HOW FAR WE’VE COME: President Barack Obama, Ruby Bridges, and representatives of the Norman Rockwell Museum view Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” hanging in a West Wing hallway near the Oval Office, July 15, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
The past week reminded us once again (as if we needed reminding) how racialized American politics has become since Barack Obama became our first African American president four years ago.
For many, President Obama’s historic victory signaled an evident shift toward what some called a “post-racial America.” Even those who rejected such talk conceded that Obama’s election was proof that our nation has grown in a positive direction.
In July, Associated Press reporter Jesse Washington examined the effect that President Obama’s election has had on the nation. According to Washington, shortly before the 2008 election, 56 percent of Americans surveyed by the Gallup organization poll said that race relations would improve if Obama were elected. One day after his victory, 70 percent said race relations would improve and only 10 percent predicted they would get worse.
But once Obama settled into the White House, it became clear that the president’s race — instead of becoming a nonissue in a post-racial era — would become a subtext of his every move and lead many of his opponents to level racially tinged charges against him (e.g., “He was born in Africa,” “He’s a closet Muslim,” “He’s a socialist,” “He’s hates America,” “He hates white people”).
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Barack Obama, America’s first black president, speaks near a portrait of George Washington, America’s first white president. (Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)
Just this past week alone, the president was described as “a retard” by one high-profile pundit, and accused of “shucking and jiving” by a former vice presidential candidate. Then, after respected Republican statesman Colin Powell again endorsed Obama for president, John Sununu, a surrogate for GOP nominee Mitt Romney, suggested Powell supports Obama because they share the same race. This adds juice to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released on Wednesday that found the 2012 election is turning out to be the most racially polarized presidential contest since 1988.
Now comes word today of a new Associated Press poll that finds racial attitudes have not improved during the four years of Barack Obama’s presidency. In fact, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey.
This leads us to wonder how racial progress might fare under a second term for President Obama. Or, whether things would improve or get worse under a Mitt Romney presidency that, presumably, would not be as haunted by the specter of race the way that President Obama’s has.
What do you think? Has President Obama’s time in office improved or worsened race relations in America?
TWO SIDES OF JUSTICE: Public opinion in the Trayvon Martin-Geroge Zimmerman case has tended to split along racial lines, and it's doubtful some questions will ever be answered. (Photos: Wikipedia)
With the announcement of new details about events leading up to the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman, at least three things are clear: we likely will never know exactly what happened that evening of Feb. 26 in Sanford, Florida; the situation could’ve been avoided had Zimmerman followed the 911 operator’s instructions and stayed in his vehicle; Martin and Zimmerman were both flawed human beings like the rest of us.
Yesterday, as prosecutors released more than 200 pages of photos and eyewitness accounts showing Zimmerman had wounds to his face and the back of his head, the national debate about the case (which consistently appears to be divided sharply along racial lines), was reignited. While supporters of Zimmerman and his claim of “self-defense” see the new evidence as proof of his innocence, others view it as a mixed bag that doesn’t necessarily bolster his defense. The lead detective in the case against Zimmerman said he believes Zimmerman initiated the fight by getting out of his car to confront Martin, and that he should be charged with manslaughter.
Further complicating the public debate was the release of details from an autopsy report that showed Martin had traces of THC, which is from marijuana, in his blood and urine. A scan of comments around the blogosphere and social media reveal that, in the minds of some, this information reinforced the assumption that Martin was complicit in triggering the incident that led to his death, though one expert pointed out that the amount of THC found in Martin’s blood was “so low that it may have been ingested days earlier and played no role in Martin’s behavior.” Nevertheless, for many it added weight to the argument that Martin was not the young, angelic kid that they feel the media painted him to be.
In addition to this new information, new photos of George Zimmerman were released showing the 28-year-old soon after the incident with Martin. The images offer a clear picture of his alleged injuries. Plus, news outlets released the surveillance video of Trayvon Martin at the Sanford 7-11 store, purchasing the iced tea and Skittles that he carried when he crossed paths with Zimmerman several minutes later.
In a way, the public debate over the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case has become a mirror for seeing our nation’s ongoing racial tensions, with many from the White community predictably aligning with Zimmerman and many from the Black and non-White communities siding with Martin’s family. Though there are certainly Whites who side with Martin and Blacks who side with Zimmerman, the anecdotal evidence for a stereotypical racial split is incontrovertible. In fact, this is not strictly an issue of race, but of justice. Nevertheless, in this era of the first Black president, tensions are already high when it comes to race. These are tensions that were heightened by partisan politics during the 2008 presidential campaign and subsequent election of Barack Obama, and that continue to flare whenever a new racial controversy erupts. It proves we have a long way to go in bridging our country’s racial and cultural divides.
What Do You Think?
Does the release of this new information make you more inclined to believe one party’s side of the story? Does the autopsy’s revelation that Martin had THC in his system affect your view of the teen’s role in the confrontation? What can we do as a nation to turn this tragic episode into something constructive?
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 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.
In One But Not the Same, Pastor Chris Williamson challenges us on our divisive “churchanity” and renews the call for unity and diversity in the body of Christ. Plus, his surprising views on Glenn Beck, Al Sharpton, and political parties.