No matter where you stand on the lack of an indictment against Darren Wilson, what’s going on in Ferguson is a tragedy. While the violence and the occasion that brought about the riot is tragic in and of itself, what makes it a bigger tragedy is it underscores just how divided we are as a nation. I’ve seen multiple Facebook posts and even a few articles filled both with explicit racism and implicit racism. Everything from, “Well what do you expect from animals” to “well, how come ‘we’ [read: white people] never riot when we don’t get our way?” Both views are incredibly racist. But I’ve also seen interviews and Facebook statuses saying that “white people are just racist, it’s in their blood.” Sadly, both approaches are incredibly racist and don’t solve the problem. They’re both very nihilistic approaches to the issue of race, essentially declaring there is no hope for the other, because the other’s problem is within his skin color.
There’s a temptation within the white community to pat ourselves on the back for ending slavery and segregation (as though the eradication of both were unilaterally done by white people). Some, especially the more liberal or social justice minded, go further to talk about how they support welfare and food stamps, so obviously they’re not racist. The implied message is, “Because I support programs for the poor, that means I can’t have anything against African Americans; I even have African American friends.” Of course, the other implied message that is missed is the assumption that the majority of people who benefit from social justice programs are somehow non-white, but the statistics show that the majority of people on social welfare programs are actually white. This doesn’t stop people on the left from stereotyping blacks, however.
Those on the right tend to be much more blatant and upfront in their racism. They just assume that rioting is something “black people do.” They’ve replaced the N-word with the word “thug,” so as to avoid the controversy. All black people who protest what happened to Michael Brown are subsequently labeled “thugs.” We’re told that the black community just needs to get it together, that they’re out of control, that they’re doing something whites would never do. Of course, they completely ignore the fact that if we fired a longtime college football coach for turning a blind eye to sexual abuse of minors we’d riot (such as Penn State did a few years ago) or over pumpkins (as this happened this year). It completely ignores that white colonials rioted against the Colonial British authorities prior to the Revolution, that whites rioted against the Irish immigrants in the 1800s, that whites rioted against peaceful Civil Rights protests in the 1960s. We also conveniently forget the most shameful aspect of American history, the lynch mobs of the early 1900s all the way up into the 1960s (and later in some places).
Racism has always existed within the United States, which points to our bigger problem; individualism has failed us. Shortly after finishing the War for Independence, early Americans were concerned about German immigrants; they weren’t Anglo and therefore weren’t “white.” Around the mid to late 1800s, the concern was over Irish immigrants, again, because they weren’t Anglo and therefore weren’t white. Then it was over Italians in the early 1900s because they weren’t from Northern Europe, they were criminals, they were thugs, they wouldn’t learn the language, and they weren’t “white.” By the 1910s to 1930s, it was Eastern European immigrants (my great-grandfather falls into this category, coming off the boat in 1912), because they weren’t “white.” In our history we’ve committed genocide against Native Americans without considering them human, we’ve enslaved millions of black people and then segregated against them, and overall we’ve been very unkind to anyone who didn’t share our skin color. Why? What is this underlying cause of racism that would cause typically good natured people to turn to the basest of human sentiments, that my color makes me better and your color makes you lesser?
To understand the cause of racism and what plagues our current condition, we must understand who we are as human beings. Within the Christian tradition there’s the belief that we’re created in the image of God. Of course, being in the image of God has nothing to do with our physical appearance as God does not have a physical appearance within his essence. Socrates and other classical philosophers described the essence of humans as rational-animals, meaning we are spiritual and thinking beings who happen to also exist within the physical realm. The animalistic part is our physicality while the rational part, what drives us and separates us from other animals, is where we find God’s image. But what does it mean to be made in the image of God?
God is Trinitarian, that is, he’s three persons within one essence. Without getting into too much detail, that means God is a community unto himself. The easiest way to think of this is as follows:
God is infinite, God is infinitely good, and God is love. Every aspect of God is without limit and is perfect. In order for love to be perfect and maximally great, it much be actualized. For instance, a married couple might love a child that has yet to be conceived, but their love will be greater once the child actually exists. Thus, if God is love and that love is maximal, it means from eternity past there had to be an object for God’s love; that love is shared within the community of God. The Father, Son, and Spirit all love each other maximally. When Christ prayed for those who would follow him, he prayed that “they would be one as we [the Father, Son, and Spirit] are one.” Christ’s prayer is that all those who follow him, all of humanity, would unite within the community of God.
When we sinned a division was placed between us, which is where racism comes from. Racism, no matter what, finds its root in a lack of community, and a lack of community finds itself in our first sin when we separated from the community of God. One of the biggest causes of racism is ignorance, typically ignorance of what other people are going through. One need look no further than the current debate over white privilege, that our system is inherently tilted in favor towards lighter-skinned people. Of course, some white people deny this is the case, but they are the recipients of the favor, so it’s hard for them to see how others are impacted by this favor. Even me as a white male who acknowledges white privilege exists still struggles at times to see the ways in which this privilege manifests itself. This isn’t because I’m a foaming at the mouth racist, but because of my racial and social status I can never put myself into the shoes of the other. I can never imagine what it’s like. But I can talk to those who suffer from white privilege, I can form a type of community with them, I can learn from their experiences, I can be a human being to them.
The underlying cause of racism, no matter the person being the racist, is a lack of community. It’s a lack of talking to and trying to see the other person’s point of view. The solution, then, is to get back to community, but community stems from God since he is the original community. The simplest solution to racism is for people to recognize that they belong to the bigger community, the one that originates with God. The solution is to listen and even befriend people who are different from ourselves.
None of this, however, ought to be construed to mean there is no diversity within community. For people who say, “I don’t see color” or “we’re all a part of the human race” would be like looking at a Rembrandt or Picasso and trying to say you don’t see the patterns or the colors. Of course there are differences within cultures (though, those cultures are not necessarily limited to or contained solely within color barriers). Having community with each other isn’t the same as monoculturalism; it’s entirely possible and ideal for differences and diversity to shine forth within a community. We learn from each other that way and even enhance our own cultural experiences.
Ultimately, the solution to our racist problem is to realize that if we claim to love God, we must first love our fellow man. There’s a reason Christ said that the greatest commandment (to love God) is similar to the second greatest (to love your neighbor); to accomplish one commandment, one must participate in the other. It is impossible to love God without loving your neighbor, and it is impossible to love your neighbor without loving God. It is also impossible to love your neighbor if you can’t first talk to him, empathize with him, and attempt to understand his experiences and his points of view. Without empathy and attempts to know your neighbor, there can be no way to fix racism.