Archived Sections, Commentary

Confession can be good for the soul

Reports of the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his Cambridge home late last month took me back to a busy four-lane street in Detroit nearly 30 years ago. I was riding with the Detroit police as chaplain.
I was not in the city by choice. Why would a faceless seminary committee send me, a ranch boy from Montana, to inner-city Detroit? Why waste my time and risk my life in a place I knew to be full of horrors and constant threat? I now know that, apart from my first weeks of life, I can identify no other month more transformational and shaping of my identity as a person and a pastor in a world of multiple and conflicting truths.
On one night patrol I saw one officer jump to turn on lights and siren while the other spun the squad-car into oncoming traffic. What had caught their attention was a late model luxury car driven by a well-dressed young black man.
I write about and come from a position of “privilege,” where I participate in and benefit from racism. That same position that afforded the opportunity to live for a month — however artificially — in the stress of an inner-city allows me to write and speak without fear, even as it impedes my ability to hear and see what might be obvious to others.
This position allowed me to assume there was a justifiable reason for the young man to be pulled over and ordered out of his car and questioned, while his request to know the reason was ignored. I watched his frustration move to anger and then beyond. I knew my host officers well enough to see that they were comfortably acting out familiar roles. I wanted to assume it was reasonable for the young man to be labeled resistant and abusive and to be cuffed and taken to the precinct to spend the night, his Jaguar abandoned at the side of a Detroit street where it might have lasted as long as five minutes.
When I heard of Dr. Gates’ arrest, I was back in Detroit, witnessing an event rooted in the social constructs of a culture that has always struggled with implications of race and the power of privilege, knowing what I was seeing and hearing was simply wrong in ways that were and are in no way “simple.”
I am a straight, white, middle-class male. I am a Lutheran pastor. My generation is the first in my family to have the possibility of advanced education. This location determines what I observe, how I store my experiences, and how I am heard, and allowed me to provoke an experience in WalMart last week without fear of arrest or harm.
Some years ago at a gathering of white male pastors, our guest speaker, the president of a local tribal college, claimed that his shopping experience in our local Target store as a Native American male was fundamentally different than ours: Native men, he claimed, were routinely followed by store personnel.
I consider myself to be observant and I often shop at Target; I had never witnessed this and doubted its widespread use. The next time I shopped I was shocked three ways: First, he was right; second, the tailing was obvious; and third, I had never observed it before.
During the week of the “Beer Summit,” I was in a WalMart and saw two young Native American men looking through the CD displays. An aisle away, a white male store employee was also rummaging through CDs without looking at the cases he was handling; his eyes were on the young men across the short divider. As they moved on, so did he, always staying in visual contact.
On impulse — and because I safely could — I decided to join the procession, moving with him as he moved with the shoppers, standing next to him as he tried to keep the shoppers in sight. When asked if I needed assistance, I politely declined, and continued to follow him as he followed them. It wasn’t long before he became more concerned with my presence and he lost track of the other shoppers. I decided that any possible benefit from our walk together would be negated by a forced conversation with store security. I chose to leave.
In a culture of multiple and conflicting truths, any desire to locate “deviance” in a particular individual, group, or activity is a defensive attempt by the privileged to deny that this society is both racist and integrated, both safe and dangerous, unjustifiably wealthy and incredibly poor.
Four men paraded through WalMart last week — two white, two Native. Three were being followed; two knew the privilege of being white. One was arrogantly and confidently exercising that privilege — because he could. Four men gathered over beer in the White House lawn the other day — two black, two white — with four different brands of beer, one non-alcoholic.
Afterwards it was reported that experiences were shared and stressed that no apologies were issued. I wonder why? Confession — the acknowledgement of limitation and location — is good for the soul.
Dan Heath is pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Blackduck, Minnesota, and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Kelliher, Minnesota.