Trayvon and America’s Damascus Road

Trayvon and America’s Damascus Road

TRAYVON'S LEGACY: At an April 9 rally in downtown Los Angeles, hundreds marched in memory of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. Martin's death has both galvanized a movement and exposed our nation's racial divisions. (Photo: Ringo Chiu/Newscom)

In a previous column here at UrbanFaith.com I warned that after the news cycle on the Trayvon Martin case runs its course, we will likely “quickly return to the same old stereotyping until the next tragedy explodes,” unless, that is, the nation commits to something different.

The sea of black, white, Hispanics and others faces of color that protested for the justice system to give a second look at Trayvon’s case is extremely encouraging. It led to the second-degree murder charge and arrest of George Zimmerman on April 11 that Trayvon’s family and all of us moved by the tragedy have been praying for. But the specter of going “back to the same old stereotyping” continues to linger.

A recent USA TODAY/Gallup poll shows the vast difference between how blacks and whites view the Trayvon Martin case. Seventy-three percent of blacks think Zimmerman would’ve been arrested right away if Martin were white compared to 33 percent of whites. Meanwhile, 52 percent of whites believe race hasn’t made a difference in how the case has been handled, while 72 percent of blacks say it definitely has.

We continue to have a serious racial divide.

Since the case came to national attention, there have been many calls for an open dialogue on race, and even some town hall meetings. It’s a good start. However, just talking is not enough. All Americans need formal systematic anti-racism training if we’re going to close the divide.

I attended an anti-racism workshop called Damascus Road as part of my work at Mennonite Mission Network. Damascus Road is an Anabaptist training program developed by the Mennonites and Brethren in Christ churches to help end institutional racism. The name refers to the biblical story of Saul (a mass oppressor of Christians) being transformed into the apostle Paul (a great evangelist for Christ) after experiencing Jesus along the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-31).

At Damascus Road, people of color and whites came together for two full days of intense learning and reflection about America’s systematic racism and how it has wounded us all. Trainers representing various racial and ethnic groups – Native Americans, blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians — guide participants through America’s racist history to the present.

Tears were shed as participants verbalized deep wounds. We left with a greater understanding of ourselves and our America — My countrytis of thy people youre dying,” as the song by legendary American Indian singer Buffy Sainte-Marie says.

Damascus Road is not a “one-shot” program. There are additional sessions, but my key takeaway from this first session is that honest dialogue followed by ongoing actions are what can heal America because we are “all in the same birdcage” together. At the top of the cage are whites that have a false sense of privilege — “internalized racist superiority identity.” Basking in the benefits of being up top, many whites either don’t care or are oblivious to the mess caused by their droppings at the bottom of the cage. Meanwhile, other whites turn their guilt to self-righteousness, criticizing “those rednecks,” but still clinging to their unearned privileges.

At the bottom of the cage, many people of color suffer from “internalized racist oppression identity.” They often see themselves as victims and can overreact to even unintentional slights. Meanwhile, other minorities instinctively jump at any opportunity to oppress their own kind, or other people of color. Yes, black-on-black crime is a symptom of this same systemic racism.

From these ills stereotypes are created. When we encounter each other based on these stereotypes the situation can potentially explode into a tragedy — like a 17-year-old black male wearing a hoodie lying dead on a lawn in a gated community.

Race is a myth turned into reality. There is no biological justification for race. Skin color is simply about having more or less melanin. It should be as insignificant as eye or hair color. Race is a concept created to advance racism — a system that holds one group of people superior over others.

CNN has been broadcasting a series of reports on race showing that children as young as 6 years old learn racism primarily from their parents. It’s sad. Racism is not something that babies arrive with from heaven. It’s a sickness of the mind that eats away at the heart.

But the heart can be changed and racism can be unlearned if we commit — like the Americans of all colors who stood for justice on behalf of Trayvon and his family.

Honest, open dialogue and direct systematic change is the prescription. I’m not talking about paying lip service to it with an afternoon “diversity talk” in the workplace, but a holistic approach, like Damascus Road. We need to be taught how to discuss racism together. How to create an environment where white, black, Native American, Hispanic, Asian … all Americans can be heard, understood, and then revise the way we think and behave towards each other.

Implement anti-racism workshops in churches and across denominations and faiths. Make secular versions mandatory in schools, starting at a young age, as part of civics education.

There are several organizations (religious and secular) doing this important work. They understand that talking is good but not enough. We need a systematic approach to undue a systemic illness.

Trayvon’s mother, Sabrina Fulton, said it best at the press conference about the charges and arrest of Zimmerman: “…I just want to speak from my heart to your heart because a heart has no color — it’s not black, it’s not white, it’s red …”

With God’s help, we can heal our hearts and minds of racism.

The Wisdom of the Health Care Mandate

The Wisdom of the Health Care Mandate

As the U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with the constitutionality of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and especially the “individual mandate” provision requiring every capable American citizen to buy health insurance, many people continue to frame the debate as one of individual rights versus socialized medicine. They view a law requiring all citizens to buy insurance as a violation of fundamental American freedoms. I’d suggest the opposite: requiring all Americans to own health insurance is actually a demonstration of American patriotism and solidarity.

Allow me to explain.

Guess how many states today have laws that REQUIRE citizens TO BUY insurance? FIFTY. That’s right, folks. Every single one of them. Red states as well as Blue states require citizens to buy insurance. To be more specific, every single state requires citizens who drive motor vehicles to buy liability insurance to cover any damage they might inflict.

Now of course this law doesn’t apply to everyone. There are two primary classes of people who do not have to buy automobile liability insurance. Those who don’t drive. And those who can prove financial responsibility to cover any damage they might cause up to a certain limit.

The rationale behind these laws requiring citizens to buy liability insurance is simple. There is a significant risk that anyone who drives a motor vehicle may, over the course of their lifetime, cause an accident which causes damage to the property or bodies of others. There is a strong societal interest in making sure that those so injured can be compensated for their losses. You cannot buy insurance to cover an injury after you cause it. You have to have the insurance ahead of time. The insurance covers the damages caused by negligent drivers. Of course, this cost is paid for by all of the non-negligent drivers who pay their premiums every month without causing any damage. Hence, the requirement that ALL drivers, negligent as well as careful, carry liability insurance.

Those of us who live on planet Earth are also at significant risk of needing medical treatment at some point in our lives. We may contract a disease, be injured as the result of an accident, or develop some other illness or chronic condition — sometimes as the result of our own choices, sometimes not. There is a strong societal interest in making sure that those who need medical treatment can afford treatment for those illnesses. There is also a strong societal interest in making sure that those who provide medical treatment are compensated for having done so.

Health insurance, like any other form of insurance, only works if there is a shared assumption of the risk. Insurance companies rely on actuarial tables to assess the risk and base their rates accordingly (after factoring in a healthy profit, of course). Healthy people have to pay into the program so that sick people are covered. Previously, insurance companies could refuse coverage or charge significantly higher rates for people with pre-existing medical conditions. The current legislation seeks to prevent that by spreading the risk around to all citizens.

Now some may argue that health insurance is different than auto insurance because only people who drive motor vehicles have to purchase insurance. Granted that is true, mandatory health insurance should only be required of citizens who might be expected to contract, carry, pass on, or suffer from a medical condition, or sustain an injury requiring medical treatment. Of course, since I’ve yet to meet another human being who doesn’t fit that profile, I think it’s safe to say it applies to everyone. All of us are vulnerable to physical injury and ailments. Only corpses are not at risk of needing health care.

For those who still think the individual mandate is a violation of one’s individual freedom, another option would be an opt-out provision. To be effective, this kind of provision would need to come with the understanding that those who opt out are not entitled to receive any medical-care treatment that they haven’t paid for prior to the administration of the treatment. Kind of like buying broccoli at the grocery store — you can’t take it home and eat it until you’ve paid for it. If you opt out and don’t have the money when a health issue hits, you’ll get no EMT care, no ambulance ride, no appendectomy, no CPR, no emergency room care, no cancer treatment, no life-saving procedures.

Nada. Zip. Nothing.

If you think this is a cruel approach to health care — leaving people to suffer or die who can’t afford treatment — I agree with you. But what justification for entitlement to treatment can people give who, given the chance to share the risk with the rest of us, REFUSE to do so?

Mandatory health insurance is PATRIOTIC. It exemplifies the highest ideals of the American public — a willingness to stand up with our fellow citizens against threats against any of us. That means patriotic citizens who are willing to fight and die in the military against threats to the rights and freedoms from our enemies. And it means patriotic citizens being willing to pay for our fair share to spread the risk around, standing together against threats to our health. We don’t want our fellow citizens to be denied health insurance by insurance companies because they have pre-existing medical conditions, or to be charged so much they can’t afford it. We don’t want our fellow citizens losing their homes because of catastrophic illness. We don’t want our fellow citizens buried in debt which they can never repay because of some medical misfortune. We’ve got each other’s backs. That’s how we roll.

May God bless America, and may every American citizen be willing to shoulder his or her fair share of the risk to provide medical care for all, even if it means the government requiring us to buy it.

Romney’s Black, Mormon Problem

Romney’s Black, Mormon Problem

Romney Ignores Black Voters

CALCULATED RISK: Can Mitt Romney win if he ignores Black voters? (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Now that Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has dropped out of the race, an Obama/Romney contest is all but inevitable. With that inevitability come questions about how the candidates are doing with black voters.

In an article published today,The Daily Beast reported that there are no African-Americans in the “top ranks” of the Romney campaign and his most prominent black endorsement to date may be from Aubrey Fenton, a former Burlington County New Jersey freeholder. The article also said that the two black Republicans in Congress (Tim Scott and Allan West) have yet to endorse the Republican front-runner.

“Romney, running against the first black president, has no chance of winning most African-American voters. But neglecting to court them at all sends the wrong message to swing voters, said political players and observers. Romney’s problem, they said, isn’t that blacks aren’t buying his message but that he hasn’t bothered to sell it to them,” the article said.

Romney Refuses to Address Mormon Race History

Romney may also have a Mormon problem when it comes to African Americans. Last week, at a Wisconsin town hall meeting, there was a “tense moment” between Romney and a Ron Paul supporter who questioned him about his views of inter-racial marriage based on teachings in the Book of Mormon, ABC News reported.

Referring to a passage that links black skin with a Canaanite curse, 28-year-old Bret Hatch asked Romney if he believes it is “a sin for a white man to marry and procreate with a black?” “No,” Romney “responded sternly,” according to ABC News, before turning away from Hatch.

And today, in a strongly worded article at blackamericaweb.com, Michael H. Cottman asks where the “tough questions” from black Republicans are on this issue.

“They should hold Romney’s feet to the fire instead of giving him a free pass. Many blacks view the Mormon church as racist and the African-Americans who make up only one percent of the six million Mormans in the United States are hard-pressed to convince critics otherwise,” said Cottman.

President Obama Will Use Mormon Issue Against Romney

Cottman also said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is predicting that the Obama campaign will use Romney’s Mormon faith against him in the presidential campaign, but President Obama may have his own problems with African Americans. Some, including Thy Black Man staff writer Dr. Boyce Watkins, are asking where Obama’s Black campaign workers are and why African Americans haven’t received more government contracts from the Democratic National Convention, given the fact that an overwhelming majority of them voted for the president in 2008.

“If we can’t figure out exactly and specifically how large numbers of African Americans are benefiting from the success of elected officials that we support, then we may want to reconsider whether or not we are wasting our votes,” said Watkins.

Black Mormons Defend Church

As to the Black Mormon issue, last year New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer met with a group of some 300 black Mormons who defended their faith. He also talked to Harvard scholar Max Perry Mueller, who was writing a dissertation on African-Americans and the Mormon church at the time. Mueller told Oppenheimber that “the church has ‘made a very sincere effort’ to welcome blacks, but that so far few American-born blacks have joined the church.” He also said “‘the idea that Mormons’ were until recently ‘exceptionally exclusionary or racist is probably unfair'” given the racist histories of other religious groups.

Christians Used ‘Curse of Cain’ to Justify Slavery

For more on that, Wikipedia’s article on the “Curse and mark of Cain” is a place to start. It refers to a 1998 Los Angeles Times article that reminds readers that the Mormon church was not alone in connecting the curse of Cain with black skin.

“In the past, Mormons as well as other churches believed that Africans were descendants of the biblical personages Cain and Ham, who, according to the Bible, displeased God and were cursed. … Over time, the curses on Ham and Cain came to be associated with black skin and were used as a justification for slavery–and, in the case of the Mormon church, one rationale for denying its priesthood to blacks.”

What do you think?

Should Mitt Romney address his church’s racist past? And, how would you feel about the Obama campaign using Romney’s faith against him in the campaign?