Shortly after the announcement that the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri had chosen not to indict officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, Benjamin Watson's response showed up in my Facebook feed. It may have shown up in yours, too. Watson, a black NFL player, found the words to express what many Americans, black and white, we're feeling and thinking. Watson has developed that original post and his subsequent blog entries into a book, Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race--and Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us.
Watson writes as a black man, but his perspective is definitely a moderate one. I don't think the Black Lives Matter movement would embrace Watson. Neither would the hosts of shows on the Fox News Channel. He is much too reasonable, asking questions like this: "Could it be that Michael Brown both did something wrong and did not deserve to be shot six times? Could it be that Darren Wilson both was just doing his job and responded inappropriately to a perceived threat?"
He is also writing as a Christian. The problem is not skin. After all, we are all human. The amount of melanin in our skin shouldn't make a difference. The problem is sin. We are all flawed, we all are shaped by the values of our communities, we all fall short. He is, of course, correct, but the shame of it is that most slave owning, segregationist, racist bigots were and may still be active members of otherwise very conservative, evangelical, Bible-believing Christian churches. Every Christian knows that even the most faithful church member has sin that needs repenting of. For many, racism is one of those sins, and much repentance is called for.
I was especially interested in his view of the police. He writes that the view of the police is the biggest divide between black and white. Not that he doesn't respect the police. He does. But he is very frank about that fact that black people have good reason to fear the police. Getting pulled over for a minor traffic violation may be no big deal for a white man. But for a black man, in his own view, it may be a matter of life and death. Even as a successful NFL star, he harbors this fear, this "assumption that, in getting stopped by the cops, I would likely not get a fair deal because I am black." Unfortunately, our entire criminal justice system is, statistically, skewed against black people. Incarceration rates and conviction rates are way out of proportion.
I was a little disappointed in his favorable quoting of journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates writes about the "specious hope" that Americans felt after seeing the picture of a black boy hugging a white police officer. Watson writes, "I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that we live in an America that wants to believe in a dream that doesn't exist. I agree that in our search for hope, we tend to reach for what is too easy, sentimental, false, and cheap. . . . I have no reason to believe that things will change in my lifetime. . . . Often it feels as if not much has changed since my granddaddy's day and my dad's youth." I appreciate what he says here, but hearing this from a guy who's at the top of his game, presumably making millions, winning the respect of black and white football fans and others, rings hollow. It doesn't take long to name the many ways things have changed since his father's and grandfather's youth. Would I argue, as some do, that there is no racism? Of course not. But let's not allow the persistence of racism (sin) to cloud the reality of the progress we have made as a nation.
In spite of that bit of hopelessness, Watson does offer a great deal of hope and encouragement. He has a great heritage of support and strength in his family, and he's on the way to passing that on to his five children. As a believer, he is also hopeful in Jesus and the power of the gospel to change hearts and minds. He writes that "individually we may feel as if there's not much we can do" about racism. "But maybe we underestimate what God can do through us." I'm praying with you, Benjamin, for the healing of America.
Thanks to the Tyndale Blog Network for the complimentary electronic review copy!