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Trayvon Martin and the Shadow of Racism

The Trayvon Martin trial continues to dominate the news. As you know, George Zimmerman claims he shot the teenager in self defense. If convicted of second-degree murder, he could face life in prison. The racial overtones of the trial have been central to the story. The Congressional Black Caucus claimed that Zimmerman's "racial bias" led to the shooting; Martin's description of white people has been called racist as well.

Continuing on the theme of racism, "The Lone Ranger" is making news. Johnny Depp's "Tonto," while a more dominant figure than in previous iterations of the character, is nonetheless viewed by some Native Americans as a setback. Hanay Geiogamah, a Native American playwright and professor at UCLA, comments: "This represents a major setback in our efforts to combat stereotyping of our image. This pushes us further back into exotica, into otherness, strangeness, a kind of a mystical, spooky past."

Meanwhile, an eight-second film has just been discovered that shows President Franklin Roosevelt gliding down a ramp aboard the U.S.S. Baltimore in July 1944. Why is it significant? Because it may be the only film that shows the president in his wheelchair. A victim of polio, he was almost never photographed in the chair. News photographers concealed his disability from the public.

Prejudice is a slippery concept. What was disparaged in one generation (a "handicapped cripple") can be applauded in another (a "physically challenged" overcomer). Language morphs along with attitudes: "Call a spade a spade" today means to be honest about something, but it probably originated as a derogatory reference to African-Americans. But while social customs and words change, our underlying attitudes do not.

Sociologist Janis Prince Inniss distinguishes between "institutional racism" and "interpersonal racism." The former describes systemic domination of minorities in politics, law, culture, education and business. The latter "refers to attitudes and behaviors between individuals rather than to institutional practices" and may be conscious or unconscious.

There is no place for either in the Christian faith: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). Prejudice is forbidden in the church (James 2:1-13) and in the believer (Colossians 3:8-11). But here's the problem: Bigotry will persist as long as pride does. Racism deceives us into seeing ourselves as part of a privileged group, innately superior to those we denigrate. Then, no matter how difficult our challenges, we think we are better than those our bigotry belittles.

So I find that I must pray this to God today: "Lord, please reveal my racism to me. Show me where prejudice has found a place in my heart and world. Forgive me, lead me to seek the forgiveness of those I have wronged, and help me promote your inclusive love wherever I go today." Would you make my prayer yours?

Jim Denison, Ph.D., is a subject matter expert on cultural and contemporary issues. He founded the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture, a nonsectarian "think tank" designed to engage contemporary issues with biblical truth in 2009 and is the author of seven books, including Radical Islam: What You Need to Know. For more information on the Denison Forum, visit To connect with Dr. Denison in social media, visit or

Publication date: July 11, 2013

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