The Good, Racist People

I’ve taken a break from a lot of my normal online haunts during Lent and have surely missed a bunch of interesting articles and bits of news, though I’ve not generally been aware of missing anything. Thankfully a friend emailed me Ta-Neshi Coates’ op-ed in The New York Times; I wouldn’t have wanted to miss “The Good, Racist People”.  In it, Coates recounts a recent incident that took place in his neighborhood deli during which an employee frisked Forest Witaker after accusing him of shoplifting. There’s nothing uncommon about stop and frisk in New York City where the deli is located but it’s less common that the person being profiled is a world famous actor. After recognizing Witaker the owner apologized.  What Coates picks up on in his piece is the same owner’s claim that, “it was a ‘sincere mistake’ made by a ‘decent man’ who was ‘just doing his job.’”  According to the owner, the incident wasn’t the result of racial profiling but was the sort of mistake anyone could have made. We white folks often don’t see prejudice and racialized assumptions at work in these sorts of scenarios because of how we think – or don’t – about racism.  Coates writes,

In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.” A half-century later little had changed. The comedian Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) once yelled at a black heckler from the stage: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Confronted about this, Richards apologized and then said, “I’m not a racist,” and called the claim “insane.”

Racism, for many of us, is localized within an individual and an unsavory, morally corrupt individual at that.  Certainly not “decent” people like ourselves.  Anyone other than a hooded Klan member who is acting prejudicially probably just misspoke.  Or is having a bad day.  I’m reminded of a anthropologist friend who avoids the word racist in his classes of mostly white students for fear they will tune out, assuming themselves to be beyond such ugly assumptions and behaviors. Coates goes on, nodding toward the slippery and invisible (to some) forms that racism takes today, forms that are no less destructive for their cultural camouflage.

The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.

On one hand, racism continues to play it’s wicked part within the American story.  On the other hand, most of us within the majority culture don’t think we play a part in this story;  someone out there may be racist but it’s certainly not me.  It’s impossible for both of these to be true.

As a Christian I think about whether American Christians – and I mostly have in mind white American Christians – think any differently about these things than our secular neighbors. Unfortunately, it’s probably a safe assumption that we don’t think differently and more carefully about systemic racism.  But it shouldn’t be this way.  In fact, there are at least two obvious attributes within Christian belief that can begin forming us into something other than “the good, racist people” of Coates’ op-ed.

First, Christians believe in sin.  We really believe in sin, meaning that our rebellion against God plays out in our lives and our neighborhoods; in our hearts and our culture; in the individual and the system that individual functions within.  Given the history of our country we shouldn’t be surprised at the ways the sins of racism have been assumed into our cultural assumptions and habits. When we deny the prejudice that flows through the veins of our country and instead limit racial injustice to the occasional despicable individual we betray our too-small view of sin and its prevalence.

Second, Christians believe in grace.  We really, really believe in grace.  Without grace there is no ground on which the Christian may stand.  Our ongoing dependence on God’s grace means that we don’t have to justify ourselves.  Specifically, we can readily admit our complicity and corruption within systems and structures that are often in conflict with God’s justice. As a white man who lives by grace, I’m able to acknowledge (when made aware) my blind spots and prejudices.  In fact, I need not be surprised by them given the reality of sin in our world.  Why wouldn’t I be affected by our injustice world?   And why wouldn’t I be glad for every chance to lean again into the grace of God as I repent and am forgiven?

I know firsthand that these two attributes of Christianity are more easily stated than lived. Even so, there seems some reason to hope that the good, racist people Coates has rightly become weary of need not be our default identity.

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David Swanson
David Swanson is the pastor of New Community Covenant Church [Bronzeville] on Chicago's South Side. He blogs often and has authored countless articles for prominent Christian publications.