The Trayvon Martin Case: A Moment for Evangelical Reflection
"Okay, before you go out, what do you do if you get pulled over?" The proper response? "Keep your hands on the steering wheel, look straight ahead and answer, 'Yes, sir' or 'No, sir.' Don't give them any lip." This was the gist of the conversation my close friend's mother routinely had with her then teenage son when he took the car to hang out with his friends. It wasn't a matter of if he'd be pulled over, but a matter of when and how often. Rather than being guilty of a DWI, he'd be guilty of DWB, or "Driving While Black." Being pulled over (or hassled in others ways), often for no apparent reason, is a recurring experience for many African-Americans who are minding their own business. But it's not just African-Americans.
My friend Eve Nunez and her husband Joseph told me that law-enforcement officials in Arizona routinely hassle Latinos (both documented and undocumented). One friend of theirs was chased down the highway in his SUV and actually called them while it was happening. He was assumed to be an undocumented resident because of the color of his skin and the unjust SB 1070 legislation. Another citizen was harassed by law enforcement over his immigration status while at a restaurant, humiliated in full view of the patrons—again because of the color of his skin.
Another friend, a lawyer who formerly worked for a city prosecutor's office, told me about some of her experiences in law school. For example, while riding with friends through a predominantly white, affluent suburb, all the African-American law students in the car would duck out of view. Why? The police in this particular suburb are notorious for pulling over darker-skinned people for no apparent reason. That's why the local magistrate routinely throws out suspicious citations by these police officers. It's not an experience that those in the majority culture often have or can even identify with, but one that minorities, especially those of darker skin, frequently go through.
Such stories of overt discrimination wake us up from the slumber of assuming racism is over.
It really seems as if minorities and those in the majority culture live in two different worlds. That's what we all need to understand. The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman tragedy has forcefully brought racial tensions, and the realities that many minorities face, to the fore.
What has been the white American evangelical church's stance?
Historically, as the Civil Rights era emerged, many Christian colleges and churches were more concerned with the length of men's hair than with the abuse and oppression of African-Americans and other minorities. In a 2005 article in Books & Culture, Ron Sider cites research which demonstrates that, "White evangelicals are the most likely people to object to neighbors of another race." And after careful and considerable research in their seminal work, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion And The Problem of Race in America, (a resource Sider also cites), Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith soberly conclude that, "… white evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate the racialized society than to reduce it." No wonder Ed Gilbreath and his publishers titled his eye-opening book, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity.
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