The Rt. Rev. Mark Cowell
Late in May, 2020, a Amy Cooper, a white woman, was walking her dog in Central Park in New York City. She was walking her dog without a leash in a wooded section of Central Park that is popular with bird watchers. In that area, dogs are to be kept on leashes.
Also in the park in that area at that time was Christian Cooper, a black man, who was an avid bird watcher.
Unleashed dogs often rummage through the brush frightening the birds and making the bird watching impossible. Christian asked that Amy put her dog on a leash. Amy refused. Christian offered treats to the dog. Amy then threatened Christian. As she dialed 911, Amy said “I'm going to tell them there's an African-American man threatening my life.”
Of course, that did not happen, as the whole encounter was recorded and Christian clearly did no such thing. But what Amy said to Christian was “I'm going to tell them there's an African-American man threatening my life.” What she was saying was more than just the lie.
In order for a threat to be effective, it must convey to the recipient consequences that the recipient understands. In this case, we all understand the threat and the consequences that Amy conveyed. What she said was “I'm going to tell them there's an African-American man threatening my life”. What she was saying is “the police are going to believe me, a white woman, over you, a black man, and they are going to treat you poorly.”
We all understand that that is the threat that she was making, and we all understand those are the consequences she was conveying. We all understand those consequences even though she did not say them directly. She did not have to, because those consequences are understood by everyone and, to a disappointing degree, believed to be real consequences by everyone.
That she chose to play that race card is between her and God. She will need to address her own behavior.
Now, people have told me time and again that they would never have played that race card if they had been in this situation. They say things to me like “I would never have said that. I am not a racist.”
I do not doubt it. Most people are not. I know most people would not have played that card.
But that is not the problem. The problem is not that you would or would not have played that card. The real problem is that that card is even in the deck. Until no one can play that card, until no one would understand the consequences implied in that threat, we cannot have justice. And that is the problem.
If you have been unclear about what systemic racism is, or how it appears, I know of no clearer example. Until and unless a black person could expect the same treatment from the police that a white person would expect in the same circumstance, we cannot have justice. Until no one understands that threat, until there are no special consequences for saying “an African-American man (is) threatening my life”, we cannot have justice. It is not enough that we would never have played that card. That card must be eliminated from the deck so that no one can play that card.
In our baptism, we are accepted into the body of Christ. As part of our baptismal covenant, we vow to do certain things, one of which is to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. It is now our duty as Christians to get that card out of the deck.
NB: I discussed this article with my college age daughter. She and I discussed the ramifications of the using the phrase “black lives matter”. I know that Black Lives Matter has taken on all sorts of meanings and usages and it has become, for some people, associated with protests, occupation, and looting, despite the fact that none of that association was intentional. I am also aware that all lives matter, and that we need to protect everyone. So let me say this: If you were the parent of several children, and one of those children was bullied and needed your attention, you might take that child out for a walk in the park, just the two of you, walking together to work through what that child was experiencing. You know that all of your children like to walk in the park, and all wish to go with you, but you take the child who was bullied because that child needs your attention right now. This is not neglectful of the other children, and there will be many appropriate times for walking with all your children in the park. Right now, you look after the one that was bullied. So, just in case I have not been clear, black lives matter.