Monday, April 9, 2012

Hoodies Up: Trayvon Martin, Black Twitter, and Real justice

The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. (Proverbs 29:7)

The Trayvon Martin incident has become ubiquitous to the point of almost being redundant. That is, if it wasn't for a national conversation revealing social cleavages between blacks, whites, and others based on different interpretations of the significance of the young unarmed man's death.

A few things stand out to me when I think about our current conversation.

The first issue has to do with epistemology (or theories of knowledge about what we can know) and news reporting. In short, the black press, black Web 2.0, and internet activist jumped all over the story, and forced the mainstream press to begin to report on the incident. Mark Anthony Neal has captured how the black has used the web to develop a new black public sphere and deal advocate for justice. Whether the death of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, or Teena Marie, black America is storming the internet to find news with a black gaze towards justice, and share its opinions.

When the black web's overflowing response to Trayvon's death left the mainstream media looking lame, pundits defensively argued that the story was unrepresentable due to a failure to verify a real newsworthy story based on the facts. Implied in the actions of the black public sphere is the idea that the factual elements of this story were reportable. Moreover, black media pundits and activists began to weigh in on the guilt of George Zimmerman. In other words, many read the incident as one of racial hatred based on the unquestioned criminal representation of black men.

I think arguments about who is right and who is wrong, when it comes to concentrated violence against black males, are located deep in the history of the black public sphere. For more than a century, the African-American press has been forced to weigh in on historical injustice to enlighten white America, and the world, about human rights violations. All we have to do is to reach back to sister Ida B. Wells reporting on lynching. In this case, Emmit Till was drawn on as an analogy.

I've found within the activity of the black press, and revisiting our historical past, an exercise of greater significance than debates about reporting.

In short, I'm reminded of the civil rights roots of racial reconciliation. The work of our namesake, John Perkins, is grounded in an event similar to Trayvon's death."Perkins was born into Mississippi poverty, the son of a sharecropper. He fled to California when he was 17 after his older brother was murdered by a town marsh both his faith and civil rights activism. I'm reminded that it takes a village and interracial solidarity to demand and secure justice for all." Perkins work emerged out of developing an active Christian faith and getting involved in civil rights efforts.

Along those lines one other phenomenon stands out to me: The Christian appeal to emotions, or empathy, in order to plead with legal-minded skeptics to feel the pain of others. This counter to a public analytical rationality attempts to dis-aggregate the theological and the political by assuming the primary concern is one of recognizing the pain of Trayvon Martin's parents and by implication the black community.

This more compassionate approach suggest another interesting assumption. It suggest that seeking political and legal responses to injustice or tragedy is somehow less spiritual, pious, or Christian. However, these assumptions unintentionally diminish the voices of Ida B. Wells, Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr. and other christian activists.

Reducing the significance of Trayvon's death to an emotional issues negates the relationship between the personal and the political. According to Martha Nussbaum, we have to draw on our emotions to bolster our public and legal rationalities, but we can't stop there. To do so plays into a new form of racism in which racism is denied, and we try to avoid calling things what they are because of the absence of racial epithets.

This admirable call from the pious to feel the pain of others fails to recognize that the killing of black males (by whites, blacks, and others) is a legal and political issue that challenges us to engage the dominant institutions to bring about justice. Furthermore, it can cause us to ignore structural issues which has lead to the criminalization and mass incarceration of all black males regardless of class, race, education or respectability.

While Michele Alexander has written about mass incarceration as the New Jim Crow,in Lockstep and Dance, Professor Linda Tucker argues that America is a prison writ large for African-American males. She also argues that we are complicit in producing our own criminal representations.

The most troubling thing about it all, for me at least, is that Trayvon's death is revealing how the social fabric of our nation is being torn asunder due to a strong undercurrent of racial animosity.

As Christians, and those in the work of reconciliation, Trayvon's death is a call for us to reexamine our moral compass. The scripture says, "Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people..." If you notice, the bible doesn't say the Christian poor or the righteous(or godly) oppressed. We know that oppression can breed unrighteousness. In doing so, this unrighteousness condemns the oppressor who perpetuates injustice. Yet, actual unrighteous or criminality has nothing to do with this case.

In this moment, I sense that is time for the household of God to approach His throne with holy hands without blame, accusation, or wrath, and to begin to intercede on behalf of our nation. As the scripture says, "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land" (II Chronicles 7:14). Now is the time for healing, and we must be alert and vigilant for every opportunity to do so.