May 3, 2012
Trayvon, Dr. Land, & the "Myth" of Racism
Richard Land "overestimates" the church's progress on race relations.
On an unseasonably warm Saturday in late March, my 3-year-old son and I took the train from our Chicago neighborhood to a rally downtown for Trayvon Martin, the unarmed African American teenager who was killed in Florida a month earlier. The protest itself was predictable: calls for an investigation into the shooting mixed with intense frustrations. I was, however, surprised by one moment. Standing with my son on my shoulders, straining to hear the one of the speakers, I overheard one woman respond to a reporter’s question. “Why is no one paying attention to this,” she asked. “Where are Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton? Why aren’t they speaking out?”
Two weeks later, in glaring contrast to this woman’s frustrations, Dr. Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, weighed in with his own opinion about Trayvon Martin’s death. “[T]his situation is getting out of hand,” Dr. Land opined on his radio program. “And it’s going to be violent. And when there is violence it’s going to be Jesse Jackson’s fault. It’s going to be Al Sharpton’s fault.” In these few sentences, and the many that followed, Dr. Land carelessly exposed the ways race continues to divide our country--and our churches.
I mean no disrespect to Dr. Land. In recent years I’ve been encouraged by his compassionate and theologically nuanced stance on immigration reform, making majority-culture churches aware of the struggles of immigrant Christians in our midst. His has been a cool, refreshing voice after so much partisan hot air. Yet at the very moment when Dr. Land could have used his influence to unite, he resorted instead to clichés and stereotypes, confirming to many the priority of race over creed.
Take, for example, his criticism of President Obama’s remarks about Trayvon Martin’s death, specifically the Presidents assertion that, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin.” Making such a statement, according to Dr. Land, only “poured gasoline on the racialist fires.” (I’m aware Dr. Land may have plagiarized many of the remarks he made on his radio program from a Washington Times column. Regardless of who the words originated with, I’m assuming the opinions were his own.)
Rather than stoking some sort of collective race-based anger, the President’s comments actually had the opposite affect. In one sentence he communicated to many people of color that someone in a position of power knew their grief and anger. The woman I overheard at the rally was looking for someone to make her pain known to a system that has historically overlooked and contributed to the suffering of people who look like Trayvon Martin. The President was speaking to her.
Reading the transcript of Dr. Land’s commentary gives one the sense that simply talking about Trayvon Martin is the problem, as though discussing the case, and the sensitive racial components in which it is wrapped, only serves to incense and divide. In my experience, this is an assumption Dr. Land shares with many other white Christians. Many think talking about race only makes things worse. When I share this perception with the people of color in our church, I’m met with blank stares or nervous chuckles. Not talking about racism and prejudice, they say, is the privilege of those whose skin color doesn’t identify them as a hyphenated American: African-American, Asian-American, Native-American, Hispanic-American, and so on.
Dr. Land doesn’t have to talk about these thorny issues because, like me, his experience with racism is mostly theoretical. Here is another subtle way race continues to divide: lacking personal experience of America’s injustices leads Dr. Land to dismiss those who speak out against them. For him, these spokespeople “need the Trayvon Martin’s to continue perpetuating their central myth: America is a racist and an evil nation.”
Did you catch that? For Dr. Land – and surely for many of us who share his privileged position – it is a myth that threads of racism still run through our country. I wonder how Dr. Land would explain why in my state of Illinois almost 90 percent of those sentenced to prison for drug use are African American; this despite the relatively equal drug use among white and black people. And, apart from ongoing racial injustice, how are we to understand the tragedy that in many cities young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college? Or that 80 percent of the black male workforce in my city faces the crushing weight of a felony conviction?
Many Christians in my city and around the country gather to worship with no doubt about the enduring potency of systemic racism – its evidence in neighborhoods, prisons, and schools cannot be ignored. To these Christians one of Dr. Land’s patronizing accusations is, in fact, reality: “In their eyes segregation has never been truly repealed. It has just become invisible.”
Of course, Dr. Land didn’t have to weigh in with his opinion about the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death. Reflecting on the Southern Baptist Convention’s “slavery-tinged beginning” Ed Stetzer recently suggested that leaders like Dr. Land talk less and listen more. “The Southern Baptist Convention still must earn a better reputation for racial inclusion and justice,” Stetzer wrote. “As such, perhaps SBC denominational leaders are not the best persons to speak into racially charged situations, critiquing the actions of African Americans or African American leaders.”
Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil, Professor of Reconciliation Studies at Seattle Pacific University, offers a more proactive response in a recent video. Reflecting on Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan, she suggests that identification with those who are different is an essential step towards reconciliation. What might change if those of us who aren’t regularly subject to systemic racism were to identify and empathize with the members of our Christian family who regularly experience the indignities and injustices of an unfair system?
Finally, in his eventual apology about his radio commentary, Dr. Land hints at another, far more productive, response to the young Trayvon’s death. “Clearly,” he wrote, “I overestimated the progress that has been made in slaying the ugly racist ghosts of the past in our history.” Indeed, many of us have overestimated the progress and our ignorance does nothing to heal old wounds and reconcile racially divided churches. Confessing our privileged ignorance is perhaps the greatest – and most Biblically attuned – step we can take towards becoming the reconciled people of God.