I am racist. Let me explain.
I remember in college seeing an episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza frantically tries to prove to his boss, Mr. Morgan, that he’s not racist. It all begins when George insists that Morgan looks just like Sugar Ray Leonard, to which Morgan replies, “I suppose we all look alike to you.”
Red-faced, George sets off on an ill-fated attempt to make amends with Mr. Morgan. Sitting at the diner, he tells Jerry, “You know what would be great? If he could see me with some of my black friends.” Jerry responds, “Yeah except you don’t really have any black friends…”
So George tries to make some black friends. It’s as awkward as it sounds. He shows up at the home of a black family he invaded in a previous episode, trying to improvise a movie night like they are old chums. When that doesn’t work, he invites Jerry’s exterminator Carl to his office–because he’s black–under false pretenses, and tries to phone Morgan in to see him interacting with a black man. The episode comes to a cringe-worthy conclusion when George drives Carl to the restaurant where Morgan is having lunch, and tries to bribe Carl to act like an old friend in front of his boss.
The whole story centers around George’s selfish desire to be vindicated–to prove to himself and the world, I am not racist.
George’s struggle is the struggle of many whites in America. I feel it. The constant need to prove I’m not racist. I’m not proud to admit it, but there are times when I’ve found myself cataloging the number of black friends I have or the number of black people I follow on Twitter, as though there is a certain number that guarantees I’m in the clear. I’ve felt the impulse to retweet or share or speak out on certain racial issues simply to soothe my own conscience.
It’s all posturing and virtue signalling. As I stand in the temple, I pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, hateful, selfish, ignorant, racist. I have black friends. I read black authors. ” I can be so self-righteous in my pharisaism–more like self-deluded (1 John 1:8).
Even if it was true, what have I accomplished in my constant mental battle to prove I’m not racist? Have I actually loved anyone other than myself? Am I benefiting my black friends and neighbors in any way? Have I grown in compassion and sympathy in any way? Costanza is still all about Costanza. Ashby is still all about Ashby.
Instead of trying to placate my conscience with lies, I just need to admit the truth: I am racist. Here is the man who left the house of God justified: “The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a [racist]!‘” (Luke 18:13). It’s not until we step into the light that we can be cleansed from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7). We have to identify the old man before we can put him to death (Col. 3:5,9-10).
In our natural state, we are men and women “hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). Racism is a distinct expression of this hatred in the old man. I do not naturally love black people. Wow. I thought three times about going back and deleting that sentence–that’s how prideful I am.
The self-righteousness I seek is actually hatred toward my neighbor. It insulates me from the conviction, repentance, and truly righteous obedience that comes from faith. It’s the attitude of Cain that asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The irony of the question is that the answer is unequivocably “YES!” Wishing to justify myself, I condemn myself.
As long as I’m just trying to prove I’m not racist, I’m as foolish as George. Unfortunately, life is not a sitcom–and my self-centeredness is not comical but tragic. Denial means the continual destruction of my neighbors around me. True love of neighbor can only begin after we drag our old man–who hates his neighbor–into the light. Hatred often parades as self-preservation and mere self-interest. Cain proved that.
We need the gospel humility to recognize our brokenness and plead for God’s mercy. The gospel’s purpose is to reconcile men with God…and with one another. This is why Christ died (Col. 1:20). This is good news–for self-absorbed white people like me and for the people different from me who are owed my self-sacrificial love (Romans 13:8). God is more than gracious to use broken vessels, or as Propaganda puts it, “God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.”