Citizenship Confusion: The SBC's Richard Land and Charges of Politicizing Trayvon

Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.

One of the ongoing discussions surrounding the Trayvon Martin case has been on the role of the media and President Obama in politicizing the tragedy. Dr. Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called President Obama’s comments on the case “shameful” and accused him of “exploit[ing]” the event during the SBC leader’s radio program last week*. Here are some choice quotes:

“The president’s aides claimed he was showing compassion for the victim’s family,” Land said. “In reality he poured gasoline on the racialist fires.”

“He put the presidential spotlight on Trayvon Martin’s death and thereby bolstered the burgeoning protest,” Land said. “I believe Mr. Obama’s comments were misguided, and I think they were harmful. No one knows what his son would look like. The statement was meant as a sign of racial solidarity. Martin is black, so by extension Mr. Obama shares the victim’s racial identity.”

Land said if today’s civil rights leaders are really concerned about violence, they should be protesting the fact that nearly half of all murder victims are black and the overwhelming majority are committed by blacks. [Note: they do protest black-on-black violence, Dr. Land]

“Rather than holding rallies on these issues, the civil rights leadership focuses on racially polarizing cases to generate media attention and to mobilize black voter turnout,” Land said. “This is being done to try to gin up the black vote for an African-American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for re-election.”

“They need the Trayvon Martins to continue perpetuating their central myth — America is a racist and an evil nation. For them it’s always Selma, Alabama, circa 1965. They haven’t noticed that the nation has changed.”

Land said he understands the temptation for people who were exploited to “revert to ghosts of the past” but this is a “new age” and “a new time.” (APB)

Just what does Dr. Land find “shameful” and “exploitative” about the way the President and civil right’s leaders have dealt with this case?

Dr. Land accuses the president of shining “the presidential spotlight” on the boy’s death and claims that Obama turned this into a national issue by making a public statement. However, this criticism makes little sense. First, it’s inaccurate to say that Obama made this a national issue; the case was already huge news. Second, the president’s comments were prompted by a question from the press (as you can see here); in other words, the press shone the spotlight on Obama and he spoke carefully about the case, without claiming or suggesting that Zimmerman committed a crime.

Land also implies that Obama really wasn’t showing compassion for Martin’s parents, but how on earth could he possibly know such a thing? And if true, what was Obama intending to accomplish by claiming that his son would look like Trayvon? He was inciting racial divisions, says Land. This is familiar complaint. Most notably, Newt Gingrich called Obama’s statements “disgraceful.” According to Gingrich, “we should be concerned about children of every background and all too often we’re not.”

What is behind the objections from Land and Gingrich is the idea that by acknowledging the fact that he “shares the victim’s racial identity,” Obama is favoring his race; he is no longer a president for all Americans. What they want is a race-less president–one who can’t uniquely sympathize with other members of his race. Such a leader doesn’t exist.

Then Dr. Land accuses the “race hustlers” of intentionally inciting the public over this case in order to gain votes for the coming election, to “gin up the black vote.” How does he know that this is the motive of civil rights leaders? What evidence does he have? Couldn’t there be legitimate, non-election-related reasons for protesting?

More importantly, why does Dr. Land exclusively mention controversial figures and groups like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and the Black Panthers? Why no mention of the central role black journalists like Charles Blow at The New York Times played in pursuing this story and making it a national headline?

Why talk about the Black Panthers, who have offered a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman, and not the NAACP, who have quite reasonably called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, to “ensure that the Sanford Police Department conducts an impartial, thorough and prompt investigation of the circumstances involving the death of this unarmed teen, and ensure that the responsible person is held accountable if a crime was committed”?

Simply put, Dr. Land presents an incredibly deceptive picture of the character and concerns of black leaders. It’s inaccurate, and it’s wrong. While there are certainly some people, perhaps even “civil rights leaders” who are taking advantage of this tragedy, there are also many who are making reasonable calls for justice.

There is a dismissive tone here in Dr. Land’s words, as if all the press and protests and op-eds about Trayvon Martin are nothing but “race-baiting,” nothing but delusional witch hunts for racists. But when conservative Christian figures like John Piper and important political conservatives like Rich Lowry express concern that the Martin family has not received justice, Dr. Land should at least be able to recognize that there are some justified reasons for believing that this tragedy might have had to do with Martin’s race.

This desire to dismiss the Martin case taps into a much larger and much more dangerous ideology: the belief that racism is really a thing of the past (“the nation has changed,” “a new era,” “a new age”), and so, whenever a black person cries “racism!”, chances are that they are reverting “to the ghosts of the past.” And while it’s true that our nation has matured, the reality is that racism is still one of the greatest crises our nation faces.

If you doubt at all the hideous, widespread, and dramatic effects of racism on contemporary America, read about the two Tulsa men who shot five black people, killing three, in what has all the signs of a hate crime; or the recent article by John Derbyshire, who wrote for the National Review (the premiere conservative publication, not some extremest, fringe site), on how white people should avoid blacks (he was later fired from NR); or read the comments on The Blaze‘s post about Derbyshire, where nearly every single user agrees with his racist sentiments; or read this previous Citizenship Confusion post on John Piper and Why Race Still Matters.

Yes, things have changed, but they are also still pretty terrible. But in Dr. Land’s mind, it’s not even appropriate for the president to acknowledge his shared racial identity with other black parents, for fear that it might lead to further racial divisions.

Calling attention to potential racial injustices and acknowledging our differences does not feed the racial fire, but dismissing and condemning such calls as “shameful” and “exploitative” does. If anyone’s comments were “shameful,” they were Dr. Land’s. And as a Christian, a leader in the SBC, and especially as the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Dr. Land should apologize for his presumptuous conclusions about the intentions of our president and his deceptive portrayal of black civic leaders.

____________________

*Apparently, many of the statements Land makes in this show are taken from this article in The Washington Times. I’ve chosen to treat them as Land’s statements because when I listened to the show I did not hear him introduce them as Kuhner’s words, because he elaborates on Kuhner’s article positively, because other news sources have treated these as his words, and because he has allegedly “stood by” his statements on the show according to The Tennessean

 

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • Brad Swenson

    Excellent post Alan. I have been very concerned with some Christian responses to this issue. Though, as you state, there are some activists who are exploiting the situation, it breaks my heart when Chrisitans feel the need to create a balance by swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction. Excellent job at shedding some light on this sad situation and calling us as ambassadors to seek to represent the Kingdom rather than a political or social cause.

  • bonnie

    It does take a little guess work to characterize Obama’s motivation for what he said, but if past behavior is an indication, you might remember how he said the Cambridge Police acted “stupidly.”
    No, I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have a President who doesn’t identify uniquely sympathize with other members of his race. But you will not find such a President amongst people who are convinced they are an oppressed minority.
    I’m sorry but I had to laugh when you said why not mention the NAACP’s call to Eric Holder to investigate (as opposed to the bounty offered by the New Black Panthers). Eric Holder definitely has a unique identification to “his people.”

    What are the “justified reasons for believing that this tragedy might have had to do with Martin’s race”?? Are you saying the fact that Martin was killed might have had to do with race or that Zimmerman was not charged with anything? There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the killing was racially motivated. I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that there was racial motivation in not charging Zimmerman with ANYTHING, but I would definitely have to have more information to make a judgement on that.
    As far as Sharpton and Jackson, Land is right. Anyone who doesn’t see that should do some research on them.

  • Alan Noble

    Bonnie,

    I don’t see how in any way the Cambridge Police incident is evident that Obama’s motivation for speaking about the Trayvon tragedy was to gain political capital.

    If Obama feels that he is a member of an oppressed minority, that’s because he is. See the examples I gave near the end of this article for evidence of this. There’s plenty of evidence out there, if you care to look.

    Zimmerman did not have to be “racially motivated” for Trayvon’s murder to have been affected by his race. This is one of the biggest fallacies floating around about Zimmerman right now; it reflects a very narrow view of the human mind and how we create biases. It’s quite possible, even perhaps likely, that Zimmerman was not consciously or intentionally racist, but he could have developed a very biased and stereotyped view of black people which directly affected the choices he made that night.

    We see evidence of this kind of internalized/unconscious racial-bias in employment, where employers who have the choice between two applicants with the same exact qualifications will choose to call the white applicate over the black one (according to some studies, which I can look up if anyone is really interested). The employer might not be self-consciously “racist,” but he might have deeply biased, negative views of blacks which directly influence his decisions in ways which may harm others.

    As for my point about Sharpton and Jackson, again, I’m not (necessarily) disagreeing with the claim that they are “race hustlers,” my point is that they do not represent the movement as a whole, and Dr. Land very deceptively implies that they are by not discussing any other civil leaders, which is shameful.

  • bonnie

    Why do you say Land is deceptively implying that the race hustlers represent “the movement”? If you mean a movement to diminish racism, that is not really under discussion in the Trayvon Martin case even though some are insisting that this is about race.
    When you resort to to having to say, “Well maybe it was subconscious racism,” you’ve stopped dealing in facts and you gone to supposition and conjecture. And of course the elephant in the room is that profiling is based on statistics. As Walter E. Williams worded in a recent article, “there’s a larger issue that few people understand or have the courage to acknowledge, namely that black and young has become synonymous with crime and, hence, suspicion. To make that connection does not make one a racist.” Williams also quotes Jesse Jackson, “”There is nothing more painful for me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery — (and) then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”
    Insisting that people are racist who have acknowledged that young black men are disproportionately likely to be criminal does not help race relations. It just makes those people who are looking a raw data defensive, and it helps perpetuate the tolerance of criminality among blacks. And that’s a real shame.

  • bonnie

    “If Obama feels that he is a member of an oppressed minority, that’s because he is. See the examples I gave near the end of this article for evidence of this. There’s plenty of evidence out there, if you care to look.”

    No, Obama is bi-racial. Your evidence for “opression” is anecdotal. I’m well aware of examples of racism from both blacks and whites (and Asians, too).
    In the Oklahoma case you cite, one of the suspects is Cherokee (whose father was killed by a black man). If that is going to be evidence of a hate crime/oppressed minority, we might need to take a look at Native Americans.
    I’m not sure if the phrase “if you care to look” is a dig at my objectivity, but no, there is not wholesale “oppression” of blacks in our society although there are glaring examples of it here and there that in no way represent the majority of people nor the structures of our society.

  • sg

    Beyond Zimmerman’s potential biases or lack thereof, another pertinent factor is the attitude of the police investigators themselves. The previous police chief was forced out after a scandal involving an apparently inept, if not corrupt, investigation of a local police lieutenant’s son’s assault on a homeless black man. Ironically, one of those returning this to the spotlight is … Zimmerman ( http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/05/22/v-fullstory/2813681/zimmerman-rode-with-cops-ripped.html ). The town of Sanford itself has some bleak racist history within living memory of many that would reasonably take a long time to overcome for both the minority and majority communities ( http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/08/us-usa-florida-sanford-idUSBRE83706920120408 ). As the mother of a teenage boy not too much older than Trayvon, I’m also very aware that a young man may be a target of suspicion based solely on his age, regardless of the additional burden of race. In my mind, there are plenty of reasonable reasons why people could be concerned by the way this was initially handled, and it’s just not fair to impute nefarious motives to them or accuse them of a lack of connection with our modern “enlightened” reality


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