Many Waunakee residents are working on change now, engaging in research to understand the United States’ racist history, particularly its role in the numbers of Black men and women dying in police custody.
In an effort to help with that understanding, Joel Lewis, a Black Waunakee resident and member of FPC (First Presbyterian Church) spoke during Sunday services June 28, delivering a talk titled, “How Can you Help Bridge the Gap?”
Lewis, a school board candidate in the spring election, shared his experiences growing up in Westchester County, New York, where although he made friends, stark differences remained. A former New York City police officer, Lewis is now a social worker in the criminal justice system, so he shared his perspective on the gap between African Americans and police, as well.
Referencing Bible scripture from Matthew 7:12, Lewis recited the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Lewis grew up in in a normal neighborhood, he said, with a mix of people. When he was 12, his parents moved to a small town, and as the family looked at houses, a Realtor told his mother they would not be welcome there.
They bought a house anyway and received a bomb threat – an empty threat – but disturbing nonetheless.
“It messed with my mind,” Lewis said. “I couldn’t understand why someone would do that.”
Summer was almost over, and as the school year approached, Lewis worried that no one in school would like him, but he made friends, was invited to parties, and participated in sports, he said.
Still, he would hear friends say the “N” word.
“And when I would confront my friends, they said, ‘Joel, we’re not talking about you. We’re talking about them,’” Lewis said.
Lewis was told Black people had an extra muscle and were faster than White people, and that’s why they did not want to compete with him.
Also, he realized if he were to date a girl, her parents would not want to see him come to their house because he was Black.
“I never was able to develop a relationship with a girl, not until further on in my school years,” he said.
Lewis was the only Black student in mainstream classes at his school, so it was assumed he was in special education. When the subject of African American history arose in class, everyone looked at him, thinking he was the expert.
When his classes read books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men,” he became nervous.
“The teacher would expect us to read,” Lewis said, noting the “N” word is used in both novels, and he would be compelled to say it.
“It really hurt me. I never voiced my opinion to the teacher. I never let her know or him know how I felt. I just did what I was told. But I always felt, why would an adult let a child go through that?” Lewis said.
Now an adult, Lewis has found racism still exists, it just looks different. He still hears derogatory terminology and still has to be concerned about where he lives.
“It’s always on my mind, how people will respond to me, unless I’m in a comfortable situation,” he said. “I’m never relaxing. I’m always aware.”
Lewis then spoke of the correlation between racism against African Americans and law enforcement, calling it “historic and complex,” and said he has an understanding of both sides.
“Being Black, I understand how it feels to be profiled,” he said. “Depending on where you grow up, your experience with police is different.” Lewis noted.
But as a former officer, Lewis also understands how difficult policing is, he added.
“You rely on your training and your instincts. As you spend more time on the job, that’s where you develop your skill set,” Lewis said.
Both African Americans and police need to take precautions when they encounter one another. Police officers do not have enough training to deal with many situations, and leadership does not hold individuals accountable when problems occur. A plan of correction and possible retraining is needed when possible. More transparency is also needed so the public doesn’t believe actions are covered up, Lewis said.
“Since African Americans have been conditioned to fear the police, it’s harder to develop a healthy relationship between the two groups,” he said.
The societal message is Black people are dangerous, and are criminals. African Americans hear the message that police officers are racist and will shoot them, according to Lewis.
“If we don’t continue to break these cycles, we will continue to reinforce the ‘us vs. them’ mentality, which definitely creates division which leads into racism,” Lewis said.
Lewis provided five steps people can take to break the cycle.
First, be honest with yourself.
“We all have biases. It doesn’t mean you’re racist or hate a whole group of people,” Lewis said.
He also advised people to stop and listen when a person of color is telling their story.
“This is not the time to defend or dismiss what they are saying. This is their story. They were brave enough to share their story with you,” Lewis added, noting that they also may be re-experiencing the trauma.
And he said people should speak out when they hear racist comments and let others know that kind of speech is not tolerated.
People should also educate themselves, Lewis said, noting that teaching people the history of racism should not be the responsibility of people of color.
Finally, Lewis advised the church members to build relationships with people outside of their friend group.
“If you already know people of color, reach out to them and develop a relationship,” he said.
To watch the sermon, visit myfpc.org.