I hear it every time. I heard it again after the tragic shooting of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. What I hear again and again is the question of why African-Americans seem to get so upset about any harsh action taken by any police officer in a matter involving a member of their race.
So, then we get into the details, or hunches, about a case. Was O.J. Simpson actually the murderer of his estranged wife and a man? What did Trayvon Martin do in Florida to create suspicion when he was shot — not by police, incidentally? Now, the questions arise about Michael Brown’s death.
Obviously, details in such events are critically important. The problem, however, is that so very many people in this country not of African-American background have not a clue as to why Americans of this heritage question the evenness and objectivity of law enforcement, police or the courts, when dealing with blacks.
Look at history. In July, CNN aired a very interesting series on the 1960s in America, a period largely characterized by the civil rights movement in which American blacks struggled to attain for themselves the rights and dignities accorded every citizen, not by custom but by the Constitution itself.
The CNN series brought back the horrendous actions by Birmingham, Alabama, police, on one occasion targeting children, to force African-Americans simply to endure, silently, the denial of their rights.
Think about it. The most outrageous abuses of African-Americans in this country — slavery and then racial segregation — were completely and totally legal. Until 1866, for instance, the U.S. Constitution fully sanctioned slavery, and from 1896 to 1954 the Supreme Court held as its principle the standard that Americans indeed could be separated, and some denied opportunities and rights, on the basis of race.
Such is the heritage of African-Americans. Bluntly-speaking, the law so very often has not been on their side, and understandably they cherish no image of the neighborhood police officer smilingly giving directions to drivers lost on their way.
For blacks old enough to remember bad days not that far gone, or having heard stories of bad days from their seniors, the courts and law enforcement do not gleam as bearers of rights and justice.
Things have changed? Often they have, certainly in many places and decidedly so. Indeed, police forces and judges who themselves are black now serve in communities in which racism once reigned supreme. Look at Birmingham, for example.
Still, no African-American aware of his or her past can just discount what tragically happened in days gone by. Indeed, people alive in Marion, Indiana, today, just a short drive from Our Sunday Visitor’s offices, can remember the day when a mob seized young black men and hanged them in full view of the non-intruding police.
Memories die hard. I am reminded of my own Irish relatives’ resentment of the British. Ireland has been independent for almost a century, but old wrongs linger in people’s mind, even those who never experienced the harshness of Britain’s rule over Ireland.
Troubling me in all this is that this inability to understand the suspicions, justified or not, of African-Americans by others, and the reactions of African-Americans to events such as that in Ferguson, shows how separated the races still are in this country. Until we realize the plight of all our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and until we imagine walking a mile in their shoes, and understanding where their ancestors walked, we will be a very divided society.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.