Martin Luther King Day, 1998

MLK Blog

Because it was a holiday, the kids were off from school. My 17-year-old stepson had asked to borrow the car to go out with his friends. Like any parent of a recently licensed driver, I was relieved the see the car, dent-free and unscratched, parked in the driveway when I got home. But I was unprepared for what I would find when I walked in the door.

Chris, my stepson, and his friend Fahim were pacing the floor, fuming with anger. Chris, who is Hispanic, and his friends Ty and Fahim, both African American, had just endured a humiliating experience with the police.

For some reason, they had driven from our mostly black and Hispanic, North Jersey town, into a nearby municipality that was predominately white. They had pulled over to the side of the road and parked so they could listen to a song on the car stereo. (How many times had I done the same thing as a teen without any problem?) That’s when they saw the flashing lights.

After making the boys exit the car, the officers frisked them and searched through the glove compartment and the rest of the vehicle. Then they let them go. The kids had done nothing illegal and were merely sitting in the car minding their own business.

What I remember most was Fahim’s face. He looked like he was about to explode. Fahim spent a lot of time in our home, and he was always welcome there. Though he had a lot stacked against him (his father had been murdered several years before), Fahim was polite, intelligent, and interested in life. He was a kid I was happy to have hanging out with my son. But I had never seen Fahim this angry before. His furious breathing could be heard across the room. He couldn’t sit still.

“Get in the car,” I said. “We’re going to Lyndhurst.” I wasn’t sure what we would do when we got there, but I knew we had to do something. So as we drove out of town, I came up with a plan. “We are going to the police station. We will ask for an apology. Let’s all agree that if they apologize for what they did, we will be satisfied with that.”

I realize now that only a white man like me would stomp into a police station as boldly as I did that day. I felt entitled to be there, or anywhere in this country for that matter. I demanded to speak with the officers who had harassed my son. Being treated with the courtesy I had been raised to expect, I was directed to a lieutenant. After I explained what had happened, he said (without blushing), “We have had a lot of break-ins lately, reportedly by black and Hispanic men. So when we see anyone who fits that description, we stop and search them.”

“But we want an apology,” I demanded.

“I apologize.” He said the words, but he didn’t look sorry.

I directed the boys to the car, assuming the problem was solved. We had made a deal, hadn’t we? We had all agreed: if the police apologize, we will be satisfied. That will be enough for us. But as we drove home in silence, I could tell the boys were still steaming. Why couldn’t they calm down and move on?

“Teenagers!” I thought. “Someday they’ll understand.”

That was 24 years ago. Martin Luther King Day. Now I realize that I was the one who didn’t understand. (Will I ever?) An apology for injustice means nothing when there is no intention to change. The sting of humiliation doesn’t dissipate at the sound of a few empty words. Even when they end peacefully (and sometimes they don’t), those kinds of traffic stops rob people of their basic human dignity. And in a world where dignity can be hard to hold onto, that’s a big deal.

I do not write about this event with any desire to disparage police. Those who work in law enforcement provide a vital service to our communities. They frequently risk their lives to do their jobs, and we should show them respect. The event I describe here took place almost a quarter century ago and, since then, much has happened to reform policing in our nation.

As I look back on this day, what grieves me most is my own failure as a father. At the time, I felt I was doing enough for my son and his friend. I realize now that I did not understand, or even really try to understand, the pain and frustration they were feeling. I wish I had given them a chance to share their thoughts and emotions. I wish I had made more of an effort to listen. I think that my limited perspective as a white man in America kept me from seeing the depth of the hurt these young men were feeling. When I look back at my dismissive response to their anger, I am reminded of the words of Jeremiah: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace’” (Jer. 6:14).

I suspect that others share this shortsightedness with me. Author Robert P. Jones writes, “In question after question in public opinion polls, a clear pattern has emerged: White Christians are consistently more likely than whites who are religiously unaffiliated to deny the existence of structural racism.”

I wonder how this could be. The Bible tells us that the problem of sin is a deep one. It pervades human hearts. It pervades human societies. Knowing this, we should not be surprised to hear from our black and brown brothers and sisters that racism in our country did not magically disappear with the signing of the Civil Rights Act. The only true solution to sin is the restorative power of God’s grace. And God’s grace is offered only when repentance is humble and sincere.