Seasonal Reflection: Racism and Profiling

HNP Communications Around the Province

The following reflection was written by Paul Williams, OFM, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Wilmington, Del., during a time when many Americans have been thinking and writing about racism. It is a response to both the actions of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an African-American high school student, in February 2012, and to a recent act of violence that Paul experienced just outside of St. Paul’s Friary, where he lives. Paul titled the piece “George Zimmerman and Me.”

WILMINGTON, Del. — Last Wednesday, I was carjacked at gunpoint by a 19-year-old African American male in the parking lot of St. Paul’s Parish at 8 a.m. Needless to say, I was shaken to the core.

Just about an hour after the event, after the police left the property, I was on the steps of the parish rectory where I live when a young African-American male approached me. I was frightened of him, as he was dressed in the identical clothing that my attacker wore — a white T-shirt and black pants. I stood my ground and made myself speak to him, and I had to respect him as a man. It turns out all he wanted to know was where the parish food pantry was located, as he needed food for his family.

I refuse to be a George Zimmerman. I will not carry a gun. I will not move out of my neighborhood. I will not run away when I see a young black male. I have no right to judge anyone and no one has the right to judge me based solely on the color of my skin.

I will not be a victim of fear. Profiling is inherently evil because it makes the assumption that based on one’s appearance, you must be guilty of a crime or about to commit a crime. It’s like casting a broad net over a group of people who are guilty because they are of a certain race or religious belief.

As an African-American, I know how it feels to be profiled. When I have been out and about dressed in street clothing, I have seen the look of fear on the faces of those who are profiling me, assuming and judging that I may be a perpetrator. If I allow myself to succumb to the fear and belief that every young male, black or white, who approaches me is dangerous, than I am no better than George Zimmerman.

Racial profiling of minorities dehumanizes people who are basically good and law abiding, and instead are seen as criminals or potential criminals. It makes a mockery of our belief in blind justice. As an African American male, I don’t have the luxury of seeing all young black males in such a negative light. I know better. I know that for young people, it’s important to be stylish, so if the current style is to wear beltless trousers, then good kids, as well as the real troublemakers, will be dressing alike.

Some people find it easier to lump together all such kids and place them in the same category. I have a 20-year-old nephew who is a rising sophomore at Virginia State University. He — to my personal dislike — wears his trousers without a belt, has tattoos, and, yes, his ears are pierced with diamond earrings. This kid made the honor roll at his university. He goes to Sunday Mass and has a full-time job for the summer. He doesn’t drink, smoke or use drugs.

Some who don’t know him may classify my nephew as a thug. Trayvon Martin wore a hoodie because he wanted to be stylish, like any kid — black or white — who has a desire to fit in. I pray and fear for my nephew because he walks around town and uses the Washington area Metro as a young stylish African American man. The violence in racial profiling is that there could be a confrontation with the police simply because a black kid looks suspicious. My nephew could be another Trayvon Martin.

After the carjacking, I celebrated Mass at St. Joseph’s Parish where I am pastor. I asked the congregation to say a Hail Mary with me for Deiondre Travis, my attacker. I don’t hate him and I am not afraid of him. After all, even if he doesn’t know it, I am his big brother and I truly care for his well being.

I am slowly recovering from what has happened to me. I refuse to defame my humanity by hating. I refuse to be a George Zimmerman.

 Fr. Paul is pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Wilmington, where he has been stationed since April. He is a member of the Province’s African Ancestry Committee.

Editor’s note: the Provincial Administration recommends an article reacting to the George Zimmerman case by another Catholic priest.  It is titled “When Profiling is ‘Reasonable,’ Injustice Becomes Excusable,” and was published July 17 in U.S. Catholic.