Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Well, I Guess I Have to Boycott Some NFL Games This Year…

                I am a new member of the Mennonite Church USA, and my church graciously paid for me to go to the denominational convention in Phoenix this past year so that I could get an idea of what the Mennonites were all about. What a wonderful experience! One of the speakers was a woman by the name of Cheryl Bear who spoke about Christianity, the pursuit of justice, and her Native American experience. In her address, she called my attention to the tremendous discrimination that Native Americans have faced and continue to face in our country. Unfortunately, unlike the racism experienced by other groups, this racism has gotten very little national attention and thus has gone by unchecked. For example, did you know that Native Americans were not granted the right to vote until 1924, and that some states continued to prohibit them from voting until 1948? That’s later than both African-American suffrage and women’s suffrage! Or did you know that Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to Euro-American schools, whose explicit purpose was to break the Native Americans away from their “barbarous” culture into “civilized” Euro-American values? [2] Did you know that the last of these schools didn’t close until the 1990’s?

                This is disturbing historical
information, but I didn't really think about the continued racism that Native Americans face or my involvement in it until I arrived back in Indianapolis. Within a week of coming back, someone invited me to go a minor league game, to watch our local team, “the Indianapolis Indians,” compete. All of a sudden, I realized how much I have been a part of the racist system that discriminates against Native Americans. I watch sports teams all the time with names like, “Washington Redskins” and “Kansas City Chiefs,” and I have never raised any serious complaints against these titles or showed any resistance to them. Thus, my actions give the message: “This is no big deal. Making caricatures and using racial offensive identifiers for this group of people is ok.” Well, I can’t do that anymore. I am hereby boycotting any games or products associated with any team that uses a Native American caricature as their mascot. I would invite you to join me, and also to sign the petition below that tell an owner of one of those teams that racial team names are not ok with us. [3]
                Now, I imagine that some of you are thinking, “Woah, woah, woah. You’re making way too big of a deal about this. It’s just a harmless sports name. And why is it even offensive? After all, it emphasizes the bravery and/or fierceness of these groups.” The short answer is this: It doesn’t matter why it is offensive. I have some guesses as to why, but my guesses are irrelevant. The important point is that Native Americans have been making formal protests against this at least since 1992, and since it bothers them, we must stop. [4] What’s incredible is that sports owners have rejected this request by arguing to Native Americans that those titles aren’t offensive. Let me give you an analogy: Imagine if someone took a picture of you without your permission and then proceeded to blow it up and hang it in a public place. Now imagine that you saw it, hated the way it looked, and asked the person to take it down. Then the person replies, “Well, I disagree with you. It’s not a bad picture. So I’m going to keep it up there.” What the heck!?! Can you imagine how frustrating that would be? It’s a picture of you. If you don’t like it, then they shouldn’t be able to display it. Period. In the same way, names like “Chiefs” and “Indians” are portraits of certain people groups, and if it’s offensive to them, then we have no right to display them, especially for something as insignificant as our entertainment.

               Here’s the thing: This would be such an easy thing to change. It wouldn’t take any major legal work or redistribution of resources. All it requires is a simple name change. But the owners of the teams with these names won’t do it unless they realize they’re losing money from it, which means we need to stop supporting these teams. Also, I am starting the habit of replacing any Indian team name with the word “Racist” whenever I refer to one of these teams, to call attention to the offensive nature of this language. For example, “Alfred Morris, of the Washington Racists, was one of my best pick-ups last year in fantasy football.” So please join me in resisting this social evil.


[1] For more on Cheryl Bear, you can visit her website at

[2] For a general introduction, see If you ever find yourself in Phoenix, AZ, the Heard Museum has a great section that introduces you to this experience.

[3] The only online petition I have been able to find is the petition against the “Washington Redskins,” whose name is certainly the most offensive of any professional sports team, as “redskin” is a racial slur. Even if you disagree with me about other team names, I would encourage you to sign this petition: If any of you know of other petitions or would like to start them, please include links in the comments section.

[4] The most easily accessible information is about the “Washington Redskins.” The following articles offer a helpful introduction to the controversy and manipulation surrounding that issue.,  I know that other battles have been fought as well, including a protest by Native Americans at an “Indianapolis Indians” game. Unfortunately, it’s taking me more than a few minutes to track that information down. However, if anyone really wants more information or feels compelled to challenge me on my contention that Native Americans find terms like “Chiefs” and “Indians” offensive, let me know, and I’ll do the work another day.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Bigger Picture in the Zimmerman Verdict

I have read a handful of articles and watched a couple of videos recently that argue passionately for George Zimmerman’s innocence. These articles generally make two points: First, that Zimmerman certainly had no hatred toward African-Americans. He grew up with African-Americans, befriended African-Americans, and even advocated for African-Americans in difficult situations. Second, that Trayvon Martin was dangerous. Martin had a history of drugs and violence, knew Mixed Martial Arts, and even physically assaulted Zimmerman. Taken together, these arguments conclude that Zimmerman did not kill Martin because he was a racist but because Martin was threatening his life, which presumably justifies the verdict that declared Zimmerman “not guilty”. Although there is a lot of truth in what these articles are saying, they entirely miss the bigger picture.   

For those of you who are defending Zimmerman, I’d invite you to take a couple of minutes to read this post and consider what’s going on here from another perspective. But first, I want to affirm a part of what you are doing. One thing that I appreciate about the recent flurry of articles defending Zimmerman is that they seem to be concerned for Zimmerman’s well-being. People who go on trial – especially highly publicized trials – are socially vulnerable for the rest of their lives. Zimmerman will never be able to escape the shadow that these events have cast over his life, and he at least deserves to have his story told in a fair light.

That being said, I must point out that all of these arguments all focus on the exchange between Zimmerman and Martin that occurred after Zimmerman made the decision to pursue Martin. To move the focus there is to preemptively frame the debate in Zimmerman’s favor. Had this been a different situation, where Martin sprang out of the woods and started viciously attacking Zimmerman, who happened to have a gun and decided to use it in self-defense, then there would be no debate, no outrage from the black community. But that’s not what happened. Remember, the entire encounter began with racial profiling. Of course, a number of white people do not believe that Zimmerman was racially profiling Martin. After all, the evidence suggests that he cared deeply for African-American people, that he wasn’t a racist, right? Well, that depends on what you mean by racism, which is why I find it useful to distinguish between hard racism and soft racism. [1]

Hard racism is the explicit and intentional persecution of people who happen to have a different skin color. Members of the KKK or Neo-Nazis, or people who reject or insult others on the basis of their ethnicity, are all hard racists. Fortunately, there aren’t a lot of hard racists lurking around in the United States anymore. Through reforming our laws, educating our children, and checking our attitudes, we have made hard racism socially unacceptable, and reduced it to the margins. Is hard racism over? Well, it hasn’t been completely eradicated, but it no longer enjoys the support and status of dominant society. [2] It certainly has no place in this current trial. I firmly believe that George Zimmerman was not a hard racist.

But there is also soft racism, the kind of racism which is not hateful in nature but which nevertheless makes instinctive judgments about people on the basis of their race. Almost all of us are soft racists to one extent or another. Generally, soft racism begins with by distrusting another person –the group of African-American teenage boys who are walking down the street, the Latino who is adamantly denying that he did something wrong, the Arab-American who is getting on a plane flight, etc. This distrust or suspicion then influences our behavior. White people go the other direction to avoid black crowds, Latinos are tuned out while they try telling their stories, Arab-Americans are searched more thoroughly by security, and all of these interactions become emotionally-charged. Now often times it ends there and no further injustice occurs, but these little discriminations have a tendency to escalate and to accumulate, to take root in people’s identities and in social structures. So, for example, wealthy people – both black and white [3] – tend to avoid African-American boys so often that they pull their kids out of black schools, move out of black neighborhoods, and create ghettos that are devoid of funding, businesses, and strong education programs. The discrimination against Latinos causes them to lose more arguments with business managers and police officers, which leads to higher criminal records, insurance rates, and employment problems. People of Arab origin both here and around the world face tremendous discrimination, to the point that we have imprisoned some of them without trial at places like Guantanamo and elsewhere. In a worst case scenario, this kind of “soft racism” could even kill someone, which is, in fact, exactly what happened to Trayvon Martin. [4]

One final point about soft racism before I talk about the trial: it is impossible to prove that it has occurred. Although you can prove that an action was committed (e.g. an Arab person was frisked by a security guard or a black person was interrogated by a police officer), you can never prove why it was committed. And that is what makes it so frustrating. People of color keep coming up against discriminations that white people – on the whole – won’t acknowledge. This makes it impossible for people of color to address the social evils that flow from those discriminations or legally defend themselves against discrimination. This is why the Zimmerman trial is so important.

Now, let me reiterate that Zimmerman is not a hard racist, as far as I can tell. I don’t believe that he had an agenda to hurt a black person on the night that he shot Martin. This, however, does not acquit him of soft racism. After all, let’s honestly ask, “Why did he follow Martin in the first place?” Here was a young man who was by himself, unarmed, and not threatening anyone. Without knowing anything about him, Zimmerman decided he was a threat, called the police, and pursued him against their recommendation while armed with a gun. Was this soft racism? Some of you are saying, “Well you can’t know for sure,” or “You can’t prove it,” and you’re right. That’s exactly the problem! You can never prove that soft racism has occurred. But indulge me in this thought experiment: Do you honestly believe that if a short white girl who was wearing the exact same clothing and performing the exact same behavior, Zimmerman would have followed her with a gun in hand? I don’t. If that’s the case, then Trayvon was discriminated against on the basis of his race, and that discrimination was the first event in a series of events that led to his death. Now, in the rest of that series of events, did Martin contribute in any way to the events that led to his death? Maybe. Perhaps the only thing that Zimmerman did wrong was to racially profile Martin in the first place [5], but even if so, that was wrong and it got someone killed. So, for people who have to deal with soft racism, individually and social, on a regular basis, what does this verdict mean?  The US government is officially declaring that it can offer no protection to people of color from soft racism, even if it kills them. How terrifying and disempowering!

Perhaps you think that I’m making too much of this. Perhaps you believe that a trial is not supposed to be a national spectacle but only an assessment of one individual’s guilt or innocence, and that the only relevant question is whether George Zimmerman committed murder or not. I disagree. Every trial serves the dual function of judging individual cases and making a public statement about justice. This is why Supreme Court cases like Roe v. Wade or Brown v. Board of Education are so important. They are not just trying to help a handful of individuals work through a really complicated situation; they are making a statement about justice and setting a legal precedent for how it will be pursued in our country. Thus, a public, legal action must be taken to respond adequately to this event. The call for a “fair verdict” in the Zimmerman case is not ultimately a call for revenge but for repentance; it’s a call for the public acknowledgment that soft racism is wrong and that we will do something about it.

But maybe Zimmerman isn’t the proper scapegoat for this necessary public repentance. Perhaps Zimmerman was rightfully declared innocent on the basis of Florida’s “Stand your ground law,” but this only means that Florida’s laws are themselves guilty of injustice. Because soft racism goes completely unregulated, laws like “Stand your ground” give racism a space in which it can flourish. People can invoke the power to kill from “Stand your ground,” and protect themselves under the invisibility of motivation. This is why black leaders here in Indianapolis and across the country are responding to the verdict by demanding the state governments to consider repealing their own versions of “Stand your ground” laws. [6] For if Zimmerman didn’t do anything illegal, then the law must be changed. After all, if there are no legal consequences for Martin’s death, that represents the United States’ tacit approval of soft racism. And that’s the bigger picture here. This is not just a question of whether one man was truly defending himself or not; it’s a question of whether those unnamed racial forces which perpetuate so much injustice in our society, will be publicly named and defeated.

End Notes

[1] I have found this distinction between "soft racism" and "hard racism" to be very helpful. For an excellent article, see That being said, I realize that the boundary between the two types of racism probably breaks down, as they are interconnected at least to some extent. Nevertheless, I think it is a valuable heuristic distinction to make, especially considering how ambiguous and loaded the term "racism" is.

[2] However, hard racists can still do a lot of damage from the margins. Almost every person of color that I know has had at least one negative encounter with a reactionary hard racist, and those traumatic experiences tend to stick with people for the rest of their lives. So, even though we have won the war, let’s not stop fighting the battles on hard racism.

[3] Yes, you can be a soft racist against your own “race.” Perhaps this is the most common way to be racist.

[4] See the movie Crash for a beautiful demonstration of the way soft racism can escalate, and what kind of soul-searching must be done for there to be any redemption.

[5] I do not personally believe that this was the only thing that Zimmerman did wrong, but even if it was, the argument would stand.