"Before you criticize someone you should walk a mile in their shoes."
I'm white. But if I were a black man, looking at the spate of police killings of black men, I would be outraged. I didn't fully reach that conclusion until the other day, when an African-American friend posted something like this on his Facebook page: "Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray -- they're all dead. James Holmes, the white guy who shot up a movie theatre and killed twelve people, he got out alive and is standing trial. But police didn't shoot him. A least he'll get his day in court!"
Many of my white friends respond that movie theatre killer James Holmes, like the Boston Marathon bomber whose sentence of life in prison or death by lethal injection is being determined, will get his due. Because, after all, the justice system is fair.
Whether or not one believes in the fairness of the justice system, the picture that African-Americans see is stark and bleak. The facts stare them in the face every day.
Whatever the reasons, black men are disproportionately incarcerated and routinely pulled over and interrogated by police. In the past few weeks, two such routine pullovers landed Walter Scott five bullets in his back and Freddie Gray a severed spine. At the same time, John Hinckley, Jr., who shot President Ronald Reagan and crippled James Brady, spends his monitored weekends at his mother's luxury home.
Few African-Americans are able to see beyond the surface level of this picture to the peripheral snapshot: the contributing issues of fatherless families; stressed single moms; grandparents who are raising their grandchildren; drugs; gangs; and a peer-to-peer culture that doesn't applaud education, to name a few.
Overlay on this image the boarded-up homes, high school achievement gaps, dropouts; increased infant mortality rates, crime and drug-riddled streets, and other ills and frustrations of urban poverty, and you have what one young black man in Baltimore described to NBC News as "a hot pot unattended, boiling over."
All of those factors are significant, but they don't diminish the hard picture black men see of injustices at almost every level of society. Police abuse and mass incarceration are certainly contributors, but not the only factors. Their actions come into play at the boiling point of the unattended hot pot.
Reverend Dr. Jawanza Colvin, senior pastor of iconic Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, put it best in a recent article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
...one should take a drive -- slowly -- through the neighborhoods of American urban cores. Find the places where poverty, crime, joblessness, recidivism and disproportionate interaction with the criminal justice system intersect, creating intractable forces of hopelessness and despair. The confluence of these forces tears at the social fabric of families and neighborhoods and wears on the social contract of a civil society. The spiritual effect these realities have on the souls of the darker people in our Nation's inner cities cannot be put to ratio, proportion of percentage. However, they levy a calculable and very heavy toll in other areas: Rates of unemployment, arrest, violence (street and domestic), dropouts, homelessness, infant mortality and bankruptcy exceed averages in other communities, where the socioeconomic fundamentals are more favorable to a better quality of life.
Since the violence of Ferguson, I've had many conversations about these issues with both blacks and whites. Many white suburban people diminish the problems, pointing out that, "My people don't riot and destroy their own property"; and, "My grandfather came to this country, had nothing handed to him, worked hard, educated his children, and lived the American Dream."
I identify with these sentiments, as well. My parents survived and overcame the horrors of the Holocaust to come to America, raise and educate three sons, and move forward with their lives. But they had education as well as a culturally-embedded confidence and determination that, if they followed the rules of the game and worked hard, life would ultimately be good -- if not for them, for their children.
But I picked up this culture of confidence by watching my parents, being exposed to their friends, and seeing their successes. This attitude of persistence, resilience, opportunity and grit is not prevalent in the hood except, maybe, on Sundays in church. And with the plethora of performance-based testing in the schools, these essential social-emotional skills are not being offered.
Former congressman Louis Stokes, whose brother Carl was the first black mayor of a major American city, grew up in public housing. He tells his own story about how attitude changes the picture. His mother was a domestic, but instilled in her children a work ethic along with the adage that, "We may be broke, but were not poor." Broke is temporary; poor is permanent. With the fabric of a wonderful family, their lives were rich!
In the endless loop of being and feeling poor, we all play a role. We can place blame and play comparison games, which really say, "I'm better than you," or we can be a part of the solution. We can provide opportunities and employment. We can mentor. We can tell success stories and try to establish hope, optimism and grit. We can participate in community activities in the inner city. And, we can love.
The people of our inner cities need to feel valued by all of us and by each other. Together, we can change the picture that black men see. Public servants especially -- police, fire fighters and judges -- have a daily opportunity to show love and kindness, caring and respect. I recognize that this may be a tall order when your life is on the line. But, at least, they need to be a part of the community, enjoying community events, baseball games, picnics and the like. If our inner city neighborhoods seem like captive fortresses, civil unrest will be the knee-jerk response of a powerless community.
We can no longer ignore the inequities and imbalances of the criminal justice system. "Fixing" problems through incarceration is not sustainable. Instead, we must focus on prevention, remediation and second chances. Courts can build culture and community.
My wife asked me the other day if this picture of poverty, degradation and punishment is racism, as some African-Americans claim. If I were a black man, I would say yes. As a white man, I say it's more complicated. But I need to walk a mile in their shoes.
Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us
Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org