Several yearsRacism ago a friend sent me a list of biblical passages that elementary school children had misquoted. One such “quote” turned the Seventh Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery” into “Thou Shalt Not Admit Adultery.” Big difference from one word. It seems though that America itself has had this same distortion of our core values for many years, turning “Thou Shalt Not Commit Racism” into “Thou Shalt Not Admit Racism.” In this dichotomy, many in our country have been complicit, either overtly or by standing by.
In 2019, our nation marked the 400th of anniversary of black Africans coming to our shores to be burdened by slavery, racism and poverty — and its related outcomes: toxic stress, humiliation, resentment, anger and violence. At the same time, Americans have taken pride in our often-repeated slogans “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” and “Equal Justice Under the Law,” a cognitive dissonance that too many in prominent positions have been willing to accept or ignore.
One African-American friend observed to me the other day that there has not been a year since 1619 when black Americans have not been subject to racism. There has not been one day since then when a black American has felt totally safe in America; when an African-American mother felt totally assured that her son would be treated fairly if stopped by the police.
For the sake of this blog, I’m going to skip over other aspects of racism that are systemic but that are also shared by other types of Americans: the plethora of low wages; the dichotomy between the top 1% and the bottom 20%; the differences in educational opportunity in a public school system that is based largely on property taxes; and the largely lip service that corporate America has given to these issues. These are areas that, if not dealt with systemically, will foment discord, disunity and anger among large segments of our population.
I’m going to skip right to the issues of police racism and disregard many have felt for years.
About seventeen years ago, I was unloading groceries from my car when I noticed a young black man walking through my largely white neighborhood selling magazine subscriptions without a permit. As I took notice, two police cruisers pulled up across from my house and four police officers jumped out to confront the young man. The next thing I knew, he was being handcuffed.
I approached the police officers and asked them why the young man was being arrested. I also politely observed that he was doing no harm in our neighborhood and questioned if he was being racially profiled. “Back off,” one police officer snapped at me. “If you say one more word or come any closer, we will arrest you for interfering with an arrest,” he continued.
I sheepishly backed off, retreated into my home and tried to forget the incident. About one hour later, I received a phone call from the police station’s lieutenant. “Mr. Muszynski,” he said. “My officer wants to put out an arrest warrant for you for interfering in an arrest, but I called him off given your stature in the community. I hope you understand that I did you a big favor.”
“Lieutenant,” I said, “I do appreciate your gesture, but please tell your officer that if he wants to come and arrest me, come on at it. I will see to it that he is on the front page of the paper tomorrow.” Nothing more came of the incident. I went my way and the police went their way. But, had I been black, I’m certain that I would not have remained in the safety of my home.
My wife Susan was on her way to facilitate a Power of Kindness program at one of our Project Love inner-city schools when she was pulled over for going 36 in a 25 mile-an-hour zone. She explained to the officer that she was on her way to conduct a workshop at the nearby school — would he consider not giving her the ticket since the speed limit sign had not been visible to her? No, he said, he had to give her the ticket but if she showed up at the court hearing, he would make sure that she received zero points and pleaded to a lesser charge. I accompanied her to the hearing, and in fact she received a lesser charge of a broken tail light.
By the way, while my wife was waiting for the ticket to be issued with her window rolled down, the officer had offered his commentary on the students in the largely African-American high school: “They are wild animals,” he said, “and you’re wasting your time there.”
Just prior to when Susan was to appear before the judge, a young black man was called up on a possession of marijuana charge. A police officer read the facts and the judge asked the young man if he understood the seriousness of the crime. The defendant politely said that he did but also observed that the police officer who testified was not the arresting officer. The judge then asked the officer if he was present at the crime scene, to which the officer said that he was not; that he was relating the facts second-hand because the arresting officer couldn’t be in court on that day. To his credit, the judge dismissed the case. The officer who had given my wife the ticket, standing next to me at the time, leaned over and whispered in my ear: “He should have said that he was at the scene. Who are they going to believe, a black man or a police officer?”
And there is more. A friend’s brother — Lamont — was put away for 20 years for allegedly killing his wife when what really happened was that his wife was distraught and grabbed a gun. He tried to pull it away from her and the gun accidentally went off. The wife made a deathbed confession in the hospital, and the evidence of the confession was hidden both by police and the prosecutor. Ultimately, he was released after the real facts came to light,
One of our speakers at our Project Love high school youth programs has been Ricky Jackson. Ricky is the second-longest incarcerated innocent person in American history. He was sent to prison for 39 years for the alleged killing of a white money order salesman outside of an inner city convenience store. Police and prosecutors pressured a 13-year-old boy who was on a school bus across the street to identify Ricky, his cousin and brother and testify against them at the trial. Despite evidence to the contrary about Ricky’s whereabouts during the time of the murder, he was convicted and sent to death row. Thirty-nine years later, the boy turned man recanted to his pastor and the pastor convinced him to go to police.
These people are not Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor or George Floyd— high profile cases that have emboldened the Black Lives Matter movement and current protests across our country and around the world. These are just a few people and incidents that have crisscrossed the life of one white suburban couple, my wife and me.
Despite these incidents, over the years I have been largely silent. Yes, I have promoted equality, justice and kindness in schools and communities. But I have been silent on the issues of systemic and police racism in our communities and country. I have not wanted to push the envelope or rock the boat. Too many of us have been this way. In the process, our values have been compromised and innocent lives have been affected or whittled away.
During the Holocaust, the Rev. Martin Niemoller (1892-1984) said this: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
We are all connected. The shackles of injustice and unkindness ultimately affect everyone. So do the chain reactions of justice, kindness and love. This is a time for all of us to speak out, to listen and to admit that racism does exist and that disrespect and disregard of anyone are plagues on our society. May we do so with honesty, intentionality, kindness and compassion.
Stuart Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation, a character education and social-emotional learning non-profit organization based in Mayfield Village, Ohio, serving 2,500 K-12 schools in all 50 states.