Changing Racist Hearts

March 16, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Credit:  AP / The Washington Post

Credit: AP / The Washington Post

It’s been a tough week for race relations in America. Saturday, March 7 began with a march, led by President Obama and Representative John Lewis, across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the day 600 voting rights demonstrators, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., crossed this same bridge and were met by state troopers who attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas. Indeed, Representative Lewis was among those seriously injured in that fateful march. Reflecting on the events of fifty years ago, the president noted:

In one afternoon fifty years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher – all that history met on this bridge.

It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America.

And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so many others, the idea of a just America, and a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America – that idea ultimately triumphed …

What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate.[1]

If only the president’s final line rang a truer longer.

The very next day, a video surfaced showing members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a horrifyingly racist song on a bus. The University quickly denounced the video, suspended the fraternity from its campus, and expelled two of the students involved.

But then came this:

Attorneys and law professors have watched with interest this week as the University of Oklahoma moved swiftly to disband the school’s SAE chapter and expel two students on suspicion of leading the racist chant, which was captured on a now-viral video.

University President David Boren acted decisively in dismantling the chapter, but experts say the university may be on shaky legal ground.[2]

The issue at hand is whether or not the University of Oklahoma violated the students’ First Amendment rights by closing their fraternity and expelling two students simply because they sang a song that many find – and, I hasten to add, should find – offensive. As Terrence McCoy reports in an article for The Washington Post:

The expulsions immediately struck constitutional law experts such as professor Eugene Volokh, of the University of California at Los Angeles and the Volokh Conspiracy blog, as strange. Did the University of Oklahoma, a public institution, just punish speech that, while clearly abhorrent, was protected under the First Amendment? Was this a violation of the Constitution?

Private institutions – like Sigma Alpha Epsilon – can freely punish speech that breaches their codes or standards. But a public institution such as the University of Oklahoma, which takes public money, operates as an arm of the government under the law. “So, in effect, it’s not a university punishing a student for a racist video or social media post, it is the state itself acting against an individual – a person, importantly, with all the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment,” wrote the University of West Alabama’s Will Nevin on AL.com.[3]

This case is yet another example of how woefully inadequate civic laws can be to address the deeply moral aspects of the human condition and experience.

One the one hand, the First Amendment was put in place to serve an important common good – that of protecting this country’s citizens from being oppressed, even in their speech, by their government. This freedom is important and ought to be fiercely protected.  On the other hand, we must never forget that societal freedom is inevitably fraught with personal danger. Free speech, it turns out, does not always translate into right speech. Just because legally we can say almost anything doesn’t mean that morally we should.

An opinion piece by Byron Williams of The Huffington Post struck me as especially lucid in regard to this story’s moral entailments:

America’s approach to the original sin of racism maintains an aspect of arrested development. It is too easy to temporarily transfer our moral indignation toward a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma that no longer exists than it is to take the more difficult path that could lead to a meaningful transformation.[4]

Notice the explicitly theological and moral category Williams uses for racism: it’s America’s “original sin.” But notice also how Williams also offers a distinctly non-civic answer to his distinctly theological and moral framing of this problem:

The expelled students have already succeeded in dismantling their fraternity chapter. Shouldn’t they be given opportunity for redemption? In lieu of expulsion, could the university have found another way to educate all involved about the poisons of racism?

The ease with which one can easily sing a song for amusement that dehumanizes another cannot be eradicated by an expulsion that, in my view, is unconstitutional.

Because racism is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned.

Moreover, it could prove to be the most meaningful class the students involved ever take.

To answer what he refers to as an “original sin,” Williams proposes a path to “redemption.” Though he does not frame redemption in a particularly Christian way, his argument is nevertheless rich with not-so-subtle theological overtones and vocabulary. Racists, as Williams notes, “cannot be eradicated by an expulsion.” In other words, if we want to root out racism from society, racists will need something more than punitive measures. As Christians, we know that racists will need Jesus – even as all sinners need Jesus. And racists will need followers of Jesus who are willing both to stand up against them and to seek the transformation of them.

One student’s words on last Monday’s NBC Nightly News broadcast express my hope for the students of Sigma Alpha Epsilon: “I want this to be a rehabilitory time for them.”[5] I hope it is. Because although the First Amendment may be able to defend them legally, it’s only Jesus who can change them internally. And it’s only Jesus who can heal people left broken by these students’ words relationally. So let’s lift our eyes to that hope. After a week like this last one, it’s a hope that we need.

_________________________

[1] Chris Cillizza, “A single photo that tells the powerful story of the 50th anniversary of Selma,” The Washington Post (3.7.2015).

[2] Matt Pearce, “Is University of Oklahoma frat’s racist chant protected by 1st Amendment?Los Angeles Times (3.10.2015).

[3] Terrence McCoy, “Why expelled Oklahoma frat boys would have an ‘excellent chance’ in court,” The Washington Post (3.11.2015).

[4] Byron Williams, “It’s Not Unconstitutional to Be Racist,” The Huffington Post (3.11.2015).

[5] NBC Nightly News, Lester Holt reporting (3.9.2015).

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Private Conversation and Public Rebuke Spiritual Speech About Social Concerns

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