So one of the problems I see in our political discourse, is that we often use the same words but mean different things.
And nowhere is that problem more vexing than in our discussions about race. It’s been a problem for a long time, of course, but ever since the election of Donald Trump, there have been a fresh round of arguments springing up on cable-news pundit panels, message boards and social media feeds. And the typical argument goes something like this:
Progressive: [Insert recent news story] is a clear example of racism! That [incident, action, statement or idea] is racist!
Conservative: No, it isn’t! Why do you make everything about race? That had nothing to do with race. [Insert person at the center of story] is not a racist!
Progressive: You don’t know what you’re talking about! Your denial of racism is racist!
Conservative: You don’t know what you’re talking about! Your accusation of racism makes you the real racist!
Rinse and repeat.
Usually, progressives like me try to fix the problem by introducing statistics and models and dropping in a bunch of links to prove that we’re not making this racism thing up.
The problem is, racial conversations can be very emotional, and people aren’t always good about thinking rationally when they’ve become emotionally engaged. Also, various people may have different experiences with people of different racial backgrounds, and so we’re not always coming from the same vantage point.
So I’d like to offer an analogy, drawing from an experience that just about every American adult has had a few negative experiences with.
Let’s talk about traffic
Traffic sucks, right? I think most people would agree with this basic premise. I’ve never heard someone get excited for a road trip by exclaiming, “oh man, this trip is gonna be awesome, there’s gonna be so much traffic!”
And traffic is emotional, especially in the moment. Few things do more to stir up negative emotions in me than having somewhere to go, needing to get there quickly, and becoming fixated on the idiot in front of me who just won’t go already. Go! What are you braking for? You’re not even going the speed limit and you’re in the left lane! GOOOOOOOOOOO ALREADY!
In that moment, I’m liable to say the thing that a lot of us say in that situation: this traffic sucks. Like, we might even use that as an excuse when we arrive, late, to our destination. Sorry I’m late, but the traffic was JUST TERRIBLE.
But here’s the thing. The way we use the word “traffic” in that instance is probably very different than the way an actual traffic engineer might use the word.
See, traffic engineers are taught to examine the whole roadway system. Even if they’re looking at a particular incident on a particular stretch of road, they have to weigh all the different factors that may have affected the outcome. They have to know how many cars drive through that intersection per hour, how fast they tend to go, what kinds of vehicles drivers are piloting, and if there are also pedestrians, bikes, buses or light rail trains that also travel along that road. And if you’re a traffic engineer trying to solve a traffic problem in a major metropolitan area, you realize pretty quickly how transportation issues are tied into other important political issues, like infrastructure funding, air quality concerns, parking issues (which can affect local economies), vehicle safety concerns, access for emergency vehicles, natural disaster readiness, you name it.
Whereas, when you or I, as non-traffic-engineers, use the word, we usually just use the word “traffic” to mean, “the person who’s in my way right now.” That is, especially if we’re actually stuck in traffic and our emotions are running high, we tend to view the traffic from our vehicle’s perspective. In that moment, traffic is anything that slows me down from getting where I want to go. The idiot in front of me? That’s traffic.
What’s interesting about this is that as adults, most of us intuitively understand that traffic is a malleable concept. Without having engineering degrees or transportation careers, we get the idea that traffic exists outside of our personal experience with it. How do I know? Because if a friend or relative or co-worker strolls into a meeting 15 minutes late, you’re not automatically going to assume that person is lying just because you didn’t have the same traffic experience. You’ll take a moment and try to mentally account for the direction they’re coming from, the time of day, and the existence of adverse weather, construction projects or accidents that might cause delays. And even if you can’t identify a specific factor, all of us who drive on freeways on a regular basis have experienced sudden traffic backups that seem to happen out of nowhere, with no apparent cause or source. Traffic is kinda weird like that, and if you’re around it long enough, you’ll start to see that.
Also, even though any particular commute may require several sets of one-on-one interactions — waving someone in so they can merge, honking when someone is still stopped at a green light, checking to see if that person is about to pull out of their parking spot, et cetera — most people are able to understand traffic as both:
1.) a series of individual interactions
2.) a complex system of people, equipment and infrastructure that keeps a community running smoothly.
We carry both definitions in our heads, even if we’re not consciously aware of it. Doing so is what allows people to remain civil instead of road raging when someone cuts you off. It’s what motivates people to carpool, so that they can use HOV lanes. It’s what allows people to make financial sacrifices, like paying taxes on gasoline, or paying tolls when driving across certain bridges or expressways. There’s an implicit understanding that doing so helps to defray costs so the roads can be maintained and everyone can benefit. Most people try to do what they can to make the traffic situation as tolerable as possible for the largest number of people.
In other words, they view traffic through the filter of civic responsibility.
And if we can do this for traffic issues, we should be able to do this for racial issues.
Attitudes, systems, and perspective
See, one of the biggest problems that people have when discussing race is not being able to conceptualize it.
But racism is kind of like traffic. There’s an individual level that has to do with the actions and attitudes of individual people. That’s racial prejudice. But then there’s also the ways in which those actions and attitudes take place in institutional systems. People often refer to this as systemic racism, or institutional racism. The word “racism” is a word that, for people who study it and understand it well, encompasses both ideas at the same time.
But if you don’t study racism, and you’re not the target of racism — that is, if you’re white in America — you probably don’t think of racism that way. So when someone accuses you or someone you know of being racist or doing or saying something racist, you’re probably thinking of a personal attitude. You might even try to defend yourself on the basis of that attitude. Like you might say, I’m not racist, I have black friends. I like Hootie & The Blowfish, and they’ve got a black singer. I even like that one Kanye song. Why would anyone think I’m racist?
What you’re really saying is, I don’t have racial prejudice. And you might be right, at least on a conscious level. (Unconscious bias may still be an issue, but that’s a topic for another time.)
But even if you’re right, that idea completely ignores the other, more hidden side of racism that is institutional and systemic. Systemic racism what happens when generations of people with racial prejudice create systems and institutions that have advantages and disadvantages that hinge on racial identity. It creates inequitable disparities in wealth, housing, education and criminal justice.
Ever heard of redlining? It’s the systematic denial of services, either through access or by cost prohibition, based on the racial composition of an area. For decades, institutions like banks would literally have maps with certain areas marked out where they would refuse to grant loans to applicants. Those areas always had the highest concentration of blacks or other ethnic minorities.
Here’s the thing. Redlining is no longer legal, but it still happens. Sometimes it even happens because of good people who don’t realize they’re doing it. You don’t have to have an attitude of racial prejudice to directly or indirectly reinforce the societal norms that make systemic racism possible.
Let’s go back to traffic for a moment.
Have you ever stopped to consider that by driving a car, you’re creating traffic? Even if you’re polite and courteous and follow all the rules of the road, just by virtue of being out at certain times of day where more people are out and about, if you drive a car, you are creating traffic. And if you’re like me and you constantly complain about traffic, it’s hard to admit that we are part of the problem. It’s hard to remember this when we’re behind the wheel, because we’re conditioned to think of traffic only from our individual perspective. And even when we do, we often make the assumption that if we just keep good driving habits, that will help make the traffic situation better.
But sometimes individual habits aren’t enough. As a matter of fact, there are times when the things we think would actual help, have the opposite effect.
Like merging. Ever been on a road and you see that your lane is about to merge into the next one? Do you merge early, or do you hold out until the last possible moment? A lot of people think late mergers are rude, but the states of Washington, Minnesota and Kentucky have all launched campaigns to get people to buy into the idea that late merging is better for traffic flow. That is, people who merge early because they’re trying to be nice, end up creating more traffic backups that take longer to clear out.
In the same way, some people think that the best way to deal with racism is not to talk about it, because everyone should be equal and race shouldn’t matter. But if everyone does this, it tends to have the opposite effect. It’s like reading the Bible out of context… instead of battling against racism, it reinforces the status quo. It causes people to assume that things are fine and everyone is being treated equally, when the research indicates that no, they are not.
White people who have this attitude end up invalidating the pain and frustration that people of color express in their reactions to high-profile racial incidents. Because it’s uncomfortable to deal with injustice, they often end up recentering the conversation around their feelings as a white person, and framing the person of color as creating the problem by bringing it up. This inability or unwillingness to meaningfully engage with racial issues has a name, coined by Seattle educator Robin DiAngelo as “white fragility.” And just like early traffic mergers, people who operate this way, even though they’re trying to make the problem better, end up making it worse.
Individual versus collective
You might be wondering… what does this have to do with being a Christian?
As American evangelicals, we have been conditioned to think of our relationship with God only on an individual basis. Because of our broader American cultural emphasis on individual rights, we are convinced that salvation is an individual affair.
But that’s not what I see when I read the Bible. Over and over, I see stories of God interacting with individuals in the context of community. God interacts with a person, and through that interaction, a whole group of people are affected.
Remember, it wasn’t just Noah by himself on that ark. It was Noah and his whole family. When Moses spoke to Pharaoh, he didn’t just say “let me go,” he said, “let my people go.” Even in the New Testament, there were only a few moments when Jesus took time to be by himself… most of the time, he rolled twelve deep with a crew of disciples, and the Scripture where Jesus instructed the disciples about how to remember him took place during the Passover feast, which was a community event. The book of Acts was about the birth of the church, not as an institution, but as a community of people. Even the Apostle Paul, when he wrote letters, only a few of them were written to specific people. Most of them were written to entire church communities, about the issues that those people faced.
Yet somehow we think that racial issues are only about individual responsibility. There’s no sense of collective responsibility for racial issues, especially those surrounding police misconduct. How many times did I hear my Christian friends say that after all of the high-profile police shootings of the last few years? If only they would’ve complied, this wouldn’t have happened. These are just isolated incidents. Really, y’all? How many “isolated incidents” do their need to be before you’re willing to admit that maybe there’s a pattern here?
I think as Christians, we need practice learning how to see things from a broader, big-picture perspective.
In the movie Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey’s titular character gets to be God for a day, and decides to simplify things by granting a blanket “yes” to the millions of prayers that fill up his email inbox. When thousands of people all win the lottery and only end up with $17 each, he learns a valuable lesson about the wisdom required to run the world (namely: he doesn’t have it).
I think this is what the Apostle Paul was driving at when he wrote to the Colossian church. At the end of his first chapter, he’s talking about the centrality of Jesus, and he says this:
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col 1:15-17, NIV)
Did you catch that? “In him all things hold together.” He’s not just saying that Christ is an important factor in the Christian life, but rather that Christ is what keeps the whole thing together. Not just one person’s life, but all of us, together. Not just one building, structure, system or institution, but everything. The power of the gospel isn’t just restricted to changing our personal attitudes, but it can transform whole communities. It can reverse historical racial inequities.
Because the cross is both vertical and horizontal, the gospel requires us to be reconciled both to God and to each other. We honor God by standing in solidarity with His people, echoing the African concept of ubuntu – “I am, because we are.” The narrative arc of the Bible is about God’s pursuit of humanity and His quest to restore shalom — not just the absence of conflict, but lasting peace as a byproduct of mercy and justice.
God is big enough to handle our racial problems, just like he’s big enough to handle our traffic problems. But what we need is enough grace, truth and wisdom to begin to see things from His perspective, rather than simply from our own.
As Abraham Lincoln once said,
“My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
I know I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not even 100% sure of everything I’ve written in this article.
But what I do know is that the times when I’ve seen the evidence of God most clearly and vividly, He revealed himself by showing me how my behavior affected those around me. I was able to see how my individual choices affected the support systems of those around me, and it not only gave me a greater awareness of my own responsibility, but it gave me greater insight about how the whole relates to the sum of its parts.
That’s a great way to deal with traffic, and it’s the only way we’re going to solve the race problem in America.