In this election season, Americans have experienced a heightened sense of tension when discussing social issues. Nowhere is this tension more palpable than in discussions about racism. But even though it’s important that our nation learns to deal with our historical legacy of racism and grapple with its effects, I also think it’s prudent to occasionally consider its origin.
Now, here is where many evangelicals like to refer to racism as “not a skin problem, but a sin problem,” a phrase I’ve come to despise. It seems to be used most often as a tool to shut down discussion instead of opening it up. The subtext behind that handy aphorism is Hey, mankind is fallen, we all have a problem with sin, therefore there’s no use in dredging up the details of who might have been responsible for what, so let’s just drop the discussion because it’s making me uncomfortable.
In other words, admitting that the problem is difficult to solve is the first step in rationalizing our inherent reluctance to solve it. We don’t do much about racism because we either can’t imagine what it’s like being targeted by it or we can’t imagine a world without it.
Thus, the stain of racism, beyond the institutional or systemic failures it engenders, is on a fundamental basis, a failure of imagination and empathy.
Imagination and empathy are often characteristics we ascribe to children. So when we see children being racist, it feels extra jarring. For example, we may already know beyond a shadow of a doubt that racism is wrong, but when we see children acting out racist attitudes and ideologies, it seems… wronger. The pain that makes such evil possible can make you recoil or even weep.
At least, those were my reactions when I first witnessed Mark Jarvis, a fictional eight-year-old boy in a guest role on the TNT police procedural Major Crimes.
Mark was introduced into the Major Crimes plotline recently because his mother was missing, and she ran with several members of a Neo-Nazi gang called the Zyklon Brotherhood. Mark (played by Henry Oliver Kaufman) had been exposed to their ideology for most of his life, and thus reeked of racist bluster. Since his mother was missing, he became a ward of the state, and assigned to the only officer in the unit who’d recently been approved as a foster parent—Detective Julio Sanchez (Raymond Cruz), of Mexican descent.
What struck me most about watching little Mark belittle and dismiss his new guardian was how little hope or imagination he seemed to have. It seemed that his racist indoctrination, besides making him look like an unreasonable jerk, had the side effect of muting his childlike sense of wonder.
You know how babies love playing peekaboo? That’s because they’re learning to differentiate themselves from others. Considering that we all spend around nine months inside of another person before we come into this world, differentiation is an important skill to develop. It takes time to truly internalize the idea that someone else’s experiences might be different from ours. This is why many of us, as little children, simply shut our eyes and/or took refuge under covers when we were scared of monsters in the closet or under our bed. We mistakenly thought what we saw was the only thing that existed; therefore, if we couldn’t see something, it must not be there.
This is the way I see many white people deal with racism in a similar way—if they can’t see it, it must not exist.
And so it was with little Mark. Though smart and curious, he could not see the possibilities of any sort of relationship or connection with anyone who wasn’t white. Unlike many people, for whom the mere mention of race feels uncomfortable, this kid could see nothing but race, and therefore, no way to see anything deeper or further.
And of all the terrible criminal outcomes that came out of the Zyklon Brotherhood (a fictional gang patterned after real-life instances of white supremacy and organized crime), it seems to me that loss of hope and imagination was the seminal tragedy that gave birth to all of its evil progeny: fraud, extortion, drug abuse, sexual assault, and serial murder (if you watch the three-episode series White Lies, you’ll see what I mean).
And yet, when you read the Bible, it seems clear that God anticipated this need for hope and imagination.
Consider the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus.
Before Paul gets to the part about how they once were dead, but are now alive, before he talks about how in Christ there need be no racial or ethnic divisions, before he talks about God’s plan for those who were on the outside but are no longer excluded, and before he mentions a need for unity and maturity in the church, he prays for them. And in his prayer, he uses the following expression:
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people.
Have you heard the song “Open the Eyes of My Heart?” This is where that expression comes from. In the King James Version of the Bible, the phrase is, “the eyes of your understanding being enlightened.” The word for “understanding” in the original Greek is dianoia, defined like this in Strong’s Concordance:
διάνοια diánoia, dee-an’-oy-ah; deep thought, properly, the faculty (mind or its disposition), by implication, its exercise:—imagination, mind, understanding.
Did you see it there? Imagination. Paul is praying that they will have enough imagination to hope for a better kingdom than what they were able to see with their eyes and touch with their hands.
That’s what we need to combat racism. Not just a thorough reckoning of systemic disadvantages and tangible, financial restitution—though we definitely need that as well—but a fresh jolt of imagination. There’s a reason why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech was about a dream. What Paul prayed for is what we need now—a new generation of dreamers who can grapple with the reality of race without being shackled by it.
And while I wait for that prayer, I’ll be watching that last episode of Major Crimes, because man…what a show.