Our experiences are a hard thing to override. If we hear or see something that doesn’t jive with what we’ve experienced thus far, we’re inclined to doubt its validity.
Imagine the only M. Night Shyamalan movies you’d ever seen were The Happening, After Earth, and The Last Airbender. Experience would tell you that M. Night Shyamalan makes bad movies. Now imagine a good friend came along and said, “Hey! I saw this really great movie by M. Night Shyamalan called The Sixth Sense! You should watch it!” You would probably think, “That’s ridiculous! M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t make good movies!”
But if you valued their friendship, you would at least give them a chance. You would sit down, watch The Sixth Sense, and realize that your past experiences weren’t telling you the whole story. Despite your expectations, M. Night Shyamalan had actually made a very good movie!
This happens to us all of the time. Through our experiences, we form ideas of how the world works. When we hear about something that seems to contradict previous experience, we have trouble believing it. Sometimes, we’re right to doubt it. Other times, however, we discover that what we heard was actually true: We hear too many people tell similar stories. We encounter evidence that can’t be ignored. Or we experience it for ourselves. And in light of what we learn, we have to reinterpret our previous experiences.
I grew up as a middle-class white girl in small-town Iowa. All of my experiences with police officers have been positive. The most frustrating experience I’ve ever had with our legal system was a parking ticket (that I still don’t think I truly deserved!). As far as my own experiences have shown me, our legal system is largely effective, and our courts give everyone an equal opportunity for justice.
In fact, I’ve had friends throughout my life who were cops or former cops, all of whom are wonderful people. I truly believe that most police officers simply want to protect their communities.
My own experiences have also shown me that our economic system is fair. By working hard and making wise financial decisions, I’ve been able to pay off all my debts, live comfortably, and build savings.
Along those same lines, given the nature of my schooling, work, and peer groups, my experiences have shown me that racism is no longer a persistent problem. I have never encountered anyone under the age of seventy who has expressed openly negative views on Black, Hispanic, or Asian people. And of those elderly people, the comments were few and far between.
But my experiences aren’t the same as those of many other people in America. For example, to many Black women in poor communities, our legal system has not shown itself to be entirely fair. Jackie Hill Perry, a Black woman from St. Louis, is well-known as an evangelist and spoken-word poet who works with ministries such as Desiring God and Humble Beast. She recounted some of her experiences in an interview with The Gospel Coalition last year:
“I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine who lives in Joplin, Missouri,” Hill Perry said. “He’s a white guy. Joplin, every time I go to Joplin, I’m pretty much the only black person I see the entire time. And I was telling him about a situation with my husband where the police pulled him over and accused him of selling crack and that if he moved and resisted, they would shoot him.
“He’s a Christian. He doesn’t sell crack. He was living in the hood to be missional while we were courting. And [my white friend] didn’t get it. He was like, “That really happens?” I was like, “It happens all the time.”
“As black people, our worldview is so different when it comes to race and justice…Like, I don’t trust police officers ’cause I haven’t seen enough examples of police officers actually using their authority to protect me.”
Black celebrities are not exempt from these experiences, either. Even the well-liked comedic actor Terry Crews of Brooklyn Nine-Nine fame has been a target of racial profiling, as he explained on Entertainment Tonight back in May:
“I was a pulled off a flight by the police in front of everybody,” Crews said before explaining that cops assumed he was a drug dealer, “simply because I paid for my ticket with cash.”
Once Crews told the officers that he was an NFL player, he said, they asked for his autograph.
The humiliating experience left Crews wondering what could’ve happened if he hadn’t been a professional athlete.
“I could not believe what I was experiencing,” he continued. “It was really strange, walking back on the airplane. Everyone was like ‘What is wrong with this guy?’ But all I could think about [was] ‘What if I wasn’t a football player?'”
Crews was able to avoid an even more negative encounter by explaining that he was in the NFL, but not everybody has that option. My final example comes from Drew G.I. Hart, theologian and author of the 2016 book Trouble I’ve Seen.
“Late one night, my brother was hanging out with friends. They were just minding their business and having a good time. A police car drove by while his friends were outside and enjoying each other’s company.
The cop car drove by again.
Once more the car drove by, but this time police officers stopped and got out. They immediately arrested my brother for “fitting the description” of someone who had recently committed a crime.
I am still troubled by the lack of description that my brother apparently fit. The only description they had of the guy they were looking for was “Black male with a black t-shirt and blue jeans.” My brother and his friends were not even at the scene of the crime, nor were they doing anything suspicious at all. But that description was evidently enough for police officers to arrest and take him to the station.
I later found out that the police officers also initially claimed that my brother had a bloodstain on his shirt. However, when the lab results came back, they learned that it was just a ketchup stain.
My brother was eventually put into a lineup in front of the victim of the case. Of course he was not chosen, and finally he was released.
But not before he had spent four months locked up in the county correctional facility.”
These three Black Americans work to spread the gospel in America. They love Jesus. Jackie Hill Perry creates music and goes on speaking tours, while Terry Crews represents Jesus in Hollywood and uses his celebrity status to speak out against pornography. And Drew G. I. Hart helps others through his work as an author, speaker and assistant professor of theology at Messiah College. They are brothers and sisters in Christ. And each of them have experienced distress and fear at the hands of the legal system.
These three stories are just the beginning. There are many, many other Black men and women who have expressed similar concerns after encounters with law enforcement – not to mention the similar stories from people of other races and ethnicities.
What are we to make of this? There are many stories of good, everyday people saying they’re experiencing systemic racism. But are there any facts to back them up?
In my next post, we’ll explore some scientific studies that provide context and illustrate how widespread these problems truly are. Stay tuned!