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Racism: Healing from Historical Trauma

Many adults are in therapy still dealing with childhood trauma. Time does not heal these festering wounds.

Not often acknowledged is that what is true of a person is also true of a society. Ancient historical social wounds have unacknowledged lingering psychosocial consequences. They are unacknowledged because for many they are buried in our collective unconscious. As the vast majority of our conscious actions are shaped by our unconscious, coming to terms with this buried history is a critical step in our national healing. As agents of shalom, we are responsible for encouraging this process.

This is the psychosocial reality of racism in America. There are dueling narratives about race in America. There is simultaneously racial progress and racist progress. This is the thesis of Ibram Kendi’s bestselling book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. He writes,

"Protesting racist policies can never be a long-term solution to eradicating racial discrimination—and thus racist ideas—in America. Just as one generation of powerful Americans could decide or be pressured by protest to end racial discrimination, when the conditions and interests change, another generation could once again encourage racial discrimination. That’s why protesting against racist power has been a never-ending affair in America."

Until we come to term with the ingrained racist habitus within the American collective consciousness, we will never get to the roots of the psychosocial scars of our national history of slavery and reconstruction.

Habitus is a mostly unfamiliar sociological term. It represents internalized and historically derived dispositions. One might think of habitus as history swallowed. French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu writes, “Habitus is the product of social conditionings, and thus of a history, is endlessly transformed, either in a direction that reinforces it, when embodied in structures of expectations that encounter structures of objective changes in harmony with these expectations, or in a direction that transforms it and, for instance, raises or lowers the level of expectations and aspirations.” Thus it is not one thing but like hidden metastasizing cancer habitus evolves over time. As such its greatest lethality is when it remains unacknowledged.

Coming to terms with childhood wounds is a slow and painful process. So too is the process of healing social wounds such as entrenched racism. There is no quick fix and no simple public policy solution. It is in effect a collective heart problem. Habitus is powerful, but it is not determinative. It can be changed through a process of self-reflective socioanalysis.

Two steps are necessary. First one must abandon self-complacency. To acknowledge a problem is to get past the narratives of denial. Racial progress, which is real, tends to mask the ongoing racist progress. We need to put these dueling narratives in tension. A cancer prognosis is never given after one treatment. There is an historical process built into the therapeutic expectation. Can one reach a five-year malignancy milestone?

Second, one must transform the historic habitus by developing a new way of viewing reality. This cannot be done without a genuine conversion, a mental revolution that transforms one’s whole vision of the social world. We must learn the script to a new story and then place oneself within that story. This process demands engaging one’s right-brain moral imagination. More than arguing the facts of the case, we need an ah-ha experience that flips the script on how we view reality.

To this end pictures, songs, plays, and films are particularly useful. No recent film has done this more effectively than Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018). This is the true story of Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer from Colorado Springs who successfully manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan with the help of a Jewish surrogate. It is a beautifully filmed and powerfully acted film. But its most compelling feature is the character arc of the film’s two main characters, Ron Stallworth and Flip Zimmerman. Both have to come to terms with their own identity, complicity, and commitment to the process of overcoming the racism before them. Both had to overcome their own detachment from the problem. Both had to decide to put their lives on the line to right evil. Lee puts these past events in the context of contemporary realities inways that will make some conservative viewers defensive. Guard against this reaction, as the parallels in rhetoric and action are troubling. One cannot understand the current Black experience without acknowledging these ongoing patterns of racism. One cannot acknowledge the existential reality behind Black Lives Matter without putting oneself into this story.

For our Black neighbors, racial progress is always interwoven with racist progress. For them the past is not the past. Philosopher John Paul Sartre observed, “The order of the past is the order of the heart. We must not believe that the present event, after it has gone, becomes the most immediate of our memories.... Only its own intrinsic value and its relevance to our lives can determine its level.” For white evangelical Americans, racism may not be a conscious daily reality in the same way it is for our Black neighbors. But we’d do well to acknowledge our complicity to an ongoing racist habitus that frames our unconscious minds as well as our public actions. We’d do well to step into the stories of those who have fought against this racism and who dare us to raise our collective consciousness about it. Spike Lee’s film is a worthy place to start. Every white evangelical church should see and discuss it. No doubt, our Black brothers and sisters already have.

Slavery is the American original sin. Genuine repentance demands addressing its hidden features.

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