Can People Repent of Racism?

Jacob Z. Hess, Ph.D.

[Originally published on the Millenial Star]

If someone does or says something legitimately racist, can they change, move past it – and regain societal grace?

After Governor Ralph Northam was accused earlier this year of wearing blackface in a college yearbook photo, calls for his resignation were almost immediate – including from the Virginia senatorial delegation and most of the 2020 presidential candidates. For instance, Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “Hatred and discrimination have no place in our country and must not be tolerated…he must resign.” Hillary Clinton also tweeted, “…There is nothing to debate. He must resign.”

Are we sure there’s really nothing to discuss about this?

Mercy and Justice in 2019. While acknowledging what Governor Northam allegedly did as “appalling and hateful,” columnist David Brooks added, “yet in a lot of these cases, there should be some path to redemption,” noting that the Governor’s “record on civil rights is quite good.  And so, whatever hateful thing he may or may not have done as a medical student, it’s not evident in his adult behavior.  And I do think that mitigates toward some sense of leniency.” [1]

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Bret Stephens elaborated in a New York Times article, “Should we judge people only by their most shameful moments?” – noting “he may have done something ugly and dumb many years ago, when he was a young man and prevailing notions of socially permissible behavior were uglier and dumber than they are today.”  But, he similarly notes, “In the 35 years between those two points he has, by all appearances, lived an upstanding life without a hint of racial bias. If we are going to embrace a politics where that’s not enough to save a sitting governor accused of no crime, we’re headed toward a dark place” (emphasis added).

In an article too good to not over-quote, Stephens then asks readers to consider “perform[ing] an internal audit before we join the cast-the-first-stone coalition:”

Ever told — or laughed at — a bigoted joke? I have, and I cringe today at what I once found funny. Ever used one of the more common ethnic or sexist slurs — “gypped,” for instance, or “bitch” — or dropped the f-word as it commonly refers to gay people? I’ve been guilty of this too, to my shame. Have ugly generalizations or snap judgments based on ethnic stereotypes perambulated through your mind, even if they didn’t fall out of your mouth? Guilty again.

This is likely “true of the overwhelming majority of people irrespective of their race or gender,” proposes Stephens.  If so, what does that mean? Representative Elijah Cummings said at the close of the Michael Cohen hearings, “If we as a nation did not give people an opportunity – after they made mistakes – to change their lives, a whole lot of people would not do very well.”

To drive the point home, Stephens poses rhetorically:

Should Jesse Jackson’s entire life come down to the anti-Semitic words “Hymietown,” uttered by him in 1984 (and comically immortalized by Eddie Murphy)? Should Prince Harry forever be remembered as the royal who dressed as a Nazi? What about Joy Reid’s virulently homophobic blog posts, or Joe Biden’s racially condescending description of Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean”?

You get the picture. Do we all really want to live in fear of getting pounced on, and condemned by a single moment or a passing word?

Obviously not.  But look around…isn’t that kind of where we now find ourselves?

And yet, what if most of us really are trying to do our best? And what if the process of learning together in a diverse human society invariably involves mistakes along the way (like, for all of us)?  Stephens again: “Few of us are proud of these lapses. Many of us are trying to be considerably more mindful about them. But most of us don’t rip ourselves to pieces over them, either.” And why is that?

Because we believe that our worst moments and dumbest utterances shouldn’t define us. That our youthful behavior is more of a reflection of what is around us than a representation of what’s inside. That we deserve to be judged by the decency of our intentions and the totality of our deeds. That we are entitled to a presumption of innocence, a measure of forgiveness, a sense for our times, and multiple opportunities for redemption.

Redemption. Is that still a thing?  Or only a sweet Christmas story with ghosts we love to watch once a year?

For Christians, forgiveness and redemption are clearly at the heart and core of our message to the world. Jesus Himself insisted that He came not “to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17).

So, what might that redemption look like in cases like this, or when it comes to racism (or other isms) generally? Along with a public apology, David Brooks mentioned how Northam could make additional efforts to support civil rights: “Then maybe he can spend the rest of his governorship continuing good work – heightened because of what he did as a young man. So, to me, to destroy a reasonably good career over this thing [is not the answer].”

How exactly an individual could walk a path of redemption when they stumble is a conversation worth having, and will naturally look very different depending on the details. And despite strong feelings it can invoke, it also seems worth talking about how even whole communities might pursue a process of collective healing.[2] Added to this, of course, is the enormous question of what exactly constitutes something racist, or sexist, or homophobic.

So if all these are important conversations, why then aren’t we talking about them, for the most part? Or perhaps more to the point, why can’t we seem to talk that openly about our different perspectives on these big questions?

Maybe it’s because everyone is so darn afraid of getting mauled?  Over and over, we see paraded before us Yet Another Sinner who has crossed a line, said the wrong thing, and offended someone–most often with a comment seen as racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.

When that accusation comes down, we all watch with morbid fascination what happens next. Most often, the punishment is swift and severe. Firings.  Boycotts. Protests. Impassioned statements demanding an apology.

It was on campus that these patterns of quick condemnation first emerged conspicuously. Now, they have become almost commonplace online – something we’ve come to expect.

But why?  And from where exactly has this visceral off-with-their head pattern of condemnation arisen of late?

John McWhorter’s analysis. Some have understandably pointed to this heightened standard of justice as a reaction to President Trump’s presidency, prompting the progressive left to increasingly reassert a certain level of ideological purity in what it aspires towards. If that’s a part of it (seems clearly so), it can’t be all – or even most of the explanation…since this phenomenon isn’t new to the last two years.

Others rightfully underscore the central role social media now plays in concentrating and amplifying strident demands-and-animosity from those few most dedicated to “stirring up” the rest of us.

In addition and alongside these other factors, Dr. John McWhorter, an African-American professor of philosophy and music history at Columbia University, shared a fresh analysis at a Heterodox Academy conference I attended last summer in New York. Specifically, he shared his worry about a pattern he started observing on campus in about 2014 where: “a certain minority of students could swerve or even staunch discussion with what’s called the social justice warrior ideology.”

Given the intensity of these student activists, he couldn’t help compare their cause to a “religion” – adding, “And I must make it clear that when I use the word religion, I don’t mean it as a battering ram – and I don’t mean it to be funny. I mean that there actually issomething that has settled in, in our campus discussions now that an anthropologist from Mars would recognize as no different from, for example, strong Christian fundamentalism.”

Then he shared the following three examples:

  • Sin. “So, for example, the idea that white privilege is a ‘stain’ in a white person that can never actually be overcome, but must be constantly attested to…that’s equivalent to the notion of original sin.”
  • Judgment. “The idea that there will be ‘a day when America comes to terms with racism.’  What does that mean? Really, I mean just what does that sequence of words mean?  What terms? Come to terms how? …What would you imagine? It’s judgment day…it’s the same thing.”
  • Heresy. “Beyond a certain point, it’s become accepted that logic and facts are something that a person cannot appeal if they’ve created some sort of offense in speaking – and said something that someone finds offensive.  We’re all familiar from various events over recent years, where the person who’s created tries to defend themselves and digs themselves in deeper and deeper and deeper. I don’t mean Roseanne. That’s a rather easy case.  But, I mean someone more reasonable than that, where it’s obvious that facts simply won’t work – they just keep getting yelled at, and screamed at.  This is what happens when people are not engaging in what you would call even a healthy debate, but pursuing a heretic.  To go against the ideology now is to suffer, indeed, what Galileo suffered.”

“There’s a religion afoot” he concludes: “The social justice warrior ideology – and there is one – it is a religious faith.” He admits that we don’t use that label much in this context and “a modern, secular educated person often wouldn’t like being told they have a religion.[3]  But that doesn’t mean the analysis isn’t accurate” – insisting that “an outsider coming into it would see it as a religion and be perplexed that anyone would resist the label.”

So, if social justice advocates are passionate about their cause, why would that even be a problem? McWhorter continues, “The problem with this religion is it does mean that debate is discouraged…albeit not absolutely staunched.” He explains:

That ideology tries to shut out too much.  It tries to include way too much in that zone.  Specifically, anything that can be laboriously interpreted as racism – anything that can be interpreted that way at all, is off-limits.  And any speaker espousing [a controversial idea] should be shouted down – and perhaps even threatened physically.

As a result, “too many – especially the majority who are not up for being mauled (that’s most people) are more inclined to keep quiet.  And it gets harder and harder to discuss….We have a problem – because that is not a university.” [You can watch a video of his commentary by clicking here & following instructions in the footnote][4]

I agree with Professor McWhorter’s analysis of where some of this cultural condemnation all around us is originating: from a social justice ideology ascendant in culture today. Now clearly, it’s quite possible to be passionate about a cause, without falling into coercion and aggression. And if not obvious to secular observers (like Dr. McWhorter), many millions of people who believe very much in sin, judgment, and even heresy – care a great deal about not lapsing into these same human tendencies towards coercion and aggression.

It’s also important to acknowledge that harsh judgment and condemnation are tendencies we all share as human beings – to judge harshly, and demonize.  And when we find ourselves doing that (even sometimes with help from someone giving us feedback), we should repent – and seek the softness and eyes to see with the “righteous judgment” of our Lord.

But again, will that kind of process of repentance and redemption be supported in broader society today?  Don’t bet on it.

More than simply shutting down conversation, it seems that the inevitable ascendency of the social justice cause will continue contributing to a pattern of rapid condemnation and limited space for considering a pathway to redemption.

For that reason, rather than embracing progressive ideology as the new moral force in America, maybe we need to pause enough to critically examine its claims – and consequences.  And for those Christians insisting sincerely that Jesus Himself was a social justice warrior of His day, perhaps they can consider what His message of mercy and forgiveness ought to mean today, in their own efforts to follow Him.


Special thanks to Pastor Pedro Silva for the thoughtful feedback on an earlier draft. Although Pedro does not agree with all my analysis, I respect his insight – not only as an African-American man, but more so as a deeply committed follower of Christ. To hear a sermon where Pastor Silva shares his own thoughts about the Governor Northam situation, click here.

[1] Shields and Brooks on PBS discussing Virginia turmoil, Supreme Court abortion ruling [timecode 3:02 – 4:30]

[2] While this (like all questions) has become more partisan and bitter, I’ve come to believe there really is something to an entire community growing in awareness and seeking some kind of reconciliation for its past. Just as Latter-day Saints baptize people in proxy from the past, seeking to “stand in” for people of past generations in doing what they cannot do, what if we Americans did let ourselves own and feel more pain for the horrific past sins of slavery? Or the Germans for the Holocaust?

[3] Dr. McWhorter compared people’s resistance to this label to an earlier period where people didn’t consider themselves religious either: “In 1500 nobody in Europe considered themselves religious.  It was just in the water.  If such thing as atheist, they kept that to themselves – and there essentially wasn’t. That’s where we are now. And so, many of the people now who are religious would resist the label.”

[4] Go to this link here for the Heterodox Conference Videos, and then click on “Big Questions & Heterodox Answers.” [timecode 25:30 – 33:30]

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