Category: racial profiling

Mathews: “Thug” is the new n-word: the criminalization of Richard Sherman

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By Alan Bean

Joseph Mathews is a writer and public speaker who is currently working on his doctorate in urban youth culture and education at Columbia University.  I met Joseph at an organizing meeting at Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas in 2007.  When he learned that I had been the first outsider to organize in Jena, Louisiana, he asked if he could visit the community with me.  He was interested in shooting a documentary.  When he met some of the Jena 6 defendants it took him about ten seconds to get them rapping.  In the picture to the left, Joseph is filming their impromptu performance.

My response to the Richard Sherman post-game rant differs from Joseph’s.  For one thing, I have followed Michael Crabtree’s career since he played at Texas Tech and didn’t like hearing his talents impugned.  To me, Sherman sounded more like a professional wrestler than a football player.  Moreover, he was giving full, uncut expression to the hyper-competitive aspect of American athletics that has always repelled me.

But my first thought was, “Oh, no, the haters are going to have a field day with this.”  Which, of course, they did.

Joseph identifies with Sherman at a much deeper level than I do because he shares so much of Sherman’s experience.  Growing up as a gifted athlete who initially struggled academically, Joseph has experienced prejudice and rejection firsthand.

When we were driving out of Jena after the big rally in September of 2007, Joseph kept saying, “Doc, could you slow down just a little bit?”

When I explained that we were just a couple of ticks over the speed limit, he said, “Doc, how many times have you been pulled over by the police?”

“Two or three times,” I replied.

“And why did they pull you over?” he asked

“Because I was way over the speed limit,” I admitted.  “How many times have you been pulled over?”

“Thirty three times,” Joseph stated flatly, “and it is almost always for nothing.”

This deeply divergent life experience influences perception at a basic level.

Joseph Mathews is right: in the vernacular lexicon, “thug” has replaced the n-word.  No one is going to call you a racist for characterizing Richard Sherman as a thug.  As this interview clearly demonstrates, Sherman is a well-spoken, highly educated young man.  He also grew up on the mean streets of Compton, New Jersey, and those streets will be with him to the day he dies.

Thug is the New “N” Word: The Criminalization of Richard Sherman and Black Youth

by Joseph Mathews
Thug – a tough and violent man; a criminal
It wasn’t five minutes after I posted my thoughts on Facebook that many of my white childhood Facebook friends went in on me about him. Their comments were so full of hate I had to rewind my TiVo to make sure that I had not missed something, like him shooting or stabbing another player. As I began reminiscing about what it was like to be black and playing sports while growing up in Oklahoma, this country’s most conservative and what many would argue one of the most racist states in America, my memories were haunting. I have seen more than my share of young black males killed, incarcerated, discriminated against, harassed and criminalized in the name of being a thug, including myself. And the comments being made on my page represented the larger narrative going on simultaneously around the country and the feeling of many people in very low and high places.

Man! Richard I wish you would have told them that you graduated 2nd in your class from a high school in Compton and went to Stanford where you graduated with a 3.9 GPA! I wish you would have told them you were working on your Masters Degree! I wish you would have told them that you were not a thug but a hero to your hood because despite the odds, you accomplished your dreams! This is what I was thinking they should have had him saying as I sat in front of my TV and watched the Beats by Dre Head Phones commercial that set the stage for what was about to transpire around the country. During the NFC championship game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, as the reporter on the commercial said to him “what do you think of being known as a thug around the league?” I shook my head as he just put his head phones on, because I knew what was coming. NFL defensive back Richard Sherman’s character was about to be assassinated, he was about to become the latest victim of the dreaded New N-Word “Thug”.

The racist venom reached a fever pitch after he gave the post-game interview. I watched as negative comment after negative comment poured in – every last one of them questioning his character and calling him every name in the book, stopping just short of calling him the “N” word. But the foundation had already been laid. They could not get away with calling him a no good “N”, but they could get away with calling him a no good “Thug” which was the word of choice being used to characterize him nationally. Unlike the painful racially charged N-Word, which carries much historical baggage, the usage of the “T” word is not publicly frowned upon at all nor is it politically incorrect, and in many cases its used to justify the mistreatment and criminalization of black youth.
This guilt by characterization and classification mindset has been at the center of many recent racial controversies that have resulted in those who committed acts of violence against unarmed black youth being free to walk away, because in death the victim’s character was put on trial, and in life they were all found guilty of being thugs, which in the court of public opinion is punishable by death. You see, no one really cares about what happens to kids that are not fully viewed as human beings, who are guilty of something. But I think it would be an insult to the intelligence of those who now know Richard Sherman’s background and continue to call him a thug. Because I truly believe that they realize he is not a thug. They know exactly what they are saying and where their hearts truly are. They understand very well that people are treated like they are viewed, and that historically the practice of stripping away young black male’s humanity, through giving them names that automatically cast a shadow of guilt and suspicion over them, makes them more susceptible to harassment and discriminatory practices. Now that the word thug has taken on a new meaning, white folks who continue to call black kids thugs, and young men like Richard Sherman thugs, are really saying we don’t care how smart and educated you are, how much money you make, or how great you are at doing something we love, we still hate you and you’re still a “N”. We’ll just change the n-word to “thug”.

The indiscriminate labeling of black males as thugs has created an atmosphere of disdain and insensitivity and has made them targets of crime with very slim chances that they will get justice, compassion and least of all protection under the law. In the name of neutralizing so-called thugs, police have been allowed to shoot and kill unarmed black men like Oscar Grant and trigger happy citizens have been allowed to get away with with murdering unarmed children like Trayvon Martin.

The reality is that most people who subscribe to this white supremacist ideology don’t believe that Richard Sherman is a thug, but they do want him to be guilty of something because that would reinforce the negative raciest stereotypes of young black males that they hold onto to feel better about themselves. Richard Sherman is not guilty of being a thug. He is guilty of being something much more dangerous. He’s guilty of making certain white people uncomfortable. He is young, black, rich, educated, and cocky, feels he is the best, and is the best at what he does. But worst of all he is not afraid to let the world know. That is why in many ways Richard Sherman simultaneously represents the American dream and the American nightmare. He has the bravado, drive, and leadership abilities that are often touted as quintessentially American, BUT one of America’s greatest fears is for one of its black athlete’s (i.e. Mohamed Ali, Jim Brown, Paul Robeson ) to use their influence and platform to speak out against injustice and inequality. Richard Sherman has the potential to be that athlete. If they neutralize him with the “T” word before he recognizes his true potential then their fears will be put to rest — for now. So be careful not to think too much of yourself or you might be the next “N” Word, I mean thug.

Most White Americans are down with racial profiling

By Alan Bean

The reaction to the George Zimmerman verdict shows that most white Americans are down with racial profiling.

The upshot of this verdict is that white folks can stalk and confront young black males without justification and shoot them dead if they choose to defend themselves.   This might not be laudable behavior; in fact, it might be downright tacky.  But it isn’t illegal.

Technically, the reverse is true: young black males can stalk and confront white folks and shoot them dead if they resist . . . but, as a practical matter, stand-your-ground logic only works for real Americans. (more…)

At Mexican Border, Four in Five Drug Busts Involve American Citizens

ImagePosted by  Pierre Berastain

“Three out of four people found with drugs by the border agency are U.S. citizens, the data show. Looked at another way, when the immigration status is known, four out of five busts—which may include multiple people—involve a U.S. citizen.”

Amidst the accusations of people like Governor Brewer and Sheriff Apaio that undocumented immigrants are dangerous criminals responsible for smuggling millions of dollars worth of drugs , this article brings a new and fresh perspective.

At Mexican Border, Four in Five Drug Busts Involve American Citizens

by 

The public’s view of a typical Mexican drug smuggler might not include U.S. Naval Academy grad Todd Britton-Harr, who was caught at a Border Patrol checkpoint in south Texas in December 2010 hauling a trailer with 1,100 pounds of marijuana.

Nor would someone like Laura Lynn Farris leap to mind. Border Patrol agents stopped the 52-year-old woman at a border checkpoint 15 miles south of the west Texas town of Alpine in February 2011 with 162 pounds of marijuana hidden under dirty blankets in laundry baskets. (more…)

Probing the subtleties of white racial bias

By Alan Bean

I came across two columns this morning making the case that white people can be riddled with racial bias without feeling any particular ill will toward racial minorities.

In a guest column in the New York Times, Ta-Nehisi Coates uses a grotesque incident of racial profiling involving academy award-winning actor Forest Whitaker as his jumping off point.  The deli employee who accused Whitaker of shop lifting, and frisked him on the spot, claims to be a “good person” without a single racist bone in his body.  Coates doesn’t argue with this self-assessment, but disputes the assumption that racism necessarily involves a conscious dislike of a particular racial group.

In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.” (more…)

ICE officials say they were just doing their jobs

By Alan Bean

Two Latino parents were arrested in Detroit on Tuesday morning as they dropped their children off at school.  Immigrant rights groups are outraged.  Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) say they were simply following procedures.

Although Latino voters gave Barack Obama his margin of victory in 2012, more undocumented residents have been deported under his watch than under any previous administration.  Obama won because Latino voters perceived, correctly, that the situation would have deteriorated even further had Mitt Romney become president.

Were the ICE officials who arrested two men in front of their children following standard procedures?  Probably.  The Obama administration is ostensibly focusing on deporting criminals while going easy on undocumented residents with close family ties in America.  Unfortunately, as the article below makes clear, entering the country without documentation is now a federal crime even, as is often the case, the primary reason for entering the United States was to be re-united with young children.

If you were deported as an “illegal alien” while your citizen child remained in the United States, what would you do?

Nothing?  Perhaps, but if you didn’t do everything in your power to get back with your child you would lose my respect (and Jesus wouldn’t be impressed either). (more…)

Can I get a little sympathy for Joe Arpaio?

Sheriff Joe Arpaio

By Alan Bean

There is an Alice in Wonderland quality about the civil trial of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.     Racial profiling is illegal and Sheriff Joe insists that his boys would never target a resident of Maricopa County on the basis of national origin or skin color.  On the other hand, it is widely considered to be okay to keep non-white Mexican nationals out of the United States because, well, they’re not like us and, if we let too many of them in, we won’t be like us for much longer.

The cries for help that Joe Arpaio’s office received from white residents clearly reflect “keep America white” sentiments, and “America’s toughest Sheriff” enthusiastically responded to these messages, but, he insists, without committing the dreaded sin of racial profiling.

It isn’t just the ALCU and MALDEF that have problems with Sheriff Joe; the Department of Justice is also concerned about his tactics.

Let’s get this straight.  The federal government, represented by the Department of Homeland Security, entered into a 287(g) agreement according to which 160 deputies, working for a man widely deplored as an insufferable racist, were deputized as immigration agents with the authority to sweep into the heavily Latino sections of town and arrest people who looked like they might be undocumented.

Now the federal government, represented by the Department of Justice, is upset because Joe and his posse were overstepping their mandate.  Please explain how deputized border cops (racist or otherwise) can locate people who are in the country illegally without resorting to the crudest kind of racial profiling?

We aren’t talking about routine traffic stops here; we’re talking about white people complaining about “wetbacks”; we’re talking about dozens of immigration agents (paid by the sheriff’s department) sweeping into a suspicious neighborhood and arresting everybody brown person in sight.  The government says you can do this as long as you don’t resort to racially profiling.

I’m sorry, but I can understand why Sheriff Arpaio might get a little confused.  One branch of the federal government is begging him to flush out the Mexicans while another posse of federales takes him to task for racial profiling.

When we say that America’s immigration policy is broken, this is precisely what we are talking about.  Our Jekyll and Hyde government reflects the fractured contradictions within the national psyche.  Heaven help the poor journalists and jurists charged with making sense of of this mess; it’s beyond my feeble powers.

Arpaio Takes the Stand in Racial Profiling Lawsuit

New America Media, News Report, Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Word spread like wildfire in the North Phoenix neighborhood: Sheriff Joe Arpaio was coming to do an immigration sweep. His agency had received a letter circulated by a member of an immigration restrictionist group that was signed by eight businesses complaining about day laborers in the area.  (more…)

Supreme Court rejects key portions of Arizona immigration law

By Alan Bean

The Supreme Court handed the Obama administration a big win by striking down the most egregious portions of Arizona’s controversial immigration law.  Stat law enforcement can determine the immigration status of detained individuals, but cannot stop and question a person on the street simply because they suspect that person may be undocumented.

Although state police officers have a greenlight to determine the immigration status of detained persons, this merely transfers this common practice from ICE, a federal agency, to state and local law enforcement.  From the standpoint of the detained individual, it hardly matters whether your status is being checked by ICE officials or by a state official–the result is the same. 

Arizona won some state’s rights points, in other words, but the plight of undocumented persons (and those who merely look, by virtue of language, accent and skin-hair color, as if they might be documented) hasn’t changed on iota.  Under the all-but-universal Secure Communities program, local law enforcement officials are already required to place an ICE hold on any person they detain for whatever reason.  The feds will then run a check and determine whether the individual is subject to deportation. 

Secure Communities is well understood in the Latino community, but Anglos hardly know the program exists because, well, they don’t have to worry about it.  As a result, some Anglo reporters may interpret today’s ruling as a step toward more stringent immigration practices.  It isn’t.

Few understand that few of the supposedly dangerous criminals we deport every year have ever been convicted of a violence-related crime.  In the federal system, any conviction stands proxy for future dangerousness. 

The good news from today’s ruling is that local and state police officers will not have the right (or the obligation) to stop and question a person suspected of being Latino.   This policy, if upheld, would have been a wholesale validation of racial profiling, regardless of what Arizona governor Jan Brewer has to say to the contrary.  In the absence of criminal behavior, physical appearance, accent, and the use of non-standard English would have been the only cues that could lead an officer to suspect undocumented status.  In other words, Arizona wanted to legalize George Zimmerman-style hunches rooted in ethnic and racial factors and the Supreme Court said no.  America just dodged a bullet.

Supreme Court upholds key part of Arizona for now; strikes down other provisions

By , Updated: Monday, June 25, 1:26 PM

The Washington Post

The Supreme Court on Monday said states may play a limited role in enforcing laws on illegal immigration, upholding part of Arizona’s controversial law but striking other portions it said intruded on the federal government’s powers.The justices let stand for now the part of the law that requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they detain or arrest if they have “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the country illegally. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) declared that decision, on the part of the law that had generated the most controversy, a victory.

But the ruling also in part vindicated the Obama administration, with the court rejecting three provisions that the federal government opposed.

The court ruled that Arizona cannot make it a misdemeanor for immigrants to fail to carry identification that says whether they are in the United States legally; cannot make it a crime for undocumented immigrants to apply for a job; and cannot arrest someone based solely on the suspicion that the person is in this country illegally.

The court also said the part of the law it upheld — requiring officers to check the immigration status of those they detain and reasonably believe to be illegal immigrants — could be subject to additional legal challenges once it is implemented.

The other major decision of the court’s term — the constitutionality of President Obama’s health-care law — will come Thursday, on the final day of the term.

In a statement Monday, Obama said he was “pleased that the Supreme Court has struck down key provisions of Arizona’s immigration law.” He added that the decision makes clear “that Congress must act on comprehensive immigration reform,” since a “patchwork of state laws is not a solution to our broken immigration system.” At the same time, Obama said, he remains “concerned about the practical impact” of the part of the law that was allowed to stand.

“No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like,” Obama said. “Going forward, we must ensure that Arizona law enforcement officials do not enforce this law in a manner that undermines the civil rights of Americans, as the Court’s decision recognizes.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, for his part, issued a statement that did not comment on the specifics of the ruling but instead said the decision “underscores the need for a President who will lead on this critical issue and work in a bipartisan fashion to pursue a national immigration strategy.”

Obama “has failed to provide any leadership on immigration,” the former Massachusetts governor said.

Romney did not speak to reporters accompanying him Monday on a campaign trip to Arizona, and aides refused to say whether he agrees with the Supreme Court’s ruling or even whether he supports Arizona’s immigration policy.

“The governor supports the states’ rights to craft immigration laws when the federal government has failed to do so,” spokesman Rick Gorka said. “That’s all we’re going to say on this issue.”

Keep reading . . .

Southern Baptist leader issues genuine apology

By Alan Bean

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has issued a thorough and sincere apology after referring to Black pastors like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson as “race hustlers” and implying that racial profiling is justified.  Land also says he regrets plagiarizing a Washington Times columnist in the course of his tirade. 

Lands comments were sparked by media coverage of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida.

After issuing a half-hearted and unconvincing apology in April, the Southern Baptist opinion leader sat down with a number of prominent Black pastors, including Arlington’s Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church.  That meeting appears to have made a deep impression.

How do we explain this about-face?  Is Land merely fighting to save his job or attempting to placate angry Black pastors?

I don’t think so.  This apology sounds and smells like the real deal.

The real question is why the Baptist ethicist was so upset by the tidal wave of concern unleashed by the Trayvon Martin story, and that one’s a no-brainer.  Land was living in the bubble of Southern white conservatism.  Inside that segregated world of moral discourse, any reference to racism or racial profiling feels like an assault on the American way of life.

Land’s thinking was transformed by a close encounter with the world of Black evangelical moral discourse.  Suddenly the issues were humanized and Land felt the pain his remarks had caused. 

This is a testimony to the power of integrated moral conversation.  We are a story-telling species.  We don’t reason our way to a moral position; our ethical conclusions emerge from the value-laden stories we hear. 

Richard Land’s Trayvon Martin rant shows how ugly things get when we are walled off from moral narratives shared by  people who don’t look like us, sound like us, or live like us. 

If you remain convinced that Land is just another Baptist bureaucrat fighting for his job, I urge you to read the full text of his apology:

“I am here today to offer my genuine and heartfelt apology for the harm my words of March 31, 2012, have caused to specific individuals, the cause of racial reconciliation, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through the ministry of The Reverend James Dixon, Jr. the president of the National African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a group of brethren who met with me earlier this month, I have come to understand in sharper relief how damaging my words were.

“I admit that my comments were expressed in anger at what I thought was one injustice — the tragic death of Trayvon Martin — being followed by another injustice — the media trial of George Zimmerman, without appeal to due judicial process and vigilante justice promulgated by the New Black Panthers. Like my brothers in the Lord, I want true justice to prevail and must await the revelation of the facts of the case in a court of law. Nevertheless, I was guilty of making injudicious comments.

“First, I want to confess my insensitivity to the Trayvon Martin family for my imbalanced characterization of their son which was based on news reports, not personal knowledge. My heart truly goes out to a family whose lives have been turned upside down by the shocking death of a beloved child. I can only imagine their sense of loss and deeply regret any way in which my language may have contributed to their pain.

“Second, I am here to confess that I impugned the motives of President Obama and the reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. It was unchristian and unwise for me to have done so. God alone is the searcher of men’s hearts. I cannot know what motivated them in their comments in this case. I have sent personal letters of apology to each of them asking for them to forgive me. I continue to pray for them regularly, and for our president daily.

“Third, I do not believe that crime statistics should in any way justify viewing a person of another race as a threat. I own my earlier words about statistics; and I regret that they may suggest that racial profiling is justifiable. I have been an outspoken opponent of profiling and was grief-stricken to learn that comments I had made were taken as a defense of what I believe is both unchristian and unconstitutional. I share the dream of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that all men, women, boys, and girls would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. Racial profiling is a heinous injustice. I should have been more careful in my choice of words.

“Fourth, I must clarify another poor choice of words. I most assuredly do not believe American racism is a ‘myth’ in the sense that it is imaginary or fictitious. It is all too real and all too insidious. My reference to myth in this case was to a story used to push a political agenda. Because I believe racism is such a grievous sin, I stand firmly against its politicization. Racial justice is a non-partisan ideal and should be embraced by both sides of the political aisle.

“Finally, I want to express my deep gratitude to Reverend Dixon and the other men who met with me recently for their Christ-like witness, brotherly kindness, and undaunting courage. We are brethren who have been knit together by the love of Jesus Christ and the passion to reach the world with the message of that love. I pledge to them — and to all who are within the sound of my voice — that I will continue to my dying breath to seek racial justice and that I will work harder than ever to be self-disciplined in my speech. I am grateful to them for holding me accountable.

“I am also delighted to announce that as a result of our meeting, the ERLC, in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, will initiate regular meetings to discuss our common calling to heal our nation’s racial brokenness, work for meaningful reconciliation, and strategize for racial justice.”

Did Dr. Land say everything I might have wanted him to say?  No, he didn’t.  But he said everything he could say without receiving a personality transplant.  His strong repudiation of racial profiling warms the cockles of my Baptist heart.

Thanks to the Black Southern Baptist pastors who cared enough to speak the painful truth.

Texas Baptist publication connects Christian faith and racial justice

The Rev. Michael Bell

Ken Camp with The Baptist Standard has an excellent discussion of the relationship between race and faith featuring faith leaders in the Dallas Fort Worth area and beyond.  My blogging on the subject is part of the mix, and some strong words from Fort Worth pastor Michael Bell figure in the discussion.  It is good to see the intersection of racial justice and Christian faith receive a thorough airing in the Baptist press.  Pictures from the civil rights movement of the 1960s demonstrate how far we have come; the typical response of white America to the Travon Martin story shows us how far we have to go. Alan Bean

Race & Faith

   
By Ken Camp, Managing Editor
Published: April 27, 2012
A neighborhood watchman in Florida shoots and kills a hoodie-wearing African-American teenager. Two white suspects in Tulsa, Okla., confess to the Easter weekend shooting of five people in a predominantly black neighborhood.

Trayvon Martin Million Hoodie March in New York City was one of many such protest marches conducted in reaction to the shooting of the teen by a neighborhood watchman in Florida. (Photo/Frank Daum)

Periodically, racial tensions that have simmered beneath the surface bubble up, some Christian leaders note, illustrating just how far-removed modern America is from the “beloved community” envisioned by Martin Luther King Jr.

“We can legislate fairness, but we cannot legislate love. That is up to us,” said Mark Croston, pastor of East End Baptist Church in Suffolk, Va., and president of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.

Christians must lead by example to improve race relations, he said.

“I believe that all truly Christian churches must be open to racial inclusion and human compassion. We sing, ‘Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. …” This is true, so we must, too,” said Croston, an African-American.

Croston points to the vision in the New Testament book of Revelation of people representing every nation, tribe and language worshipping Christ. If Christians are serious when they pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” he said, they must “with intentionality work toward this reality.”

But the heavenly vision seems remote for many, and racial divisions remain a clear and present problem, some observers noted sadly.

Predictable pattern

When stories about racially inspired violence capture public attention, events follow a predictable pattern, said Alan Bean, executive director of Friends of Justice.

Inspired by preachers like Martin Luther King Jr., African-Americans in the early 1960s marched to secure civil rights. But some social observers note King’s dream of the “beloved community” still is far from reality, as evidenced by the recent rhetoric surrounding the Trayvon Martin shooting.

“When the status quo is threatened by systemic racial bias, the propaganda machine goes into overdrive. This normally involves the assertion that a liberal media is making excuses for thuggish behavior. If the folks on the receiving end of unjust treatment can be redefined as one of ‘those’ people, the horrific details no longer matter,” Bean, an American Baptist minister in Arlington, wrote in a recent column for Associated Baptist Press.

As the stories gain media attention, he continued, “America quickly divides into protestors claiming that the narrative du jour is a prime example of systemic racism, and debunkers insisting it is nothing of the kind.”

The church’s role

Historically, African-American churches have played a central role in providing a voice for people who have felt victimized and for exposing racism. In many cities, a particular church or a few churches continue to play a key role as ombudsman in the African-American community, said Michael Bell, pastor of Greater St. Stephen First Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

“It’s where people go for direction when they are seeking resolution of difficulties and solutions to their problems,” said Bell, a past-president of both the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Texas African-American Fellowship.

More specifically, African-Americans know which churches are able to do something substantive about their problems, he noted.

“They go to a church where the pastor has a reputation as being a prophetic voice,” Bell said. “My church expects me to speak up. I have never received a negative email, text or letter from a church member complaining that I was too involved in community issues outside the church.”

Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, is pursued by a mob outside Little Rock’s Central High School. (UPI Photo/Library of Congress)

However, in many—perhaps most—predominantly white churches, pastors do not feel that same degree of freedom, he added.

The African-American church has become even more relevant and gained increasing influence as racial tensions have heightened in recent years, Bell insists.

“Distrust and suspicions that had been under the surface have bubbled up. Racism has become more overt and evident in in the last few years,” he said, comparing racists to “roaches so bold they don’t run from the light anymore.”

A cloud of suspicion

Relations between white and blacks, even among Christians, suffer from a failure to address deep-seated issues such as the way African-Americans often are viewed with suspicion—a matter brought to the forefront recently when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., he observed.

“It’s like putting cold cream on cancer. Unattended, the malady will intensify, because it hasn’t been addressed. We try to move on without really dealing with it,” Bell said.

“We (African-Americans) have a historical memory informed by a hermeneutic of suspicion. Periodically that will come to the surface, and the obvious issues will be addressed. The symptoms will be addressed without dealing with the disease. We won’t go beneath the surface. …We fear it will take too much out of us.”

Some African-American ministers note the fear young men in their communities feel about being stopped by police for “DWB—driving while black.”

White citizens rally at the Arkansas state capitol, protesting the integration of Central High School in Little Rock. (U.S. News & World Report Photo/Library of Congress)

In a video on the American Baptist Home Mission Societies website, Executive Director Aidsand Wright-Riggins appeared in a hoodie to tell stories from his own experience about the cloud of suspicion under which African-American young men live.

Wright-Riggins recalled how he was stopped by police officers—once while knocking on the door of a white church member and once while approaching his own home. He also told how his son was pulled over twice driving between his parents’ home and his university dormitory.

“I appeal to all of us, as we look at the millions of persons around us, and particularly those of color—particularly black boys—that we don’t make an automatic assessment because they might be dressed differently or look different or somehow feel that they are out of place in our society,” he said, “that we relegate them to the margins or, even worse, that we assign them to the morgue.”

A troubling divide

The Trayvon Martin case illustrates “a troubling divide in public perception,” Bean wrote in a recent blog on the Friends of Justice website.

“On one side of the fault line, people identify with George Zimmerman’s suspicion of young black males wearing hoodies. On the other side, folks identify with a victim of racial profiling and vigilante justice,” he wrote.

The 1963 March on Washington for civil rights featured blacks marching alongside Christians and Jews. But some social observers note the dream of the “beloved community” still is far from reality, as evidenced by the recent rhetoric surrounding the Trayvon Martin shooting. (RNS FILE PHOTO)

In his opinion column written for Associated Baptist Press, Bean noted: “Real-life narratives are messy because life is messy. Victims of injustice get caught up in the mess. They don’t play their roles with the disciplined panache of a Rosa Parks. They talk back; they fight back; they come out swinging. And that’s when bad things happen. That’s when the tragedy quotient gets high enough to catch the media’s attention.”

“Why did George Zimmerman feel called to defend his neighborhood from intruders?” Bean continued. “Why did he see Trayvon Martin as out of place, an anomaly. Because he was wearing a hoodie? Because he was walking with a particular gait? Because he appeared overly interested in his surroundings?

“Eliminate Martin’s blackness from the equation, and it is impossible to imagine Zimmerman reacting as he did. Zimmerman defined criminality in racial terms. Who, or what, taught him to think this way? … Our national conversation will continue to revolve around messy narratives.”