Trayvon and America’s Damascus Road
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 country ‘tis of thy people you‘re 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.