The Michael Brown Tragedy: A Christian of Color Perspective

Today is the funeral of Michael Brown.   Please join me in praying for comfort for his family.

As for many, the tragedy of Michael Brown’s death has stirred in me much reflection about the deep racial divide in the U.S.  Pretty much everyone is in agreement that racial profiling by police, and racial profiling in general, is wrong, especially when it leads to horrific violence.   The racial divide seems to surface, however, when we discuss the prevalence of racial profiling in America today.

If someone grew up with fair skin and light hair in a middle class suburban neighborhood, then, in my experience, the tendency is to believe that racial profiling among police, and in other social settings, is not a pervasive problem.

If someone grew up African American or Latina/o in a racially marginalized urban area, then the almost universal agreement is that ethnic profiling is alive and well.  It’s also important to note that many African Americans and Latinas/os in middle class suburban communities experience racial profiling (for example see this excellent article by a Black law professor from the Washington University School of Law in Missouri:

When asserting our perspectives on the topic of racial profiling, we all speak from our personal experience.  Many whites from suburban environments speak from their experience--where they have not been racially profiled and where law enforcement is viewed as an ally.  For those of us who are People of Color,

our experience is often quite different—we experience racial profiling by the police, at our work places, and when we go to our local strip malls to shop.

For example, here’s a few of my racial profiling experiences.  Those of you who have tracked with Jesus for Revolutionaries for a while will know that I am a 6 foot 1, 220 pound, dark-skinned, bearded,“Chinese-Mexican,” who usually passes as Latino.

When I was a teenager my family bought me a new, black Nissan Sentra (picture 1990 and Maxi Priest, Milli Vanilli, and Poison playing in the background).  One day as I was driving in the suburban neighborhood of Alhambra with three of my Chicano friends, we got pulled over by the police.  I was obeying all the speed limits and our only crime was DWB:  “Driving While Brown.”  The cop pulled us over and said, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”  I replied, “No.”  He said, “I couldn’t see your temporary registration posted.”  That was a lie because my temporary registration was clearly taped to the corner of my rear window.

Then I had a crazy “mixed race” moment.   My license said “Robert Romero;” the registration said “Faith Chao” (my Chinese grandmother’s name).   After seeing this discrepancy the police officer thought that his racial suspicions were confirmed:  I and my three Mexican friends must have stolen this Nissan Sentra from a Chinese woman in Alhambra.  In panic, I showed him my driver’s license which read, “Robert CHAO Romero” and pointed out that the car was registered in my Chinese grandmother’s name.  Looking more closely at my slightly slanted eyes, he realized that I was telling the truth.  He then revealed that he had pulled us over because he thought we had stolen the car.  Sadly, the officer was Mexican, too.

Story Number Two.  When I was 29 years old I bought a digital video camera from Best Buy.  By then I was already a lawyer, and I purchased the camera thinking that it might help me gather sources for my history dissertation on the Chinese of Mexico.   After thinking it through, I realized that the camera wasn’t a good idea.   And so I took the camera back to the store to return it.

I was happy because, in accordance with the return policy, I hadn’t even opened the glue seal on the Best Buy plastic bag.  A store manager attended me at the returns register.  What happened next shocked me:  the manager refused to let me return the camera.  Her reasoning, “How do I know that you didn’t reseal it?” It wasn’t until I busted the “I’m a lawyer and a Berkeley law graduate and I know my rights card” that she recanted and allowed me to return the expensive camera.  No apology on her part though.  Just a smile and a goodbye.

Third story.  We recently entered the housing market to buy our first home.  My dad’s a broker, so he helped us out with the purchase.  One day my dad set up an appointment for us to see a house in the richer, northern part of our city.  We showed up to the house and there were many others who had driven by and hoped to see the house.  The white selling agent entered the house, walked right past us, and went directly to another white real estate agent—even though we were the ones who had set up the initial appointment to see the house!

In moments like that I tend towards anger and a little bit of despair:  What else can I do to avoid these kinds of racialized experiences?  I have a law degree from Berkeley, a Ph.D. from UCLA, I’m a tenured professor at UCLA, and I have a national award winning book.  And I still get treated like this.  Ni modo.

We do not live in a colorblind society, and I’ve lived it.  And, I know, so have many of you reading this blog.  That’s why our perspective on the Ferguson tragedy is so different from many in mainstream American culture.  We know that the senseless killing of Michael Brown is part of a broader pattern of structural racism in the United States which we also experience in our daily lives. 

My next words are to the Christian community in the United States. 

To my Christian brothers and sisters who are part of the cultural mainstream of this country, please hear our voices.  As Christian brothers and sisters of Color, God has given us our unique racial experiences which may be different from yours.   Please hear our experiences and suffer with us as we walk through the terrible Ferguson tragedy.  It is our tragedy, too.

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized byone Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles [Latinas/os, African Americans, Asian Americans or Whites], slave or free [Upper class, middle class, or working class]—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”…If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

1 Corinthians 12:12-21,26.

Please suffer with us.

Robert Chao Romero