Flashpoint: The Church and Law Enforcement in Poor Black and White Communities
Samuel K. Atchison
University of Pennsylvania, US
Rev. Samuel K. Atchison has served as a welfare policy analyst, social services administrator, social policy consultant, and prison chaplain. Based in Greensboro, NC, he is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Robert A Fox Leadership Program and the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society.
This paper seeks to “connect-the-dots,” linking recent police shootings of African Americans, including several in suburban communities, with emerging research linking the migration to the suburbs of poor, mostly black and Latino urban dwellers with “suburban poverty” and crime. Also discussed are the increase in poverty, crime and incarceration among whites in rural communities. Contrary to popular belief, poor white communities contain the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population. Poor whites are also the victims of police violence more often than blacks. As one civil rights leader has written, “While African-Americans are at disproportionate risk from the structural and human biases of our criminal justice system, we should not forget that working and poor people of all races suffer from police excessive use of force. Police kill more whites than blacks.” (Jackson, 2015, para. 11) In an age of draconian and (in the opinion of many) hate-filled reversals in criminal justice and immigration policy, due in large measure to these demographic shifts, the power and moral witness of the church are sorely needed to assist the poor, both black and white. This assistance must go beyond the “outreach ministries” typically seen in churches. Rather, as society’s principal moral voice, the church must see and understand the demographic and cultural changes happening around it, effectively seeing through a moral lens the changes law enforcement often finds threatening. And, within the context of providing pastoral care to the wealthy and the poor, the black and the white, the law enforcer and the ostensible law breaker,assist in brokering relationships that are beneficial to the individuals, families and communities it serves.