Fear of a Black Suburb: Theological Reflections on America’s Original Sin
July 15, 2013 1 Comment
The biblical book of Genesis tells the story of Adam and Eve. In that story Adam and Eve eat a piece of fruit that God commanded them not to eat. The consequences of that act of disobedience have been the impetus for theological reflection for millennia. Most Christians throughout the centuries have believed that this primeval story is a piece of narrative theology that does more than merely report the facts. They have believed it provides insights into something peculiar about human nature. Christian theologians have typically referred to these insights as “original sin.”
Original sin is the way many people explain the universal capacity for humans to live in a way that is harmful of their relationships with God, neighbor, and the rest of creation. Many have tried to identify that “original sin” in some specific disposition or characteristic. Perhaps the most common proposal has been that pride is humanity’s original sin. Others, to deleterious effects, have proposed that it has simply been the existence of women that is the cause of humanity’s descent into depravity. However, the source of our capacity for evil has always remained a great mystery.
America, too, has an original sin. That sin is the violence of racism, and it must be said that racism is always intimately linked with violence. It began with America’s near-genocide of the native population, continued through slavery and its legacy, and rears its ugly head in small and large ways every day across the nation.
A short definition of racism would be something like this: The institutionalization of racial prejudice. “Prejudice” is those preconceived inner thoughts we all have about “those” people, whomever they are. In the US, “those” people are often a group of people who share different physical traits than you and your family. We call that specific type of prejudice “racism.” In the US a specific form of this prejudice, namely white prejudices against blacks, has been institutionalized in a multitude of ways – the most well-known of which have been slavery and the southern practice of Jim Crow after Reconstruction. Today, perhaps one of the most glaring forms of racism (again, institutionalized prejudice) is New York City’s official stop-and-frisk policy.
Prejudice breeds fear, fear breeds violence, and, therefore, the fears of the powerful become institutionalized to control and direct the violence.
The new euphemism that too often substitutes for “fear” and becomes institutionalized is “suspicion.” Stop-and-frisk declares that a New York City police officer can stop, question, and search anyone if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that such a person is up to some criminal activity. “Suspicious” is the first word that George Zimmerman, in the now famous and divisive case, used to describe Trayvon Martin. Unjustly, and exemplified in these two cases, “suspicion” applies to young black men more than any other group of people, resulting too often in tragic consequences.
The case is controversial, and the purpose of this post is not to judge the jurors or the courts. It is, however, intended to provide insight into the public discourse around the case. And much of it has been explicitly and implicitly around whether Zimmerman was right to be suspicious of Martin in the first place. Those who are outraged at the verdict do not think a young black man walking through a gated community at night should be considered suspicious. Many who believe that the verdict was just do believe this qualifies as inherently suspicious behavior. The legal case has been about the reason for the gunshot (murder, manslaughter, or self-defense), the public opinion trial has been about whether Zimmerman was justified in being suspicious and acting on that suspicion in the way that he did (following a minor with a loaded weapon in the dark of night). In other words, on trial in the court of public opinion has not been George Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin. On trial in the court of the American imagination has been young black men.
And, through the symbolic action of the courts, black men have been told, “You are, simply by your existence, suspicious, and that suspicion will justify any treatment you receive leading up to and including being killed.”
Parents of black boys around America gave their sons talks after Trayvon was killed, and have given those talks again since the verdict was announced, in which they taught them that no matter what they do, where they live, or who their parents are they will always be suspicious to some. More often than not that suspicion will (“merely”) mean being pulled over for the slightest violation of traffic law (or simply driving in the wrong neighborhood), being followed while shopping, or having your first white girlfriend tell you she can’t date you anymore. However, sometimes that suspicion can end in tragic consequences. They have just been told that those who would be “suspicious” of them are not afraid to act on that suspicion in insulting, unjust, and even violent ways. And that the institutions of this land will view them as suspicious as well.
America’s original sin is its violent racism. It lies at the very roots of the nation. Throughout history it has manifested itself in a variety of contextually applicable ways. At the beginning of the 21st century it has manifested itself as “suspicion.” And just like humanity’s original sin, America’s original sin kills. It killed Trayvon Martin. And it is killing us.