Theology

Free-ish: the Here-but-Not-Yet Reality of Racial Justice

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On Juneteenth 2020, there was a collective sense of celebration among Black and Brown people on my social media feed.

To celebrate—while in this moment of social and political unrest—is textbook Black subversion against the powers. Joy is one of the most powerful forms of resistance in the face of racism and injustice; Black women and men demonstrate this every day. The marches, cookouts, double-dutch competitions, and joyful proclamations of human dignity are not a passive escape into another world, but an existential portal of power within this one.

In the process of the Juneteenth celebrations, there were calls for justice and ongoing liberation. It seemed as if everyone went to social media to post an image, reflection, or essay related to this unofficial national holiday. I saw countless white people join in, as well as Asian and Latinos/as share tidbits of Black history, ordinary people and celebrities alike, but one celebrity’s post stood out in particular.

Free-ish

Donovan Mitchell, the star basketball player for the Utah Jazz posted an image on Instagram with the words “free•ish since 1865.” It didn’t take much for the collective gasp of many people—predominantly white males—to surface, followed by mean-spirited, myopic, and mythological words, attempting to discredit Donovan from having the nerve to categorize himself in this manner:

  • “You’re more free than 99% of us”
  • “When you make millions playing basketball but you’re only ‘freeish’”
  • “Free ish???? Knock it off, you’re not a victim of anything. Coming from a millionaire this is unacceptable”

On and on the comments went until his Instagram trended on Twitter. Apparently, wealth is a superpower that protects Black and Brown people from the forces of racial aggression.

The Myth of Meritocracy

Once again, we see why people have a hard time seeing eye-to-eye on matters of justice: countless Americans believe in the myth of meritocracy. The myth of American meritocracy is what keeps many from seeing the big picture of injustice in this world.

The myth of American meritocracy is what keeps many from seeing the big picture of injustice in this world. Click To Tweet

Simply stated, the myth of meritocracy is the belief that individual effort is what is ultimately responsible for one’s success—a far cry from the truth. If we succeeded, we had help—all of us. For our purposes here, the pernicious outworking of this myth is the corresponding belief that any success gained from this effort inoculates you from any claim of injustice. It’s the essence of the American Dream with a dash of myopia. When it becomes the lens through which someone sees the world, it is virtually impossible to live with empathy and to recognize the larger, structural realities at work in the world.

To be sure, no amount of “green,” can eliminate one’s Blackness; personal success and wealth is not a protective coating against harm in this world. Just ask Oprah about an experience she had in Zurich, or tennis player James Blake’s about an encounter in New York City, or Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. about what happened at his own home in Cambridge. This is what Donovan Mitchell is alluding to. Moreover, the “free-ish” meme articulates the social reality that just because something is written into law, doesn’t mean that law is being embodied.

When US slavery ended, Jim Crow took the baton. When Jim Crow ran his leg, redlining had its day. When redlining grew weary, mass incarceration sprinted forward. You see, “free-ish” means two things can be true without contradiction. Our refusal to see this entrenches us in mythology.

A Larger Story

Mitchell’s post—and the subsequent backlash—is noteworthy for another reason: the people objecting to him fail to see that the meme is not even primarily about him, but about Black history and the community to which he belongs.

To fail to see Mitchell— even with his personal wealth—as a part of a larger story, history, and people, is to miss the powerful simplicity of his post. Mitchell’s success, or any Black person’s for that matter, does not erase centuries of subjugation and oppression—hardly. As James Baldwin has said (emphasis mine),

“The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence—the public existence—of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare—at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare—and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few.”

This speaks to another major rift between white people and BIPOC. Professor Michael Emerson has written about the fundamental difference that exists between white people and people of color in matters of race. In one of his essays entitled, The Persistent Problem, he writes (emphasis mine):

“Research consistently finds significant differences in the way that racial groups tend to define racism. 1) Whites tend to view racism as intended individual acts of overt prejudice and discrimination. Let us unpack the components of this view. First, insofar as racism exists, it is individual people who carry such views and act upon them. Groups, nations, and organizations are not racist; people are. Second, to be considered racist, the person must classify a group of people as inferior to others, and then whatever they say or do must result directly from that view. That is, they must mean for their actions to be racist for them to actually be racist. Third, racism is equated with prejudice (wrong thinking and talking about others) and individual discrimination (wrong actions against others). Finally, because of the other components of racism’s definition, if a person is a racist it is a master status, a core identity of who the person is, not just some passing act. In short, it defines the person’s essence.”

While these views of racism are not wrong, they are grossly incomplete.

In the wake of racial unrest in our country, Phil Vischer, podcast host and creator of VeggieTales co-wrote and produced a 17-minute video on institutional racism. Drawing from the work of Michelle Alexander, Erin Blakemore, and Malcolm Gladwell, he presented a fast-moving history lesson that Black people have known all along—that there are larger, systemic inequalities at work in the world. The video has gone viral, but not nearly enough.

You see, when Donovan Mitchell posted “free•ish” he was simply expressing what people trapped in the myth of meritocracy find hard to see: that it is possible to have freedom and even great success but still be caught in an unjust, racist world. In the language of New Testament scholars, the kingdom is here, but not yet.

It is possible to have freedom and even great success, but still be caught in an unjust, racist world. In the language of New Testament scholars, the kingdom is here, but not yet. Click To Tweet

When Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God in his coming, he was demonstrating the possibility of healing in this age—a healing that would ultimately be fully realized in the age to come. He healed the sick, raised the dead, and demonstrated authority over the created order. The kingdom is here because of the coming of God in Christ. However, of course, people still get sick, die, and are subjected to the unwieldy world of nature. The kingdom is not yet. Holding on to the simplicity of this paradigm leads to two important implications as we continue to engage matters of race and racism.

Two Implications of a “Here, but Not Yet” Theology of Race

First, this theological framework reminds us of the work to be done. Our ability or inability to hold on to this tension will inform our willingness to press forward for racial justice and reconciliation. If we accept, that in this age, there will always be work to do in unmasking and resisting racial sin in all its forms, no amount of social progress will deter us. We will continue to engage the issues because the age to come promised by Jesus has not yet arrived. This theological framework offers us a dual view of hope.

Hope is the trusting expectation that God—within history and beyond it—is working in all things to bring about healing in Christ. We have hope that God is active at this very moment, and hope that God will act again to make all things new.

Hope is the trusting expectation that God—within history and beyond it—is working in all things to bring about healing in Christ. Click To Tweet

Second, this framework holds the importance of lamenting together. When Donovan Mitchell posted the “free•ish” meme, he was giving voice to the collective grief Black and Brown people existentially feel—and it makes sense.

When one considers the wealth gap between white people and Black people, the grossly disproportionate numbers of Black men and women in prison, or the police brutality disproportionately experienced by Black and Brown citizens in this country, there’s plenty to lament. As mentioned above in the Baldwin quote, critics of Mitchell only had the imagination to see race through an individualistic lens—a much too-narrow view. To be human is to lament. And to lament—in hope—is to recognize that we await a future that will come through us, and outside of us.

The possibility of this duality is an important theological truth that informs our missional witness. To hold on to this “here-but-not-yet” tension requires us to see the immediacy of the kingdom of God in our midst, as well as the incompleteness of the kingdom in our age. The former speaks to the urgency to love; the latter to hope.

As a nation, we have made progress, but not nearly enough. This is a call to press onward to bringing the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

 

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