Monday, July 22, 2013

The Content Of Their Character: Race and Meaning

On August 28, 1963, in his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, DC, Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

MLK didn't say, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where no one will be judged for any reason, and especially for their character."  No, he had no problem with his children being judged.  It wasn't that they would be judged, but how they would be judged.  They shouldn't be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  But how does someone judge the content of someone's character?  You can't judge what you can't see, so you can only judge the things that are visible.

An issue in our culture today is that we are permitted less and less to judge anything, let alone, and perhaps especially, the content of someone's character.  In an era of cultural relativity, where there is the absence of absolute authority, specifically about character issues, how can we judge anyone's character?  Homosexuality isn't supposedly bad character any more.  An unmarried couple shacking up isn't bad character in this culture.  Can we judge this to be a bad content of character?   Today people judge you not by the content of your character, but by the content of your judging the content of someone's character.  You're in worse trouble if you make a judgment then if you have bad character.

In the case of George Zimmerman, the FBI did an in depth investigation for racism, but found none.  The case was tried and the court and the jury found no evidence of racism.  In other words, Zimmerman did not judge by the color of Martin's skin.  So that's good enough, right?  No, now we can't judge by the content of the character either.  We can't judge.  We have to assume that people are doing right, despite suspicious behavior.   We can't operate according to common sense.

And yet, of course, people still judge things.  You've got to.  If you've got 75 people applying for one job, 74 of them aren't going to get it, and all of them are going to be judged to get to that conclusion.  When you get it whittled down to 3 or 4 finalists, some very miniature personality qualities are often going to determine who gets it.

The media wanted to provoke a particular judgment from the public, so they put a thuggish, criminal looking picture of the dough-boy George Zimmerman and a cherubic photo of a 12 year old Trayvon Martin side-by-side to "explain" what happened.  It's why the prosecution in that same case didn't include certain photos of Trayvon from his cell phone from discovery for the defense to use and the jury to see, ones of Trayvon proudly blowing out marijuana smoke and brandishing a handgun.  Of course, that kind of dishonesty by the prosecution is about content of character.  Not until during the trial and defense did we see the pictures of Zimmerman with blood pouring down in streams on the back of his head and a swelled and misaligned nose.  We weren't allowed to judge those things because they may have said something about someone's character.

Let me tell you about my trip to the post office on Friday last week.  I had to mail a book, and I arrived at around 1:30pm.  I was about 7th or 8th in line with two male postal people working, one Asian and the other black.  I began to watch what everyone was doing.  While I was in there, there were six blacks, three Asians, two Hispanics, and two whites (one of these was me).  Three people ahead of me in line was a young black man, looking late teens or early twenties, wearing a dark hoodie on a warm afternoon and blue jeans with the waistline sagging mid to top buttocks.  He was glued to his cell phone and he was talking to someone fairly loud with an urban dialect.  While he was talking, a huge, older black man, who looked like a professional offensive lineman, excused himself through the middle of the line to pick up an envelope to mail some CDs, and then walked to the back.  He glanced over at the young black man with a look of curiosity, as if he didn't relate.  While the black man was talking on his cell phone, the older black postal worker glanced over at him with the same questioning look.

As the black postal worker helped a lady in front of the young black man, he talked to her in a standard American accent, what actually seemed like his normal speaking voice.  After he was done with her, he serviced the young black man while he still had the phone pinned to his head.  When he talked to the young man, he changed his entire dialect and cadence.  He went instantly into the urban pattern of the young man.  I turned around to see if there were reactions from other customers.  There weren't.  This was typical, I guess.  Why did the older black man change his accent with the younger black man?  Why did it matter?  What was the judgment there?  What prompted the behavior?

Something else happened.  Down the counter, past the Asian postal worker, an older black woman, with what looked like a young daughter and a 3 to 4 year old granddaughter, was working on filling out the paperwork for change of address.  After the young black man finished, he walked past the older grandmother and spoke to her without the urban dialect, but in a sort of higher pitched, very respectful child-like voice.  His voice totally changed.  The two acted as if they knew each other.

Now you may say that this kind of thing happens all the time, but there were several people that were judging people by something different than the content of their character.  A middle aged black man thought it necessary as part of his customer service to speak to a young black man with an urban dialect, what might be called a form of ebonics.  The young black man changed his whole demeanor and disposition toward a grandmotherly woman who acted as if she knew him.  He hadn't seen her there, I guess, and he changed his voice when she addressed him and he passed.

I was preaching at our church last Wednesday night.  We have big windows facing our parking lot on the east side of our sanctuary.  During the summer, the curtains are pulled and the windows are often open for ventilation.  We have decorative blinds that cover the windows some, but they do allow me to see out the windows as I'm speaking.  Somebody pulled their SUV into the parking lot, and a small group got out, one with a basketball, and they started walking across the lot, one of which started looking down into the cars.  He put his face right next to a car and looked in, and then moved to the next car to look at what was inside.  One of our men went out to talk to them, and they left.  They were there to play basketball on our outdoor court, but it was not acceptable to have one of them looking into the car, so one of our men went out to check out what was happening.  They were black people, by the way.  Did that matter?  Of course not.  What did matter was that they were looking suspicious by peering closely into the windows of our people's cars.

A few years ago, for several weeks we had a group of black teenagers, about 6 or 7 of them, that would walk onto our property, sit on our retaining wall and smoke and drink together.  They begin to treat the retaining wall like it was a hang out.  The girls were dressed with tight and immodest clothing.

Our church has been vandalized about 15-20 times in all the years I have pastored here.  Generally, we don't want people loitering on our property.  We let people play basketball on our court, despite the damage it might cause.  We most often let them play on our playground equipment.  Sometimes kids are on the property and they are looking suspicious.  We've had 4 or 5 robberies through the years.  Several times I have followed people on our property to make sure they weren't going to do anything.  I've also followed them so that when I call the police, I can tell the law enforcement exactly where those people are.  I don't care what color they are, but I know how it is when people act suspicious.  We have often found marijuana cigarettes and used condoms on our property.

The times that gang of teenagers showed up, I would walk right up to them and engage them in conversation.  I would begin to preach the gospel to them.  They always treated me with total disrespect, never with respect.   I always treated them with respect.   They were always angry.  They hated hearing the preaching, so they would always leave rather than sit there and listen.  I never ever told them they couldn't sit there, even though they were trespassing, but they always left rather than have to sit and listen to me preach to them.  After several occasions of preaching without fail, they stopped coming there to hang out.  I never ever told them they had to leave.

Several years ago, I knocked on every door in what is considered the most deadly neighborhood in our area in order to preach the gospel.  The area even has a name, called the iron triangle.  I didn't have any trouble there because I was dressed like a preacher and I looked like someone preaching.  I was also carrying a Bible.  If I had been dressed differently and acted differently, I'm sure I wouldn't have received the same treatment.  In other words, certain suspicious looking black people would be treated worse in the iron triangle than I would.  Look at this video from the iron triangle from 54 seconds to a minute and 10 seconds to see how a Hispanic police officer stops a young black man.  No explanation is offered as to why he does it.  To anyone watching, he's protecting the neighborhood and this is someone that is judged to be suspicious by his appearance.  Is it wrong or right?

I'm one to say that race by itself doesn't mean anything.  Like MLK said, it's just skin color, mere pigmentation.  Sometimes you don't have the luxury of waiting to find out the content of someone's character.  You have to use common sense to judge behavior, whether it is suspicious or not.  People's appearance and certain behavioral characteristics will give you information you need to do that.  That's called common sense, and you've got to use it, despite the increasing unpopularity of doing that.  It just so happens that some of the times, the people who look suspicious are black.  Can you separate the two, suspicious behavior and appearance from skin color?  Probably.  But other people might not.  They might claim that you were only looking because the people were black.


Read this excellent article by Shelby Steele.

Zimmerman wasn't acquitted on the 'Stand Your Ground' law.  It was nothing more than a self-defense case.  I also don't get how that the 'Stand Your Ground' law could be considered to be racist.  Was it really passed to target a particular race?  I can't understand that.  It didn't even apply to this case and yet based on this case it is being targeted as a racist law.  Can anyone explain that?


Dave Barnhart said...

You are of course correct that "Stand Your Ground" is not racist in any way. The reason it's an issue in this case is because of the way the law is written in Florida. As you noted, Zimmerman's defense team did not try to claim "Stand Your Ground." However, that law also affects the jury instructions when considering self-defense cases, and was part of the instructions to the jury in this case. According to juror B37, the jury definitely *did* consider "Stand Your Ground" along with the other evidence and instructions.

And that Steele piece you pointed to was quite good.

Jonathan Speer said...

One afternoon while going door-to-door, we came across a young man who was heavily tattooed with violent images and words. He was also wearing clothes with violent images on them. He also had an aggressive posture and gestures. When some of the younger folks with us moved along after speaking only briefly with the young man, he acted angry and offended.

I immediately engaged him and asked him why he was upset. He said that some folks in our group had acted like they were afraid of him and moved along quickly after only a short conversation and giving him a tract. He had seen some of us spending more time with other folks.

I proceeded to ask him about some of his tattoos and what they meant. He explained that they were various depictions of death and hatred. I asked him about his clothes and he said that the images were satanic based on some occult beliefs he held. I asked him what his goal was in wearing such clothes and in having the tattoos he had. He answered that he liked the imagery and that it was intended to have an intimidating effect on certain people he may come across in his neighborhood and hang-outs. So then I asked him, if that was the intent of his appearance, why should he be surprised when someone acts like they are intimidated by him and possibly even afraid of him.

He relaxed and laughed and basically told me that he didn't intend to scare people or come across as aggressive to everyone, just some people, but he understood why most folks would generally be wary of him based upon his appearance. He seemed to have honestly never thought of the message his chosen and purposeful appearance had on people outside of the small circles in which he typically moved.

I was then able to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to him. He listened, but he didn't repent and believe on that day.

d4v34x said...

Re: the stand your ground business. Zimmerman didn't use it as part of the defense, but it was included in the instructions from the judge (as I hear is standard in self-defense cases). So it was an element of the case. Among others, our president has asked if Martin would have been given the benefit of the stand your ground doubt if the situation had been reversed. Classic hypothesis contrary to fact. Regardless, this is the angel the SYG law is being questioned from.