The difference between the way white people and African-American people are feeling the pain of last week’s shootings of police officers and by police officers has been jarring to me. After stating that the Dallas sniper was “a coward” and the shooting was “wildly inappropriate and condemnable,” many African-Americans admit that the anger behind the shooting was “understandable,” as my good friend Stephen Henderson and guest discuss at the 27:00 minute mark of Detroit Today. That’s offensive to most white people on its face, as if we are being told that it’s OK to shoot us because we are white.
On the other hand, white folks in my experience didn’t really seem to notice the trauma of the shootings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis. Nerves were raw among my African-American friends at work in Detroit on Thursday morning. It felt like they had been in the car with Philando Castile as he bled to death in front of our eyes. It felt as if he could have been any one of the young men and boys who come to our center at SAY Detroit every day. I don’t think most white folks felt that pain then, nor do many now.
I’m convinced that the responsibility for bridging the gap between the cultures lies with white people—not because of some misguided sense of noblesse oblige, but because white people are not holding up their end of the relationship between the two races. Most white folks rarely ever find themselves or put themselves in a position of being a minority in a room, and most do not actively pursue friendships with African-Americans who live outside of their education and economic circles. They’re not racist; they’re just not bothering to really try and be in a relationship at all, and their insouciance can feel like hot tar on burned nerves.
The same cannot be said of most African-Americans. Faced with being in the minority more often, they figure out ways to have and keep meaningful relationships with white people, even when they are not in the same traditional social circles.
This revelation came to me last Sunday when the worship leader of my church came home for lunch with my family. Adrianna Philece is African-American and typically buoyant, but she had just led our church through an hour of music that was intended as a period of mourning for the loss of life in America, and she was drained. She was also starting a new job the next day and wanted to get home to make meals for the week. Despite that, she invited my wife and me after lunch to drive 40 minutes to South Lyon to see an 80-year-old white man in our church who had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer a few weeks earlier.
When we arrived, and Adrianna saw Tommy, she turned and walked out of the room as tears filled her eyes. He was corn-yellow with jaundice, emaciated, and unable to get out of his chair. When she returned to the room, she knelt by Tommy’s side, holding his hand and stroking his arm. We listened as he told us about his pain and his troubles in the hospital. We also talked and laughed and prayed with him and his wife of 55 years. Color had returned to his face by the time we left.
Compare this to the experience of Kevin Hofmann, a close friend for more than 40 years. He is an African-American insurance adjustor who works with a hundred or so people, all of whom are white. As we talked through our personal experience processing the three shootings, he shared that none of his co-workers came to him over the last week to ask how he is doing or simply to express their shared pain of watching an African-American man die, not just in front of his girlfriend and daughter, but in front of their eyes too.
Adrianna’s trip to comfort a hurting friend did not seem unusual at all. She loved Tommy and did what came natural to her. But how many white people can say they’ve done the same for someone a different color 40 miles away from them in the last year, or even in their whole lives? How many have done the same in the last week with African-Americans they work next to? That’s where I think white people have the most to give. And to gain.