The ABC's of Race Conversations

            This week I have had the joy of teaching Theme with Amy Brewer, as a part of Marcia’s Music and Arts Camp. Amy and I taught two Bible study classes each day. We always began class with a fun challenge. For the younger students, I asked them to count off from 1 to 20. For the older students, I asked them to say the alphabet with me A to Z. Sounds easy, right? But pay attention to how we did it: I always started by saying either 1 or A. Then, someone else had to say 2 or B followed by the next number or letter. The rule was that only one person could say the number or letter and if two people said the same number or letter at the same time then we had to start over. The other rule was that everyone had to participate. I did not allow them to organize themselves, they just had to number off or go through the alphabet as best they could. This is harder than you think it is. Try it with at least 15 people and see how you do. By Friday morning, the younger kids made it 17 when two kids both said 18. The groans were coming from the Confirmation Classroom could be heard outside. We were so close but so far.

            Our little energizer exercise makes me think of how difficult it is to talk about race in the United States these days, especially when you have African Americans and white Americans in the same room, which is rare. It is just as it is hard to say the alphabet with interrupting or excluding someone, as it is to “hear” each another’s perspectives on race. Last summer I was talking with an African American Presbyterian pastor who told me that she always feel guarded when talking about racial matters with her white friends because she feels that those friends are defensive and don’t want to be considered racist.

            Last week was a very difficult week for our country. Two more African American men’s lives were taken by police officers. And then at week’s end, a disturbed African American terrorist killed five Dallas police officers and wounded many others. At the core of this racial tension is the concern by the black community that police are murdering young black men.  

            Writing for the National Review Jonah Goldberg writes that a recent study conducted by a Harvard professor Roland Fryer revealed interesting findings:

It should be said that the data do not actually corroborate this belief — at least not as clearly as one might think. Harvard economist Roland Fryer found that when black suspects encounter the police, they are slightly less likely to get shot than white suspects. He called it “the most surprising result I have found in my entire career.” Fryer, by the way, is African American. But Fryer also found that blacks are disproportionately victims of bias when it comes to non-lethal use of force by police, such as use of pepper spray, manhandling, and the like. Is it so unreasonable to assume that citizens who experience such bias would also believe that it extends into police shootings? Particularly when such tragedies receive so much attention in social media and the press? In other words, if blacks experience being unfairly stopped, frisked, and manhandled, is it really nuts for them to think the unfairness extends to shootings as well?


Speaking only for myself, I must admit that I don’t fully understand the depth of frustration, rage, and mistrust that many in the African American community feel. I’m looking for more opportunities to sit with African American friends, especially within the bounds of the church in general and our presbytery in particular. Sit, listen, and try to make it through the alphabet.