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Perception Really Is Everything

Perceptions are everything to us. Reality doesn’t matter as much as what we believe it to be. That’s a key to race relations.

Another factor we seem to be overlooking right now is that the problem with many black Americans’ mistrust of law enforcement personnel starts with traffic stops, not the killing of black men by cops.

It hit Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger in 1992, when he was a police officer in Virginia. He was investigating a car crash. In one car was a black family. In another was a white woman.

He went to the black driver to tell him the white woman was being cited for causing the accident. “I could tell that he assumed I was going to charge him with this crash,” Schwertfeger said. “Whether or not I feel that way, sometimes there are perceptions … and those are just as important in a lot of cases.”

Clearly, the black driver expected that because of his race, the white cop would cite him for the accident.

Far more black Americans’ perceptions of law enforcement personnel as a group are formed by traffic stops and other relatively minor contacts than by violent acts. That means George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis cop came as no surprise to many blacks.

Not to get into a philosophical discussion, but the catch with the previous paragraph is that it’s my perception. Knowing whether it’s accurate is critical.

Which brings us to an important panel discussion held Sunday.

Schwertfeger was one of six panelists in the live-streamed discussion. It was called “Together for Hope — a Summit on Faith and Race in the Ohio Valley.”

Co-hosted by the Vineyard Church and Bethlehem Apostolic Temple of Wheeling, the conversation was disturbing, in a way. In addition to Schwertfeger, participants were Mount Zion Baptist Church Assistant Pastor Marcie Allen, W.Va. NAACP President Owens Brown, Bethlehem Pastor Darrell Cummings, Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott and Vineyard Pastor Chris Figaretti. Several other members of the clergy participated in a prayer service.

You can find a video of the event on the Vineyard Church’s Facebook page. You should watch it and really listen to what was said. You won’t like some of it — but you really should think about what was said.

We need more discussions about race in the Ohio Valley — not among civic leaders but, rather, involving as many black, white and other race people as we can convince to talk to each other. We need to find out what the perceptions are and, when appropriate, try to change them.

And when we find out some perceptions are rooted in reality, we have to change that, too.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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