“My advice is to actively listen. To me that’s a lost art.” — Pastor Rolland Slade
“You painted a black person”
Last year, while exiting an MTS bus at the El Cajon Transit Station, I heard a man yell, “Imagine a world without black people!” A black girl walked away from the bus with her head held down. I normally ignore the ravings of crazy street people. But I replied, “The world would be a gloomy place!”
When I was 11, a white supremacist moved in across the street from my childhood home on the south side of Chicago. He plastered swastika-covered papers on light poles all over the neighborhood with the message, “Keep this neighborhood white.”
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Up to that point, all I’d done was tell my white and Hispanic neighborhood friends to stop using the n-word. But now, I got to stand up against an actual neo-Nazi. I grabbed a step stool and a paint scraper and walked from light pole to light pole, up and down the surrounding streets, tearing all the papers down. Every time he put them back up, my brothers and I took them down.
My experience with race doesn’t fit the standard white privilege/white ignorance/white guilt narrative — not that anybody’s does. As a white kid attending Chicago public schools, I was the minority. In sixth grade, I and a small group of white kids were bused to a school on the other side of the railroad tracks. Black kids routinely lined up to throw rocks as the bus passed by.
But I was accepted by my classmates. One day, the alpha male of the class, William, announced who his list of “cool kids” were. I made the cut. The only other white boy didn’t. A couple years later at another south side school, my friend Jovan, a towering figure, announced in class, “If I ever see Eric getting beat up outside, I will help him.”
I’ve experienced the bond of friendship with many African-Americans and was often treated with fondness — even by my middle school social studies teacher, who frequently taught us how evil “the white man” is. I quietly wondered if she realized I was a white male.
I think of a painting I did in 8th grade of an African-American baseball player. When my black classmate Lisa saw it, she was jubilant. “You painted a black person!” I didn’t understand. I hadn’t even thought about the subject’s skin color. But it meant the world to her.
Lori St. Pierre holds a newspaper clipping with a photo of her father, Dr. Lucien Holman, with President Johnson during the signing of a Civil Rights Bill.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
When I heard about African-Americans being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and related co-morbidities, I thought of Shalon Buchanan, who was the first friend I lost to a tragic death. We became friends freshman year as we sat next to each other every day in one of my classes. She really enjoyed playing with the hair on the back of my head. She was the first person I looked for sophomore year, but I couldn’t find her. I was shocked to find out she died of a heart attack during the heatwave of the summer of 1994.
And as the world shakes with the declaration that black lives matter, I think of Christopher Pinkins, a gentle autistic African-American kid I mentored when I started volunteering at church. He was murdered at age 27. He was walking in a neighborhood in which his skin color made him a minority, and wandered into an alley, where he found a car wheel to roll around. Two men accused him of trying to steal it. They chased him down, beat him, and crushed his windpipe with a crowbar. This happened in broad daylight, at a busy intersection, as a crowd of pedestrians stood by, watching, doing nothing to stop it.
His killers weren’t police officers or white supremacists. They were a Mexican immigrant and a Hispanic gangbanger. (When I shared what happened with a Mexican friend, she pleaded with me not to think all Mexicans are bad people, a thought that had never crossed my mind.) The men were convicted of murder, but got out of prison after five years.
In response to the recent riot Pastor Rolland Slade says, “Seeing La Mesa burn really gripped my heart, because I consider that my hometown. It hurts to see your home burning. In civil society we’re supposed to be able to talk. Violence is not supposed to be part of American politics. We need to get back to that.”
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
There were no rally cries for justice. Neither Jesse Jackson nor Al Sharpton held a press conference to speak against the racism that killed Christopher or to say his life mattered. As I investigated the incident and made inquiries, the only response I got from the social justice-oriented church in that neighborhood was that I should think about how the killers and their families will be affected if they go to prison.
“Racism is being taught”
El Cajon resident Lori St. Pierre, a black woman, lost her nephew Jordan Davis to a racist killing in Jacksonville, Florida in 2012. It made national headlines and drew in famous voices.
She explains, “Jordan and his friends went Black Friday shopping. While stopped at a gas station, [Michael David Dunn, a white man] pulled up next to them and yelled at them, telling them to turn their ‘thug music’ down. Jordan said they didn’t have to. So [Dunn] pulled out a gun and started shooting. Our Jordan was murdered by a white supremacist for no reason. The killer’s fiancée testified he told her he would ‘shoot those n*ggers again’ if he could.”
Dunn was convicted of murdering Davis and attempting to murder Davis’ three friends and sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 90 years.
It wasn’t the first run-in with racism St. Pierre had. Her father, Dr. Lucien Holman, worked with Martin Luther King during the 1960s civil rights movement. He was the state president of the Illinois NAACP and served on the executive board of the national NAACP. He owned a black-oriented newspaper and sat next to President Johnson as he signed civil rights legislation. She says, “We always had people in and out of the house, civil rights activists, people writing news stories. It was a way of life.”
Then one day as a little girl, she had to flee her home in Joliet, Illinois (outside of Chicago) when white supremacists firebombed her father’s rental properties and the Jewish-owned grocery store across the street. She says, “They didn’t want blacks to own property. They didn’t want us to have equal rights. And they didn’t like that Mr. Kaye had his store in the black neighborhood.”
Though she has been afflicted by racism all her life, St. Pierre says, “We weren’t raised to think white people are the enemy. People say whites are out to get us. That’s racist. And that racism is being taught.
“I don’t know anyone on this earth who was part of slavery. Why hold that against generation after generation? Slavery cursed us all, but we can be released from that with repentance and forgiveness. We have a choice to love or hate, to choose the peace of God or the division and havoc that is coming from the enemy of our souls.
“Dr. King said, ‘I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will sit down together at the table of brotherhood.’ I don’t care if you’re black or white. We all can have misconceptions about other people.
“Look at Santee. You hear [it called] Klantee. I’ve experienced racism almost everywhere, but when I lived in Santee, I didn’t feel any. I still do most of my shopping there, and my family has never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome.
“Dr. King also dreamed that in America, people would ‘not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’ Today they’re judging police by the color of their uniform. You can’t blame an entire group for the actions of a few, whether it’s whites, blacks, or people who wear a blue uniform.
“If there’s 100,000 police, I refuse to believe any of 99,000 would want to harm black people or anyone. Abortion is a bigger threat to black lives. Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger’s agenda was to eradicate the black race. I mean, if we’re aborting babies, how can we value anybody’s life?”
Then she brings up the identity issue. “Most African-Americans can’t trace our roots. We don’t know which country our ancestors came from. Personally, I’ve found even deeper roots in my identity as a child of God. That is where I find my peace, strength, truth, forgiveness, and love for others.”
St. Pierre adds, “It’s something we grow up with. You explain to your kids, primarily your boys, be extra careful, think twice before you speak, know your surroundings.”
Black elder from La Mesa
Pastor Rolland Slade of El Cajon’s Meridian Baptist Church says, “As a black person, I have more awareness of my skin color than a white person does. As a young man my father taught me, ‘If you engage a white man you don’t know or he calls you out, don’t look him in the eye.’ That advice came from his southern experience. He was not allowed to engage my grandmother’s employers as an equal.” He says those words affect him to this day. “I would never tell my sons to look away. I tell them, ‘You have nothing to be ashamed of and no reason to be looked down on.’”
He says he has relayed the rest of his dad’s advice to his sons. “Unfortunately, it’s a rite of passage between African-American fathers and their sons. My father sat me down at 17 and taught me how I should engage with police officers if I got pulled over. You make sure your window is down. Don’t obstruct their vision. Don’t move quickly. Tell them everything you’re going to do. Put your hands on the steering wheel so they can see them. If he says he needs your license and registration, you communicate, ‘I’m going to reach into my glove compartment to get my registration.’ I shared that with my boys as well. I wasn’t trying to scare them; I was telling them, ‘These are things you need to know.’ ”
He clarifies that he has never feared police officers. “I never allowed myself to get in a position where I was breaking the law. I had more fear of my dad killing me than a policeman. He loved me deeply, but he was a disciplinarian. He had a good reputation, and that’s not something to take lightly. He got respect, because he did his job and did it well. He started in a segregated Navy in 1942 during World War II. He served in Korea and Vietnam. The Navy he went into was vastly different from the Navy he left as a Senior Chief. In all, he had over 50 years of government service.”
Slade was born in southeast San Diego but moved to La Mesa as a child. “Going from an all-black neighborhood to being one of only three black families in the neighborhood was traumatic.”
Though nobody targeted him with racism as a child, he says, “We had a white supremacist retail store along my route to school. The Daily Californian published the letter I wrote about it in elementary school.” He says when he came back to La Mesa in 1998, he found flyers for a Klan rally lying on the ground. “I wrote another letter to the same paper.... Now I’m a married man with children, and I’m back.” He says he couldn’t imagine that happening in La Mesa today.
In response to the recent riot, he says, “Seeing La Mesa burn really gripped my heart, because I consider that my hometown. It hurts to see your home burning. In civil society, we’re supposed to be able to talk. Violence is not supposed to be part of American politics. We need to get back to that. The civil rights movement had its roots in the church. My understanding of BLM is it does not. That creates a big chasm.
“I don’t think police brutality against blacks is happening more now. I think we have more access to seeing it when it happens. Our cameras go to social media instantly. If the narrative is that you’re being hunted, you’ll be on the defensive.”
Slade says he got involved during the protests in El Cajon after Alfred Olango was killed by a police officer in 2016. “I was part of a group of leaders that stood between protesters and police. I was in a meeting when we heard police siren after police siren going by. I thought, ‘Something’s going on.’ Instead of just sitting there, we got involved. I met some young guys and had respectful conversations. I got them to safety before they could do something that might harm themselves. We found mutual respect. They invited me to things after that, and I showed up.”
“It’s important that the clergy in El Cajon knew each other....
You have to know people before a crisis comes, so you’re ready to cut straight to dealing with the issue.”
“My advice is to actively listen. To me, that’s a lost art. Everybody wants to talk and give their opinion. We’re not taking the time to listen. Right now, people are hurting. The young people who are protesting want to be heard. I’m older, but I still don’t know it all.”
Slade made history June 16 when he was unanimously elected the first African American chairman of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, the world’s largest Protestant Christian denomination.
According to a San Diego District Attorney 25-year officer-involved shooting review, subjects of police shootings in San Diego County “are mostly male, Hispanic or white, and age 18-35... Ninety-two percent of subjects were armed with weapons.”
No details were given about skin color in incidents involving unarmed subjects. An officer was killed or injured in 12 percent of incidents. “San Diego County had over 1,000 officers assaulted in 2017, up from an average of 700 over the previous nine years.”
According to the Washington Post, the number of unarmed subjects shot and killed by police in America dropped from 94 in 2015 to 55 in 2019, “with white people accounting for 25 of them, while 14 of them were black.”
Though police shootings of unarmed subjects have been decreasing, assaults on police officers and rates of violent crime have been increasing. The odds of a black citizen being killed by police or white supremacists are far lower than being killed by another black citizen. And though more police shooting victims are white, more murder victims are black.
According to statista.com, in 2018 there were 7407 black victims of murder and 6088 white victims. A 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey reports, “After declining by more than 60 percent from 1994 to 2015... the number of violent-crime victims rose from 2015 to 2016, and again from 2016 to 2018. In 2018, the offender was of the same race or ethnicity as the victim in 70 percent of violent incidents involving black victims, in 62 percent of those involving white victims, 45 percent of those involving Hispanic victims, and 24 percent of those involving Asian victims.”