Why are we so afraid of one another? More specifically, speaking as a White person, why are we so afraid of Black people, particularly young Black men? Is it because of the residual guilt from generations of abuse and oppression that people who look like us have dished out—guilt we don’t want to acknowledge, because then we would have to do something about it? Is it our way of shifting the blame? These kids are all criminals and thugs, we say, so our fear is justified. We need to protect ourselves from the Other, not just African Americans but Latinos, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and “foreigners” of all stripes. We have to arm ourselves and be prepared to protect our family and property from these nefarious others.
I’m thinking about this today because of what happened a week ago in Kansas City. Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old Black boy, unintentionally rang the wrong doorbell looking to pick up his younger siblings, and Andrew Lester, an 84-year-old White man, came to the door with a pistol and shot Yarl twice through the glass door, hitting him in the head and arm. Fortunately, Yarl’s injuries were not fatal, and he was released from the hospital on Sunday.
Upon turning himself in to the police on Monday, Lester claimed that he had been “scared to death” by Yarl’s presence on his porch and therefore pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree assault, saying it was a question of self-defense. Yarl is 5’ 8” and weighs all of 140 pounds, but Lester described him as a “Black male approximately six feet tall.” Numerous studies have demonstrated that people tend to overestimate the size and therefore the potential threat of Black men, including teenagers. The killers of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown all perceived them to be older and larger than they actually were.
It must be noted that unneighborly behavior is not restricted to White people. Tuesday evening in Gastonia, North Carolina, a 24-year-old Black man, Robert Louis Singletary, allegedly shot a father and his six-year-old daughter, both White, after a basketball rolled into his yard. There’s no excuse for this kind of reaction regardless of the race of either the perpetrators or the victims.
But consider this: Police are looking for Singletary, who appears to have absconded after the shooting, with the intention of charging him with four counts of first-degree attempted murder. None of the victims in these two cases were killed, thankfully, but the White man who shot a Black boy, after being allowed to turn himself in four days after the incident, is being charged with one count of assault, while the Black shooter of the two White people is facing four counts of attempted murder. One might legitimately question whether there is a racial component to this variance.
In one last dose of bad news, in an interview with Don Lemon of CNN, the grandson of Andrew Lester described his grandfather as a proponent of conspiracy theories such as QAnon and said he frequently makes racist remarks. When asked to elaborate, the grandson said Lester was “an older Christian white male,” and added the offhand comment, “They’re just like that.”
Research shows that this is not a one-off observation, but that a growing percentage of young people in our country hold similar views about Christians. We are supposedly racist (and there is a lot of evidence that many American Christians do indeed have racist opinions and attitudes) and out of touch, and it’s best just to ignore us and steer clear of the Christian faith altogether.
That is, sadly, the world in which we live in 2023, and it behooves us to recognize it and do everything we can to counter those negative stereotypes. Those of us who understand the teachings of Jesus to undermine rather than support racism, violence, homophobia, and the like need to be more vocal about what we really believe in: justice, peace, equity, and grace. That’s the good news we have been commissioned to share. I think it’s time to up our game.
Grace and peace,