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President Obama pauses as he speaks to reporters in the Brady Press Briefing room of the White House in Washington on Friday. (AP)
The last thing we need as a nation is another “conversation” on race and no real change. “Conversations” that don’t result in concrete action drive the despair that ‘nothing can be done.’
Yes, there is a lot that can be done, especially in the area of needed policy changes on “Stand Your Ground” and “Stop and Frisk” laws, but the challenge is getting to intelligent changes that will make a difference. We cannot get the needed policy changes without doing some contextual analysis of where we are on race. Engaged reflection is what is required.
Start with the pain
I teach my theology students “theology begins where the pain is.” Pain poses an existential claim that is hard to dispute. The “problem of pain,” as Elaine Scarry writes in
The Body in Pain
, is “bound up with the problem of power.” There are so many who invest so much energy in denying the pain caused by abusive power structures that when it breaks through, it can be startling, unsettling, compelling.
This kind of ‘breaking through’ to the pain happened on Friday. President Obama did not merely share “remarks”
on race in America last week, he shared the pain he has experienced from being racially profiled as an African American male.
The pain of being an African American in America, in this instance an African American male, is excruciating; there’s no way to describe that any differently. Try to listen, for example, to Ja’han Jones as he asks “What I’m Worth? Black Self- Appraisal In The Zimmerman Age” after hearing of the “not-guilty” verdict in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
“I asked myself if I’d ever experienced such degradation as this; if ever I’d sat so angrily, so downtrodden, and so hurt while being forced to wear a smile. Then, I remembered Friday. I remembered Friday, the day before that, the day before that, the day before that, the day before that, the day before that, the day before that, the day before that, the day before that, the day before that, the day before that, and many days before that, for such is the reality of being black in the beloved United States of America.”
That’s it. That’s the pain of “living while black” in America. And when you actually hear the pain, and acknowledge its claim, you know that the reality of the pain caused by racism is the one thing conservative media must deny precisely because it is so undeniable.
Instead of hearing the president, many conservatives chose instead to fear-monger about the oresident “inciting to violence” and being “unpresidential.” Fox’s Todd Starnes reacted to Obama’s remarks on Twitter by calling him “unpresidential” and alleging that he “is trying to tear our country apart.” Starnes added, “I thought when you got elected president — you were president of all skin colors.” Starnes did not acknowledge the pain. And clearly did not respect it.
Get some actual data
Beginning with the pain is necessary, but it is not sufficient. You also need actual data.
PBS Frontline, for example, published analyses of the way that defendants who “invoke ‘Stand Your Ground’ — the policy under which it was possible for George Zimmerman to walk free on the night that he killed Trayvon Martin–are treated. What they found is that “whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings.”
President Obama asked the country “to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?” No, is the answer. The data show Trayvon Martin would not likely have been successful had he been armed, felt threatened, shot his gun, and invoked “Stand Your Ground” as an African American.
On the president’s powerful evocation the pain of being racially profiled himself, there is also considerable data that New York’s controversial “Stop and Frisk” policy is very racially skewed in the way it is applied. In May of 2013, the Public Advocate for New York put out a report detailing the way that the city’s controversial ‘Stop-and-Frisk policy is unevenly applied. Not only did it find that blacks and Latinos make up, on average, 85 percent of stops under the program, it showed how skewed that percentage was compared to the city’s racial demographics.
Yes, African Americans and Latinos are racially profiled. President Obama’s experience of being followed in a store is supported by data.
But even data is not enough.
At least from a faith perspective, you need to put these together into a theological analysis.
Stand Your Ground laws are temptation
Appearing on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had it right when he called on lawmakers across the country, including in his home state of Arizona, to review Stand Your Ground laws. He also praised the president’s remarks on Friday.
These appalling laws have to be repealed. From a theological perspective, they are tempting people to use lethal force as a “first resort” rather than a “last resort,” (in the terms of Just War theory). The PBS article draws on a study that shows a disturbing trend that “the rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter increased by eight percent in states with Stand Your Ground laws. That’s an additional 600 homicides per year in the states that have enacted such laws.”
That is falling into temptation when it comes to the use of lethal force, pure and simple.
Racial profiling denies equal human dignity
“Stop and Frisk” laws, unequally applied as they are by race, deny equal human dignity and worth. In fact, it’s worse than that; “Stop and Frisk” is deliberate and sustained humiliation that undermines equal human dignity.
Bob Herbert, appearing on MSNBC’s Up with Steve Kornicki on Saturday, called New York ‘Stop and Frisk’ the “ritualized humiliation” of young black men and some young girls.
This is very insightful. “Stop and Frisk” enacts a ritual of power to inscribe racial submission. It is profoundly immoral.
When you add that “ritual humiliation” to the gutting of social programs and the systematic underfunding of public education these add up to a rapid destruction of the social fabric, a deliberate rending of the ‘ties that bind’ us as a society when we acknowledge that we are, in fact, our brother and sister’s keeper.
Let’s not have a “conversation” on race once again. Let’s engage. Let’s think contextually and act strategically to really make changes that have a chance of saving lives and making this country a little more equal, a little more moral and decent.
So America, do you want to just talk, or do you want to do what’s right?