When my wife and I purchased our first home, I determined our lawn would be at least comparable to that lovely lush landscape of the guy two doors down. Our street took a lot of pride in curbside appeal. I joined them in the weekly ritual of weeding, seeding, planting, mowing, watering, raking, trimming and brimming with pride.
I spent a lot of time rooting shrubs and flowers, and sometimes digging up the roots of things that needed to go. I learned something valuable while bent over my spade, turning mulch, and worming my fingers into loam to find the extent of root balls: Only well-rooted plants survive, and sometimes that means roots must run deep.
That came home in a powerful way when someone gave me a cactus to plant. Actually, it wasn’t even a complete cactus, just a leaf. They told me it would grow anywhere and wouldn’t need much attention. So I stuck it in the dirt at the mailbox, the pretty white mailbox perched atop a white post with colorful tulips painted on its side. The cactus was meant to be the backdrop to the dancing colors of real tulips surrounding the post. Soon the cactus grew. The one leaf became two, then doubled again. Before I knew it the cactus had taken over the mailbox area, drinking up all the moisture and nutrients. My tulips drooped, faded and died.
Finally I decided to remove the cactus and replant the small bed around the mailbox. That’s when I discovered how deep and wide cactus roots run! That sprawling system of tentacles forced me to dig up a sizable section of the front yard curb area! After a couple weekends of toilsome digging and searching—and a couple of weekends of hard looks from neighbors—I dug up the cactus, roots and all, and started anew.
In the last couple of weeks we’ve gotten a good glimpse into the root system of racism. We thought we could stick the racists into the country’s past, next to a post marked “obsolete,” and gladly forget about it. But the roots of racism run deep. That’s why an entire police department and many others appear shot through with indications of that insidious root system. That’s why we’re now inundated with reports of municipal governments and court systems complying with police to raise revenue on the backs of African Americans. And that’s why we’re watching youtube videos of students on college campuses—both secular and Christian—engaging in acts that are at least stupid and insensitive and in some cases plainly racist.
The roots run deep, deeper than the natural eye can see, beneath the soil of our hearts, our cultures and our institutions.
We need to do some digging—especially Christians and Christian leaders. It’s necessary we take the shovels from our garages, put on our gardening gloves, and get to weeding.
Seems to me a few things need to be recognized perhaps more fully and even gladly than they have been.
1. Racism Is Alive and Well.
Greatly exaggerated were any reports of racism’s demise. That should be obvious now. But just a few short months ago a lot of people pressed back against claims of racism. They told us we could not know for certain if any racist motivation were a part of incidents like Ferguson or Staten Island or Cleveland. These were sad events, some said. But perhaps these were isolated incidents, not connected, almost random. Why cry “racism”?
Well, now we have a look at the roots, sprawling beneath the soil of assumed respectability and authority. Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and an untold number of other places all share the same root system. They all manifest human depravity, and that depravity sometimes takes the form of racial animus.
For my part, the DOJ report on the Ferguson Police Department tells us quite plainly that the vital signs of racism are quite strong. The old man lives. And more than that, the DOJ report decisively proves the prevailing reality of institutional racism and systemic injustice. Those numbers do not lie and they cannot be explained away as chance. And when the statistics say African Americans were less likely to be guilty of the crimes for which they were stopped than white drivers, then appeals to black criminality won’t do either. Still further, Ferguson isn’t alone among Missouri towns in these practices. And Missouri isn’t alone among the states. There’s a piling mound of research evidence that shows the same thing in other places as well.
Sad to say, but racism is alive and well.
2. Racism Cavorts with Power.
Rarely does racism walk alone. She dances with power. Not just the raw, unlettered, erratic power of stereotypical toothless hillbillies who sometimes “have a few too many” and cause trouble for brown-skinned people while embarrassing the good white-skinned town folks.
No. Racism acts far more seductively than that. She prefers men in robes or suits or uniform. She rathers young people wearing the letters of fraternities, with power over who can and cannot join their organizations. Racism makes her deals in country clubs, once segregated by club rules, now segregated by club fees and culture. Racism likes smoky rooms with dark cherry paneling, where the makers of futures and cities like to laugh, back slap, and cut deals. She would marry power, but that’s too public and people would talk. So she continues as power’s mistress, the unseen influence that poisons his heart toward his wife, Justice.
We cannot have any discussion of power without suspecting that fallen human alienation along racial lines is at least a possibility.
3. Racist Contexts Cast Clouds Over Us.
The root system of racism spreads beneath all our feet. There are a lot of people in Ferguson who had no clue about what was going on in its police department. They were sympathetic toward police and trusting of authority. They couldn’t see the cactus draining water and nutrient from their community.
But the DOJ describes a pervasive corruption along racial lines. That corrupt context informed the attitudes and actions of some officers and it created racially misinformed impressions about African Americans (i.e., more likely transporting or selling drugs, less respectful of law, more criminal). The shooting of Mike Brown, the police reactions to protests, the kangaroo grand jury and the aftermath all occur in this context, under this burgeoning cloud of racist stereotype, mistreatment, frustration and anger. That cloud bust and everyone got wet.
If we don’t let the winds of justice blow then we cannot be surprised if cumulus clouds of racial hostility form overhead. And we shouldn’t be surprised when the rain comes and it’s toxic. We can’t let racism go unchallenged or it’ll come back to hurt everyone.
4. Frat Boys and Judges Have A Lot in Common.
Here’s another kindness from the Lord: On the heels of reading the DOJ report and perhaps beginning to think to ourselves, Those racists in Ferguson are terrible, the Lord shows us that our children and our brightest students can be just as terrible.
Judges go to college. They make good grades. They lead student organizations. Then they graduate and begin legal careers. Some of them run for office and make public policy. The students in Oklahoma University’s SAE grow up to be prosecutors and judges and city officials. And guess what: Sometimes such students attend Christian colleges and universities.
Perhaps the Lord is telling us that this racist root system gives rise to that Ivy and Kudzu crawling up academic towers. If any of us think we’re immune by virtue of education and class, we ought to be careful lest we fall. Education doesn’t eradicate racism any more than it eradicates any other sin. We need something more profound, that reaches farther down in the human soul.
5. Racism Destroys Lives.
This point isn’t to be forgotten. When we talk about Ferguson’s criminal justice system or systemic injustice generally, we’re talking about the weight of the State crushing citizens. We’re talking about everyday people being harassed, imprisoned, and further impoverished by a government that’s supposed to be “of the People by the People for the People.”
To put it plainly: These things kill Black people. Sometimes slowly. Sometimes suddenly. But it’s always deadly. It could be the death of long sentences or the death of bullets. It could be the lingering death of poverty and resource restriction or the infectious death of disease and few health options. But it’s death.
Things are better compared to, say, 1960—which is to say the overreaching hand of deadly oppression has been beaten back through long years of protest. But the owners of the hand are not happy about being pushed back. So the snarled hand of racism continues to overreach. And it kills what it touches. That’s why none of this is a game and none of this should be left to our favorite talking heads, whoever they are.
6. This Is a Christian Discipleship Issue as Much as a Social Justice Issue.
Tell me what you think, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the Christian Church desperately needs to be discipled regarding “race,” racism and justice. I once thought the most significant deficiency in Christian theology (at least in the West) was a deficiency in the theology of suffering. But I think there’s more ink used to help people with suffering than there is to help people think of themselves primarily as Christians and radically apply their new identity in Christ to fallen categories like “race” and insidious sins like racism.
It’s tragic that the country’s biggest sin is racism and the Church’s biggest omission is racial justice. The tragedy gets compounded when one remembers that some quarters of the Church were once the strongest supporters of this sin. That means we’re working our way out of a deficit. The roots of racism are tangled with our faith. And this means we can’t assume some neutral stance, being formally against this sin but practically uninvolved. The root keeps creeping. We had better be weeding the garden of our faith and growing one another up into the fullness of Christ with attention to this anti-Christ called “racism.”
Over and over the question I get from genuine and well-meaning Christians is, “How can I think about…?” Or, “What should I do about…?” Those are discipleship questions that desperately need answering in every local church—assuming we don’t want the roots of racism to find any soil in the body of Christ.
The roots of racism run deep and wide. They’re deeper than the outward actions of a self-professed racist. That’s surface mulch.
They’re deeper than the actions of an officer in a corrupt police force. That’s only the potted soil.
They’re deeper than police policy and institutional practices. They’re deeper than education. That’s the surrounding soil.
The roots of racism are as deep as the fallen soul. That’s bedrock.
We’re going to have to dig that deep to eradicate this poisonous root.