.blogspot.com The Expatriate

        And this is what racism looks like.

      • Evan

        I made no assumption about your race because I am in fact white myself. There was nothing anti-white about Dr. Augustine’s remarks.

        There is no such thing as neo-catholic and traditional catholic as you claim. There is the truth of the one true faith, the Catholic Church. To say such things as you claim is to totally disregard to action of the Holy Spirit in the Church over the past century. And to claim that we can’t call those from other Christian communities our separated brethren is also contrary to Catholic teaching.

        I am very familiar with the writings of Thomas Aquinas and the TRUE teachings of the Catholic faith because my Master’s degree in Theology is from one of the foremost Thomistic Catholic University’s in America. To represent his teachings and the CCC out of context as you do above is completely narrow-minded and NOT Catholic.

        I will no longer being entering into dialogue with you as it is clear you are not in fact Catholic as you pick and choose what you want to follow those things that are in accord with your own personal beliefs. I will, however, being praying for the conversion of your heart and soul. God Bless you Greg!

      • Greg Araujo

        The holy spirit lives throughout the ages and I very confident it will heal the wounds caused by the second council. Now u claim that there is no difference between the true Faith and that pimped by the supporters of council. Either u are too young
        To have been exposed to the real, a man with his head in the sand, or utterly brain washed. The sad state of catholic schools and universities is known.

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