Young Black Men, You Scare Me

By Bryan Sickbert

It is likely presumptuous, even risky, for a privileged white man to enter into the conversation regarding the events in Ferguson, Missouri. But the fact that many of our CHHSM colleagues in the St. Louis community are acutely experiencing the symptoms of our nation’s chronic racial disease makes silence a cowardly option.

In early July, the owner of a popular Cleveland Heights restaurant a few blocks from my home was shot and killed during a robbery as he worked alone after hours. Four young African-American men have been arrested for the crime. The owner was white. The community mourned his death with a vigil at a nearby park and a fund to support employees temporarily out of work. Despite extensive coverage in local media, the racial dimensions of this crime remained beneath the surface.

Not so in Ferguson. In this case, race is front and center. Most in the community assume, with good reason, that the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer was a direct result of the pervasiveness of racial profiling of young black men. Vigils, which devolved into riots, did not so much mourn the death of an innocent child of God as they did cry out to avenge that death.

Both of these situations expose the intractable pathology of our racial disease. For those of us old enough to have lived during the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement, it is easy to recall what appeared to be seminal victories in the battle against this disease. We lived in a stage-three world where hope for cure remained. But, I fear, the disease has proved far more powerful than our treatments. We now seem to live in a stage-four world characterized by a mix of denial and prayer for remission.

Cleveland Heights is primarily an example of denial. While often irrational, there are understandable reasons why whites fear young black men and are prone to profiling behavior. In our society, young black men personify violence. Be it as criminals or sports figures, they are depicted as powerful and ruthless. They are forces, be it for good or evil, to be feared, avoided if possible, and defended against by any necessary means, including preemptive murder. The people and media in Cleveland chose to ignore this reality by not confessing the fear and suppressing the associated anger undeniably stirred up by the alleged action of young black men.

The reaction to the shooting in Ferguson, including its self-defeating violent turn, is fundamentally a pleading prayer for an end to the occupation of a law-abiding community by a heavily armed police force comprised of white men who are afraid of black men. The response of the disease is not to remit, but to become more virulent.

In all of this, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gently calls for full measures of confession and forgiveness from everyone. What would happen if white men, including police officers, would confess that they are afraid of black men and ask forgiveness for the actions this fear has precipitated? What would happen if black men could channel their anger into a graceful prayer for remission and forgiveness of their oppressors? In both cases, the obstacle is the male ego. We seem utterly incapable of admitting that we are afraid even to ourselves, much less publically. But to so confess is a transformative act of courage and faith. To so confess might just arrest the disease in its tracks.

So let it begin with me as I say out loud, “Young black men, you scare me,” and pray, “God, remove this fear from me and grant me the courage to love and forgive.”

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise
– Maya Angelou

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