An Interview with Rev. Richard Coleman

In light of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, we asked Richard Coleman, executive director of Hope United CDC and an Executive Board member of Transform Minnesota to give us his thoughts and insights not only into this event but also into the conditions and perspectives about race in America.

In a related article Carl Nelson points out that there is a gaping chasm between the feelings and emotions experienced by whites and blacks in this country, and asks us to cross the emotional bridge to sense the feelings of those oppressed by racism.

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Transform Minnesota: In light of your ministry and the work you do with Hope United CDC, talk about the role of economic disparities and how it relates to incidents like what we just witnessed in Ferguson, Missouri.

Rev. Richard Coleman

Rev. Richard Coleman

Richard Coleman: We don’t deal with issues like economic disparities when we’re discussing the Trayvon Martin killing or the recent events in Ferguson. However, in order to fully understand these episodes, we need to have an understanding of the perspectives of African Americans concerning economic disparities, police brutality and law enforcement in general. We need to invest our time in learning these perspectives in order to fully comprehend the complex issues surrounding race in America.

It’s also important to understand the facts surrounding the shooting: what does the law permit in situations like this, why does the law permit it and should the law be reviewed, among other considerations. But at the end of the day, the disparities exist because of some realities in society that we have not yet dealt with in terms of racism and discrimination. These realities manifest themselves in the economy and in other areas, and ultimately determine the options and choices people have at their disposal.

 

Transform Minnesota: What do those who find themselves stuck in these realities feel, particularly those unable to find employment? What is it like to be in that place?

When you’re in a position of power, you can choose where you’re going to live, where your kids will go to school…

Richard Coleman: It’s painful for us to see that our society supports tyranny. It’s a very painful thought that Americans would subscribe to policies and practices that basically are tyrannical to an underclass of people who emerged out of slavery, and who from the beginning were not considered equal, and who were taught to embrace that status themselves and to act in ways compliant with that status of being less than human.

We often hear people argue that slavery existed 200 years ago or Jim Crow occurred 100 years ago, and things are much different now for African Americans. However, that view fails to appreciate the advantage that people who have not suffered that oppression have as a result of the oppression. It also ignores the residual effects of emasculating African American males through slave management practices and ongoing, destructive discrimination throughout American society.

In an economy like ours, the very first principle is the right to make choices, the right to choose one value over another. But when you’ve been denied the franchise as an American—you’ve been denied by discrimination, racism, opportunity or education—and put into a place where you’re the underclass, you’ve never as a people had real, fair economic opportunity. Other people have always had an advantage.

It’s difficult for people who live with white privilege or whatever the privilege may be in a society to understand that or to appreciate it, because it’s not in their heart. They may not even view themselves as being advantaged. They can make choices.

When you’re in a position of power, you can choose where you’re going to live, where your kids will go to school, where you can shop and any number of other seemingly normal choices.

Being the underclass, however, you can be denied those choices.

I’ve pastored in Flint, Michigan and Chicago, and I’ve seen the effects of an economy that just dried up, and people have literally no hope. They are then forced to make choices within their capacity. When you’re privileged, you have choices within a broader capacity. You have options that others don’t. When you are limited by wealth because your parents didn’t own a home, they were in debt or because of racism—because people don’t want to hire you for whatever reason—it places you at a disadvantage, a place where options may be few and where it’s difficult to find a foothold.

 

Transform Minnesota: Talk about the disparity as it relates to the disproportionate number of African American males who are imprisoned.

Richard Coleman: There are studies conducted in the Twin Cities that date back more than 20 years that demonstrate discrimination in the criminal justice system. That’s an established truth.

Even the most recent reports reveal very little change from 20 or 30 years ago. We see this discrimination and disparity in sentencing guidelines, for example, where you can get more time for selling a little dope than for using cocaine or selling cocaine. If kids in the community are trading in cheap narcotics, why is their penalty higher than the penalty charged to those who are dealing in more expensive chemicals?

Studies have also demonstrated that white teens have a higher number of police contacts than do kids of color—particularly African Americans—during the study period. The general public perception is that black kids have more contacts, but that is not true.

However, the big difference is that white kids had options. They could call their dad or their mom, and they didn’t go to jail. There was a police contact, but they didn’t go to jail.

The black kids go to jail. Maybe there is nobody at home—whatever the reason is—but they go to jail, and that introduces them to the criminal justice system.

Fortunately, over the past decade, there has been considerable movement away from putting kids in jail. Efforts have been made to find alternatives to incarceration.

 

Transform Minnesota: What personal experiences or observations have shaped you that can help others understand your perspective?

Two security guards rushed me, grabbed me and dragged me down the stairs of the store into a little room and interrogated me as to why I was stealing a sweater…

Richard Coleman: I was born in Mississippi and experienced Jim Crow and segregation personally. When I was a kid, I moved with my parents to Chicago. At age 12, I had a paper route and made money.

One of the more memorable negative experiences I had was when I tried to use my paper route money to buy a sweater at a department store. After I had picked up the sweater I wanted to buy, two security guards rushed me, grabbed me and dragged me down the stairs of the store into a little room and interrogated me as to why I was stealing a sweater.

I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t know if they were abducting me or what their plans were for me. They just literally, physically grabbed me and dragged me down as I was kicking and screaming.

As a salesman, I personally experienced people telling me, “You need to get out of town before sundown,” or “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to be in this neighborhood in Chicago,” or “How dare you come over here.” That was almost a daily occurrence for me during that time in my life.

 

Transform Minnesota: How should people of privilege be working to respond? How can they help to create a different future?

We have to accept the legacy in America of racism and its residual effect upon the oppressed.

Richard Coleman: People need to accept the truth that there are residual effects of slavery, particularly the brand of slavery imposed upon African people in America. People need to study that and not be dismissive of that fact. The fear that white people have of black people is probably grounded more in their own consciousness and their own attitude, perhaps guilt, than it is in the reality of how black people view white people.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested, I believe that economics will play a major role in helping us find solutions to the problems associated with race in America. Some evangelicals might say, “If we just get in the city and preach the gospel, the problem will be solved.” We do need to do that. But at the end of the day, people need to have jobs.

To use Jesus as our example, we need to meet with and address the needs of people who have been set aside and ostracized. These are the lepers of our day and the woman at the well of our day.

I think Jesus’ work would certainly be in the midst of people of color. I think He calls us to look at our practices, our systems and our structures that give life to oppression—and make some changes. I don’t think Jesus would be soft at all on this.

He would say to the black person who has been oppressed and who is hurt and wounded, “Go and don’t sin anymore.” He would say the same to the white person who has been oppressive, “Go and don’t sin anymore. Make some changes.”

We have to accept the legacy in America of racism and its residual effect upon the oppressed.

 

Transform Minnesota: What gives you hope for a better future?

Richard Coleman: What gives me hope is that the same Jesus who brought life to the dead is doing it through disciples today all over our community. They are of every ethnicity. They are male, they’re female, they’re young and they’re old. They have the love of God in their hearts, and the love of God has brought us to a place of believing that we’ve got to participate, and we’ve got to see how God wants to do healing today.

What does it mean for us to lay hands on the sick? What does it mean for us to commune with the leper today? What does it mean for us to sit with the woman at the well in our context? People are asking those questions. That gives me hope.

I’m very hopeful. I believe the statement that “the darkest hour is just before the break of dawn.” I know that as we press through to change, the resistance gets stronger. We know that we serve a mighty God, but we’re opposed by an enemy who is resilient and who will be here until Jesus subdues him finally. We’re not at that point today. We’re living in between.

We have to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us and to give us the courage and the boldness to really lay our lives down for what we believe in. That means to deny ourselves our privilege if it’s necessary. That means to be available to those who are hungry and who see no hope and to give them a way out.

That means not to just give someone a handout, but to help them discover the answer. Not to do for a community but to do with a community. The faith I have, the hope I have is that we’ll have the courage today to seize these moments of pain and frustration as learning opportunities to move beyond philosophy about faith or religion or practice and to actually begin to change the way we live together.

I think we’re right where Jesus said we would be in these days. The challenge for us is not to lose heart and not to allow the love of God to go cold. But as we see these days coming, we need to pray, knowing that God is still guiding us by His spirit. He is no respecter of a color or of an ethnicity or of a class. He will use anyone of us, even a little kid in our community, to bring us to where we need to be.

This is a time that demands great faith for people of faith. We need to persevere and to understand that there is a way the Holy Spirit will have us to be Jesus unto this generation.

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Other recommended reading

Le Que Heidkamp (local pastor, co-author of article in Time Magazine): Multi-Ethnic Churches Lament America’s Racial Injustice.

 Efrem Smith (Minneapolis native, author, president of World Impact):Ferguson and the Church, and Racial Profiling, Thug-ology and the Church.

It’s Time to ListenAfrican American evangelical leaders contribute to an online series at Christianity Today: (Link to all stories here.) 

  • Bryan Loritts: Feeling the Pain Despite the Facts.
  • Leonce Crump: Will White Evangelicals Ever Acknowledge Systemic Injustice?
  • Philip Fletcher: How Can We Learn from One Another?
  • Lisa Sharon Harper: The Lie.

Thabiti Anyabwile (Council member of The Gospel Coalition): Why We Never “Wait for All the Facts” Before We Speak, plus additional articles.  

NY Times: (Recommended by other evangelical leaders): Racial History Behind the Ferguson Protests – The Death of Michael Brown.

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