Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Race and the Image of God

Harold Dean Trulear


Race and the Image of God 

July 26, 2013

By Harold Dean Trulear


Fruitful discussion concerning the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman case suffers from the ongoing failure to distinguish between racism and racial prejudice. They are not the same.


Racial prejudice refers to an individual belief in the inferiority and defective humanity of persons based on race. Racial prejudice lives in the mind of an individual, reflects personal views about people of a particular race, and leads to individual actions reflecting those biased views. Racism refers to the systemic, culturally embedded norms concerning race, values, standards, and beliefs that reflect a prevailing cultural ethos and institutional reality. An individual may internally live those norms and exhibit prejudice, but those norms predate such individual adaptation and point to an era when one group or race had the power to define the other as inferior.


Racism is not an individual's hatred of a particular race, rather it is a cultural assumption that one race is normal and the other somewhere between derivative and defective. Racism produced the "flesh colored" crayons in my elementary school fifty years ago, the color scheme for band aids and calamine lotion, and other things that declared "white is normal."


When people say George Zimmerman is not a racist, pointing to his friendships with and work on behalf of Blacks, they are actually referring to his individual attitude, not whether or not he has internalized certain predispositions based on race. We can be heavily informed by racist norms while still making decisions that reflect little personal prejudice and malice.


However, the real issue in racism is not individual attitude but prevailing cultural norms. That is why even Jesse Jackson has made comments about being nervous when followed by young Black males. We internalize norms that color our view of people and may still be persons of good will while making decisions that reflect racist norms.


In order for us as Christians to resist the insidious effects of those cultural standards that disparage persons based on race, we must start with an ability to see all humanity created in the image of God, irrespective of cultural stereotypes, systemic discrimination, and persistent segregation- whether de facto or de jure.  Affirming the image of God in all human beings, especially those against whom our culture has offered consistent contempt, becomes a theological benchmark for evaluating our capacity to love and to provide just treatment to all.


Make no mistake, young Black and Brown males need to identify the image of God in each other as well. Trayvon Martin was seventeen times more likely to have been killed by another young Black male than by George Zimmerman. Even if Zimmerman had been convicted of some crime, young Black men walking the streets still have a number of reasons to fear the town watch, police aggression, or a rival gang.


Many organizations base their work with Black males on affirming the value of young Black life and resisting stereotypes that assault the Imago Dei. Organizations such as the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, a movement with reach into the faith community, seek not only to help Black males "make it" against the odds of community disadvantage, but also provide strategic messaging concerning what is positive about Black male achievement and its availability to the next generation. One group convened a number of clergy phone conference calls the day before the Zimmerman verdict to develop a sound theological and strategic response irrespective of the decision. "It's not the verdict, it's the values!" offered Pastor Michael McBride of the "Lifelines-to-Healing" campaign, a national network of religious leaders committed to reducing violence and ending mass incarceration. McBride, like many others, wants to transcend a narrow focus on the Trayvon Martin case- or more aptly, the George Zimmerman case- and raise the question of whether or not we treasure the lives of young males, especially Black and Latino.


In our valuing of young Black males, Christian faith requires that we see in them the image of God and ask ourselves whether such a theological affirmation would change our response to them. For young Black males, they must reject any image of themselves that falls short of understanding the Imago Dei which should not be assaulted in a confrontation with a suburban town watchman or an inner city rival. The church must elevate the discussion to a level that understands both systems of discrimination and stereotypes and expands our capacity to respond with biblical truth.




-  Harold Dean Trulear is the Director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity, Washington, D.C. and a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice 


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