Political conventions are weird. They’re a throwback to the days when delegates spent days traveling by horse, or later, train, to vet the men who were vying for their party’s nomination. In a matter of just a few days, they had to choose their nominee and whip up a frenzy of political excitement that the delegates would carry back to their home states as they campaigned for the next few months. The hats, the zany costumes, the boisterous yelling, the endless battering of the opponent – those were all part of the performance.
The part of me that likes history enjoys the pageantry, for a little while at least. After a few hours, it wears thin. It reminds me of the late eighties period of popular rap music: heavy on the bravado, light on substance. Most of the songs that made it to radio consisted of rappers praising their own greatness and dissing their competitors. When gangsta rap exploded in the early nineties, it filled a void with its narratives of poverty, racism, and crime. As much as I hated its overt misogyny, glamorization of crime, and obscene language, I was glad that rappers were finally saying something other than “I’m better than you.”
Seven days in to the Republican and Democratic conventions, I felt pretty similar. The main message seemed to be: “Our candidate is great. The opponent is evil.” It was heavy on the bravado, light on substance. By the time President Obama spoke on the third day of the DNC convention, the void was there. I needed substance. Consistent with his prior convention speeches, his oratorical skills didn’t disappoint. Barack stepped up to the mic like Ice Cube and told us how today was a good day. He flawlessly pointed out the specific problems with Trump’s rhetoric and its inconsistencies with the basic principles of democratic government. He gave Bill Clinton a tutorial in how you make the case for your successor. He told folks what he did eight years ago, that we should never put our hope in a single person and that we need to get active at the local levels if we want our laws to change.
Of course, he also reinforced U.S. exceptionalism and militarism. That disappointed me, even though it did not surprise me. Jonathan Winthrop’s appropriation of Jesus’ teaching about a “city on a hill” (Matthew 5:14) is deeply ingrained into the U.S. ethos. So too is the myth of redemptive violence, what theologian Walter Wink calls our belief that we can end violence by being violent. Both beliefs are as American as apple pie. And they’ve long had the backing of the church to support them. To disbelieve them and actively work against them is probably not to be expected from anyone who wants to be president of this country.
I was surprised, however, by the false equivalency President Obama made between anti-Black police violence and violence against police. I was more than surprised; I was infuriated. Connecting the two has been very common since the fatal attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge earlier this month. I lament those deaths as I mourn all needless death. But it is lazy thinking unworthy of a Harvard-trained constitutional law scholar to equate them.
Let me share something: I am a highly educated and religious African American woman who has never been in trouble with the law. I’ve only had one traffic violation: a speeding ticket back in 1994. Ironically, I earned that ticket minutes after an African American police officer visited my mother’s home in Stone Mountain. He had come to warn her that our White neighbors were not happy that a Black family had moved into the neighborhood and they were constantly looking for violations to report to the police and county officials. Five minutes later I left the house stewing and didn’t notice when I entered the school zone driving five mph over the speed limit.
I’m a bit of a goody two-shoes. Always have been. I’ve also always been afraid of the police. My body tenses up anytime that a police officer is in sight. If I’m driving and one pulls alongside me, I try to make brief eye contact and flash a smile to indicate that I’m a good citizen. Not too long on the eye contact or they might think I’m being aggressive. But I can’t look away too quickly because they might think I’m nervous and guilty of something. The truth is that I am nervous and guilty of something: being Black.
I fear police because I am Black. Even though I know that there are plenty of good cops like the one who came to my mom’s house that day to warn us, or the lieutenant whom I had the pleasure of teaching in two seminary courses and who walked me to my car at the end of our night class. I fear police because there are also plenty of those who have stopped me for no reason other than driving while Black.
I fear police because anytime that I have been in a car driven by a Black person that is stopped by police, they approach the car with their hands on their gun. And they leave their hands on their gun the entire time, even when they see the name badge that identifies the driver as the chaplain at the women’s prison a few blocks away from where they stopped us because they ran her tag and her insurance had expired. They keep their hands on their guns even as they make us get out of the car and tell us we have to walk back to work in the August heat. They keep their hands on their guns even while the insurance agent on the phone reassures them that it was a mistake resulting from the bank issuing a new debit card. I fear police because the only reason they ran the tag was that we were two Black women in a Mercedes. I fear police because Sandra Bland ended up arrested and in jail for three days for a minor encounter like that. She died in the custody of police for a minor encounter like that.
Somehow President Obama thinks that fear is the same as the fear that the police experience each and everyday. But it is not. Because being a police officer is a choice. Police are people who knowingly enter and remain in a profession that requires them to confront danger and risk. They could choose to do something else. They can leave at any time. They can take off the badge and uniform and voila, they are no longer targets because of the uniform. It is a dangerous profession, one that I’m deeply grateful people choose to do. That is, when I’m not being afraid that they will target me because of my race. I do not have a choice in being the target of racism. Racism happens all the time without my permission. I don’t get to choose the risk. I am – my Blackness is – the risk. It is not the same.