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You have to watch this clip of Melissa Harris-Perry sounding off on poverty in America. Passionate and full of truth:

Check out the full segment on MSNBC.

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Almost ten years ago, I was a new teacher in a mostly-white, private Christian school. Most of my courses were American literature, but in my youth and zeal, I decided to take on a number of electives. One of the new courses I taught was Speech and Debate. It had been but a year since 9-11 and many of my students wanted to give speeches on issues related to terrorism or war. Knowing this, I decided to have them read an essay that pertained to racial profiling, hoping to round out their understanding of current events. The essay was written by an Arab man, but it was written in the 1980’s at the height of American hijacking fears. All of my students wrestled with the author’s point-of-view, struggling to balance their limited sound-bite-fed knowledge of national security issues against his account of being profiled, an obvious act of injustice. The kids were starting to break down some of their preconceptions about race and privilege and were genuinely open to confronting the derailments that traditionally held them captive in conversations about race.

I was excited and wanted to see more of this. In one of my English courses, I had students read an essay written by a black man on the same topic. He spoke of having to cross the street to avoid walking directly behind a white woman. But, unlike my debate students, these students immediately balked at the author’s account. They called him “paranoid” and insisted that he was making too much of things. One of my students, one of the only black members of his class, turned around and addressed his white classmates. He told them about how his mom encouraged him not to wear hats or hooded jackets in a store. He had been educated to keep a low profile and to maintain a respectful tone in the face of authority figures who would not do him the same courtesy. My students listened and empathized, but there were several who remained skeptical that racial profiling was a persistent problem in America, or even an injustice at all.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, I thought about those two classroom situations. Like many of us, I had a visceral response to the news. The anti-racist in me felt helpless and hopeless in the days that followed. Tope’s post on the subject slayed me. As did Jim Vance’s honest and heartfelt editorial commentary on “The Talk” on our local news. I was reminded of my student’s courage in informing his white peers and I began to hope that perhaps we had arrived at a moment where white folks could “get it” when it came to racial profiling, gun violence, or being a perpetual target.

Call it slacktivism if you will, but I started posting everything I could find on the subject on Facebook. I deliberately chose articles that were well-researched or editorials that provided a clear, truthful, but winsome perspective, hoping that my white friends would join the call for justice in Trayvon’s killing. I even sought out faith-based commentary from a pastor, thinking that would appeal to my white Christian friends who remain ignorant of their privilege. A few friends at church told me that the things I was posting “made me think.” I got a couple compliments from unexpected people about the articles I’d posted. Still, I was doubtful that these ideas were taking root. In the anti-racist fight, even in my own prejudiced heart and mind, it’s often one step forward, two steps back.

It’s been a couple months now, and most of the talk on this topic has slowed in my Facebook news feed. Occasionally, a friend will post something as the case against George Zimmerman moves forward, but there is no longer a frantic flurry of commentary on the case as there was in those early weeks. Just recently, I began to see a new conversation on these topics emerge among some of my friends. Unfortunately, the discussion about race, injustice, vigilantism, etc. has been derailed by two common white complaints:

1) White people are killed and no one makes this big a fuss about it.

I saw this sentiment expressed in conjunction with a blog post about the shooting death of UNC student Eve Carson.  The blogger writes:

Was she profiled? You bet she was. Eve was profiled as a Rich, Blue -Eyed, Blond Haired, White Girl. Were there protests, marches and outraged politicians speaking out for her? Did Barack call her family?  Why is it about race only if the victim is black? Why aren’t we outraged when ANY kid is murdered? As a nation, have we been silenced by a politically correct whip? Lets’ be outraged about all murders, all racism, every injustice.

Let’s just ignore the mistaken timeline for a minute (Obama took office in 2009 and Eve was killed in March 2008) and focus on the thrust of this post.  Eve Carson’s murder garnered national attention. Her killers were brought to justice. At no point has there been any implication that race was a motivating factor in her killing.  In fact, her assailants claim they planned to rob her but killed her when she got a good look at them.

Anyone who watches daytime television can tell you that the media and our politicians make a huge fuss about it when a white person is murdered. Even more so if the person is young, female, and attractive by society’s measures. (In that case, the victim is likely to become the center of a Lifetime channel biopic.)

In fact, I’ve rarely seen an Amber alert for a child of color. That’s why organizations like the Black & Missing Foundation even exist: to publicize missing and endangered persons of color because most of the time, the media won’t do it. There is a racial disparity in the way criminals and victims are portrayed in the media.

Eve Carson’s case got the attention of morning shows and talk shows far beyond the scope of local news coverage. Her campus and her town rallied and held vigils. Her killers were apprehended and convicted.  There really is no fair comparison to be made between that case and Trayvon’s. If anything, Eve’s story illustrates by contrast how little we collectively care about a murder like Trayvon’s.

That leads me to the other derailment I’ve seen floating around on social networks:

2) White people are now the target of violence because of the case. We are threatened and should be afraid of retaliation.

Richard Land, prominent spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Convention made me glad I’ve left that assembly when he said recently on his radio show of black leaders, “They need the Travyon Martins to continue perpetuating their central myth: America is a racist and an evil nation. For them it’s always Selma Alabama circa 1965.”  Land offered a pseudo-apology for his comments in a public letter written to the current SBC president:

Richard Land, who leads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote to SBC president Bryant Wright to express his “deep regret for any hurt or misunderstanding” his comments may have caused.

“It grieves me to hear that any comments of mine have to any degree set back the cause of racial reconciliation in Southern Baptist or American life,” Land wrote, according to a letter released by Baptist Press, the denomination’s official news agency.

This, as the convention prepares to elect a new president, likely Rev. Fred Luter, who would be the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Fearful white folks first point to the New Black Panthers’ offer of a bounty for the capture or death of George Zimmerman as evidence that whites are collectively in danger.  (The New Black Panther Party is unaffiliated with the Black Panthers). They will mention Spike Lee’s attempt to tweet Zimmerman’s address.  Lee apologized for the tweet, having inadvertently tweeted the wrong address, and legally settled the matter with the affected family.

I saw this derailment employed alongside the story of a white Orlando man who was severely beaten by a group of young black men.  The family of the victim claims that Matthew Owens was beaten as part of a retaliation for Trayvon Martin’s death.  Police investigating the crime reported that the dispute between Owens and his chief assailant has been ongoing, and while racial slurs are hurled by both sides, the beating was in no way related to the Trayvon Martin case.

This derailment is one of many historically used to create fear in white people.  Time and again in our history, we have learned about the threat that black men pose.  This derailment says, for black folks to see justice, white people will have to pay: reparations, loss of status, even loss of life.  As white folks, we cannot acknowledge the wrong in Trayvon’s case, much less right it, because to do so endangers us all.

It also diverts the attention from what was clearly a race-based crime onto other crimes in which white people are the victims.  We’re more comfortable with that narrative than we are with a story that allows us to see ourselves in a man holding a gun to a young boy’s head.

As white people, we can continue spinning tales about how people of color are out to get us, coming for our stuff, eager to disrupt our way of life.  Or, we can do better, we can do good, and choose to see the injustices that still exist in our country: including the one perpetrated against young Trayvon Martin.  We can stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of color, confess the truth about societal structures of sin, and call for justice.

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Warning – this post discusses the death of children as a result of racialized violence.
eta: feel free to share or cross-post the text of this post on your blogs or social media networks.

Trayvon Martin

I’ve struggled to say much about this yet because it’s just so heartbreaking and terrifying.

Here’s the short version – Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old boy, went out to get skittles for his little brother and ended up shot at point blank range and killed 70 feet from his dad’s home, because a neighborhood watch captain thought he looked “suspicious” (“because he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and walking slowly in the rain”) and decided to go after him, despite a 911 dispatcher’s instructions that he not engage and remain in his car.

Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, is claiming self defense, despite the fact that he had 10 years and 100 lbs on Trayvon, and despite the fact that Trayvon was unarmed. The local police have accepted this story and declined to arrest him. They have also refused to release the 911 tape to Trayvon’s family. One witness who says she heard Trayvon crying for help just before he was shot says she’s been “blown off” by the Sanford police.

Trayvon was black. George Zimmerman is not.

There’s a Change.org petition to bring Trayvon’s killer to justice. Please, please sign it. Please share Trayvon’s story with your friends and social networks. We need to bring this case to national attention and get this family the justice they deserve.

I don’t really know what to say about this. As a daughter and sister to men who have to live under a constant burden of nebulous “suspicion” just because they’re black, who can be stopped or challenged at any moment by cops or random vigilantes like Zimmmerman just because they’re black, this terrifies me. As a mother, it absolutely wrecks me. I cannot imagine the heartbreak and loss Trayvon’s family is going through.

I need people to try to understand how terrifying it is to be a black parent – or parent to a black child, especially a boy – in this country. It’s dealing with the ever present fear that your child may leave the house for the most innocent or banal reason but never come home. It’s dealing with the fear that if the worst happens to your child, none of the people who are in a position to help or get you justice will care.

I know some folks don’t understand why I post so much about race and racism. This is part of why. This is happening all the time. All over. To kids who’ve done nothing but exist in a society all too ready to see them as potential criminals and justify any kind of brutality and violence against them as a result.

Two years ago in Pittsburgh, Jordan Miles, a 17 year old black honors student on his way to stay with his grandmother – because she didn’t like to spend the night in her house alone – was ambushed and beaten so badly by 3 plainclothes cops that much of his hair was ripped out (he had dreadlocks) and his face was swollen beyond recognition (warning, graphic images). The officers filed a false report and false charges against Jordan. They’ve never been punished for their brutality or their lies – quite the opposite.

And these cases can’t be separated from the police and state violence that’s leveled against black families and communities in the name of “being tough on crime.” This rationale is used to justify raids on black homes by SWAT teams armed to the teeth – the kind of raid that ended with 7 year old Aiyana Jones shot and killed in her own home. A Detroit police special response team threw a flash grenade into Aiyana’s home while she and her grandmother were sleeping. In the ensuing confusion, one of the officers shot Aiyana. Aiyana’s killer has since been indicted on manslaughter charges.

Black communities and other communities of color are disproportionately at the receiving end of such extreme, militarized state force. Police raids or ambushes that repeatedly ended up in the brutalizing or death of white middle class people – least of all children – would never be allowed to continue unaddressed, much less for decades. We’re ok with it because, well, when it comes to black people and communities many people just accept it as the way things are. I’ve seen more outrage over SWAT raids that ended in the death of a dog than over a raid that killed a little black girl. If this happened to your family, to someone you know, wouldn’t you be outraged? So why are we so complacent about death after death of black youth? Where is the outrage? I appreciate very much my non-black friends who speak out about these things, but the sad truth is that the vast majority of anger or resolve to say or do anything about this is from black people alone. That’s inexcusable. These are fellow human beings, many of them just kids.

A month ago 19 year old Ramarley Graham was shot and killed in his bathroom by plain clothes NYPD who had been questioning him on suspicion of dealing pot. They thought he had a gun. So they chased him. He was unarmed. He had a little bit of marijuana on him. They shot him in front of his 6 year old brother and grandmother. All for what? The life of a black teen is worth so little that tracking down a little bit of pot and an unseen potential gun (assumed to exist because he was seen “[reaching] for his waistband” before the police approached him) is enough to justify taking it altogether?

Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Jordan Miles, Aiyana Jones, Ramarley Graham, now Trayvon Martin. Those are just a few of the names we know. How many times does this have to happen to a black man – to a black boy, a child – before we have a real conversation about the continued realities of racism in this country? Before we get real about the fact that we don’t value the lives of black men and boys?

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Last fall, I bought Dr. Tony Evans’ new book, Oneness Embraced: Through the Eyes of Tony Evans.  Personally, I’m a fan of this pastor and his radio show, The Alternative.  A few years ago, I also had the privilege of sitting under the teaching of his daughter, Priscilla Shirer, at a women’s conference held by my church.  Seeing Dr. Evans was taking up the topic of race and racism in the evangelical church, I immediately got a copy.  Unfortunately, it took me several months to get around to reading it.  I can say that this book, written primarily to white and black audiences in particular, is a confident yet diplomatic invitation to those interested in building unity amid diversity and division in the church.

Dr. Evans begins by identifying white evangelical culture’s call to return to the good old days for what it is: an intensely problematic romanticism that overlooks the theological error and human cruelty committed by revered historical figures.  Evans is gentle, generous and gracious in explaining this to his likely resistant and privileged audience:

For far too long Anglo Christians have wrapped the Christian faith in the American flag, often creating a civil religion that is foreign to the way God intended His church to function.  Our nation’s founding fathers are frequently elevated to the level of church fathers in the arguments for the U.S. being founded as a Christian nation…Our founding fathers’ failure to apply the principles of freedom that they were espousing to the area of race is a prominent reason why many minority individuals are less than enthusiastic to join in with those in our nation who want to exalt or restore America’s history and heritage…what is often missing in our appeal to the return of the heritage and faith of our founding fathers is an acknowledgment and reversal of a major theological contradiction that many held–that of proclaiming justice for all while denying it for many…[We] have often appealed to that heritage while simultaneously ignoring the moral inconsistencies that were prevalent in its application. (19-20)

Evans dedicates a large section of his book to educate his audiences about the evolution of the black church in America.  This is perhaps the most valuable component.  While this abridged history may seem like an oversimplification for students of the subject, Evans’ presentation of the material piques one’s interest and would be engaging to any relatively uneducated audience (like me).  Unlike many of his white peers, Evans, himself a mainline evangelical, acknowledges the contributions of black liberation theologian James Cone, while making clear his own points of contention with that dogma.  He encourages his readers to engage in a discerning exploration of Cone’s theology:

While evangelicals would do well to listen to James Cone in the areas where he has argued correctly, we must also recognize the areas of disagreement.  Primarily, Cone’s black theology greatly overemphasized the black situation of oppression to the point of compromising biblical truth.  It also focused heavily on racism to such an extent that no real basis for reconciliation was afforded.  Likewise, Cone’s interpretation of the relationship of Jesus Christ to liberation failed to integrate it into the whole of God’s salvific purposes for mankind. (193)

Evans goes on to address how Cone’s theology affected earlier emphases of the black church and how those shifts interacted with the social and political realm.  Evans’ discussion of these historical topics is scholarly and thoughtful, inviting conversation and accepting that there are differing opinions on these topics within the black church.

Following this section, Evans lays out a proposal for establishing a multi-cultural church that addresses the reality of the racialized context of black-white relationships.  Evans’ hope for unity and reconciliation in the church is not a naïve one.  He confronts the situation honestly saying, “Both sides must be willing to experience the potential rejection of friends and relatives, whether Christians or non-Christians, who are not willing to accept that spiritual family relationships transcend physical, cultural, and racial relationships.  He even cites Ephesians 4 and one of our favorite verses here on the blog.  Evans describes the “kingdom-minded church” both metaphorically and practically (each paired with Scripture references that I’m omitting for the sake of brevity):

Someday a big show is coming to town and it’s called the kingdom of God…God has left His church here to provide clips of the major production that is to come.  Unfortunately, most of our clips have been so weak in demonstrating the power and wonder of a feature film that few people show interest in picking up a ticket.  Instead of previewing an epic, we often merely reflect the sitcoms and soap operas around us…While there is war in the world, there ought to be the existence of peace in the church, and prayer for peace by the church.  While there is oppression in society, there ought to be liberation and justice in the church.  While there is poverty in the world, there ought to be voluntary sharing with the goal of meeting existing needs in the church.  While there is racism, classism, and sexism in the world, there ought to be authentic oneness in the church.  Thus the world is presented with the option of Christ by being what the church is supposed to be in the world–an alternative model for the world–a community functioning under the rule of God in the mediatory kingdom on earth. (247-248)

While much of what Evans presents in the book is done so in reduced, dualistic terms (black v. white, social action v. personal transformation, etc.), there are times when this works in his favor, adding weight to his arguments in favor of a deeper commitment to social justice (something white evangelicals often eschew as a priority for “liberal” churches).  The dualism also gives his point-of-view poignancy, as in his conversation with famed evangelist Billy Graham (who himself struggled for years to integrate his crusades and rectify his the mistakes he made early in his career when he kowtowed to segregationists):

While we spent the afternoon together, [Graham] expressed the concern weighing heavy on his heart.  He told me how individuals would work together across racial lines to both plan and implement his crusades; however, after the event was over, these same individuals had no relationship with each other at all…In response, I told him that this happened because the event was only tied to evangelism and not to community transformation as well.  When invited, black pastors joined with white pastors to put together an evangelistic outreach.  But the heart of African-American Christianity hinged on a broader perspective of the scope of the gospel rather than solely on the gospel’s content.  When asked to participate in the community-impact initiatives by their fellow African-American pastors, the Anglo church has, as a general rule, often not shown the same enthusiasm of partnership that they receive in their outreach requests.  Without a comprehensive understanding of the gospel, we lack the common goal necessary to bring us together to evoke real and lasting change in our nation. (270-271)

Evans ends his book with a short description of how his church has integrated some of these principles in an effort to reflect the wider kingdom of God.  This section is short, but offers a practical template for conducting ministry in light of and with an aim toward unity and diversity.

I’m glad to see such popular preachers taking up these issues and I’m hopeful that my next read, John Piper’s Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, will also prove edifying.

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Also check out the Korematsu Institute: http://korematsuinstitute.org/

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Dr. Martin Luther King once lamented, “At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing that Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”

Sadly, in many places, his words still ring all too true.

I want to express my gratitude that at 11:00 last Sunday morning, this was not true at the church in my neighborhood.

If you’ve seen my “How Diverse Is Your Neighborhood?” post, you know that metro DC is generally very segregated. But my neck of the woods is one of the few areas that looks almost brown on the big map:

Each dot represents 25 people: Red means white, blue means black, orange represents Hispanics, green means Asian, and grey means other.

Not too bad for DC.

Of course, even in a pretty diverse neighborhood, churches can tend towards the monochromatic. The language spoken, the style of music, the preaching, the ministry leaders and emphases, the art, the way people dress… they can make some people feel more welcome than others.

As I looked around during the homily Sunday morning, though, I realized there’s something different going on here. In the pews immediately surrounding me, I saw eleven Asians, seven black people, twelve white people (I counted myself), and thirteen Latinos. Thank you, Jesus.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m definitely not claiming we’re done “preach[ing] brotherhood and mak[ing] it a reality within [our] own body.” And Dr. King’s call to “really go out and to transform American society” remains. There’s a long road ahead.

But I thank God that 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing that Christ has no east or west, at least in this one church, we’re beginning to do it together.

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From June 18, 2011, through January 1, 2012, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, will be hosting an exhibit called “Race: Are We So Different?

The exhibition RACE: Are we so different? brings together the everyday experience of living with race, its history as an idea, the role of science in that history, and the findings of contemporary science that are challenging its foundations.

Interactive exhibit components, historical artifacts, iconic objects, compelling photographs, multimedia presentations, and attractive graphic displays offer visitors to RACE an eye-opening look at its important subject matter.

Developed by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, RACE is the first nationally traveling exhibition to tell the stories of race from the biological, cultural, and historical points of view. Combining these perspectives offers an unprecedented look at race and racism in the United States.

Other museums have been and will be hosting this exhibit as well. Current and upcoming locations include Boston, Charlotte, Santa Barbara, New Orleans, Houston, and Durham. Please visit the official website for a virtual tour and the tour schedule.

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