September 1, 2016

The parable of the people who passed by on the other side

The rush of Annual Conference had barely subsided when the nation heard the news that a black man had been killed by police in Baton Rouge. A day later another was killed near Minneapolis. Then came shootings of police officers, as violence begat violence.

The violence waged against black people is not new, though it might seem to some that it’s happening more frequently. What’s new is the rise of video evidence, making these cases more difficult to explain away.

Even without videos, the disparity in the way blacks are treated in the US is well documented and easy to find—for those who want to know. It is clear that African Americans are significantly more likely to be targeted by police and more likely to die from the encounter than white people are.

But there’s a gulf between the way black and white perceive this violence, reports Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, in his new book, The End of White Christian America. Black people tend to see these incidents as part of a larger pattern; white people are more likely to see them as isolated events.

By virtually every measure there’s a documented difference in the quality of life for black people compared to white people: criminal justice, health, education, employment, real estate, lending practices, life expectancy. The well-being of blacks is 72 percent of the well-being of white Americans, reports the National Urban League.

After the death last year of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the Washington Post carried out a study of life expectancy by neighborhood. The Post found that 14 black neighborhoods in Baltimore had lower life expectancy than North Korea. One neighborhood, Downtown/Seton Hall, barely edged out Yemen for the lowest life expectancy in the world. It sits just three miles from Roland Park, Baltimore’s wealthiest neighborhood.

The disparities in Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Chicago, Ferguson, and other places across America can be traced to redlining, banking practices, federal laws, the placement of interstate highways, and other race-based policies going back decades and more. The results are the historical backdrop for today’s headlines.

Systemic problems may seem impossible to change and it is easy for the unaffected to look away. But Jesus told a story about people who look away, and they’re not the heroes.

How can we change these big problems? The first step is startlingly simple: White people must believe black people.