The System and the Human Heart

I have written previously about How to Eradicate Racism and Racial Profiling, but recent events call for further reflection.

This week, a Staten Island grand jury voted not to indict New York City Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who used an illegal chokehold to restrain Eric Garner and inadvertently killed him. Pantaleo was white; Garner was black.

This ruling comes on the heels of the Ferguson ruling last month, when the grand jury voted not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in a confused altercation. Wilson was white; Brown was black.

These are tragic deaths that call for mourning. These are also polarizing deaths that call for charitable listening and thoughtful response from both sides of the racial divide.

A Black Perspective
It was only 59 years ago this week that Rosa Parks refused to obey the bus driver’s order to give up her seat in the colored section to a white passenger. The specter of systemic racism stills hangs over our nation, even though much of it is now perpetuated in our subconscious. Those on the receiving end of injustice are naturally more keenly aware of it.

This is why, in the poll preceding the Ferguson decision, 59% of blacks said that Officer Wilson should be charged with murder, while only 15% of whites concurred. Similarly, only 13% of blacks thought that Officer Wilson acted in self-defense, while 43% of whites thought so.

A White Perspective
Our justice system, however, is not entirely broken. In January, a grand jury indicted Officer Randall Kerrick on voluntary manslaughter charges for fatally shooting Jonathan Ferrell. Kerrick was white; Ferrell was black.

Nor are all white police officers out there to lock up or kill black people. Most of them are risking their lives to serve the public good, and some are oblivious to their subconscious racial profiling. In many cases, they are protecting black people from black violence, since 93% of black homicide victims are murdered by blacks.

The System
The mutual mistrust between blacks and law enforcement must be healed. (1) Police officers must be made aware of their racial biases and trained to de-escalate confrontations in order to curtail the use of deadly force. (2) Social ills such as poverty and fatherless must be ameliorated to reduce black criminality.

The Human Heart
But we would be deluded to think that we can change our society by merely changing institutions. Undoubtedly, our human condition is a broken one that must be fixed, but we must not ignore the human nature that drives it. Changing the system is an expedient solution, but changing the human heart is more exigent. Systemic reforms must be driven by those whose hearts have been reformed by Jesus Christ.

Enlightened principles will not fix our world. A system of redemption is not enough. We need a Redeemer who can change the human heart, and His name is Jesus Christ. We must repent of our selfish agendas and submit to Him. Then, God will give us a new heart and fill us with the Holy Spirit. And “beholding the glory of the Lord, [we will be] transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Trayvon Martin, Racial Profiling, and Stereotypes

“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”-John 7:24

Jesus said the above words to the Pharisees, who stereotyped Jesus as an irreverent lawbreaker by the appearance of things, when, in reality, Jesus kept the heart of the laws better than any of the Pharisees (Mk. 2:23-28; Mt. 23).

Trayvon Martin and Stereotyping
This is especially relevant in the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager. The prosecution claimed that Zimmerman provoked Martin to the fight that led to his death by racially-profiling the hoodie-wearing, black teenager as a criminal and then pursuing him. The jury, however, acquitted Zimmerman on the basis of Florida’s self-defense laws.

In response, President Obama gave a very personal speech where he said, “Trayvon Martin could’ve been me, 35 years ago.” He recalled various instances in which he, like other African-American men in the country, was racially stereotyped, such as when he was “followed [while] shopping in a department store” by those who suspected that he might shoplift, and the time when he “[walked] across the street and [heard] the locks click on car doors.”

Given this “lens” of African-American experience, it is no wonder that the vast majority of African-Americans see this tragedy as an instance of racial profiling and stereotyping. And regardless of whether you believe Zimmerman is innocent or not, we must seek to listen to and empathize with the African-American community. As Christians, who are commanded to judge not by appearances, but with right judgment, we must speak out against racial injustices facing African-American men throughout the country.

Some Generalizations Are Necessary
This is not to say that all generalizations are morally wrong. It is impossible to live without inferring general concepts and propositions from specific cases.

For example, people try to avoid honeybees while walking through and/or admiring flowers. This is a learned behavior in response to the fact that honeybees sting. However, this is also a generalization, because it’s only the female honeybees that sting. While only partially true, the generalization that “honeybees sting” helps people avoid getting stung by honeybees.

Similarly, people often assume that homeless people are addicted to substances such as alcohol and drugs. While not always true, it is statistically accurate that a higher proportion of the homeless are addicts compared to other populations. This generalization dissuades many generous people from giving money, which can be used to acquire drugs and alcohol, and spurs them instead to help the homeless by buying food for them or directing them to local homeless shelters.

In other words, some generalizations help people take appropriate precautions and act wisely. Despite the obvious limitations of generalizations, we cannot live without them. This is why even Jesus makes generalizations about the Pharisees and Scribes of his day in his scathing critique of their hypocrisy (Mt. 23:1-36; cf. Tit. 1:12-14).

But Stereotypes Are Sinful
But wait, aren’t young African-American men disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system? Isn’t this sufficient warrant for Zimmerman to suspect and pursue Martin? When do we cross over from fair-minded generalizing to sinful stereotyping?

“stereotype” is an uncritical, oversimplified, and prejudiced conception of someone or something held in common by a group of people. We stop generalizing and start stereotyping when we fail humbly to acknowledge the limitations of, and exceptions to, our generalizations, and proudly assume that they are true for every member of a particular group and apply them to specific individuals in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Even though Jesus did criticize the hypocrisy of Pharisees and the Scribes collectively (Mt. 23:1-36), he never pressed individuals who did not fit the generalization into stereotypes. In fact, in Mark 12:34, Jesus commends a sincere Scribe by saying that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.”

Romans 12:3-5 is illuminating:

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

All stereotypes are rooted in unwarranted pride and confidence in one’s own judgments. To stereotype is not “to think with sober judgment,” but “to think of [one]self more highly than [one] ought to think.” To stereotype is not to “judge with right judgment,” but to “judge by appearances.”

As the above passage shows, God doesn’t expect us to fit a uniform, procrustean “Christian” mold, but recognizes our individuality and calls us to use our diverse gifts to perform different tasks within the one body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-31). God forms each of us uniquely in the womb and knows us personally (Jer. 1:5; Ps. 139:13).

This is why there’s no such thing as “good” stereotypes. All stereotypes are an affront to God’s design for humanity to reflect his Triune being through individuality in solidarity and diversity in unity. They demean men and women created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) by circumscribing them with caricatures of themselves.

The Trayvon Martin case is tragic, because the bottom line is that an unarmed teenager was shot and killed, and we have no evidence that he was “up to no good,” except for the fact that he was “just walking around” in the rain after purchasing Skittles and iced tea from Seven-Eleven. The fatal confrontation would have been averted if Zimmerman had not relied on his hunch and instead heeded the recommendation of the police dispatcher who told him not to follow Martin.

Was his hunch motivated by racial stereotypes? Only God and Zimmerman himself know for sure. But may this tragedy remind us to be sober-minded, lest we judge by appearances and not with right judgment. As this case has clearly exposed, racial fault lines still divide our nation, and we still have some way to go in building “a nation where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

How to Eradicate Racism (In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)

As our first black president takes his second ceremonial oath of office with his hand on Dr. King’s personal Bible, let’s reflect briefly on the issue of racism in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr…

The Fight Against Racism
Did you know that Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation actually did not free a single slave? It declared slaves in the Confederate territory to be free, but this could not be enforced since the Confederate states had already seceded.

Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement accomplished much: Brown v. Board of Education abolished segregation, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 legally banned many discriminatory practices. However, none of these eradicated racism.

This is not to downplay the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, since laws do affect our attitudes and redefine normativity. The election of our first black president is evidence that we have made great strides. However, racism lingers on, because in order to truly eradicate racism one must not merely change laws, but change hearts.

Racism Lingers On
Many bemoan the unfair advantage given to ethnic minorities in Affirmative Action, but the same people rarely protest the fact that minorities generally receive an inferior education because their public schools (which are generally located in poorer neighborhoods) lack resources, because they are funded largely by the relatively meager local property taxes.

Racial profiling is another issue. Many reports have confirmed that Latinos and African-Americans are stopped and frisked with disproportionate frequency, even when they are no more likely to be engaged in criminal activity than white Americans.

For a more local example, Os Gemeos’ mural in Boston of a boy with a shirt wrapped around his head sparked a heated debate, with many denouncing the mural as a depiction of a terrorist. While placing the art near the central railway station of a city from which Al-Qaeda’s hijacked jets originated may be malapropos, it is not malicious. The automatic labeling of the art as “terrorist” betrays racist assumptions.


Christ Is the Cure for Racism
But for Christians, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Here’s the cure for racism. As Jonathan Edwards writes, “private affection, if not subordinate to general affection, is not only liable, as the case may be, to issue in enmity to being in general, but has a tendency to it” (Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtues, pp. 20-21).

In other words, if our highest allegiance is to ourselves, then naturally, it will be to the exclusion of the interests of others. If our highest allegiance is to our family, then naturally, we will care less for other families. If our highest allegiance is to our class, race, nation, or gender, then naturally, we will be classist, racist, jingoistic, or sexist. Therefore, “only if God is our summum bonum, our ultimate good and life center, will we find our heart drawn not only to people of all families, races, and classes, but to the whole world in general” (Timothy Keller, Reason for God, p. 166).

This is why the second greatest commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is rooted in the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:35-40).

Thus the only way to uproot racism is to ground ourselves in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which tells us that all humanity is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and that Christ died for us to restore this image that has been marred by sin (Colossians 1:15). When we enter into this all-embracing love of Christ, our hearts are transformed to love people of all races.