Window on Main Street: 0003

Window on Main Street: 0003

By The Rev. Jan Nunley

Jan. 28, 2000: Patrolmen Carlos A. Saraiva and Michael Solitro III fatally shot Patrolman Cornel Young Jr. outside Fidas Restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island. The officers said Young, who was off-duty, was shot while helping the them break up a disturbance, but the uniformed officers mistook him for a suspect. Saraiva and Solitro are white; Young was black.

A growing number of Providence residents are convinced the incident was prompted by the practice of racial profiling and are calling for an independent investigation of the shooting and of racism in the Providence police department.

I don't know what it's like to be a police officer, although as a former "street reporter," I've seen up close the dangers police officers face daily -- shoot-outs, barricades, chases, funeral routes lined in sorrowing blue.

I don't know what it's like to be black, although I have experienced discrimination on other grounds. I do know what it's like to be stereotyped, to be turned down (or never considered) for positions, to receive threatening letters and calls, to be verbally and physically harrassed, followed, even stalked, because of who and what I am.

I also know what it's like to think and act like a white person. And I do know -- and so do you, white reader -- that white folks engage in a form of racial profiling, each and every day. You're "not a racist," you say? Don't believe me? Take this simple quiz.

  1. If you were on a search committee and a black woman priest applied to be the rector of your parish, would your first thought be, "This parish isn't ready for someone like that"?
  2. If you were getting out money at your bank's ATM and a young black man in a hooded sweatshirt came up behind you, would your heart pound?
  3. If you were sitting in a restaurant where a disturbance erupted and a black man in the crowd pulled out a gun, would you assume he was not a police officer? If a white man did the same thing, would you assume he might be?

That's racial profiling. In white people of good will, it's largely unconscious, the legacy of generations of privilege so familiar we don't even see it any more, and get angry when others do. We call that "playing the race card," though whites have played our race card from the top of the deck for centuries.

Maybe Lent is a good time for white Episcopalians in Rhode Island to become "recovering racists" and take on the spiritual discipline of anti-racism. Not to be "colorblind"; too often claiming not to see race is failing to see racism. The point is rather to see as God sees, rejoicing in the colors and cultures of all people, with absolutely no one "erased" from the picture.


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