STAINED GLASS FALLACIES: Since the early 1800s, European-flavored Jesus imagery has been mass-produced in the United States. After the Civil War, the notion of a ‘white’ Jesus became widely promulgated. (Image: Thinkstock Photos)
In their groundbreaking new book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, historians Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey embark on a sweeping examination of how Americans came to believe in the whiteness of Jesus. Having grown up white in Oklahoma and New Jersey respectively, Blum and Harvey say they had to “unlearn a lot of white privilege over the years.” Chief among the ideas they sought to reverse in their thinking was the assumption that God is somehow attached to whiteness and white authority.
“We decided to write about how God has been presented as white in the form of Jesus in order to expose how insidious racism has been throughout American history — that it even wraps itself in the flesh of God,” says Blum. He adds that another motivation for the book was their concern about the false concepts that children learn about faith and race before they even have the intellectual or social wherewithal to challenge them. “Children often see the ‘race’ of Jesus before they know how to say grace in his name. We wanted Americans to confront the reality that the images we have created and continue to display influence how our children come to understand God, themselves, and others.”
In the process of their research, Blum and Harvey also gained a high esteem for “the women and men who have stood against racism and have imagined Jesus and God beyond whiteness.” White privilege benefits white people, Blum says, “but it also blinds them from many beautiful and brilliant expressions of others, especially when it comes to religious life.”
Blum spoke to UrbanFaith about his book, the origins of “white Jesus,” and how confronting the philosophies behind those misleading American images of Christ can lead to a more authentic view of God and his church.
URBAN FAITH: When we see the traditional images of Jesus as a blondish, blue-eyed European, where do those depictions stem from historically?
DISPELLING THE MYTHS: In ‘The Color of Christ,’ San Diego State University history professor Edward Blum (along with coauthor Paul Harvey) examines the ways that race and racism have shaped America’s images of Jesus. (Photo: Courtesy of Iris Salgado)
EDWARD J. BLUM: The first few centuries of Christianity had no visual imagery of Jesus. Then various icons were created and Catholic Europeans made them in abundance during the Middle Ages. Oftentimes, they were created by Europeans with a sense of what the “ideal” human would look like – and for Europeans, that was often European.
But these images were not present in British America. The first British settlers were radical iconoclasts who not only destroyed images of Jesus, but also opposed any displays of the Son of God. There were no dominant images of Jesus in the early America that became the United States.
Only after the United States became a new nation did Americans begin producing images of Jesus. He was not blue eyed at first, and his hair was brown. He was made white in this form at exactly the moment Americans were buying and selling more slaves and justifying the expropriation of Native American lands in the Southwest. In many ways, making Jesus white was an effort to sanctify these goals for land, power, and authority.
What about the first “American Jesus”? What did he look like, and when was it decided that he was white?
Jesus was first mass-produced in the United States in the early 1800s, but it was not until after the Civil War that his being white became an object of widespread discussion. When emancipation cut the legal ties between blackness and enslavement, it left open the question of how could whites claim to be superior. Moreover, as millions of immigrants from Asia and central and southern Europe flocked to the United States, questions of who was actually white began to animate the United States in a new way. In response, a group of white Americans started creating images of Jesus as blue-eyed and blonde haired. They knew he probably did not look this way but wanted him to be a WASP so that they could justify closing immigration doors, segregating and lynching African Americans, and viewing themselves as the most Christian and virtuous nation on earth.
Many say God transcends color and ethnicity, so why does it matter what color we make Jesus in religious and popular culture?
As much as we would all like to see God or experience God beyond color and ethnicity, we grow up in and live within a society that focuses intensely on race. For instance, Barack Obama is not known as the first president from Hawaii. He’s known as the first “black president” — even though his mother was considered “white.” Everything from legal codes to children’s shows to cultural jokes are filled with notions of biological differences and presentations of them. We learn to see and experience race at extraordinarily early ages.
This is true of thinking about God as well. Most studies show that when groups of people are asked to imagine what Jesus looked like, they see a white man. Even taught that that is not the case; even shown other images; and even knowing that Jesus lived 2,000 years ago in the Middle East, most Americans still see a white Jesus when they close their eyes. We have to work through those preconceived assumptions before getting to a God that transcends color or ethnicity. Only by first acknowledging how our society has — and does — “color” God and Jesus can we then move forward to seeing beyond that.
What does the Bible tell us about Jesus’ physical appearance?
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John say nothing about the race or physical appearance of Jesus. They discuss Jesus having a body; they narrate how he touched and healed bodies; they tell the story of how his body was harmed, killed, and then resurrected (with the holy holes still in his hands). But the Gospels say nothing about his hair, his eye color, or his skin tone. In Isaiah and in the book of Revelation, however, there are passages that some Christians have taken to indicate what Jesus looked like. Isaiah 52 and 53 mention how the “servant” of God will be raised and lifted up. In appearance, he will be “disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.” This servant will have “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Some Christian thinkers have taken these passages to apply to Jesus and to mean that he must have been ugly for his times. Then in Revelation, the author reports seeing one “like a Son of Man” whose head and hair were “white like wool” and whose “eyes were like blazing fire.” His feet “were like bronze glowing in a furnace.” For some African Americans, this has meant that his skin and hair looked more like a black person than a white person.
Evangelical theologian Thomas C. Oden has written a series of much-discussed volumes on Christianity’s African roots. How do you respond to this new evangelical awareness of Christianity’s African connection, and what might it mean for depictions of Christ?
Separating the “Middle East” from “Africa” is a certainly a western geographical fiction that hurts our understandings of the world now and in the past. The Palestine of Christ’s age was the crossroads of the world, and northern Africa was a huge player in that political, social, and cultural exchange. It is crucial for American Christians today to recognize the African roots of the faith in order to unlearn their assumptions about Africa as a monolith, as a place that is supposedly backward or uncivilized, and as a place that fails to matter.
Even more, American Christians need to begin seeing the “body of Christ” in a new way. Rather than think about what Jesus actually looked like, they could consider that other believers are the “body of Christ” and to fail to listen to them, heed their insights, or interact with them as equals, does harm to the overall kingdom of God. Oden’s work is supremely helpful in pushing all of us in that direction.
But geography should not overwhelm faith. Native Americans have no geographical tie to the biblical age, but their insights about faith, about Jesus, and about how to live in a sin-sick world should be taken seriously as well, even though there are no Native American roots of biblical Christianity.
In the 1940s, African American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark performed famous experiments using dolls to study children’s attitudes about race. When given a choice between white and black dolls, they found that African American children typically favored the white dolls. Did you find any similar phenomena happening with children and their perceptions of Jesus?
At the same moment that the Clarks were asking about dolls, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier was asking African American teenagers about God and Jesus. What he found was amazing. He found that these teenagers during the Great Depression knew that something was up about how Jesus was presented. Although most acknowledged that Jesus was somehow white, they answered with claims that “the pictures showed he was white” or that “whites would not accept him to not be white.” These African American teenagers seemed to know that Christ’s color was complicated, that the creators of the images mattered and that those who had power in society influenced what images were made. Basically, these black teenagers in the midst of the Great Depression seemed to know something that many others have been unwilling to acknowledge: our visual depictions of God and Christ are made by particular people and for particular people.
This is why even when African Americans placed white Jesus imagery in their churches, it did not necessarily mean they had some kind of group-hating pathology. It was far more complicated. Rendering Jesus as a white man who acted unlike other white men took the power off skin and placed it onto action. Moreover, it provided a rebuke of other whites — that they were not acting like Jesus by segregating African Americans. It also served as hope that perhaps one day all the various people of the world could come together as sisters, brothers, and friends, as Jesus had called his disciples at the end — his friends.
There are two artists who represent two very different ideas about what Jesus looked like. One is Warner Sallman, whose famous Jesus painting appears on your book’s cover. Who was Sallman and what was his impact on Jesus imagery?
Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ” from the early 1940s is the most reproduced painting of Jesus in world history. The son of European immigrants, Sallman painted for a small group of evangelical Christians around Chicago. His “Head of Christ” exploded onto the national and international scene. It is a profile of Jesus with nothing in the background. He has long, wavy blonde hair and blue eyes. For many, many Christians, this became the face of Jesus. It became the model for television and movie casting, and it went everywhere.
This calming image of Jesus was important to many Americans during the turbulence of the 1940s and 1950s. World War II was horrific; atomic bombs made it possible for the world to be destroyed. The emerging Cold War was terrifying. And then many Americans worried that their children were out of control (as shown in the film Rebel Without a Cause). Many Americans placed this Jesus in their homes and in their Sunday school classrooms to provide comfort. Somehow, a white Jesus would save them from nuclear holocaust or Communist secret agents.
The second artist is Fred Carter, who isn’t mentioned in your book yet whose work may be very recognizable for many African American Christians. Could you tell us about Carter and how you appraise his significance in this universe of Jesus imagery?
Fred Carter’s art should have been discussed in The Color of Christ. Since art historian David Morgan did such a nice job analyzing Fred Carter’s works in Visual Piety, we somewhat forgot to make a point to include Carter’s pieces. By neglecting them, however, we missed the opportunity to point out some huge changes since the 1960s in African American organizational creations and growth and how Mr. Carter’s art and its popularity were built on new organizations. If we had included Mr. Carter’s work, we would have been able to show how new art worked with new publishing houses to create a new visual culture for African American churches.
JESUS IN COLOR: An example of Fred Carter’s biblical art for Urban Ministries, Inc. Carter’s work helped create a more authentic visual culture for African American churches.
In particular, Mr. Carter’s images of Jesus reveal what scholar Anthony Pinn calls a “nitty-gritty” theology. Carter’s Christ is a full person who sweats, bleeds, and pleads. His dark skin is only one part of the reality of his embodiment. Carter shows Jesus experiencing all of the pains that we do as humans. They are poignant and fascinating portrayals. [Editor’s Note: Fred Carter’s artwork is also prominently featured in the Christian education publications of UrbanFaith’s parent company, Urban Ministries, Inc.]
In your introduction, you state that, “The white Jesus promised a white past, a white present, and a future of white glory.” What do you mean by that?
Basically, as race has been made in modern America, it presents itself as omnipresent in the past, in the present, and in the future. We are taught that there have always been “white” people, “black” people, etc. But we know that different people at different times divide themselves differently. One thousand years ago, hardly anyone would call themselves “white” and the category “African American” did not exist.
So how did race make itself seem to transcend time? We think Jesus is a key to this answer. By focusing on the body of Christ and by making him white, Americans subtly mapped racial concepts onto a person who has existed before the creation of the world and will be there at its end. If Jesus was white, then he is white. And if Jesus is the alpha and the omega, then somehow his whiteness was at the beginning and will be at the end. Of course, no one (except maybe some Klansmen) would ever say this, but the lesson is one taught without words.
Toward the end of the book, you explore a bit of the Jeremiah Wright controversy that gave his famous parishioner, Barack Obama, so much grief during his 2008 presidential campaign. You note that though white America was shocked by Wright’s “God Damn America” sermon, which in passing mentioned that “Jesus was black,” Wright’s brand of liberation theology was not that unusual or unsettling for African American audiences. Could you talk about liberation theology’s role in pushing back against many of America’s popular depictions of Jesus?
Beginning actively in the late 1960s, black liberation theologians like James Cone explicitly challenged the whitening of European and American theology and Christianity. They were reacting, in part, to how white ideologies had warped American Christianity to accept segregation, economic exploitation, and violence. The liberation theologians were also reacting to black power advocates who wanted to dismiss Christianity as purely a tool of the oppressors. Cornel West, for instance, found himself at odds with Black Panthers in California — not because of their economic program, but because of their opposition to Christianity. Cone, West, and many others set out to reconcile the faith of their mothers and fathers with their political opposition to white supremacy and class disenfranchisement.
These theologians saw Jesus as “black” in an ontological sense, meaning that regardless of what Christ actually looked like, his actions, attitudes, and sense of being aligned him with the oppressed, the downtrodden, and the hurting. In America, this means he was not only affiliated with “blackness,” but was “black” this way as well.
Black liberation theologians made crucial inroads into white universities and colleges. Cone and West obtained prestigious positions at Union Theological Seminary, Princeton, and Harvard. They then mentored dozens (if not hundreds) of scholars to continue the attack upon the whitening of the gospel.
Liberation theologians also participated in new black arts movements that visualized Jesus beyond whiteness. The theological momentum was part of broader changes in African American church life and beyond. Many whites, including myself, were first directed to challenging the white Jesus through the works of writers like Cone and West.
What are the primary myths surrounding Christ that you hope to dispel with your book?
The first and most important myth we want to dispel is that people necessarily and simply make Jesus look like themselves. This myth transforms religious imagery into little more than ethnic or cultural chauvinism. This myth also ignores so many other factors, such as the ability to create images and to distribute them widely. Technology, capital, and time matter significantly in what images can be made and which images can be widely displayed.
The second myth we want to counter is that black liberation theology is somehow new (or at least was born in the 1960s). By giving liberation theology a short history, we have ignored a much longer history where many everyday people — white, black, and Native American, women and men, young and old — have participated in challenging the whiteness of Jesus and the whitening of Christianity. Moreover, the longer history shows that the efforts to find liberation through Christian faith have touched on music and art, poetry and protest movements, and all other kinds of expressions. Black liberation theology was never simply defined by or for theologians and ministers, but it was a movement of everyday people that began almost two centuries ago.
Editor’s Note: For more information, visit the official website for The Color of Christ book at www.colorofchrist.com. At the site, readers can follow along with the images, videos, and texts described in the book and check out additional interviews with scholars, artists, and everyday people about why the color of Christ matters. Visitors also can share their personal stories about encountering Jesus in various visual forms.
As Election Day draws near, one of the most hotly contested battles isn’t just over the economy or foreign policy; it’s over the fundamental right to vote itself. This year we have seen an upsurge in voting-related laws being proposed and passed. As is too often the case, these new laws disproportionately work against people of color, as well as low-income populations.
Christians have a legacy of electing leaders, and we have a responsibility to protect this right for all our sisters and brothers. The early church decided that it would be good for them to “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn responsibility over to them” (Acts 6:3). Indeed, we are to “select capable men from all the people — men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain — and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Exodus 18:21). When we exercise the right to vote, we participate in a history passed down to us from both our political and spiritual forebears.
But this year, new laws seek to selectively impair voting capacity of a subset of the population by reducing polling hours and by requiring photo IDs. Some estimates suggest that in Pennsylvania, for instance, 9 percent of registered voters do not own a driver’s license and that nationwide these percentages could add up to approximately 22 million otherwise legally eligible voters being disenfranchised at the polls this year. Yet there have only been ten instances of in-person voter fraud in the nation since the year 2000. Ten.
What’s Wrong with Showing an ID?
One may wonder why obtaining a simple driver’s license is such a big deal. Doesn’t everybody need one anyway? But as it is less common to drive in urban settings, these populations are less likely to need driver’s licenses. And car ownership itself is a privilege of economic status that many of us in the middle-class strata take for granted. In fact, most other interactions that require a driver’s license are also habits of privilege (cashing a check, making purchase returns, renting a car, boarding a flight). Alternative forms of photo ID (like passports, government IDs, and college IDs) are also upper-middle-class documents.
It’s true that some types of non-driver’s-license photo ID are available for free, but they often require documentation like birth certificates and Social Security cards that can cost a significant amount of time and/or money to obtain. A simple task that is supposedly a right of citizenship quickly becomes a multi-day bureaucratic saga that requires energy and time away from work, often when one can’t afford either.
Those that use public transportation are especially burdened when original documentation, photo ID, registration, and actual voting all happen in different locations with restricted hours of operation. And in the meantime, local taxes that fund such public services are voted down by those least likely to need those services.
Homelessness makes the situation all the more difficult. It becomes almost impossible to establish residency, provide a mailing address, or show proof of identification. Yet a mailing address is often necessary to receive voter ID cards that individuals have to show on Election Day (regardless of photo ID requirements). All the while, those with the privilege of ease of access to voting can influence policies on housing, welfare, and social services, to the exclusion of those whom the policies actually affect.
Injecting Race Into the Race
In addition, these issues are conflated with race. Nationally, more than one million black residents and half-million Latinos live more than 10 miles away from locations issuing valid photo IDs. In Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, driver’s license offices “that are open more than twice a week are located largely away from rural black populations.”
Legislation has also targeted such options as early voting for individuals who aren’t able to make it to their polling places on Election Day. In the process of overturning these laws, some compelling stories have come to light (this court case in particular), but often at the expense of privacy and dignity. Ohio State Representative Alicia Reese notes, “Citizens have come up to me asking why, as a voter, have I been called lazy? Why, as a voter, have I been called a criminal because I want to go vote? As a voter, why are they making it more difficult because I work two shifts and I want to get to the board of elections to vote but I don’t want to lose my job in the process? Why in Ohio is the vote under attack?”
What is more, the proponents of these laws seem to be well aware of the laws’ nuanced and biased consequences, allowing the swirl of myths and fear mongering from a select few to confuse their motives. Pennsylvania State Representative Mike Turzai exclaimed that the new voter ID law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”
In a recent case regarding their voter ID law, the state of Texas argued that “poverty is not a protected classification under the Constitution,” and if “minority voters are disproportionately indigent,” they are nevertheless not being racially discriminated against. But a lack of intent to discriminate does not ensure a lack of discrimination. Indeed, a national survey demonstrated a correlation between those supporting Voter ID laws and those harboring negative attitudes toward people of color, which wasn’t simply explained by party affiliation.
It’s important to note that many proponents of voter ID laws are not intentionally trying to be discriminatory on the basis of class or race. But when we view the world from only one perspective, we tend to forget that the prevailing system favors the privileged in our country. Those that support voter ID laws are often the same folks who equate poverty with laziness, and blackness with criminal behavior, without ever digging into a deeper understanding of the subtle, often subconscious biases that we all maintain.
It is ironic that as we send troops overseas to “defend freedom and democracy” abroad, we create ways to hinder our own democratic process at home. Shouldn’t we laud an increase in voter turnout rather than trying to suppress it? Shouldn’t we want more citizens to become engaged in electoral proceedings, not fewer? How does decreased participation enhance the democratic process?
Perhaps there is a fear that by allowing more voting opportunities the “wrong” policies will be enacted. But if one’s policies are good and righteous, won’t they appeal to the majority of voters? We must remember that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people” (Proverbs 14:34).
If voter ID laws were purely about preventing voter fraud, the entire country would benefit from this added security. But if one political party makes gains from voter suppression, what does it say about that party’s platform? Clearly not that it is formed with the benefit all citizens in mind.
What does it say if one has to silence the voice of the people in order to win a seat in government? Could this be a sign that one’s policies are no longer benefiting the majority of one’s constituents? In some cases, I think it might. But rather than adjust their policies or “sell” voters on their positions, some politicians seek to increase the barriers to voting for their opponents.
A Troubled History at the Polls
Discrimination and intimidation at the polls is nothing new. Our country’s voting history is fraught with poll taxes, literacy requirements, racial gerrymandering, and voter intimidation (all of which were legal in our lifetime — or at least our parents’). Indeed, as I describe, many of these injustices are still practiced in one form or another today.
Both modern and historic laws use carefully coded language to allow for legal discrimination, without ever explicitly mentioning race. When poll taxes were legally in use, they often came with a grandfather clause that allowed citizens whose ancestors had voted in the years before the civil war (you know … before the abolition of slavery) to forgo the tax.
The implications for such a legacy are profound. Years of disenfranchisement leads to a foundation of legal precedent and accumulated power that perpetuate disparity and injustice. It’s no coincidence that that the Senate is still 96 percent white. As Christians, we know God says to “choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you” (Deuteronomy 1:13), but some groups are still embarrassingly absent from our leadership.
What effects might this disparity have on controversial or racially veiled legislation moving forward? Even assuming no intentional prejudice, surely we can’t presume that homogeneous legislatures have full understanding of the needs of their constituents of color.
The Truth About Voter Fraud
As Christian voters we have an obligation to “discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good” (Job 34:4). It’s true that there are cases in which voter fraud has been a problem, but these cases most often occur in the context of absentee voting, a scenario that is not at all helped by the requirement of a photo ID at the polls.
While some of the new legislation has been struck down, others remain up for debate and it’s important to inform ourselves about the effects of the legislation. If you haven’t registered for this year’s election, do so. And educate yourself about the ID requirements in your state. If you’re already registered and ready to go, help some who aren’t in that same position. On Election Day, join with other believers to unite around the communion table as a way of practicing our common bond in Christ amid our theological, political, and denominational differences. And on that day, consider giving of your time to make sure every citizen can cast a vote safely and legally.
What do you think of voter ID laws? Share your view in the comments section below.
REFORMED MIX: Rapper Lecrae inspires both praise and debate with his blend of solid beats and Reformed theology.
With the release of his new album, Gravity, earlier this month, Lecrae is growing in popularity as a hip-hop artist among audiences Christian and non-Christian, black and white. The Associated Press, among others, praised the album, saying, “Lecrae delivers a strong piece of work. He’s not afraid to rap about his past mistakes, supplying inspirational rhymes filled with Christian values backed by well-produced secular hip-hop beats.”
Lecrae (his full name is Lecrae Moore) stands at the intersection of two contrasting cultures: the urban vibe of historically black hip-hop and the theological leanings of the historically white Reformed tradition with its roots in Calvinism.
It’s a cultural mix common in Holy Hip-Hop, says author and “hip-hop theologian” Efrem Smith. Holy Hip-Hop artists often appear in front of white evangelical audiences and receive support from white Reformed pastors like John Piper and Mark Driscoll (who have both interviewed Lecrae). But the artists themselves tend to be young black men from inner-city backgrounds who ironically struggle to find an audience among urban youth.
The reason for that, Smith argues, is because the African American church has too often rejected hip-hop culture and because urban youth sometimes dismiss Holy Hip-Hop as inferior to secular hip-hop music.
“Lecrae and Reach Records are the main reason why Holy Hip-Hop is growing in popularity in urban American and African American communities,” Smith said in an interview with UrbanFaith. “Put the Christian stuff aside for a minute; Lecrae is more gifted and talented than many artists being pushed by secular companies today.”
Lecrae’s Scripture-packed music hits a variety of urban issues, like fatherlessness, drug addiction, and violence. Lecrae himself was raised by his mother in the inner city of Houston and was involved in gang activity before his conversion at age 19. He went to a black church when he first became a Christian, but later visited a white Reformed congregation and was attracted to their take on the Bible.
But as Lecrae said in a video produced by The Gospel Coalition, “To drop Calvin’s name (in the black community) is to drop a curse word.” The Reformed tradition has historical links to racism in the U.S., going back to Calvinists who used their theology to justify slavery.
For that reason, Smith cautioned Holy Hip-Hop artists against depending solely on Reformation theology (which he wrote about in a blog post). Rather, he said, they need to draw upon other theologies that address the concerns of the oppressed, like liberation theology, reconciliation theology and missional pietism, to speak a prophetic message. Smith suggests that’s one area where Lecrae could grow musically, although he likened this constructive critique to criticizing LeBron James’s basketball skills.
“He does a great job of talking about individual sin and individual responsibility and the importance of accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and living by the Holy Spirit,” Smith told UrbanFaith. “What I’d like to see him do more is raise the systemic issues — the corporate issues of sin and injustice in our country and the world — and point to kingdom justice and mercy to deal with these corporate sins.”
For Lecrae, the Reformed tradition describes how he interprets the Bible, and his adoption of that theology is a way to bridge the racial divide.
“I don’t feel like I’m under theological imperialism or whatever,” Lecrae said in a video produced by The Gospel Coalition. “I feel like I’m in search of truth, and I’m going to get it wherever I can find it. And I feel like I am in some senses a contextual ambassador, a cultural ambassador, and I do want to bridge those gaps and tear down those walls.” Check out the video below.
What do you think of Lecrae’s music and Holy Hip-Hop?
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.
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.
WE ARE TRAYVON: Thousands of protesters demanded justice for Trayvon Martin during the Million Hoodie March on March 21 in New York's Union Square. (Photo: Christopher Sadowski/Newscom)
The Trayvon Martin tragedy is perhaps the most-talked-about news story of this past week, yet a casual scan of Facebook pages and other social media suggests the outrage over Martin’s death does not extend that far beyond the African American community. That’s unfortunate, because this is a story that should upset all Americans, regardless of race, especially those of us in the Christian community.
Trayvon, an African American teenager, was walking down a Central Florida sidewalk when he was targeted by an overzealous neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman. Some sort of confrontation ensued and Trayvon, who was unarmed, was slain by Zimmerman, who claims he shot the 17-year-old in self-defense. The shooting has raised enough suspicions about the incident being racially motivated that the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department have opened investigations.
Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, told CNN, “I think that’s an issue that Mr. Zimmerman himself considers as someone suspicious — a black kid with a hoodie on, jeans, tennis shoes. Thousands of people wear that outfit every day, so what was so suspicious about Trayvon that Zimmerman felt as though he had to confront him?”
The charge brought to mind a recent college class I taught in which I was interrupted in the middle of my lecture by a student who challenged a fact I had just presented about the frequency of highway drug arrests. “I don’t believe it,” he stated. “I was in a car that was stopped once by the cops and we weren’t arrested even though they found marijuana.”
“Where were you, how many of you were in the car,” I asked, “and what races?”
The answer was that he and the four male teens were in a rural area of Ohio not far from their homes, and they were all white.
“So do you think your race and location had anything to do with not being arrested?” I asked. He didn’t.
I knew then I needed a set of facts to convey the reality that he and the other all-white class of students in my college course weren’t able to see — precisely because they were white and had never been viewed suspiciously in their hometowns because of the color of their skin. Michelle Alexander’s much-discussed book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, provided those facts.
22 Facts That Challenge Perceptions
As we worked through Michelle Alexander’s book over the course of the next couple of weeks, my students began to rethink their assumptions about how post-racial we as a society really are, even in an era of civil rights and a black president. This happened as they began to understand the reality of what Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor, coins the “criminalblackman.” In condensed form, here are the 22 statistics from her book that — cumulatively grasped — served as the scalpel for removing the colorblind scales from my white students’ eyes:
• To return to 1970 incarceration rates today, we would need to release 4 of every 5 inmates. (p. 218)
• Federal law requires that states permanently exclude anyone with a drug-related felony from receiving federally funded public assistance. (p. 153)
• Inmates work in prison for less than minimum wage, often for $3.00 an hour but as low as 25 cents an hour, even though child alimony and other payments continue to accrue. (p. 152)
• In the last 25 years, multiple fees have been added for those awaiting trial. These include jail book-in fees, jail per diems to cover “room and board” while awaiting trial, public defender application fees, and bail investigation fees. (p. 150)
• Post-conviction fees include public defender recoupment fees, work-release program fees, parole fees, probation fees. Example: Ohio courts can order probationers to pay a $50 monthly supervision fees as a condition of probation. (p. 150)
• Four of five drug arrests are for possession, not sales, of drugs. (p. 59)
• More than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began. (p. 59)
• There were 3,000 SWAT deployments a year in the early 1980s, but 30,000 by 2001. Driven by federal grants based on arrests, special tactic teams often act in military fashion as they “blast into people’s homes, typically in the middle of the night, throwing grenades, shouting, and pointing guns and rifles at anyone inside, often including young children.” (p. 74)
• Forfeiture laws (which allow local police departments to keep a substantial portion of seized assets and cash) are frequently used to allow those with assets to buy their freedom, resulting in most major kingpins getting short sentences or no sentences while small-time dealers or users incur long sentences. (p. 78)
• Tens of thousands of poor go to jail each year without ever having talked to a lawyer. In Wisconsin, 11,000 indigent people go to court without legal representation since anyone who earns more than $3,000 a year is considered capable of hiring a lawyer. (p. 83)
• Prosecutors routinely “load up” defendants with extra and questionable charges to force them to plead guilty rather than risk longer prison sentences resulting from the trumped up charges. (p. 86)
• Some federal judges have quit in protest over minimum sentencing laws, including one conservative judge who quit after being forced by minimum sentencing requirements to impose a five-year sentence on a mother in Washington, D.C., convicted of “possession” of crack found by police in a box her son had hidden in her attic. (p. 91)
• Most people convicted of a felony are not sentenced to prison. In 2008, 2.3 million people were in prisons and jails, but another 5.1 million were under probation or on parole. (p. 92)
• Even those convicted of a felony for a small amount of drugs are barred from public housing by law and made ineligible for feed stamps. (p. 92)
• By 2000, about as many people were returned to prison for parole violations as were admitted to prison in 1980 for all reasons. One can be returned to prison for any number of parole violations, including being found in the presence of another convicted felon. (p. 93)
• “Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” (p. 97)
• White young people have three times the number of drug-related emergency room visits as do black youth. (p. 97)
• In 2006, 1 of every 14 African Americans was behind bars, compared to 1 of every 106 European Americans. (p. 98)
• A study of Maryland highway stops found that only 17 percent of drivers along a stretch of I-95 outside of Baltimore were black, but black people comprised 70 percent of those stopped and searched for drugs. This was the case even though the study found that whites who were stopped were more likely to be found actually carrying contraband in their vehicles than people of color. (p. 131)
• States typically have mandatory sentencing for drunk driving (a statistically “white” crime with 78 percent of arrests being white males) of two days in jail for a first offense and two to ten days for a second offense, but the “black” crime of possessing even tiny amounts of cocaine carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison. (p. 201)
• White ex-offenders may actually have an easier time gaining employment than African Americans without a criminal record. “To be a black man is to be thought of as a criminal, and to be a black criminal is to be despicable — a social pariah. To be a white criminal is not easy, by any means, but as a white criminal you are not a racial outcast, though you may face many forms of social and economic exclusion. Whiteness mitigates crime, whereas blackness defines the criminal.” (p. 193)
The one statistic, however, that finally broke through the rural white Midwestern defenses was this one: “Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color” (p. 7).
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