As a seminary student in Washington, D.C., I worked for Marriott Management Services in the George Washington University community. I had the awesome opportunity of catering parties for the Kennedy Center, The Watergate Hotel, Library of Congress and private parties for senators, lobbyists and private citizens throughout the Washington community.
After a full day of serving meals, making food orders and hearing the concerns of the staff, I had to cater a party for a senator who had several local and diplomatic dignitaries at his Capitol Hill home. There was plenty of laughter and liquor flowing throughout the night. A member of my staff, Edie, joined me in serving and cleaning up. We were celebrated, tipped generously and thanked for our service.
When Edie and I left the senator’s residence at 2 a.m., we decided to return our supplies and dishes to the kitchen. We were exhausted and sleepy. Edie said, “Roll down the windows and turn up the music. That will keep us awake.” One of our favorite songs came on the radio. As we sang, smoking our Newport cigarettes and laughing, all of a sudden blue lights were behind us. I was not speeding. I was not driving erratically. Why were we being stopped?
We sat in the car waiting for the officer to approach. He did not get out of his car because he was waiting on backup. When the second patrol car arrived, the officers approached both sides of my car with their hands on their guns. Edie and I rolled down our windows to find out what was the problem.
As the officer asked for my license and proof of registration and insurance, my co-worker kept asking the officers standing on the side of her why were we being stopped. One of the officers asked Edie, “What are you doing in this part of town?
Edie proceeds to explain we were working a party and were heading back to the kitchen. Edie, a native Washingtonian, immediately knew what was happening. She began to get irate, telling the officers “You saw two black people with their windows down playing music, smoking, wearing baseball caps, and you thought we were black men.”
I kept hitting Edie on her leg to get her to calm down and be quiet because I just wanted to get home and get rest. She repeatedly told the officers how wrong they were stopping us. One of the officers told Edie if she continued to talk, they were going to arrest her for disorderly conduct.
The officer who ran my tags came back to my car, returned my license and registration and said, “I stopped you because you didn’t have your headlights on.” I began to get angry. I told the officer you got it wrong because I have running lamps. If my car is started, the lights burn night or day. He looked at me without saying a word and walked away.
This encounter 20 years ago was one of three that would happen in my life. Times have changed. Yet, they have not.
I realized at that moment what happened to me is the experience of millions of black men because of racism. African-American men are racially profiled every single day. They are targeted and disproportionately stopped, frisked and many times arrested or killed.
Today, if a cop or a vigilante approaches a black man brandishing a gun, that black man cannot defend himself because a white man with a gun has a right to chase you and shoot you if they see you as a threat. What is going on?
After the video release of the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, I was flooded with phone calls and texts from my black male friends, former parishioners and family members. They wanted a safe space to vent their frustration, anger, bitterness and pain. Once again, another black man killed just for being black. The pain these black men feel is deep and traumatic. This race-based trauma occurs every time a black man becomes the victim of ongoing deadly encounter with a white person. This must end. White supremacy can no longer be denied or ignored. No one in America can go about their daily lives oblivious to the gravity and violence of white supremacy and racism.
Racism, in all of its forms—implicit, explicit, systemic, political, tinged with religiosity—is a cancer that is eating away at black and white people together. Racism, which hurts and destroys people of color, also hurts and destroys white people. As whites try to imprison people of color so, too, are they imprisoned. If we do not respond to this illness and find a cure, we all will cease to exist.
So when? When will this deep chasm white America has created and maintains end? When will black America stop shouldering so much? We have had all that we can stand.
When? When will America see there is more to the African American male story? My African-American brothers are in college, get married, have jobs, children and homes. My brothers are preachers, politicians, athletes, doctors, lawyers, musicians, nurses, factory workers, mechanics, contractors, business owners and teachers. And they are damn good at what they do. When will back men no longer be presumed guilty and dangerous?
When will white America to get over their white fragility and begin to have authentic dialogue about racism and the ways racism is perpetuated and thrives in boardrooms, politics, justice systems, business, health care, religion, neighborhood resourcing, banking, purchasing goods, hiring practices, education, cinema, social media, church relations and corporate decision-making?
When will Christians overcome convenient silence about racism because of fear of the political, social and financial cost?
As a representative of the church, I am keenly aware of our trepidation in dealing with matters of race and white supremacy. It costs you if you speak out. Nevertheless, speak we must.
When will the church truly commit herself to the slow, hard work of transformation?
These are questions demanding answers. All of our lives depend upon it.
Dease is Hartsville District superintendent and an elder in the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church.