Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hate Crimes and Justice in the Black Community

Note: Today’s blog is written by a special quest. Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She received her B.A. in English from Wake Forest University, her Ph.D. in political science from Duke University and an honorary doctorate from Meadville Lombard Theological School. She is also a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

She is author Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, (Princeton 2004). I’m featured in the section that examines the Black church role in molding political ideologies. The work was awarded the 2005 W.E.B. DuBois book award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists. It is also the winner of the 2005 Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. Her academic research has been published in scholarly journals and edited volumes and her interests include the study of African American political thought, black religious ideas and practice, and social and clinical psychology. She is at work on a new book: For Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn't Enough. It is an examination of the connections between shame, sadness, and strength in African American women's politics.

Black Christians understand justice. Rooted in a history of struggle against oppression the black church has historically led the nation in a moral quest for human dignity and freedom. Unfortunately, some outspoken African-American clergy have rejected the moral vision of black Christianity by fueling anti-gay prejudice in their opposition to the Matthew Shepard Act. These African-American preachers are more interested in the media spotlight than in honoring the black Christian tradition of justice.

Poised for a vote in the Senate, the Matthew Shepard Act extends federal hate crime protections to citizens who are violently victimized because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. It provides local law enforcement with the resources to thoroughly investigate heinous, bias-fueled crimes. Intending to shift public opinion against this bill, a few conservative African-American pastors are working overtime--through protests and provocative advertisements--to spread the false message that this legislation will criminalize them for condemning gay people.

It is time for black Christians to speak out against this distorted and ugly campaign against the Matthew Shepard Act. The proposed federal statute does not punish nor prohibit free expression of one’s religious beliefs. The hate crimes bill includes language protecting individuals from race-based and religion-based crimes as well. The Act protects first Amendment rights for everyone while ensuring that the authorities fully investigate all violent crimes intended to degrade and oppress their victims. The bill protects our children, because black youth are proportionately targeted and victimized in anti-gay hate crimes.

Homophobic black clergy do not speak for the entire black Christian community. Though they receive dramatically less media attention than Bishop Harry Jackson, many African-American religious leaders are encouraging acceptance and inclusion in their congregations and communities. African-American Christians have long resisted readings of the Bible that exclude and oppress. Enslaved blacks were admonished to “obey their masters” but they believed the story of Moses leading his people from bondage. Jim Crow religion told black people to be silent about oppression because the” meek shall inherit the earth," but Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. called for “justice to run down like waters and righteousness as a mighty and ever-flowing stream.” Lamentably, as the Matthew Shepard Act debate has illustrated, the Black religious voices urging inclusion and respect rarely receive as much media notice as those preaching division and bigotry.

To be sure, there is still much work to be done before homophobia ceases to cause pain and division. African-American gay men and lesbians continue to find themselves marginalized in some churches and in the mainstream black media. On the news, a handful of Black athletes and performers received enormous media attention after making hateful anti-gay statements this year. While homophobia remains a serious and pernicious problem across this nation, it's important for us to recognize that there are far more people within the black religious community who support equality and dignity for gay people than the media has given credit. The public--especially those young people who are now recognizing their sexual orientation and gender identity--should know that those who preach bigotry in their unfounded assault on the Matthew Shepard Act do not define the level of open-mindedness and acceptance in the African-American religious community.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from a letter from a Birmingham jail to express his grave disappointment in his fellow clergy because they failed to support eh struggle for equal rights and human dignity. Let us now register our equal disappointment with the intolerance or homophobic clergy in our community. When asked why he’d come to Birmingham, King wrote “I am here because injustice is here.” When asked why we support the Matthew Shepard Act black Christians can respond the same.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell will participate in a symposium entitled: "Sites of Struggle: Centering African-American Women in Politics and Culture" on Monday, October 8 from 5-7 pm in the Hitchcock Room of UNC's Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

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