A Single Shade of Grey: Thinking about Race

The seven days since the George Zimmerman verdict have been characterized by frequent discussions of criminal justice and race. Surprisingly, some of the most analytical pieces I’ve read this week showed up on Facebook. Thanks to friends Chris Attaway, Geoffrey Mason-Gordon, and T.C. Moore for not only trying to explore a complicated issue while keeping their friends who prefer simple answers. All three forced me to clarify some of my own sociological perspectives. I’m using this space to attempt to coordinate those various thoughts.

The title of today’s post comes from comments made by Dr. Reece J. McGee, distinguished professor of sociology and Master Teacher at Purdue. I had the pure joy of being Reece’s TA for four semesters. Reece’s Intro to Sociology class had about 600 students per section, but it was still a warm and engaging space. Every semester, he would make the startling claim that he could solve the problem of racism is two generations. Simply adopt a policy that said that you could marry whomever you wanted, but if you wanted to have children you had to marry someone of another race. In two generations, he argued, the gene-pool would be so confused that race wouldn’t have the same explanatory power it currently has.

I always loved the argument, but now I’m not as optimistic. It’s not just that people draw cues from skin color. It’s that they seem somehow insistent on seeing things in black and white. Taking an issue as complex and emotional as race and converting it to talking points is absurd. The arguments only work if you completely abstract them from real life or if you generalize from single egregious cases. We seem to have a national fascination with polarizing the argument.

It is true that society is moving in the direction Reece was describing, even without a formal policy. The Census department reported in May that the percentage of marriages that were interracial or interethnic grew from 7% to 10% during the first decade of the 21st century. The story goes on to report that the percentage of unmarried couples who are interracial/interethnic now constitute 18% of all unmarried couples. These are significant steps in moving us toward a post-racial society.

And yet.

And yet we’re reminded that we still live in a society where the children of those marriages will still be seen as racially identified. Barack Obama is the first president with African ancestry (as far as we know), but we don’t often talk about him as a mixed race president of Kansas stock who grew up in multicultural Hawaii. He’s the First Black President. One of the interesting side-stories in Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit book is his discovery that his mixed race great-grandfather had declared himself white when moving from Louisiana to Detroit.

In a social psychological sense, Obama IS black and Charlie’s ancestor IS white. The treatment they received within the broader society was based on their physical markers. It’s how Obama recounted being watched by department store security guards (or even, in this amazing piece, mistaken for the help!). It’s how Charlie’s ancestor avoided the significant mortgage covenants and apprenticeship barriers that allowed to raise his family in a home he built in middle-class Detroit.

In his remarks yesterday, Obama echoed Martin Luther King’s “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” line. I always tell my students that you have to take the “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety. The first half of the speech outlines the injustice that social institutions had foisted on blacks and talks of how the promise of “all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights” had been sent back marked “insufficient funds“. Then the second half holds out The Dream. We don’t get to choose half the speech. It’s not some smorgasbord of picking up ideas we like. We mix the black and white perspective and come up with a single shade of grey.

What does grey mean in the Martin-Zimmerman situation? It means that Zimmerman’s perception of what Martin may have been up to was impacted by the meme of a young black man after hours. It means that Martin believed that fighting back was the  option he chose in light of a general pattern of racial profiling (it’s why he didn’t go quietly). It means that Zimmerman’s perception of threat was high even before the altercation began. It means that Martin could be an aggressor AND a victim at the same time.

Acknowledging Grey means that we embrace the complexity that surround race in America. Comments like “what about the murder rate in Chicago?” miss the point. Accusing people of outright bigotry is unfounded. But there are issues related to black on black violence and drug trafficking. Not all residents of the inner-city are connected to those issues, however. My Detroit area students attest to that. So do many of the people described in LeDuff’s Detroit. Not all people concerned about affirmative action are racists. Some simply hold a high view of equality as defined in the 14th amendment.

We must learn to see the complexity that is present all around us. This is somehow hard for cable news, being so committed to black and white, sound bite, 140 character answers. (The twitter feeds following the president’s remarks were indicative as were the op-ed pieces). That’s where I find the blogosphere helpful. I keep finding people who are asking hard questions while grappling with grey-ness.

Christena Cleveland’s reflections in Christianity Today does a wonderful job of affirming differing perceptions while calling on those who experience the privilege of structural advantage to find solidarity with those who lack that same privilege. It is an expression of the Kenosis principle in Philippians 2.

Jonathan Merritt wrote on Thursday that Christians have a special role to play. He ended with this:

Post-racial America is not yet a reality, but I believe it is possible. May we—both Americans in general and Christians specifically—redouble our efforts to work towards justice and reconciliation. While the pundits and politicians will continue to take advantage of this controversy, let’s instead have serious conversations about education, the criminal justice system, racial profiling, voting rights, and civil discourse. Let us press on toward the world we desire but have not yet achieved.

The story of race in America has chapters about structural barriers of the past that stretch their tentacles into the present. It has chapters about personal tragedy and bad choices. It has chapters about overcoming obstacles. It has chapters about criminal laws that treat inner-city drug use differently than suburban drug use. It has chapters about an economics that favors the suburbs over the cities. It has chapters about generations of dependency.

If you put all these chapters in a blender and turn in on, what comes out is grey. Our only way toward a post-racial society is to embrace that reality and then work as if we really believe Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is decorated in hues of grey.

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