How White Conservatives Can Empathize with Black Americans’ Distrust of Police

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The old adage goes, “I am from the government, and I am here to help.”

If you are a white conservative, likely, that sentence makes you shudder.

It makes you shudder because you have a firm conviction that some government systems, particularly the most bureaucratic, can take advantage of citizens like you. You don’t trust the government to provide for you or help you through life. You think the federal government is more likely to use its power against you than for you.

And yet … many of you trust that the police and justice system will get it right.

Whenever a black person is killed by police, so many of you say, “Let the system play out. Trust the system to do its work. Don’t jump to conclusions.” And that’s all fine if you can trust the system. In an ideal world, we SHOULD be able to trust that our authorities will do right by us. That’s what God wants for this world, for there to be justice.

(For more on why this ideal situation is not the case, see my list of resources below.)

But so many of you don’t trust the federal government system and do fear it won’t give you a fair shake. I know part of this is the distance from you (all the way in Washington, versus local government) and the sense that faraway people won’t understand the local context). But why are you able to see that the feds could be broken but not the local level of law enforcement and justice?

And if you have a default distrust of the federal government, can you understand why so many black people might have a default distrust of local law enforcement and the justice system? Neither bit of distrust exists in a vacuum, right? Both have come about out of personal experience and hearing of others’ personal experience. If federal government bureaucracy hinders you from getting ahead and from providing for your family, you distrust federal government. If you knew lots of people who had suffered police brutality, you would begin to distrust the police as well.

Neither general distrust is meant to denigrate particular people serving in either the local or federal government. Individual cops, judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, federal employees … many of them are just trying to do their job. A darn hard job! A thankless job. A job in which they see many sorrows and evils and may even sometimes fear for their own lives. Many of them have no ill intent. But the system can still be set up so that it is broken, resulting in unjust harm to people in many cases. And unconscious bias (which is, by definition, bias that each of us has that we are unaware of but that affects our decisions at the core, visceral level) can still be real.

When our African-American brothers and sisters distrust that the court system and law enforcement will enact actual justice, can you understand this is because of centuries of injustice? Can you understand that this injustice continues to this day? Can you understand why they might not want to trust the system to do its work properly?

Would you trust the federal government to do its work properly? Remember how you feel when you hear “I am from the government, and I am here to help.”

To learn more about racial oppression and injustice, check out my list of recommended resources.

If you are interested in the phenomenon of unconscious bias playing out in policing and how that intersects with original sin, check out this post on an episode of the BBC series Wallander.

I wrote about the biblical case for the reality of communal sin here and why protest of the authority can be just and right here.

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