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.