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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A racialized society (using a term from Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith) has become skilled in living a double life. Having demonized overt racism, this sort of society has expunged explicit racist speech. Only the most careless and the most bigoted persons ever speak in overtly racist terms in our day.

People express racial prejudice now in code. These codes of speech substitute acceptable language as a way to avoid saying explicitly unacceptable ways of thinking. The encoding of the language allows a great deal of self-deception, so that people can state with full sincerity, "I'm not prejudiced." Coded speech also allows for the reproduction of racist social structures through indirection. Indirect arguments which never address race reinforce and reproduce barriers to overcoming deeply entrenched inequalities.

For instance, the "Southern strategy" of the Republican party has been to use racialized rhetoric in code by associating blacks with crime (Willie Horton) and "welfare queens." Even a reborn David Duke did not use overtly racist arguments in public events when he ran for office. But Republicans have no corner on the market in a racialized society--coded language is pervasive. "Living in the past" is code to argue for ignoring the long-term effects of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial inequality. Being "angry all the time" is code for unwanted resistance to racial injustices when people don't want to hear about it.

So it was not a big surprise that the discussions about the Jena 6 are full of claims that "this is not about race." By trying to keep the focus on only one fight that took place in Jena, District Attorney Reed Walters was hoping to convince people that his approach to enforcing the law had no variation when it comes to race. Observers who saw the differential treatment of white kids who beat up a black boy and black kids who beat up a white boy saw something different. This sort of racialized law enforcement gets renamed in public rhetoric.

Walters was unable to hide another thinly veiled example of racialized thinking at the press conference (see the article and a video of the press conference at MSNBC.com) when he announced he would not appeal the ruling that threw out his prosecution of Mychal Bell as an adult. His problem was not merely that he had surrounded himself with white people to support his statement to the public. His problem was that black people were even in the room to hear his remarks.

During the statement to the public he began to wax theological. He said, "The only way — let me stress that — the only way that I believe that me or this community has been able to endure the trauma that has been thrust upon us is through the prayers of the Christian people who have sent them up in this community." In his context, that remark seemed to be broadly appreciated, regardless of what people think of the justice or injustice of his decision.

However, the comments he made during the press conference revealed a racialized theology at work. He did not say directly that large groups of black people inevitably produce riots, violence, and crime. That would have been unacceptable. He said it in code: "I firmly believe and am confident of the fact that had it not been for the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ last Thursday, a disaster would have happened. You can quote me on that."

A local black pastor in the crowd did not let that coded message stand. Reverend Donald Sibley's reaction led to the end of the press conference. He stood and replied that he thought it a shame that Walters could not give credit to thousands of black people acting respectfully and responsibly. Walters responded in his own defense, interpreting his previous statement clumsily, then ended the question period and abruptly left the room.

Rev. Sibley noted that Walters seemed to have two Jesuses at work in his theology, "his Christ and our Christ." Sibley went on to say, "I can't diminish Christ at all. But for him to use it in the sense that because his Christ, his Jesus, because he prayed, because of his police, that everything was peaceful and was decent and in order -- that's not the truth."

Rev. Sibley deserves a strong commendation for his insight, his wit, his courage, and his clarity in dealing with a racialized justice system and the racialized theology which supports it.


Mike Broadway said...

Posting for Valerie . . .

Dr. Broadway

History has born out that travesties considered by the ruling class are not always the travesties considered by the other. Examples of this type of travesty can be found througout history from the begining of time until the present.
A document which we are both familar with states that there is nothing new under the sun.

As outraged as I am about the prosecutorial misconduct perpetrated by the former district attorney of Durham, it is equal to the outrage I feel for the prosecutorial misconduct of those in power in other situations that have come to the attention of the African American community.

I look forward to the day when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream is fully realized. I won't be holding my breath. But I will be praying and anticipating the answers to my prayers....

Franchine Philpot Pena said...

Let’s just admit, as history has proven time and time again, that there is, generally, an inability of whites, specifically white Southerners to see blacks as fellow Americans with equal rights. That has not changed.

Reed Walters just happens to be an exposed classic example. I’ve read that he believes he is being chastised, criticized, and crucified (like his Jesus) for his attempt to serve the people of Jena, Louisiana. What Reed Walters does not appear to understand is that it is his actions of favoritism toward whites and prejudice toward blacks which suggests miscarriage - or at least misappropriation - of that same justice he claims to seek.

To say I was flabbergasted when I read (and heard) his comments is an understatement.
Walters is not only continuing to cause dissention between the people, he is also using Jesus the Christ to influence the Town of Jena that Jesus is working on their side. Further, for him to think that it was his prayers – and the divine intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ which made the black people respond appropriately ---- was just coded racist talk for “those people don’t know how to act and only my Jesus can make them “act right’.

Reed Walters, you ought to be ashamed. We serve a loving God; a God who is God of the human race.

I submit that we, as a church, must do what Jesus did. There was in the way Jesus behaved an openness to people of all kinds, without barriers of class or race or gender. Just as God in love accompanies all creation, so Jesus went among the poor, telling them that they were loved by God. He dined with a rich Pharisee, and told another who came to see him at night that he needed new vision and had to be born again (John 3:3). He healed Jewish lepers and a Roman soldier’s child. There were women in the group that traveled with him, and unlike many holy men he did not shrink from the touch of a prostitute. In all that breadth of relationship, Jesus incarnated the accessibility of God, who “shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11), but is open to all — rich or poor, sick or healthy, old or young.

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