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

Citizenship Confusion: The SBC's Richard Land and Charges of Politicizing Trayvon April 9, 2012

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


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