The Common Good

America’s Great Divide

When I was invited by the Drug Policy Alliance to  participate in a pastors’ conference at the American Baptist College in Nashville on drug decriminalization, I didn’t know quite what to expect. In a room filled with African-American pastors, I felt like a fly on the wall of someone else’s family reunion. I began to see our criminal justice system, and our country, through different eyes.

I’ve reported on the conference elsewhere, but there I learned that while 13 percent of drug users are African-American, they account for 38 percent of drug arrests and 59 percent of drug convictions. Feeling disproportionately targeted, the pastors want drug usage to be treated as a health issue rather than a crime. 

As the conference unfolded, it dawned on me that I, as part of the majority culture, perceive law enforcement in ways strikingly different from the way many African-Americans see it. I have always experienced American authorities as my protector. If the police pull me over for speeding, it is nothing more than an annoyance, and the ticket won’t break me. Though I’m no fan of traffic cameras and drones, for the most part the police are there to watch out for me, and they do. It has always been that way for my family, as we can trace our roots of privilege back to Northern Europe in the early 1500s. Those in charge are the good guys who protect us and our stuff.

But for these African-American pastor-friends of mine, it’s a different story. They experience law enforcement as the oppressor. They too trace this back for generations, but they trace it to slavery where the slave owner was the law, to the Jim Crow laws undeniably designed to hold blacks down, to the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and the new Jim Crow. They perceive that the police are out to get them, not protect them. And they can point to prisons across their America filled with family and friends to prove it.

What I was hearing at the conference about life in African-American communities sounded eerily like my mother-in-law’s description of occupied Europe when she was a teenager in the Netherlands. No wonder some of the pastors tell their parishioners it’s OK to use pot in moderation, as a matter of Christian freedom, just don’t get caught.

One early evening when the meetings at the conference had concluded for the day, I asked one of the pastors if I could hitch a ride with him back to the hub hotel. So there I was in the car with four African-American pastors when a squad car began to tail us and I got a taste of the other side of the great divide.  

The police officer followed us around one corner, then another, then another. One of the brothers asked me to stop turning to look at the squad car. “We got this covered, Dave. We’ve been here before.” They could see I was concerned. And I was, for the first time in my life. I wasn’t sure I knew how to “assume the position.”

The next day, they had a good time telling the rest of the brothers about me turning whiter than white. I joked with the group that I did have a Plan B in case the cop stopped us. When he got up to our car, I would say, “Officer, I’m so happy to see you. This Jesus gang has taken me hostage!” We howled, but all knew it was no joke.

I had learned something about America’s great divide at that conference. And it deeply troubles my soul. I can’t think of anything else to bridge that chasm than Calvary — where retribution ends and justice flows like a river.

H. David Schuringa is the president of Crossroad Bible Institute, an international discipleship and advocacy agency for prisoners and their families.

Image: Police squad car lights, Gila Photography / Shutterstock.com

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