Trayvon Martin & Native Americans: Acknowledging and Addressing Racism

When I opened my blog reader Monday morning after a week away, I found blog after blog featuring reactions to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager.

Not surprisingly, many of these pieces addressed, at least peripherally, the topic of racism. It was for this reason that I found them particularly interesting.

For the last week, I've been thinking deeply about racism, thoughts prompted by a week-long mission trip to the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern MN.

As part of this trip, a week ago, I had the privilege of listening to Keith, a respected member of the Red Lake Tribe recount the history of Native Americans in the United States. Among other things, Keith emphasized how he wants “people to see the way the US government oppresses people”. He posed the question, “Is it shocking that your government thinks I shouldn't have rights?”

His was a difficult talk to listen to as it portrayed the US government and in particular, white people, as villains. Despite knowing the unjust ways our country has historically dealt with the Native American people, this was difficult to hear. I left Keith's talk feeling unsettled, wrestling with the racism I feared it was exposing in my own life and curious as to how my high school students would react to his words.

That night, as my students and I met to debrief the day, I expected our conversation to erupt into a heated debate about race in America.

It didn't.

So I let the moment pass, confident that if we were meant to have a discussion about racism, God would provide us with another opportunity for it.

That was Monday.

On Friday, just prior to leaving the reservation to begin our trek home, we visited a Native American cemetery. We did so as a way of helping our students learn more about the Native American culture. Among other things, at this cemetery, students saw the graves of some of the victims from the 2005 massacre at the Red Lake high school, an event during which nine people were killed before the 16-year older shooter committed suicide. Throughout our week in Red Lake, multiple people had alluded to this “tragedy”, but no one had ever actually talked in-depth about it. 

On Friday night during our debriefing, I asked people to raise their hands if they remembered hearing about the shooting in Red Lake in 2005.

Not one person in our group of 28 remembered hearing about it.

I asked why they thought this was.

Some students speculated it was because the reservation was closed, meaning only Ojibwe tribal members may live there and own land. Some concluded this had prevented the media from infiltrating the community like it normally does after a shooting. Others quickly refuted this, saying nothing keeps the media out when tragedy occurs.

People commented on how strange it is that we know other, similar tragedies by key words - Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech, and Columbine - but that the same is not true for Red Lake.

Still others speculated we never heard about the massacre because we care less about the murder of Native Americans than we do about the murder of white kids in affluent suburbs.

Still another suggested we never heard about the Red Lake massacre because our government is racist.

Upon hearing this, I asked students point-blank: Is our government racist?

We debated this at length before moving onto another important question: Where does racism come from?

Some argued racism is subconscious, something we learn from the media, our families, and our culture so early on that we are essentially unaware of our own racial biases.

Not surprisingly, others disagreed, arguing racism is always a choice, never something inherent or excusable.

After debating this issue for a while, I asked: What, if any, racism did our experience on the Native American reservation reveal in their own lives?

I was stunned at the responses, as students shared openly and honestly about what they'd discovered during our week on the rez. These discoveries challenged students to think not just about racism toward Native Americans but about racism towards others as well. One student bravely challenged her peers to consider their own friend groups and whether or not they were diverse or only included people who looked like them.

The honesty of this discussion prompted another question: What, if anything, does our faith have to say about the subject of racism?

While a few students suggested nothing thankfully, others disagreed.

One pointed to the theology of the imago dei, suggesting the fact that if we are, each of us, created in God's image, then our faith has much to say about racism.

Another cited our theme verse from the ELCA's 2012 Youth Gathering, Ephesians 2:14-18, as further evidence of this: 

The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody. Christ brought us together through his death on the cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father.

Using language from this passage, I concluded our discussion by asking: How can we tear down the wall between us and others and overcome racism?

Though my students admitted feeling overwhelmed by this, they concluded that even as high school students there are things they can do to fight racism. Among them:

1. Talk about it. Student after student shared how important it is to acknowledge racism, listen to others share their experience with it, and learn from one another through open, honest dialogue. 

2. Confess your own racism. According to my students, we can't overcome racism unless we admit how it influences our own relationships and stories. 

3. Step outside your comfort zone. On our recent mission trip, my students discovered how important it is to go places – like African-American communities, Native American reservations, or mosques – and learn from those who experience racism on a daily basis. From my vantage point as a youth worker, I can say with certainty that our week on the Red Lake Reservation was a prerequisite to our conversation about racism. Even something as prominent in the news, like the the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, would never have prompted the kind of conversation about racism that being on the reservation and seeing the world through the eyes of another culture did.

4. Engage cross-culturally. The more you engage (through mission trips, justice work, and relationships) with people who are not like you, the more aware you are of racism (in yourself and others) and the less of a stomach you have for it.

5. Acknowledge racism, not just in the normal places, but wherever it exists. Many of my students commented on the strides our country has made in overcoming racism toward certain people groups. For example, they cited the election of President Obama as an example of the strides we've made regarding racism toward African Americans. However, they readily admitted this has not translated to all people groups – including the Native Americans who we spent a week with as well as those of Middle Eastern heritage – and acknowledged how important it is to not let improvements in one area result in complacency toward another.  

6. Don't tolerate racism. Throughout our conversation, many students admitted how prevalent racism is in pop culture – especially among comedians who use stereotypes and racial slurs to gain cheap laughs. They suggested that part of tearing down walls means not tolerating such things, even when done in the name of fun.

Throughout my conversation about racism with my students, I observed what countless studies have revealed about this Millennial Generation: They are racially tolerant. They value the acceptance of all people. Yet, they are being raised in a country filled with systemic racism and injustices.

This creates an internal conflict in many of our students.

They want to be activists who tear down walls racial injustice but they don't know how.

May we, as communities of faith, have the courage to show them the way.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 1 Corinthians 5:16-19

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the Minister of Youth and Family at Atonement Lutheran Church in Barrington, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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A Mission That Matters: How To Do Short-Term Missions Without Long-Term Harm

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