Taking Stock of the Trayvon Martin Case

Taking Stock of the Trayvon Martin Case

COMPLICATED PICTURE: After a week of protests and media hysteria, the Trayvon Martin case has taken yet another turn as information emerges that calls Trayvon's character into question.

Yesterday was the one month anniversary of when Florida teen Trayvon Martin was shot to death by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. If it weren’t for the work of journalists, this story would never have made national news and the U.S. Department of Justice would not be investigating the case for civil rights violations. Neither would a grand jury have been convened in Florida to hear evidence about it, nor would the Sanford, Florida, police chief have “temporarily” left his post and been replaced with a black man. But, if it weren’t for the work of journalists, the rush to judgment about the case also would not have happened.

Conflicting Accounts

In the past week, we’ve learned that Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend moments before the shooting. She has said that Martin told her someone was following him and that she heard Martin ask the man why before a scuffle broke out between them. But Sanford Police Department sources told the Orlando Sentinel that Zimmerman said Martin attacked him as he was walking back to his SUV and that Martin tried to take his gun and slammed his head into the ground.

Maligning and Defending Trayvon Martin’s Character

Conservative websites have begun to malign the character of Martin, who had been portrayed as a wholesome teen. They published pictures and status updates that they claimed were taken from Martin’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to show that he had tattoos and gold teeth and implied he sold drugs, as if these supposed facts were somehow relevant. But a website reportedly owned by conservative pundit Michelle Malkin issued an apology for publishing one widely circulated photo, saying it was not, in fact, the Trayvon Martin who was shot to death by Zimmerman. And journalist Geraldo Rivera was roundly criticized, even by his own son, for suggesting that Martins’s choice of attire was as responsible for his death as Zimmerman was.

In response, Martin’s parents held a press conference. His father, Tracy Martin, said, “Even in death, they are still disrespecting my son, and I feel that that’s a sin.” His mother, Sybrina Fulton, said, “They killed my son, and now they’re trying to kill his reputation.” The family is asking for donations to keep their fight for justice going and Fulton has reportedly filed for trademarks to the phrases “I am Trayvon” and “Justice for Trayvon.” She, of course, has been criticized for that. Martin’s friends, meanwhile, say they can’t imagine Trayvon picking a fight with anyone.

Catalyst for National Discussion

On Friday, President Obama spoke out on the killing, saying we all need to do “some soul searching” and if he had a son, the boy would look like Trayvon. GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich immediately pounced on Obama’s statement, suggesting the president’s comments were racially divisive. At the same time, Gingrich and fellow GOP hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum each called Martin’s death a “tragedy,” and Santorum suggested that Zimmerman’s actions were different from those protected by Florida’s “stand your ground” laws.

On Sunday, Christians (mostly black ones) wore hoodies to church in solidarity with Martin. On Monday, New York State legislators wore them on the senate floor. Everyone seemed to be talking about having “the talk” with their black children, and people, including me, began asking why white evangelical leaders have been largely silent on the issue. Others, including one former NAACP leader, accused the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson of exploiting the situation.

Some, like Evangelical Covenant Church pastor Efrem Smith, wondered where the outrage is about black-on-black crime. Smith posted a series of tweets noting the lack of attention these victims receive. “A couple of months ago in Oakland multiple young blacks were victims of violent crime by other blacks but Al Sharpton didn’t come to town,” he said. Why not?

‘Justice Doesn’t Alienate Anyone’

Although Zimmerman’s friends continue to defend him and the authors of Florida’s “stand your ground” law defend it, Regent University law professor David Velloney told CBN News that if Zimmerman “was following [Martin] in somewhat of a menacing manner and he violently, or aggressively approached the teenager, then he becomes the initial aggressor in this situation and really then he loses that right to self-defense.”

I’ll give Velloney the last word on the case for now, because amidst all the discussion, debate, and hype, his comment gets to the heart of why this story blew up in the first place. People reacted to a grave, familiar injustice that was aided by an unjust interpretation of what may be an unjust law. Now that the road to justice has finally been cleared for the Martin family, perhaps it’s time we all calm down and take the words of Bishop T.D. Jakes to heart. “Justice doesn’t alienate anyone. It is truth,” Jakes told CBN News. “It is consistent with Scriptures that we investigate, and that we support the defense for all human life.” Amen to that.

Graham Apologizes, Faith Council ‘Goes Dark’

Graham Apologizes, Faith Council ‘Goes Dark’

‘I Regret Casting Doubt’

NOT ABOUT FAITH: Franklin Graham says he's sorry for questioning President Barack Obama's religious beliefs. (Photo: Newscom)

After a group of black Christian leaders published an NAACP-backed open letter to the Rev. Franklin Graham, the evangelist apologized for questioning President Obama’s faith during a recent appearance on MSNBC, Religion News Service reported yesterday.

“I regret any comments I have ever made which may have cast any doubt on the personal faith of our president, Mr. Obama,” Graham is quoted as saying. “I apologize to him and to any I have offended for not better articulating my reason for not supporting him in this election — for his faith has nothing to do with my consideration of him as a candidate.”

In the 15-minute panel discussion on the “Morning Joe” show, Graham, who is president of the Samaratin’s Purse relief organization and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, declined to affirm the president’s Christian faith, but heartily affirmed that of Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

“We can disagree about what it means to be a Christian engaged in politics, but Christians should not bear false witness,” the open letter to Graham said. “We are also concerned that Rev. Graham’s comments can be used to encourage racism. We urge him to be mindful of the unprecedented verbal attacks on President Obama based on his race and be careful not to allow his own voice to be used to help drive such hateful words.”

The letter also warned that “statements like Rev. Graham’s have potentially dangerous consequences domestically and internationally.” Signatories included leaders from predominantly African American denominations and members of the NAACP Religious Affairs Committee.

President’s Faith Council ‘Has Gone Dark’

In related news, less than a week after members of the president’s first Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships participated in a press call that was designed to defend the president’s faith, Politico reported that “three years into his presidency, Obama’s marquee council of faith advisers has gone dark.”

“The president’s first Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships delivered a 163-page report in March 2010 and then disbanded. The second council has waited more than a year for a full slate of appointees and has yet to meet. And the hottest issue — whether religious groups that receive public money can discriminate in hiring — remains unresolved more than three years after Obama promised to address it,” the article said.

On last week’s press call, the  Rev. Joel Hunter and Melissa Rogers, both of whom served on the president’s first advisory council, conceded to UrbanFaith that the Obama administration had “stumbled” in its recent communications with religious people and groups, particularly in regard to a controversial contraception mandate that was included in the Affordable Care Act. No mention was made on that call about delays in assembling his second advisory council.

“President Obama continues to expand and strengthen faith-based initiatives and the faith-based advisory council is an important part of that effort,” Joshua DuBois, director of the faith-based office, said in a written statement to Politico. “Advising the president on our ongoing partnership with faith-based groups and other nonprofits around the country is critical and we are committed to ensuring they have as much impact as possible. It is a big country with significant religious diversity, and we are very thoughtful about our approach.”

What do you think?

Are these two leaders, President Obama and the Rev. Franklin Graham stumbling badly or is the press amplifying minor missteps?

Poor Excuses

Poor Excuses

FECKLESS FRONTRUNNERS: GOP presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney during the recent Republican debate in Tampa, Florida. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Newscom)

Newt Gingrich thinks poor kids should probably learn to be janitors and that they should definitely eschew any morsel purchased by their parents with food stamps.

Mitt Romney does not lose any sleep over the “very poor.” His priority are the middle-class folks who make up the “heart of America.”

The problem with the rhetoric of the Republican frontrunners is that it distracts from the true question — what will we do about poverty and hunger?

In his specious statements about food stamps (which benefit the working poor as well as those on welfare), Gingrich baits race by declaring the first African American president of the United States the “Food Stamp President.” Oh, loquacious lobbyist who would be Debater-in-Chief, this does not count as an argument, but rather, as an ad hominem attack.

Mitt Romney, feeling his oats after his win in Florida, dissed the downtrodden so as to affirm his solidarity with the middle class. Oh, compassionate corporate man who would be Mormon-in-Chief, this statement amounts to baffling babble. Even low-income Republicans think that Republicans in Congress don’t do enough to help the poor.

Perhaps Mitt and Newt should take a page from a Republican president past.

No, not Ronald Reagan, who was also an expert at proffering dubious depictions of the poor — remember the welfare queen?

I’m talking about Richard Nixon.

Surprised? The summarily dismissed, yet politically complex President Nixon advanced domestic policies benefiting — OMG — the poor!

Nixon delivered an impassioned speech in 1969 touting an end to hunger by — GASP — increasing funding for food stamps.

Nixon propounded a Family Assistance Plan in 1971 that would shore up the safety net by — HOLY SOCIALISM, BATMAN! — providing a guaranteed minimum income.

Perhaps Gingrich’s gaffe would be just another laughable line during a contentious campaign if there were not so many politicians like him willing to punish the poor by cutting food stamps, limiting their use, and imposing drug tests prior to giving needed help.

Perhaps Romney’s remark could be forgiven as an oversight if he hadn’t already articulated the same thing in earlier appearances, indicating that his policies will not reflect the sentiment that we are our brother’s keeper after all.

In a country where 16 million children live in households that are food insecure and 15 percent of Americans receive food aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the reductionist rhetoric of the Republican frontrunners should give us pause. Caring for the poor is not a partisan issue. Feeding the hungry is a co-responsibility of caring communities, from the statehouse to the church house.

Don’t fall for the “food stamp” red herring or the “heart of America” trope.

Gingrich Wins; Defends ‘Food Stamp President’ Remarks

Gingrich Wins; Defends ‘Food Stamp President’ Remarks

Stating the facts or Race Baiting?

STRAIGHT TALKER OR RACE BAITER?: GOP presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

As moderator Juan Williams tried to question former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich at the South Carolina debate last week about Gingrich’s charge that President Obama is the “food stamp president,” there were loud boos for Williams and enthusiastic cheers for Gingrich.

“Speaker Gingrich, you said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also said poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools,” said Williams. “Can’t you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?”

“No. I don’t see that,” Gingrich brashly replied.

Williams then said his Twitter account had been “inundated” by people of all races, who wanted to know if Gingrich’s comments were intentionally meant to “belittle the poor and racial minorities.”

“The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history,” Gingrich said. “I know among the politically correct you are not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”

Playing Dumb or “Morally Evolved” Toward Truth?

“When Mr Gingrich replied to Mr. Williams that he cannot see why some might take umbrage at his comments that black Americans ‘should demand jobs, not food stamps’ and that poor kids tend to lack a strong work ethic, I don’t think it’s quite right to say he was ‘playing dumb.’ On the contrary, Mr Gingrich acts as though he is so morally evolved, so essentially oriented toward truth—as though he surveys the world from such an Olympian height, through such crystalline air—that he is unable even to imagine how his use of venerable racist tropes could be sensibly seen to serve a purpose other than transmission of the plain truth,” concluded a writer at The Economist’s Democracy in America blog.

Just Stating the Facts

But Col. Allen West, the only Republican member of the Congressional Black Caucus, told Fox News that there is no racial coding in Gingrich’s charge. He said it’s a fact that there has been a four-to-one Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits increase since President Obama took office.

Do Facts Add Up to Truth?

The Washington Post agreed, sort of, reporting that “about 46 million participants in 22 million households” are receiving SNAP benefits. “But that’s mainly because there’s been record poverty levels, not because President Obama has taken major steps to make it easier to receive food stamps from the government.”

What Color Are SNAP Recipients?

As to the misconception that the majority of SNAP recipients are black, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that “about 34 percent of food-stamp recipients are white, while 22 percent are African Americans and 16 percent Hispanic, with the rest being Asian, Native American or those who chose not to identify their race.” Businessweek also reported that “some 41 percent of all recipients live in households where family members are employed.”

Has the Mud Slinging Only Just Begun?

“If you hate negative campaigning, you may want to turn your television off for the next few weeks. Or maybe months,” said Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post.

What do you think?

Is Newt Gingrich engaging in shrewd but despicable race baiting, or is he just stating the facts?

Why We Should Listen to Newt

Why We Should Listen to Newt

STRAIGHT TALKER: GOP presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. (Wikipedia image)

The truth can come from an unlikely messenger. Like in Numbers 22:30, when God made a donkey talk to Balaam, a prophet who had veered far from God’s purpose.

Newt Gingrich has been an unexpected source of truth during the campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, which is why I hope he stays in the race and keeps talking. Gingrich’s comments have been eye opening, like when he called Congressman Paul Ryan’s economic plan “right-wing social engineering,” and then was forced to backtrack. He’s arrogant, impulsive, and morally flawed, but also smart and shrewd. Gingrich often veers from the typical political talking points and says what he truly believes. He expresses volatile thoughts that many people hold and act on privately, but won’t say publicly. Gingrich’s fellow GOP candidate Rep. Ron Paul has a similar proclivity to say what he thinks without filters. The other night, for instance, Paul was once again trying to deflect criticism about his racist newsletter from 20 years ago when he spoke about the unfairness of the criminal justice toward blacks — not exactly a topic you’ll find many Republican politicians addressing, especially one who’s running for president. Unfortunately, none of the reporters followed up with a question about what Paul has been doing about those racial disparities as a congressman or what he would do as president.

Suffice it to say, without Gingrich and Paul in the race, the political dialogue would be far less lively and informative.

Gingrich’s latest episode of unexpurgated candor is especially worth noting. The former Speaker of the House, who has a history of wandering into politically incorrect territory regarding race in America, riled the blogsphere and pundits recently with a comment about blacks and food stamps. Gingrich often refers to President Obama as the “food stamp president” because Americans are receiving the aid at the highest levels in history. The reference is also Gingrich’s way of reminding white voters that Obama is black.

During a speech to a majority-white audience prior to the New Hampshire Primary, Gingrich said:

“And so I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention to talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

“Insensitive,” “race baiter,” and “bigot,” were among the predictable names critics called him. The NAACP issued its standard condemning response, with the group’s president Benjamin Todd Jealous calling the remarks “inaccurate and divisive.” But perhaps Gingrich has actually done us a favor.

While clearly provocative, Gingrich’s food stamp flap unexpectedly caused the news media to focus on and dispel a longstanding racial stereotype that blacks are the main beneficiaries of food stamp handouts — a stereotype the media perpetuates. The truth is that the face of food stamps and poverty in America is white.

Gingrich triggered CBS and some other news outlets to report that whites represent 59 percent of the households on food stamps, while blacks are 28 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Previous published reports indicated that poverty is on the rise among whites, increasing 53 percent in the majority white suburbs compared to 23 percent in the cities. Two-thirds of the new suburban poor were added between 2007 (the year the economy tanked under the Bush administration) and 2010.

It would seem that poverty is something the majority-white Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements could unite over, along with the civil rights and faith communities. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a race-neutral Poor People’s Campaign and was also speaking out against the Vietnam War when he was assassinated in 1968. King understood what really mattered. His eyes were opened. However, savvy politicians also know they can rely on racism and class to divide voters and advance their own agendas.

The food stamp story also unveiled how the major news organizations often contribute to keeping Americans in the dark. Many of us probably don’t realize that reporter David Weigel of Slate.com, who attended the Gingrich speech and was reportedly the first to tweet the comment, may have done so because he is anti-Republican. Media columnist Richard Prince reminded readers that Weigel resigned from the Washington Post in 2010 from his gig blogging about conservatives after it was revealed that he had disparaged Republicans in a deeply personal way on a listserv. The Post owns the liberal-leaning Slate.com. In his blog, Weigel posted the Gingrich comment without providing proper context, then feigned surprise that others did the same. I suspect Weigel knows, as most bloggers do, that the volatile mix of race and politics often generates lots of reader page views and retweets on the Web — especially if the talker is a polarizer like Gingrich.

As Numbers 22:30 teaches, the messenger might be an ass (or even an elephant), but we ought to pay attention. There’s truth between the lines.