Bishop Joey Johnson and Your Favorite Columnist clashed a few months ago over some statements he made during a public meeting. But on at least one subject, we are of a single mind.
Race relations are terrible.
And they’re getting worse.
And that is bad news for all of us.
Johnson, a 65-year-old African-American, is one of the most influential preachers in the region, regardless of color. On Sundays, his House of the Lord church in West Akron draws about 200 worshippers for the early service and about 600 more for the later one.
He estimates that his congregation, which meets in a gorgeous, sprawling facility very close to the Vernon Odom Boulevard exit on Interstate 77, is about 1 percent white, down from 10 percent a decade ago.
A pastor in this city for 43 years, Johnson has played an active role in trying to ease the clash of colors, participating in public events such as unity meetings and also working behind the scenes, such as talking with the Akron police hierarchy about the enormous divide between law-enforcement and much of the black community.
Johnson is not the least bit bashful about discussing race, and neither am I. That’s not always the case, because many people are so terrified of being labeled racist for saying “the wrong thing” that they just avoid the subject altogether.
At least in public.
Both of us thought it would be worthwhile to sit down and see how things look from opposite sides of the color divide in 2017.
We sat in his well-appointed office and talked for nearly an hour. Because of the newspaper’s space limitations, what follows is a drastically edited version of the conversation, but a version that I believe retains the high points.
Dyer: I assume you read our story about the racial slur written on the door of the boys basketball locker room at Ellet? [A student wrote “f*** n******” next to a Nazi swastika.] What do you think motivates people to do that kind of thing?
Johnson: I really think there’s hatred down inside of people that they’re unaware of. I don’t think most people are consciously racist. I think it’s things that were planted long ago that come out. Sometimes it’s not that they hate other people but they’re having issues themselves, and they express it in that kind of way.
Dyer: I’ve been having these types of conversations for 40 years, and race relations right now are as bad as I’ve ever seen them. I’m discouraged. Is there any reason for optimism?
Johnson: That’s a great question, because I think many people are discouraged. I think it is about as bad as it’s ever been in my lifetime. I think it’s because of the climate in which we live.
But there’s always reason for hope. Here’s what I’ve been saying to people in the city who are discouraged: “If we’re going to be in this struggle, you’re in it because it’s right. You’re in it because there is redemption in the struggle.”
This is a problem that has been going on for so long, I’m not sure what’s going to get done. But we may be able to help people in the long run if we’re doing it because it’s right.
When Martin Luther King said, “I may not get there with you,” I think [he meant], “I’m not going to make it, but something’s going to happen after me.”
And I think that’s the key. If we can do something to help our children and grandchildren be better, we ought to do that.
Dyer: When Obama was elected, I said to myself, “Wow. If this country elects a person of color to the highest office in the land — with Obama winning 43 percent of the white vote, the second-highest figure for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter — isn’t that proof that we’re heading toward a race-neutral society?” But race relations got worse. Why?
Johnson: A black man in the White House does not guarantee equality for all. It’s one person. Obama was exceptional. He does not represent the average African-American. One person can’t change the whole country.
Dyer: But I thought it said something that so many white people were willing to vote for a black person.
Johnson: It did say something. I think it said we recognize that this guy has something and we’re willing to overlook everything that has taken place in our country and vote him to be the president.
He carried a unique mantel. That was the blip on the radar, and it seems like we’ve been going backward ever since.
African-American people are collectivistic people, group-oriented, and we expected him to be our savior. I didn’t. But I think we did in general.
He wasn’t going to do that because he wanted to be the people’s president, not the black people’s president. So he said very little [about racial issues]. That was a problem. It’s like an elephant sitting in the middle of the room and he won’t talk about it.
Dyer: You experienced a traffic stop for the offense “driving while black.” [A 16-year-resident of Copley Township, he was pulled over one night and asked what he was doing “in this part of town.”]
I have friends who are certain they have been targeted for DWB, and I don’t doubt that happens at times.
But I tell them about a night I was on state Route 585, trying to pass a semi, edging out a couple of times to see whether the coast was clear, and got pulled over. The trooper said I had been “weaving,” and wanted to know whether I had been drinking.
I told him I was simply trying to see whether it was safe to pass. He already knew that’s what I was doing. He was on a fishing expedition. What would I have thought had I been black?
I also remember being in a restaurant where my family was getting horrible service. I noticed a black couple across the room getting the same horrible service. I thought to myself, “If I were black, I might well attribute the horrible service to racism.” Do you think there are times when blacks mistake racism for plain old incompetence?
Johnson: Yeah! I think you’re overestimating [its frequency], but I don’t think you’re wrong.
It’s the narrative. After a while, if you get discriminated against a number of times, that’s the attitude that you begin to carry.
I have no doubt in my mind that every instance that people bring up is not necessarily discrimination on the basis of color. But it has been so prominent, and some of them are so egregious, that I think there’s more on that side than there is on the “not” side.
How do we deal with that? What I do, which gets me in trouble, is I deal with both sides.
When I worked with the attorney general’s office on law-enforcement training, I talked about implicit bias and micro-aggressions, the micro insults and invalidations people do without knowing they do them.
Dyer: Can you give me an example?
Johnson: Sure. “You talk very good for a black man.” The person thinks they’ve complimented you. They don’t know they’ve insulted you.
When I go into Acme after church, or Giant Eagle, I’m generally wearing a tie. Invariably, somebody is going to ask me where the ketchup is.
“I’m sorry ma’am, I don’t work here. But I can tell you where the ketchup is. I come here all the time. It’s in Aisle 7.”
I’m not picking a fight. I’m not taking offense. You’ll have to give it to me if you want me to have it.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31.