Reactions over the George Zimmerman verdict reveal the deep racial tensions that still exist - artwork courtesy of DonkeyHotey (http://bit.ly/13nuPkr)

Reactions over the George Zimmerman verdict reveal the deep racial tensions that still exist – artwork courtesy of DonkeyHotey (http://bit.ly/13nuPkr)

If the Zimmerman verdict has taught us anything, it is that racial tensions in America are as fierce as they’ve ever been.

This week, I published an interview with Leroy Barber, an African-American Christian leader, who called for Christians to “listen, learn, and lament” in the wake of the verdict. The article was relatively innocuous—certainly not inflammatory—but the comments were heated, often offensive, and largely indicative of what we’ve seen across the broader culture. In the hours following the jury’s decision, twitter exploded with polarized reactions and news commentators have fanned the flames.

African-American singer Toni Braxton tweeted that she was “embarrassed to be an American,” and a Florida Tea Party member responded, “Yo girl, you can’t take America’s justice system? Go be an African!” Athlete Roddy White tweeted, “All them [sic] jurors should go home tonight and kill themselves for letting a grown man get away with killing a kid.” Conservative rock-n-roller Ted Nugent wrote a blog calling Trayvon Martin, “a 17-year-old dope smoking, racist gangsta wannabe” and that Zimmerman should sue Martin’s parents for emotional suffering.

I guess all that talk about the election of President Barack Obama ushering in a “post-racial” reality was premature.

Personally, I’m conflicted about the verdict. I don’t know if George Zimmerman was a racist. I don’t know if he started the fight or threw the first punch. I don’t know if this was a simple matter of self-defense or if the killer was made out to be the victim in an egregious failure of the justice system. Like everyone else, I only know what Zimmerman claims. The other side of the story is dead.

What I do know is that American’s reactions prove yet again that we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to racial reconciliation.

To be sure, there are agitators and extremists on both sides of debates like this one. Some believe that anytime a person of color is the victim of a crime, race must be a factor. These are usually people who raise money and gain recognition by inserting themselves into such situations and generating media.

On the other side are those who believe that race is almost never at play. They say, as I have often heard that “racism is not really a problem today,” a comment that should probably be followed by the hashtag, #stuffwhitepeoplesay. When a controversy like the Zimmerman trial arises, this group parrots phrases like “race baiting” or “playing the race card” and other talking points given to them by their favorite news commentator or radio talk show host.

I find myself somewhere in between these two poles. I am not a chicken little who immediately assumes racial motivations, but neither am I an ostrich who believes that racism is in our nation’s rearview mirror. Racism is real, and it is still a problem in America.

forsyth_topAbout 20 miles north of where I live in Forsyth County, Georgia, a sign once warned blacks not to be there after dark. Until the 1980s, people of color wouldn’t even drive into that county. Until 1987, not a single black person had lived there in 75 years. When Oprah Winfrey travelled there to tape a show, community members told her they didn’t want a mixed-race community and they were “afraid of black people.”

A breathtaking level of ignorance, discrimination and venom in America, and a mere 26 years ago.

Blatant racial injustices of this scale have undeniably decreased since the 1980s—more than 20,000 minority residents call Forsyth County “home” today—but they have not been entirely eliminated. As John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute has shown, the problems are still vast and complex:

  • The criminal justice system is still stacked against racial minorities. People of color make up 30% of the general population and 60% of the prison population. Blacks that commit federal crimes on average receive sentences that are ten percent longer than their white counterparts. Blacks and Hispanics are much more likely to face interaction with police officers, are three times as likely to be searched during a traffic stop, and four times as likely to be the target of the use of police force.
  • The education system has grown more segregated in recent years, often leaving racial minorities to wither away in failing schools. According to a 2012 report by UCLA, “fifteen percent of black students and 14 percent of Latino students attend ‘apartheid schools’ across the nation in which whites make up zero to 1 percent of the enrollment.”
  • Racial minorities often lack the equal right to vote. This is due, in part, to the first problem. Due to the American policy of felon disenfranchisement, one-third of African-Americans lack a political voice. More black men were disenfranchised in 2004 than in 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified and racial discrimination at the voting booth was barred.

As a Christian, I’m especially troubled by racial injustice and tensions. Our faith calls us to a ministry of reconciliation, and yet Christians have often contributed to these divides instead of working to bridge them. I enumerated many of these in my book, A Faith of Our Own, in which I conclude:

Christians must recognize that for all the progress made on many fronts, the issue of race continues to plague us. We cannot have both liberation and domination, independence and exploitation, redemption and oppression, love and hatred. If ever the Christian community is going to move forward in dealing with their public witness, we must concurrently overcome our failings on race, past and present.

Christians have much at stake because we are a Gospel people. The central event in the Christian story is the execution of Jesus Christ, an event that shattered racial barriers and that empowers us to overcome them today. The Gospel has the power to unite disparate races under a common banner where they speak a common language and worship a common Father by proclaiming a common message. It is why the Apostle John wrote, “You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every people” and why the Apostle Paul devoted an entire section of one of his epistles to addressing the matter of racism. It’s why we’re told to look forward to the day when “persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” can gather to sing a new song.

As pastor Tim Keller has pointed out, one reason Christians have become so indifferent to racism is the stubbornness of the human heart. “We never want to hear about what is wrong with us,” he says. We need ears to hear and eyes to see the realities of our world and the way in which the Gospel informs our response.

I’m a columnist and not a politician, so I don’t have a 12-point policy plan for repairing racial problems and resolving these tensions. I know we need to listen more and talk less. I know we need to seek to understand before seeking to be understood. I know we need to avoid divisive rhetoric and incendiary language. And I know that Christians specifically have no choice but to devote serious energy to addressing these problems.

Post-racial America is not yet a reality, but I believe it is possible. May we—both Americans in general and Christians specifically—redouble our efforts to work towards justice and reconciliation. While the pundits and politicians will continue to take advantage of this controversy, let’s instead have serious conversations about education, the criminal justice system, racial profiling, voting rights, and civil discourse. Let us press on toward the world we desire but have not yet achieved.

And let us do so together.

31 Comments

  1. Excellent piece. I shared my own reflections on the Zimmerman verdict over the weekend on by blog. I have several quick reactions.

    1. We must keep in mind the relatively short period of time since Civil Rights changes began to be implemented. I’m only 58 years old, but all of the following happened during my lifetime: Brown v. Board of Education, Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, Integration of University of Mississippi. When I started high school, Indianapolis had a blacks-only high school. My denomination had “african-american” districts until the early 70s. We make changes and say “glad we got those taken care of” but the deeper culture doesn’t change just because of a law or court decision. So there’s a lot of lower-level racial attitudes. It’s wrong to call these folks racist, but they are certainly not post-racial. At the same time, those who suffered under segregation policies (northern as well as souther) also know that laws or court decisions don’t change life on the ground very quickly.

    2. Admission of guilt is always a sore subject. It’s probably the wrong phrase. I find it helpful, following Christena Cleveland, to focus on the benefits of white privilege. I don’t bear responsibility for slavery or Jim Crow laws but I do need to acknowledge that my lot in life benefited from an unequal society. That’s something that calls for repentance.

    3. Bonhoeffer writes in his wonderful book on community, Life Together, that God can make community because we stand in common need of Christ’s salvation offer. That can bind us together in ways that other reconciliation dynamics may not. This means that the church is the one place where we recognize that I don’t have privilege over my brothers and sisters, regardless of race or immigration status.

    4. The church must also be about examining justice in the sense of equity. If some start out at a disadvantage of education, criminal justice, economics, political influence, and family dynamics SIMPLY BECAUSE OF WHERE THEY WERE BORN we must find ways of adjusting the dynamics. At the end of the day, to become a post-racial society we must get to a place where the amount of melanin in one’s biochemistry is irrelevant to the outcomes of life.

  2. Jonathan, I see people of all skin colors in my courtroom every day. The issues about who is getting more jail time more often are based on events that happened long before the person was accused of a crime. Those issues are societal and systemic.

    You’ve done a good job keeping the dialog constructive here. I’m not so sure America can be come a post-racial nation, because I’m not so sure the sin that leads to racist attitudes will be eradicated on that large a scale. But I am sure that Christians can do their part to bring reconciliation forward to a greater degree than it is presently.

    Tim

  3. Where was this ‘talk about the election of President Barack Obama ushering in a “post-racial” reality’? The article you link to describes “post-racial America” as “dreamy” and “ideal” — not a reality.

    • Jonathan Merritt

      There has been a ton of speculation on this. If you Google “Obama + post-racial” you’ll get a ton of news articles over the last 5 years.

      I’d start here for some good, high-level analysis:
      http://www.amazon.com/Obamas-Racial-America-Political-Psychology/dp/0199735204/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1374248916&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Obamas+and+post-racial

      This might also be helpful:
      http://www.amazon.com/dp/0226793834

      For articles that don’t merely reference what people were talking about in 2008 but actually are from that time, these might be helpful:

      http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2008/11/05/president-elect-barack-obama-a-postracial-president-who-should-focus-the-country-on-race

      http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2008-11-02/opinions/36895593_1_obama-campaign-barack-obama-race-and-politics

      http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18489466

      Thanks for commenting, Marcello.

      Jm

      • Thanks, Jonathan. But the articles you’ve cited make no claim that we have entered post-racial “reality”. They might claim that we’ve made progress on racial issues, but Daniel Schorr makes clear that “the nation may have a way to go yet to reach colorblindness.” Robin D.G. Kelley says “our entire nation is woefully ignorant when it comes to matters of race and racism”. Jim Hoagland is perhaps the most optimistic when he says that “The campaign has dramatically narrowed the ground on which the politics of race can be practiced in the United States. ” But note that he says “narrowed”, not “closed”.

        I haven’t read the books you mentioned, but the title of one describes “post-racial America” as a “dream”. The second title actually ends with a question mark!

        Googling “Obama + post-racial” brings up a slew of articles claiming that “everyone says this is a post-racial America”. But who is “everyone”? “The media says this is a post-racial America”. Are there any examples?

        Given the vastness of the media landscape, it seems likely that someone, somewhere actually did say that “we are living in a post-racial America”. But no-one seems to know what that person’s name is.

        • Jonathan Merritt

          I didn’t say that the 2008 election usherED in (fully realized reality) but rather usherING (inaugurating a new post-racial era). To support that, you can start with the links I sent. But if you don’t think that has been a wide ranging national conversation at the highest levels, you haven’t been paying attention.

  4. This is something I have been concerned with lately.
    I live in New Orleans, LA arguably one of the most interesting
    Cities in the US.
    New Orleans has an interesting demographic makeup.
    According to a recent Census, 60% African American, 33% White.
    But even with this makeup, there is still an air of mistrust and Socio-Economic disparities.
    This is due in a large part I believe to a culture of mistrust.
    There has really never been reconciliation between the two cultures.
    Anglo-American Culture has been compelled to accept a culture that they do not altogether understand as equal to their own. And Blacks have been compelled by virtue of this acceptance to let bygones be bygones.
    It’s almost like a broke relationship that never receives marital counseling.
    Every day, they force a smile, mouth “Love you Baby” and try to believe that everything is alright.
    But this is far from the case, and the same is true with the interracial cultures that make up this country.
    You cannot legislate reconciliation; laws will never show two parties the failings of each others hearts.
    We need to pray for a true reconciliation between our two cultures.
    Even better would be to not only accept, but to integrate pieces of each others cultures into our own gestalt.
    Pastoral staff, on all levels needs to be at the forefront to of this.
    I have seen far too many pastors and leaders in churches posting messages of solidarity with the cause of Treyvon Martin, when they should be using this as an opportunity to lead both parties to the cause of Christ.
    There will always be Treyvon Martins’, until the world sees themselves through the culture of Christ.
    We need to come together as a people and as the body of Christ and say, “WE have a better way.”
    Christ is the ultimate reconciliation, because in him, we see not only our failings, manifest in vivid, screaming living color but also our redemption and vindication.
    Instead of Church leaders and Christ’s followers screaming to the mob demanding justice “I am Treyvon”, shout out in a voice loud and clear to beacon the mob “See in me Christ your redemption”!
    We must struggle against polarizing voice from either side, be always moderate and striving to discern the illusion from the truths.
    We can be a light to the world, not to only those whom we identify with but to the world as a whole.
    One of the biggest myths of post racial America is that a law or a judgment can heal the racial divides in America.
    We need find a way to genuinely love one another, to see in each other that which is glorious and God breathed.
    No law can ever do this.
    It’s almost like an arranged marriage. We truly didn’t choose to be joined together, but we can through honest dialogue, find a way to honor each others strengths, weaknesses, gifts and talents.
    To forgive the past, as God forgives us our debts, with a Grace that I pray we possess.
    This my friend is the final crux of this entire diatribe.
    Do we possess, or do we honestly want to possess the power to forgive each other completely?
    Jim

  5. SO much of our experience of racism (or lack thereof) has everything to do with where we live. We have become so relationally tribal it is very hard for many of to imagine a reality that does not exist within our experience of the world. Typically we only listen to or have relationships with people who come from our tribe- be that culural, religious/or not, educational and assume the rest of the world thinks and feels as we do. It is the vastly different sense of tribe that makes it difficult to talk about any sort of “national” problem- including racism. But racism does exist. Ask any black citizen of Sanford, Florida. Sanford is where I am headed this Sunday.

    • Greg,
      While I agree with your comment about relational tribalism, I believe this is a knee jerk reaction.
      This needs to be, and can be overcome through constant vigilence.
      Habits are formed by the things which we do, with concerted effort every day.
      Relational tribalism is quite simply a defense mechanism, a way for us to protect ourselves.
      I believe that by seeing this reaction, and acting counter to this reaction we can over time diminish the presence of this reaction.
      What do you think?

  6. Until everyone can stop saying:

    “I am better because my skin is ‘*****’”
    “I am entitled because my skin is ‘******’”
    “I deserve because my skin is ‘******’”

    We won’t have racial harmony. We may have to wait until we have mixed bred enough to all be the same color.

  7. “People of color make up 30% of the prison population and 60% of the prison population.” Did you mean 30% of total population and 60% of prison population?

  8. I can’t help but feel that there are those who have made their careers on deep racial tensions. Each generation has the opportunity for a better racial situation if we would quit reinjecting the past into our future. It is one thing to remember the past but quite another to relive it. I also find myself in the middle: knowing racial issues still exist while also not seeing every issue as racial.

    • Jonathan Merritt

      I agree with you on one level, and yet I find it is a very white thing to say, “Let the past be the past.” If a husband cheats on his wife, it is easy for him to say, “Just let the past be the past.”

      Instead, I think, we need to remember that the long history of racial injustice has influenced and shaped the tensions and problems we face today. That doesn’t mean that I must atone for the sins of another, but rather I draw close to history knowing that these situations don’t arise in a vacuum and knowing that I have benefited from the injustices that reverberated through history and into the context where I was born.

  9. Great piece, Jonathan. I love your wording regarding us being Gospel people and as such, we are agents of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians makes it clear that we aren’t to see people according to the flesh. And while that has many connotations, clearly one of the first that comes to mind is race.

    My prayer, starting with myself and for the church, is that we’d stop using our comfort zones as a reason to brush past something we don’t think is an issue any more. (Definitely #stuffwhitepeoplesay.) I believe when things like this happen, the Lord is asking His church to do some serious heart examination on a lot of levels. May we have ears to hear what He’s saying to us.

  10. I’m definitely with you in the middle of the two extremes, that of omnipresent racism or miniscule racism. I also agree with Greg on his point of relational tribalism- though I think I’d go one step forward and call it cultural apartheid. There does seem to be a belief, a desire even, to focus on one’s own group and to view every societal issue based on that lens- to the point of ignoring other factors. Or, worse, to ignore other societies and groups entirely, under the mistaken belief that they’ll “be okay on their own” or “we can’t relate to them” or even “it’s not my problem.”

    It’s even more saddening because it’s senseless. We really do live in an age of interconnectedness to an extent unparalleled. A quick google search can tell you how ‘the other half lives,’ if I may use that phrase, and other references on the subject, both academic and personal, can be found almost anywhere. So the argument of ignorance does ring hollow, to me.

    I think, rather, that there’s an element of defensiveness. Perhaps it’s because of a fear of a scarcity of compassion; that if your problems are acknowledged, then my own won’t be addressed. Perhaps it’s because this issue has become so polarized that any phrase used in it is instantly as charged as a racial slur. In my experience, for example, accusations of ‘white privilege’ are not an attempt to explain an institutional benefit, but rather to shut down the conversation- “You are white, therefore you have nothing to offer. Shut up and accept your guilt.” Not usually in so many words, but often with that spirit. The reverse is also true, talking about ‘playing the race card’ is less about questioning whether an incident has racial overtones and more about “Don’t try to bring up something in order to guilt me, that’s a non-starter in this conversation.”

    Apologies for being so long-winded, but I think the background is important. Seeing the pattern of inconclusive, non-profitable conversations over and over, I think that’s what we need to address, before anything else. We need to acknowledge where we are, as a country- both the strides that have been made, and the work left to be done. More than that, we really need to stop belittling each other or dismissing things out of hand. Obviously, it’s easy to say that white people need to understand the systemic injustice that a lot of minorities still face, and I agree with that wholeheartedly. But I think we also need to acknowledge the fact that race has been used, consistently, as a verbal or political bludgeon, and that the fruits of years of animosity results in not just anger, but also calloused indifference.

    I also think it’s vitally important, as Christians, to start taking the message of reconciliation to both sides. As you say, we have the potential to be one place, perhaps the only place, where all groups can have a common starting point. As the old saying goes, the ground at the cross is level. It seems obvious to me that the old means of dealing with this issue, in primarily political terms, is defunct and quite possibly making the antagonism work.

    So, as you say, let’s have these serious conversations. Let’s acknowledge all sides of it, and work to bring understanding to all sides. Most importantly, let’s fulfill our role as peacemakers. I’d like to think that, in my lifetime, we can see a post-racial America realized… but we’ll see.

  11. Thanks Jonathan for this. Very true.

    On the information you got from John Whitehead, specifically on the criminal justice system. I can’t speak for the due process part but I can from a law enforcement perspective. I worked as a police officer on the local level in areas that were predominantly black and hispanic and the interactions I had were mostly with blacks and hispanics. That was mostly because the call load that I had often involved racial minorities. And subsequently most of my use of physical force involved minorities.

    I also worked in predominantly white areas. My call load was significantly less. And subsequently my use of physical force was also reduced.
    I would not say that this is the experience of all law enforcement officers, but I would say it is the average experience for most.

    All that being said. Based on my knowledge of sin and my experience on what is often the front line of racism, our racial issues are deeply rooted in human depravity and society.

    Most LEOs are honest people trying to do right and serve. They often find themselves in situations that would seem like racial profiling. I thought many times to myself if my current actions were based on racial profiling, when in the end it was simply suspicious activity and the suspect happened to be a person of color.

    I make no excuse for the few officers out there that a out right racists. That simply shows that all are in need of redemption in Christ.

  12. Excellent, respectfully honest piece, Jonathan. Thank you. Not a zombie fan, but recently saw World War Z. It poignantly portrays the reality that offenses are like rabies. Hurt people will inevitably hurt others. Forgiveness is the only vaccination. 1John1:9. We will eventually ALL be “bitten” by an offense. If we do not forgive, we keep prejudice of all kinds alive-racial and otherwise. Our faithful Father reveals in order to heal. He has shown us just how divided our nation is, and you are absolutely correct: it’s OUR responsibility as Christians to stop taking sides and to commence with building bridges. Judgement begins first, at the house of God. And, 2 Chron. 4:17 reminds us where to begin building.

  13. You are not from Forsyth County or you would have told the whole truth about the march and the aftermath. Get the facts before you write about something you know very little about.

  14. Good article. Regrettably, the racial divide will never be bridged when incidents like this are portrayed as this case has been. Zimmerman is being made out to be a monster in this case and the fact is he shot and killed Martin. However, the details the media choose to include in their reporting would leave one to believe Martin was some little middle school aged kid. He was 5’11″ and 160 lbs. By any honest assessment, a big young man. Zimmerman had no way of knowing Martin was 17. The only person who knows exactly what really happened that night is Zimmerman and he had his day in court and the jury has rendered their verdict.

    Now the media and those who earn a great deal of money by fanning the flames of racism in our nation are trying to target Stand Your Ground laws which, by the way, were never part of this case! I can’t help but wonder if those people really want to see racial harmony? I can tell you this, explaining this case to my 12 year old and 10 year old has been challenging. You see, they have no idea why some people don’t like black people. To them, the entire thing doesn’t make much sense. When I step back at this case in particular I just shake my head. When I consider race relations in general, the distance we have left to travel is staggering.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  15. Thank you…for not making generalizations about Whites and Christians(I’m not “we”, maybe that’s you and Whitehead and Keller and RNS) , for not mentioning the catastrophic obliteration of the Black family(by Blacks), for not suggesting that most crimes committed against minorities are done so by minorities, for not requesting Whites move into areas where schools are failing their students(wait, isn’t the public school system failing most students, school vouchers anyone), for not pointing out that collateral consequences affect felons all races, for not giving examples of those typical, not true to their race Uncle Toms, and finally, for not bringing up all the programs( welfare, affirm. action, etc.), whether they’re abused, or not, for helping level the playing field as much as these legislations can, without being able to institute self-worth, ambition, and accountability.
    Gee, I hope I’m not part of the problem by pointing out facts.
    Would it help if I share that I didn’t consider my black brother-in-law racist ,but just sinful, when he’d hit my white sister?
    How about my belief that my black first cousin, by marriage, is rich, unlike the low(me) and middle-class whites in my family, due to hard work and good values? We work hard, have good values, but we are not successful like he is. Good for him.
    Racism will only die from the inside out. Not through conservations, but through conversions to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

  16. I grew up in what began as a predominantly white southeast suburb of Atlanta, Ga. I began elementary school in 1978. When I started school the ratio of white to black students was probably 80/20. By the time I was in 4th grade I was one of two white students. My history teacher was black and she used to stand next to my desk and talk extensively about the horrors of slavery and how white slave owners continuously beat their slaves. As I’m sure you can imagine this made me a walking target… even at that age.

    I left that school system and finished primary through high school in a private Christian school which is probably the reason I’m even responding on this site today.

    I don’t consider myself to racist. I make every effort to be open to all people. That said, I’ve observed the black culture “up close and personal” and we are so fundamentally different it’s no wonder we don’t mesh we’ll in the general population. It never ceases to amaze me how I’m supposed to blindly accept black culture that glorifies so many things that we know to be wrong as “just the way they are” and have my way of life trampled upon.

    I’ve watched neighborhood after neighborhood go from a place I’d raise my family to basically a ghetto. It happens every time.

    The general reader has already branded me a racist which I’m not. This is my assessment of what I have witnessed first hand.

    I do have one observation about your column… Maybe more of a question. You mention the harsher sentencing for blacks in federal crimes. I’m curious how many of those harsher sentences are due to repeat offender status? Federal sentencing rules are typically very stringent and do not provide a great deal of latitude for change based on things like race.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.