Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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When the Police Weren’t Called
No one called the police on me. Not that I was doing anything wrong. My son and his wife were heading out for an appointment with their newborn baby in Philadelphia. I was going to hang out at their place for an afternoon while visiting the city for a few days to see them along with my other son who also lives there.. Andrew sent me the combination to the lock box so I could get in the house when I arrived. It was all very innocent so no one should be calling the police.
Andrew, Chrissy and Olivia are the only white family on their block in West Philadelphia. They’ve been well received by neighbors, though they only know a few very well. No one has ever met me. So there I was, a stranger, a white guy, down on his hands and knees on the front porch in the middle of the afternoon working the combination on the lock box, then opening the front door and entering the house. I sat on the porch for three hours reading, watching the street life and chatting with a neighbor who stopped by to introduce herself to me, assuming I was the homeowner. She sat on the porch with me and reviewed the problems of the world for about forty-five minutes. Delightful. Why should anyone call the police?
Now flip the story and imagine that I am a black man and that my son and his family lived on an all-white street. How many of us really believe that the police would not have been called to check out what a black man fiddling with the lock box and wandering in and out of the front door of a house on this all-white street was really up to?
This little domestic vignette may seem trivial. But it is revealing. One of the features of white privilege is that I am rarely, if ever, viewed as a suspect, a potential criminal. And since I am not seen that way, I am not exposed to awkward and humiliating interrogations by suspicious neighbors and I never have to worry about potentially volatile encounters with police, some of whom may act in a professional and respectful manner, some of whom may not. This, of course, is only one of many things I never have to worry about.
In a book length letter to his fifteen year old son, Ta-Nehisi Coates points to the enormous difference between the world he and I inhabit:
“You are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful – the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you – the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.” (Between the World and Me)
I am not guilty of creating this gross imbalance of privilege. But I am responsible for its perpetuation. Like countless other white people I have benefited endlessly from this privilege over the years, up to and including last week when I never had to think about how I might persuade a suspicious and potentially hostile police officer that this was my son’s house and that I had every right to be there.
Coates asserts that white Americans are “obsessed with the politics of self-exoneration” – “I’m not prejudiced. I didn’t participate in slavery. I don’t have a Confederate flag bumper sticker on my truck. I didn’t shoot Michael Brown or Tamir Rice. I didn’t brutalize Eric Garner or Freddie Gray. Not my fault.” True, I may not be guilty of the sins of my [white] fathers or brothers. But I confess that I am guilty of accepting without protest the benefits that have flowed from their sins, benefits whose underside imposes enduring liabilities, and of distancing myself from the sins of my white brothers. And until I and countless other white Americans acknowledge that sin, moving beyond the endless need, the obsession, to exonerate ourselves, we will never take responsibility for real change.
No one called the police. Sometimes what doesn’t happen is what can teach us something quite important about what is happening.
John H. Thomas
August 20, 2015