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Racial Profiling and the Christian

American Christians should be just as committed to fighting the injustice of racial profiling as we are to fighting sex trafficking, homelessness, abortion and the other important justice issues of our culture.

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Unfortunately, we are not.

The American Church is largely silent on the issue of racial profiling. When Christians do identify racial profiling as the injustice it is, we commonly receive resistance and even hostile opposition from amongst our own. This was illustrated when RAAN President, Jemar Tisby, posted his excellent article Shopping While Black: The Problem of Racial Profiling. In response to the article an anonymous user (clearly white and presumably Christian) posted a comment minimizing the injustice of racial profiling and essentially laying the blame for its existence at the feet of black Americans. I would like to believe that the anonymous user’s comment is an anomaly and is not representative of the views of a number of American evangelicals.

But I can’t.

Experience has taught me that the anonymous user’s comments accurately represent the opinion of many of my fellow white evangelicals. On the one hand it is terribly discouraging to see so many who are unwilling to “weep with those who weep” as their brothers and sisters live under this injustice daily. On the other hand I have tremendous hope because my fellow white evangelicals are committed to the Scriptures and, I believe, will fight against racial profiling when they see it for what it is: always evil, never justified, and continually disrupting the Shalom of our communities.

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Racial Profiling is Always Evil

Racial profiling is always evil. There are many reasons for this but the most important is that racial profiling isolates race as the defining aspect of a person’s identity. This is contrary to the Biblical doctrine of the imago Dei which teaches that as God’s image bearers we are each an immeasurably complex blend of physical, spiritual, volitional, moral, emotional, intellectual, and societal factors. Racial profiling ignores this diverse complexity and reduces the glories of our humanness down to one category: our physical skin tone.

In this way, racial profiling guarantees that God’s image-bearers will be treated as something less than image-bearers. As we evangelicals know, the God we worship is not pleased when his image is dishonored. In fact, God points to the devaluing of his image in human beings as the basis for capital punishment in Genesis 9:6.

One may try to argue against the point above by claiming that in fighting crime we cannot observe every aspect of someone’s humanness and, thus, must limit our initial attempts at preventing crime to physical things we can observe. This, of course, cannot be true in a country that claims “innocent until proven guilty” because every form of profiling necessitates that certain groups of people are treated as “guilty until proven innocent.” Yet, even if it were true, it would still not explain racial profiling. People are not labeled as potential criminals by any other physical aspect of their humanness. There is no “driving while long-necked” or “shopping while big-eared” issue in our country. This is because we have adopted only racial categories as a relevant indicator of one’s potential for criminal behavior.

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Moreover, race is not a divinely revealed category. It is a socially constructed category. Even worse, this socially constructed category was not invented to explain reality (such as real and actual differences between ethnicities), it was invented to create reality (namely a hierarchy of races which would “justify” the dominant group’s oppression of “lesser” peoples). Racial profiling is rooted in the same oppressive system that was created to perpetuate the horrors of slavery and genocide and is therefore a stench in the nostrils of the God who says, “I, the Lord, love justice” (Isaiah 61:8) and commands his people to “let justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24).

Racial Profiling is Never Justified

Racial profiling is never justified because, as seen above, it is evil. Within a biblical worldview, evil is never justified no matter how “useful” it may be. It is also never justified because it is exclusively applied to minority populations and never applied to the dominant population.

To illustrate this truth simply ask yourself which of the following celebrities is most likely to be pulled over on the basis that they might be undocumented immigrants. Would it be Edward James Olmos or Justin Bieber? Selena Gomez or Michael J Fox? Intuitively we all know the answer. People who look like Edward James Olmos and Selena Gomez – both of whom are US citizens born on American soil – are pulled over every day simply because they “look” like they might be undocumented immigrants. People who look like Justin Bieber and Michael J. Fox – both of whom immigrated from Canada – never have this experience.

Similarly, Wall Street crimes are almost exclusively committed by white men. Yet how many white men in suits are being pulled over because they “fit the description” of these criminals? The highest percentage of marijuana users and meth dealers are also white men. Yet I have never had a retailer follow me around the store or a real estate agent steer me away from a certain neighborhood because I share the same skin tone as those who commit the overwhelming majority of these crimes.

This is because racial profiling (like the category of race itself) is created and enforced by the dominant culture and, therefore, does not apply to the dominant culture. Members of the dominant culture have the unique privilege of being individuals whose perceived potential for criminality is only affected by their own decisions and not by the decisions of complete strangers who happen to share their skin tone.

This is the privilege being enjoyed by the anonymous user who commented on Jemar’s post. (S)he assigned the blame for racial profiling to Jemar for not publicly denouncing “the black ghetto culture that feeds these negative stereotypes” and not directing his outrage “at the minority of African Americans (sic) who commit your surrounding communities (sic) overwhelming percentage of…crime.” As a white American, the anonymous user will never be asked why (s)he has not denounced the white American culture of greed that produces Wall Street crime, or the white American culture of drug addiction that allows for countless white drug users and dealers. (S)he will never be personally held responsible for the crimes committed by strangers who share her skin tone and will never be expected to publicly condemn the white Americans who commit the overwhelming percentage of crime in her community.

And she should not be.

Because her race is not a reflection of her potential for criminality and her “people” are not a monolithic group for whom she must give an account when certain of its members do wrong. The anonymous user should have the privilege of being an individual who is treated as an image-bearer. And so should everyone else. Unfortunately, racial profiling privileges white skin while punishing people of color. For this and other reasons it is never justified.

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Racial Profiling Disrupts the Shalom of our Communities

Lastly, racial profiling disrupts the shalom of our communities by strengthening the divisive perceptions that justify its own existence. Racial profiling begins with a stereotype that it then, by its very existence, reinforces.

How does it do this?

Imagine there were a stereotype that an overwhelming percentage of Christians park their cars illegally and politicians chose to use this stereotype as a justification for devoting additional law enforcement resources to policing the Christian community. This would result in police forces regularly visiting Christian churches, Christian concert venues, and Christian bookstores (do those still exist?) in search of illegally parked cars with more vigilance than in other communities. As a result of these additional resources focused on the Christian community there would eventually be more illegally parked cars found in the Christian community than in any other. This isn’t necessarily because Christians are illegally parking any more frequently than any other community, it is because law enforcement has policed this issue in the Christian community with greater intensity than in other communities. Yet that obvious fact wouldn’t matter. The country would be even more convinced in their perception that “those Christian love to illegally park” and law enforcement would be even more biased in both pursuing and convicting Christian drivers.

This is what racial profiling does to communities of color. It bases its existence on the stereotype that certain sorts of crimes are committed frequently by people of color. This stereotype then justifies an increased police presence in communities of color and provides police and other outsiders with prejudiced “probable cause” to search for a crime and expect a crime where a crime would not otherwise be assumed with any other population. This leads to an increase in searches and stops, which leads to an increase in citations and arrests. This increase then strengthens the stereotype that such crimes are committed in the respective community thereby giving law enforcement and the general population the “evidence” that racial profiling is necessary and effective. Of course this isn’t necessarily because people in this community actually commit these crimes at a higher rate than the dominant culture, it is because racial profiling leads law enforcement to police this community in a way it doesn’t police other communities. As just one example, it is this inequitable approach to policing communities that has led our nation to incarcerate African-Americans for marijuana use at four times the rate we incarcerate whites, despite the fact that whites use marijuana at a higher rate than blacks.

The consequences of racial profiling on the shalom of our larger community are too far-reaching to cover in this article. Suffice it to say it hinders our ability to live as the unified community Christ died to create. It is a prevalent factor in the continual physical separation between white and minority Christians. White Christians tend to avoid moving into neighborhoods with large minority populations, often because of assumptions related to crime rates that are highly influenced by racial profiling. Christians of color who might desire to move into a more integrated neighborhood are often unable to do so due to the effects of decades of racial profiling in real estate, lending, and criminal justice. Racial profiling is also a prevalent factor in the relational distance between us as it has led both groups to distrust the other.

Jesus is not pleased with these results. In fact, his famous story of the Good Samaritan was designed to correct such foolishness. In telling the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus intentionally appeals to the racial profiling of his Jewish audience, knowing they will expect “their own” to behave one way and the Samaritan to behave another. He then turns their expectations upside down and reveals not only that their racial profiling is without basis but that it is keeping them from obeying God’s Law. May we all repent of our tendency toward practicing or even tolerating racial profiling so we may keep God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

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