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.