Trayvon Martin, Racial Profiling, and Stereotypes

“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”-John 7:24

Jesus said the above words to the Pharisees, who stereotyped Jesus as an irreverent lawbreaker by the appearance of things, when, in reality, Jesus kept the heart of the laws better than any of the Pharisees (Mk. 2:23-28; Mt. 23).

Trayvon Martin and Stereotyping
This is especially relevant in the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager. The prosecution claimed that Zimmerman provoked Martin to the fight that led to his death by racially-profiling the hoodie-wearing, black teenager as a criminal and then pursuing him. The jury, however, acquitted Zimmerman on the basis of Florida’s self-defense laws.

In response, President Obama gave a very personal speech where he said, “Trayvon Martin could’ve been me, 35 years ago.” He recalled various instances in which he, like other African-American men in the country, was racially stereotyped, such as when he was “followed [while] shopping in a department store” by those who suspected that he might shoplift, and the time when he “[walked] across the street and [heard] the locks click on car doors.”

Given this “lens” of African-American experience, it is no wonder that the vast majority of African-Americans see this tragedy as an instance of racial profiling and stereotyping. And regardless of whether you believe Zimmerman is innocent or not, we must seek to listen to and empathize with the African-American community. As Christians, who are commanded to judge not by appearances, but with right judgment, we must speak out against racial injustices facing African-American men throughout the country.

Some Generalizations Are Necessary
This is not to say that all generalizations are morally wrong. It is impossible to live without inferring general concepts and propositions from specific cases.

For example, people try to avoid honeybees while walking through and/or admiring flowers. This is a learned behavior in response to the fact that honeybees sting. However, this is also a generalization, because it’s only the female honeybees that sting. While only partially true, the generalization that “honeybees sting” helps people avoid getting stung by honeybees.

Similarly, people often assume that homeless people are addicted to substances such as alcohol and drugs. While not always true, it is statistically accurate that a higher proportion of the homeless are addicts compared to other populations. This generalization dissuades many generous people from giving money, which can be used to acquire drugs and alcohol, and spurs them instead to help the homeless by buying food for them or directing them to local homeless shelters.

In other words, some generalizations help people take appropriate precautions and act wisely. Despite the obvious limitations of generalizations, we cannot live without them. This is why even Jesus makes generalizations about the Pharisees and Scribes of his day in his scathing critique of their hypocrisy (Mt. 23:1-36; cf. Tit. 1:12-14).

But Stereotypes Are Sinful
But wait, aren’t young African-American men disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system? Isn’t this sufficient warrant for Zimmerman to suspect and pursue Martin? When do we cross over from fair-minded generalizing to sinful stereotyping?

“stereotype” is an uncritical, oversimplified, and prejudiced conception of someone or something held in common by a group of people. We stop generalizing and start stereotyping when we fail humbly to acknowledge the limitations of, and exceptions to, our generalizations, and proudly assume that they are true for every member of a particular group and apply them to specific individuals in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Even though Jesus did criticize the hypocrisy of Pharisees and the Scribes collectively (Mt. 23:1-36), he never pressed individuals who did not fit the generalization into stereotypes. In fact, in Mark 12:34, Jesus commends a sincere Scribe by saying that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.”

Romans 12:3-5 is illuminating:

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

All stereotypes are rooted in unwarranted pride and confidence in one’s own judgments. To stereotype is not “to think with sober judgment,” but “to think of [one]self more highly than [one] ought to think.” To stereotype is not to “judge with right judgment,” but to “judge by appearances.”

As the above passage shows, God doesn’t expect us to fit a uniform, procrustean “Christian” mold, but recognizes our individuality and calls us to use our diverse gifts to perform different tasks within the one body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-31). God forms each of us uniquely in the womb and knows us personally (Jer. 1:5; Ps. 139:13).

This is why there’s no such thing as “good” stereotypes. All stereotypes are an affront to God’s design for humanity to reflect his Triune being through individuality in solidarity and diversity in unity. They demean men and women created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) by circumscribing them with caricatures of themselves.

The Trayvon Martin case is tragic, because the bottom line is that an unarmed teenager was shot and killed, and we have no evidence that he was “up to no good,” except for the fact that he was “just walking around” in the rain after purchasing Skittles and iced tea from Seven-Eleven. The fatal confrontation would have been averted if Zimmerman had not relied on his hunch and instead heeded the recommendation of the police dispatcher who told him not to follow Martin.

Was his hunch motivated by racial stereotypes? Only God and Zimmerman himself know for sure. But may this tragedy remind us to be sober-minded, lest we judge by appearances and not with right judgment. As this case has clearly exposed, racial fault lines still divide our nation, and we still have some way to go in building “a nation where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

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