My first day in the classroom is one I’ll never forget. I was given a room of curious sophomore students — 43 of them.
I could feel the lump in my throat and every drop of sweat on my body. I was used to public speaking, and I felt good about what I would be teaching. But in that moment before the first bell rang, I actually thought about walking out.
When the bell rang, I called for the attention of the room. Most of the students didn’t even hear me. I called out again, a little louder. Now more students looked at me, but with some side-eye and a few dismissive smirks. Their conversations continued.
I had little to no control over the classroom and it was only the first two minutes. So, I did what any good teacher does who doesn’t know what they’re doing … I acted like I did.
I stepped out from behind the lectern and walked to the middle of the room. “My name is Mr. Miller, and this is research and study skills. I don’t repeat myself, so if you fail to listen, you will fail. If you don’t work in this class, you will fail. If you give me your butt to kiss, I’ll draw a butt and lips on your report card next to your F.”
Some kids laughed, and others rolled their eyes. They knew they were in for a long semester, and so did I.
But through all of the laughs, head-shaking moments, phone calls home, and “come to Jesus” conversations to come, I grew into my role. It was a combination of teacher, mentor, cheerleader, father figure, critic, guidance counselor, advocate, and even social worker. I found that Dr. Brooks, my grad school teacher who encouraged me to enter teaching, was telling the truth — there was a need that I could help fill.
I soon realized that my school’s administration saw another need I could fill: disciplinarian.
I developed a rapport with my students over time and I showed them respect. I earned their trust and collaboration, and that meant I rarely called down to the main office over a student. I did my best to handle things on my own. Being a Black man from Camden, like my kids, didn’t hurt.
But that, being a Black man from Camden, also qualified me for an invisible tax.
I was the only Black male teacher in my building, the high school. Black males made up only 3% of teachers in the schools where I taught at that time; as of last school year (2018-19), they made up only 1.7%. Currently, Black male teachers only account for 2% of all teachers nationally.
Meanwhile, nearly all of the students where I taught, from kindergarten through 12th grade, were students of color.
I now believe it’s why I, a first-year teacher, was given a class of 43 students, often without an aide to assist. The next semester, I was given freshman classes with some of the more “challenging” students. The principal told me she knew I could handle it.
I was a first-year teacher, but it didn’t matter. I was the Black teacher.
I was given lunch duty with more passive teachers. Some days, I was the only teacher. Whenever there was a commotion in the hallways and I was near, I was always asked to see about it and break it up. I did what I could, but I cannot say that I wasn’t frustrated.
Teachers often serve as hall monitors and are often called upon to help out. I understood that, but I was no fool. I knew who the strong teachers were and who the weak teachers were, and I was never paired with a strong teacher for any disciplinary purpose. I saw other adults breathe a sigh of relief when they saw me come around the corner. I am not sure what they all thought, but I was not their savior, nor was I trying to be.
However, Black teachers often leave the profession because they are seen and overused as disciplinarians while receiving very little support from administrators, among other reasons.
So if you start this school year with a Black teacher or Black male teacher in your building, and you wish to support that teacher and keep them as part of your school community, keep the following things in mind.
Black teachers are not the school’s de facto disciplinarians. They are not the enforcers of the schoolwide discipline policy. They are not the default representative for all Black people. If they go above and beyond for students, that does not absolve others from doing their jobs.
Black teachers do share a collective experience with other Black students, but don’t assume that we are all the same. Use our cultural knowledge to improve the climate and culture of the school community. But don’t abuse it, whether from the classroom or the main office.
I ended my first year feeling drained but accomplished. I grew as a professional and I grew in my craft. I understood that I brought value to my school community. The school community saw my value.
But I continued to be taxed, and I was my entire teaching career. Today, I miss the classroom, but I don’t miss that.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Dr. Tsedale Melaku, a critical race and gender scholar at the City University of New York.
The United States thrives on being a multicultural and diverse society that guarantees individual freedoms and rights to all its citizens. However, even though the brutal institution of slavery and the era of racial segregation are a thing of the past, there are indications that systemic racism hasn’t gone away and still haunts American society.
In 1967, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, which was tasked by President Lyndon B. Johnson to probe the causes of the 1967 race riots and come up with recommendations for the future, concluded that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” Almost half a century after those protests and despite the progress made, America is still a land of inequalities. According to Pew Research, 92% of African Americans think that “whites benefit at least a fair amount from advantages that blacks do not have,” and 68% say that whites “benefit a great deal.”
People of color in the United States face serious difficulties in securing education, employment, health care and quality housing. They have long been grappling with discrimination and profiling by law enforcement. It goes without saying that the criminal justice system is also substantially biased against people of color, and African Americans in particular. This is evidenced by figures showing that despite making up only 13% of the general population, African Americans constitute 40% of the prison population in the United States.
Many thought that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency would be a turning point for race relations. But talking points about a post-racial America were hushed by a wave of police brutality across the country that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked violent protests in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson reminiscent of the civil rights era. Today, under Obama’s successor President Donald Trump, America is hardly a color-blind, tolerant society. Hate crimes have been on the rise since Trump’s coming to power. White supremacists have been emboldened, and anti-immigrant rhetoric has become more widespread.
Dr. Tsedale Melaku is a sociologist, critical race and gender scholar, and post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean at the City University of New York. Her latest book, You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, was published earlier this year.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Tsedale Melaku about race relations in America today, the Black Lives Matter movement and the stereotypes that still engulf the question of race.
The text has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: Some scholars I’ve talked to are of the opinion that it’s not easy being black in 21st-century America, and that racism is an obstacle to the black Americans’ access to quality education, health care, housing, and job opportunities. Do you agree?
Tsedale Melaku: The pervasiveness of structural racism is clearly evident in the multitude of studies that indicate the wealth gap between white and black households play a critical role in how American families are able to obtain employment, housing, quality health care, education and economic upward mobility. Just looking at the poverty rate in varying neighborhoods demonstrates significant racial disparities between black and white children.
For example, the average middle-income black child resides in a neighborhood with a higher poverty rate as compared to a low-income white child. This significantly affects the life chances of black children. Another example of where hardship can be evidenced is through the recent article by sociologists Melvin E. Thomas, Richard Moye, Loren Henderson and Hayward Derrick Horton. In this study, they examine the combined effects of race, class and residential segregation on housing values for blacks versus whites resulting from the 2008 and 2009 Great Recession.
In addition to these factors and many more, I think the political climate we are in has not made it easy for people of color as a whole, but black people in particular, to live their everyday lives without the constant threat of structural, symbolic or physical violence that may be visited upon them through unfair policies and practices in place that continue to block access to necessary resources. So yes, I do agree that being black in America is still not easy, and will not get any easier until we address systemic issues of racism, sexism and classism.
Ziabari: How is it possible to debunk the myths and stereotypes that generate gendered racism and create barriers to African American women’s employment and professional development? What is the role of the media in perpetuating or downplaying these stereotypes?
Melaku: First, we need to acknowledge that these stereotypes and myths are part of a broader narrative created to keep marginalized groups in subordinate positions. Understanding that a white racial frame — an extensive viewpoint including racial stereotypes, assumptions, narratives and interpretations embedded within the minds of whites that people of color can also adopt — views whites as superior and the racially oppressed as inferior. This frame is used to justify continued white privilege and dominance.
My book, You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism, based on extensive interviews with black women lawyers, highlights how race and gender create barriers to their recruitment, professional development and advancement to partnerships in elite corporate law firms. Through in-depth analysis I discuss how their experiences center around systemic gendered racism embedded within institutions. The book covers topics including appearance; white narratives of affirmative action; the differences and similarities with white women and black men; exclusion from social and professional networking opportunities — the “Boys’ Club” — and the lack of mentors, sponsors and substantive training. I work to highlight the often-hidden mechanisms elite law firms utilize to perpetuate and maintain a dominant white male system. Black women’s social identity creates unique daily racial and gendered microaggressions, which also manifest in their professional, social and economic development.
This is key when thinking about the ways in which black women, and other women of color, face significant challenges conforming to and maintaining a dominant Eurocentric aesthetic in the workplace, as well as how this white racial framing impacts the perceived ability, competence and subsequent recruitment, training, development and promotion of this demographic.
The image of a lawyer does not invoke the image of a black woman because media representations of professional people tend to be white, and mostly male. Only recently have we begun to see images of black women in powerful lawyer positions in the media thanks to Shonda Rhimes, like Olivia Pope or Annalise Keating, but there continues to be a disconnect between media representations and actual perceptions of black women’s reality.
Ziabari: In recent years, there were several instances of US police using violence against and mistreating African American men and, in cases like that of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and E. J. Bradford, killing them. Do you think the law enforcement system in the United States is particularly biased against black citizens?
Melaku: The police shooting of any person should concern all people, and we need to ensure that the people who are in a position to protect and serve are doing just that. Countless studies have shown that there is significant bias in law enforcement that makes people of color, and black men in particular, vulnerable. For example, the work of Gaurav Jashnani, Priscilla Bustamante and Brett G. Stoudt examine how order maintenance policing approach — also linked to “broken windows” policing — incorporated by urban law enforcement has a disproportionate impact on the experiences of low-income people of color.
The lived experience of people of color is centered in this research to evidence how stops, ticketing, and arrests by urban law enforcement negatively affect communities of color, leading to unwanted criminal identities that continue to pathologize black and brown people and push them out of public space. I strongly urge that we continue to have a dialogue with law enforcement agencies, lawmakers and government officials about the seemingly unaddressed violence, policies, and practices that are visited upon marginalized groups, and black people in particular.
Ziabari: Has the Black Lives Matter movement been able to fulfill its goals, including bringing anti-black racism to the attention of politicians and combating racial inequality, profiling, and police brutality? What’s your assessment of what this movement has gained in the years since its founding?
Melaku: The Black Lives Matter movement is a broad-based social movement that works toward campaigning against systemic racism that disadvantages black people actively pursuing human rights through a variety of ways, including advocacy, activism, education and consciousness-raising, among others. The movement attempts to publicize often unrecognized challenges black people encounter, ranging from poverty, racial profiling, gender violence, mass incarceration and various other forms of racial inequality in the US.
More research is needed to understand the importance of the movement in highlighting the disparities black men and women face in America. While this is outside my field of expertise, existing academic work is being done to understand the successes and opportunities arising from the Black Lives Matter movement. Scholars such as Dr. Barbara Ransby, Dr. Frederick C. Harris, Dr. David Pate, and Dr. Waldo E. Johnson, Jr., work to engage real conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and the long historical reasoning behind the disparities reflected in the black experience and what could be done to make changes.
Ziabari: Are you concerned about the spillover of anti-black attitudes from the United States to other countries? In October 2016, a United Nations working group issued a warning about systemic anti-black racism in the criminal justice of Canada. What’s your take on that?
Melaku: Without question, there will always be concern about the political response of the United States and what that means for its citizens at home and abroad, as well as people of color in other countries. As a powerful and influential leader in the world, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are always working toward equality and justice for all people. We need to hold true to the principles that we espouse. Black and brown people across the US and beyond protest due to the persistent frustration and anger over pervasive institutional and individual discriminatory practices they face on a daily basis which is fueled by growing anti-black sentiments.
Ziabari: How do you think the artists, media personalities, journalists and academicians can contribute to addressing racism and eradicating different forms of discrimination against people of color?
Melaku: I think all of us need to engage in more critical discussions about the implications of our actions and particularly the ways in which systemic racism penetrates all institutions, creating unjust and unequal outcomes for people of color. In addition, there has to be the recognition that this is work that should not only fall on the shoulders of people of color but all people because this is a human rights issue. Further, people who are in positions of power should use their influence in order to move the needle further toward reaching more substantive changes in the lives of people who are disproportionately affected by systemic racism and its impact on their social, professional, educational and economic life chances.
Ziabari: A recent Government Accountability Office report found that black students in K-12 schools in the United States are far more likely to be disciplined for different types of maltreatment than those of other races. Does this indicate that racial inequality in the United States starts in the schools?
Melaku: This is a great question that many scholars have taken up within their research in various ways. Take the work of Dr. Carla Shedd for example. She published a very important book, Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Justice, that provides an incredibly in-depth analysis of how class stratification, racial residential segregation, and disinvestment in public goods such as education, social support, etc., in Chicago have deleterious effects on the life chances of adolescents. Dr. Shedd particularly highlights how schools either emphasize or improve the varying social inequalities that shape the lives of students from marginalized backgrounds.
In contrast, my research focuses on schools as paths to mobility instead of pipelines to prison. Racial inequality does not begin, nor does it end, in schools. The black women I study earn positions in top law firms because of their academic successes, but racial and gendered inequality persists even in those contexts, which speaks directly to the systemic nature of racist and sexist practices embedded within varying forms of institutions.
Ziabari: According to a NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll, two-thirds of Americans believe racism remains a “major problem” in society. Only 3% of respondents said they believe racism doesn’t exist in the United States. To what extent does racism affect social relationships in America today?
Melaku: It is important for us to look at history, and the history of race and ethnicity in particular, when attempting to understand the current cultural, social, political and economic climate in the United States. We are a nation of immigrants, built on indigenous people’s land and stolen people’s labor, with a distinctive history of controlling migration according to racial and ethnic framing and preferences. In recognizing this history, we must come to accept that the optimistic and often rosy image of US equality and freedom glosses over continuing discriminatory practices embedded and widespread in institutions, from housing, employment, education, political and economic structures.
Social relationships are driven by the ways in which race, gender, class and other important identities intersect, combine or overlap to either privilege those in positions of power or oppress those viewed as inferior. As evidenced in my research, the way social identity affects the experiences of women and people of color is indicative of the fact that we still have a long way to go. This dynamic significantly impacts social relationships in America today, as [it has] in the past.
This article was originally published on Fair Observer. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt Jean hugs convicted murderer and former Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger after delivering his impact statement to her after she was sentenced to 10 years in jail, on Oct. 2, 2019, in Dallas. Guyger shot and killed Botham Jean, an unarmed 26-year-old neighbor in his own apartment last year. She told police she thought his apartment was her own and that he was an intruder. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)
Last week, fired Dallas police officer Amber R. Guyger, who is white, received a sentence of 10 years in prison for the murder of an unarmed black man, Botham Shem Jean.
While the sentence of 10 years for Jean’s murder certainly didn’t sit well with many, the other events of the courtroom are what have become the subjects of discussion — the words of grace, forgiveness, love and well-wishes offered by Jean’s younger brother to Guyger, capped off by a warm embrace. And if that were not enough, Judge Tammy Kemp, also an African American, added grace upon grace by going to her office to retrieve a Bible. After handing it to Guyger, the judge, too, embraced Guyger tearfully and warmly.
This scene of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation operates almost like a ritual. We saw it in 2015 when relatives of the nine victims murdered by Dylann Roof in the shooting inside an AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, told Roof “I forgive you.” We saw it again when then-President Barack Obama eulogized Pastor Clementa Pinckney, one of those killed by Roof in that Charleston church, by singing “Amazing Grace How Sweet the Sound …”
The show of grace and forgiveness toward Guyger, like those before it, requires that we ask some hard questions. What if “grace” and “forgiveness” and their compulsory racialized performance are part of what makes this anti-black world keep on ticking? What if grace and forgiveness work in the interest of anti-blackness? And finally, what if grace and forgiveness are part of what must be refused in order to bring to an end an anti-black and brown world?
I know these are profane questions for a society that holds up forgiveness as hallowed virtues. But I raise them not to cast judgment on Jean’s younger brother. The Jean family is grieving. They are in a process of healing in the wake of violence and irreparable loss. My questioning of the virtue of forgiveness and grace in civil society does not begin with the individual.
Rather, I raise these questions to get at how America is structured through race.
President Barack Obama leads mourners in singing the song “Amazing Grace” as he delivers a eulogy in honor of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney during funeral services for Pinckney in Charleston, S.C., on June 26, 2015. Pinckney was one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters
That is, in asking about the value of forgiveness and grace within the American social and political structure, I am asking about how the anti-blackness of American society works through religion-like rituals and liturgies of grace and forgiveness. I’m interested in how grace and forgiveness function publicly, how they script roles around blackness and death within a society organized around whiteness as the sign of proper life, or the life that is properly human. In this context, police violence and forgiveness rituals work to secure the common good and civil society. They work to secure America as a project of religion. Such religion may be thought of as “the religion of whiteness.”
Sociologist Robert Bellah coined the phrase “American civil religion” to explain how a secular nation maintains a religious dimension that suffuses public culture, from the political realm to civil society itself. That religious dimension has embedded within it beliefs, symbols, and ritual practices — the most well-known being the inauguration of U.S. presidents.
But Bellah’s concern was not just with the history of American religious belief, symbols and rituals. He came to his insight about the working of American civil religion in a moment when the American fabric was being torn by internal strife. It’s as if through his work as a sociologist Bellah was channeling the racial melancholy of a nation in fear and despair. The moment of crisis that he was trying to make sense of was the violence against black life and the protest movements of the 1960s.
Bellah’s idea was that the belief in and commitment to the sacred ideal of equal rights to all humans as the natural law guiding the American project is what America has always drawn on. He makes a case that the Founding Fathers in their exodus from the Old World to the new drew from the reservoir of this civil religion to found the nation. Later in America’s history, Abraham Lincoln, as a kind of savior, drew from the civil religion reservoir as well, though in his case, it was to preserve a nation in the internecine distress of the Civil War.
Notwithstanding Bellah’s great insight about the operations of American civil religion, what he nonetheless failed to grapple with was the degree to which America as a religious project rooted in the higher ideal or the natural law of human equality and freedom for all rested on an inequality within the ranks of the human ideal of freedom.
Bellah failed to address how America, as a project guided by the ideal of human freedom and equality, was predicated on settler colonial genocide and the ongoing use of black lives as property to rework stolen land and to build the national treasury. Within this structure of violence and death, blackness cannot matter for itself but only for its usefulness. In short, Bellah did not account for anti-blackness, which is not America’s original sin but its DNA.
J. Kameron Carter. Courtesy photo
It is within this framework that the sacredness, sanctity and compulsory rituals of forgiveness must be understood. American religion needs black (and native) forgiveness in order to keep the national fantasy of civil society, which is anti-black, alive. After racial crisis and distress, American religion turns to rituals of forgiveness and grace carried out by those structurally positioned as black to re-cohere itself around its ideals of being the beacon of human equality and freedom. In fact, the rituals of forgiveness can be thought of as structural performances of the ideal made visible for an instant. These rituals of courtroom forgiveness display the “rightness” and sacredness of America as a project, confessed, as it were, by those who suffer under that project.
Again, what I am dealing with here is the American racial structure, not individuals. I’m dealing with why, within the religion of whiteness, whiteness needs black forgiveness to maintain itself. Black forgiveness is part of the ritual work of absolving or extending salvation to America. It is part of the work of re-cohering or saving whiteness in a moment of crisis. Should such black forgiveness be withheld, whiteness or the American religious project would face a potential collapse. It might suffer a “white out,” a possible end of the world or an end of its world.
But could the end of the world, a white out, be an alternative understanding of forgiveness, perhaps even an alternative religious orientation? Can there be a forgiveness that does not absolve guilt but brings the anti-black world to an end? Could there be a poetics of forgiveness that pressures forgiveness as we know it? Could there be a forgiveness that ends forgiveness, a forgiveness at the end of the world? Let’s hope so.
(J. Kameron Carter is a professor of religious studies at Indiana University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)
It’s once again that time of year when I don’t know whether to say it’s pumpkin season or Jack-o-Lantern season.
It all has to do with this Christian dichotomy of how we regard Halloween. Is it a nationwide glorification of all things wicked, sinful, and abominable? Or is it merely a cultural ritual that celebrates the adrenaline rush of being scared, touts the fun of dressing up like something we’re not, and grants us permission to eat high-calorie sweets without guilt?
We can answer the question of what Halloween was by studying its origins. One of the world’s oldest holidays, it started with the Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in) that marked the end of summer. Believing the spirits of the dead would return, Celts lit bonfires, wore disguises and offered animal sacrifices to their deities to ward off ghosts. From that information, courtesy of the History Channel, we can imagine the evil celebrations that likely evolved as part of these practices.
But does that presumed celebration continue when we allow our kids to dress up and go door-to-door asking neighborly strangers for sweet treats? Are we acting as agents of the devil by donning our costumes for the various parties we’ll go to this weekend and Monday, likely with church worship services in between?
I would argue that the majority of people who plan to participate in the candy trade, costume parties, and perhaps mass readings of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will not consider themselves celebrators of all things wicked.
Instead, it seems as if a sizable handful of Christians have created something else, devoid of any representation of questionable origins, for the sake of fellowship over bite-sized candy instead of bread. Quite honestly, the only evil I see in candy corn and other delectable features of the holiday, is the sugar content — and maybe the fact that isn’t sold in abundance year-round.
At the same time, I don’t deny the validity in the argument of those who vehemently denounce everything related to Halloween, including the motivation to make money. That’s likely what has made the holiday the hullabaloo it has become. Some interpretations of Halloween do, in fact, include Ouija boards, séances, and satanic rituals. I’m willing to bet, though, that people who practice that side of Halloween “fun” don’t need a holiday for that.
As an alternative to all that is demonic and unholy about Halloween, many churches opt to have a “Hallelujah Night,” where people still collect candy and play dress up — just in the form of biblical characters.
I attended several of those in my younger days. One year, it took me a while to figure out why one first lady came dressed like Barney. Turns out she was actually dressed as Lydia, the lady who sold — and apparently wore — purple. I was obviously less studied then, so she wasn’t the only one who threw me for a loop. The presumed Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz turned out to be the Lion of Judah. I never dressed up, but I often wondered whether my preferred costumes would’ve disqualified me from the festivities. After all, one kid wearing a sheet over his head and a cross around his neck had trouble at the door. The irony that the Holy Ghost almost couldn’t get into the church on Hallelujah Night wasn’t lost on me.
What if I had dressed as Saul’s buddy, the witch of Endor? That’s a biblical character. Or suppose I’d shown up with a platter fixed around my neck, serving up John the Baptist? (Yes, decapitation happened in The Omen and Friday the 13th movies, but it happened first in the Bible.)
The main thing that I didn’t understand then and struggle with now is telling the difference between Halloween as commonly practiced and its church-led alternatives. Candy? Check. Games and dressing up? Check. How do we know which is which, and is there a real difference beyond what we say it is?
I don’t have an answer and likely won’t anytime soon, but I guarantee you I’ll be having some candy corn in the meantime.
Last month, Cyntoia Brown Long was released from a Nashville prison after serving fifteen years of a life sentence for killing a man who solicited her for sex. Her story sparked a national conversation on how the justice system deals with abuse and sex trafficking victims who act in self-defense.
According to a study published by the Vera Institute of Justice in 2016, 86 percent of women in jail are survivors of sexual violence. Black women are incarcerated at around double the rate of white women.
Such cases speak to a large need in the justice system to recognize when an individual’s actions are the result of neglect, abuse, and circumstance.
Bishop Joseph W. Walker III
Bishop Joseph W. Walker III of Mt. Zion Baptist Church lobbied for clemency in Brown’s case. In his book Restored at the Root, he wrote about what Americans—and the church—can learn from stories like Brown’s:
What causes people to choose an oppressive mechanism as a remedy?
Too many use a nonredemptive approach to deliverance that is in conflict with the teaching of Jesus. Rather than use a model that liberates the man, they seek to tie him up further. Our justice system is an example of how we as a society have practiced putting chains on people and isolating them in places such as jails and prisons. We have created social systems designed to bind people instead of seeking methods to restore those who are engaged in behavior that often leads to criminal acts, especially when the behavior begins when they are teenagers or young adults.
Although many situations merit harsh consequences, there are countless cases where a different approach would bring about a more restorative result. People who are plagued by systematic oppression caused by social inequities such as unequal education and impoverished neighborhoods that are riddled with crime, drugs, and sex trafficking more frequently find themselves in the criminal justice system.
Over the years as a pastor, I have sat in courtrooms and visited jails and prisons to support my church members or the relatives of members when they found themselves face to face with the legal system. One of the most critical cases I have been intimately involved in is that of Cyntoia Brown. Her story was both tragic and complicated.
A victim of sex trafficking, prostitution, and abuse, Cyntoia Brown was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison, having been tried as an adult for a crime she committed in 2004 at the age of sixteen. In December 2018, her case was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which ruled that she would be eligible for release after she serves fifty-one years in prison.
I met the governor shortly after he took office, and I had worked on a few of his initiatives that were important to us both. We had been friends for seven years and had mutual respect. I felt I was in a pivotal position to speak to him concerning this case. I requested a phone call with him in the eleventh hour of his tenure as governor. So many people had petitioned for Cyntoia’s release, and her amazing legal team had worked tirelessly on her appeals and were in constant contact with the governor. I chose to add my voice to a chorus of others advocating for her future.
On January 7, 2019, the governor decided to grant her clemency. I was honored to play a small role alongside so many others in advocating for this. I share this to provide a further understanding of my desire to see people like Cyntoia given a second chance at life. She was a teenager who had experienced much abuse in her life, and as a result, she became caught up in a situation that led to her committing a criminal act through which a life was lost and she was imprisoned.
Her conviction, like countless others’, is part of a larger systemic problem with incarcerating people who are often defenseless against the social ills of their community and end up engaging in criminal activity because they see no other options.
According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, “Mass incarceration is designed to warehouse a population deemed disposable—unnecessary to the functioning of the new global economy.”
People who are deemed disposable are placed on the margins, put in chains or handcuffs, and made to live in the dead places of our prison systems. There is a need for social reform to take place, more specifically in systems that seek to chain and contain instead of helping to restore those who have endured broken situations that led to a life in bonds.
My belief in the power of restoration over simple restraint led me to be an advocate for Cyntoia Brown’s clemency. As we look forward to her release in August 2019, my church and I plan to give her our full support as she enters the next phase of her life. We will walk with her through her years of probation, help her with job placement, and assist her in her efforts to be a voice for others who endured some of the same hardships.
Cyntoia’s case is just one example of how the current systems in place allowed for only one way of handling a person deemed disposable—to put them in bondage and lock them up. Yet the question must be asked, If that method is successful, why do our prisons continue to expand?
If we truly desire to restore order to our communities, cities, states, nation, and world, we must be intentional about our efforts to combat the forces of darkness that come against the world in which we live. Dealing with spiritual warfare is the responsibility of not just the individual but also the community at large. The church must be careful not to replicate the model of the Gadarenes:
He lived among the tombs. And no one could constrain him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. But he had pulled the chains apart and broken the shackles to pieces. And no one could subdue him. Always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones (Mark 5:3–5, MEV).
When we tie people up, it is an attempt to control. We push things away or sweep them under the rug in an attempt to maintain what we hold sacred. Yet we run the risk of sacrificing the deliverance of our brothers and sisters to keep from disrupting our “sacred” systems. We have no idea how many people are hurting privately among us but are being pushed away because we don’t like their issues.
We must be willing to persevere through the process while seeking new approaches. Never lose hope. Perhaps God is using this moment to awaken a fresh vision in your church or ministry to reach those who are hurting and bound. They are not disposable to God; they are dearly loved.
Bishop Joseph W. Walker III, DMin, is the senior pastor of the historic Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Nashville. His book Restored at the Root: Get to the Source of Social, Emotional, and Spiritual Struggle released August 6, 2019. Walker serves as the international presiding bishop in the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International. He received a master of divinity degree from Vanderbilt University and a doctor of ministry degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. He holds two honorary doctorates, from Meharry Medical College and Southern University. Bishop Walker is a regular guest on The Rickey Smiley Morning Show radio program and has been a guest on CNN, CBS This Morning, and The Roland Martin Show. He and his wife, Dr. Stephanie H. Walker, have two children.
The investigative news agency ProPublica released a photo showing three white students from the University of Mississippi posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled marker dedicated to Emmett Till.
White men lynched Till, a 14-year-old black boy visiting from Chicago, for supposedly flirting with a white woman at a store in Mississippi in 1955. His murder, along with his mother’s defiant decision to display her son’s mutilated face in an open casket, helped spur the civil rights movement.
Upon seeing the photo, one of my first questions was: “What church do these young men attend?”
To ask about their churches is to inquire about the role communities of faith play in perpetuating or dismantling racism in its various forms. The young men may not go to church. They may not even be Christians. But in an area known as the “Bible Belt” the cultural influence of Christianity is strong. So how the church influences the racial understanding of white Christians deserves probing.
The young men positioned themselves in front of this marker like big-game hunters proudly displaying their deceased prize. It’s as if Till, his memory, his murder and his legacy were all just a game to this grinning group.
One of the people pictured even posted the photo on his Instagram account. It garnered almost 250 “likes” before being taken down when reporters started asking about it. One person who saw the photo filed a complaint with the University of Mississippi back in March, but officials there did not take any action. Instead they referred it to the FBI where the case stalled because officers said the photo “did not pose a specific threat.”
Other entities took more decisive action. The three men pictured all belong to the Kappa Alpha fraternity. According to its website, the fraternity cites Confederate General Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.” When fraternity leaders were made aware of the photo last week, however, they immediately suspended all three frat brothers.
Aside from the disciplinary actions, other issues remain.
Did these young men bother to read the historical marker behind them to learn about Till and the significance of his life and murder? Did they think twice about posting this picture publicly and what it communicated about how they regarded black people? Did the teaching of their churches help or hinder their sensitivity concerning race?
The primary question is not whether churches are endorsing overt racism; they almost certainly are not. The question is about how church leaders understand race and what they are teaching their members about it.
It could be the case that churches are not teaching much about race at all. Pastors remain relatively silent about racism from the pulpit, Bible study groups may not touch the topic, and few church members in homogenous white congregations ever bring it up.
In other cases, churches may talk about race, but in unhelpful ways. Oftentimes, they try to do so in a “colorblind” way by emphasizing commonality and by minimizing or ignoring differences.
They claim they “don’t see color” and that all believers are brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of their race or ethnicity. These teachings become problematic when the varied life experiences, racial hardships, and history of black people is blotted out in a blob of contrived sameness. Unity does not mean uniformity.
Other churches may have a truncated explanation for how race works. White evangelical Christians, in particular, tend to think of race in individualistic terms. The problem, they say, is bad relationships — as when a person doesn’t like another because of race, or when someone uses racial slurs. The solution, according to this line of thinking, is to have more positive relationships across the color line.
Relationships with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is a necessary part of bringing about racial justice, but it is not sufficient. Personal relationships have little impact on structural racial inequalities such as anti-black police brutality, high rates of maternity-related deaths among black women, or the racial wealth gap.
No amount of one-on-one lunches, small group discussions or coffee meetups will automatically impact the broader issue of institutional racism.
White churches have to be attuned to how they may implicitly reinforce racism. Some Christian churches have started private schools. If those schools do not intentionally embed racial awareness into their curricula and practice, they are likely perpetuating misunderstandings.
Some churches, in effect, make adherence to the Republican party platform a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. Most black people are not Republican, so political differences can create barriers to belonging.
If churches want to improve the way they teach their members about race, they should start by examining their understanding of the term.
Ask church leaders to define the words “race” and “racism.” Oftentimes there are as many different answers as there are people answering. The key here is to move beyond a narrow concept of racism as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Christians must acknowledge the ways race operates on systemic and institutional levels. Developing a shared language and definitions is a key to improving racial responsiveness.
Churches also have to talk about race. On any divisive topic, the temptation is to avoid discussing it for fear of offending someone. But people are already talking about race— at the dinner table, at work, in group text messages — and they often do so in unhelpful ways. With a shared language and mutually understood concepts, pastors and church leaders can be the guides their members need for talking about race in nuanced, spiritual and morally informed ways.
What if those young men who proudly posed in front of a defaced sign dedicated to a lynched boy had been deeply educated by their church about race and racism? What if they’d had a Sunday School class on the history of American Christianity and race? What if they learned to see what the Bible says from Genesis to Revelation about how to understand and celebrate differences? What if those young men had learned a robust doctrine of the image of God to better grasp the dignity of all people?
No one should need specialized teaching to know that standing with guns in front of a plaque detailing Emmett Till’s murder is racist. An elementary understanding of U.S. history and a modicum of concern for other human beings should prevent such offenses. Yet, whether churches lend more to perpetuating racism or providing remedies remains a pressing concern.
If churches, which have historically had such a large role in driving racism, do not effectively teach their congregants about race, then many Christians will continue to be part of creating racial problems rather than helping enact solutions.
(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)