Refocusing the Racism Lens

Posted by: Jon Coker (San Antonio 2017) | October 13, 2020

DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative

A virus has spread around the world. The count of its casualties is immeasurable. The gripping fears of the unknowns have led many to distance themselves and wear masks while others embrace conspiracy theories and say it doesn’t even exist. The spectrum is deceiving. Some cases go undetected without a noticeable sign or symptom. Other cases are much more severe and even deadly at times. The world’s brightest minds have yet to find words to explain it or cures to stop it. This virus is called racism. As a nation, we’ve seen its devastating impact, but for centuries, we’ve remained blind to the reality that most have tested positive for this negativity at some point in time. For some people, it’s an unconscious bias, and for others, the hatred is blatant and all-consuming. The good news is that since we’re all part of the problem, we can contribute to the solution. Whether we agree or not, racism is part of the American story. However, we hold the pen that can write a new chapter.

Working in television news for more than 12 years, I’ve learned how powerful stories can be.  As journalists, our angle shapes the world’s perception of facts and truth. One story can cause international riots, perpetuate or break down age-old narratives, and shift the trajectories of entire nations. The national conversation about racial injustice and inequality has waited patiently for centuries under the surface of our stories. Like a thread, it’s weaved its way into our music, movies, news, art, comedy, and even our sermons. Somehow, as a nation, we’ve been aware of it, but we’ve learned to turn a blind eye to racism. Perhaps, it’s the burden that comes with the acknowledgment that steers us to the convenience of blindness. To be our brother’s keeper is written on the human soul by the finger of God, and we know that while the blood of our brother cries out from the ground for justice, our knowledge becomes our responsibility (response-ability). By perpetuating certain narratives, we’ve medicated the agony of spiritual conviction instead of medicating our prejudice. This has been damaging and has robbed so many generations of God’s best intentions.

In broadcast media, I’ve had many gut-wrenching encounters with technical difficulties during live productions. In one particular instance, the focus ring on my camera jammed and wouldn’t budge. I tried everything I knew to troubleshoot the problem in the final seconds before going live, but every attempt failed. The director had no choice but to take my shot while it was still blurry. I could hear him screaming in my headset, “Focus!” My camera was stuck overlooking the main character giving priority to subjects that were not supposed to be seen at that moment. The focus tells the viewer what’s important to the story, and that whole scene was sadly misunderstood by the viewers, all due to focus issues.

Our nation has produced an American story with a broken focus ring, and many colorful characters on the stages of history have been overlooked and misinterpreted by generations of blinded audiences. People of color have played pivotal roles in our nation’s finest moments, but their contributions have been blurry in our history books. The story has been the same, although the narrator has shape-shifted in the background, taking on new forms for every generation. In the early days of American history, African princes were blurred into American slaves trading their crowns for cotton fields as the story scripted them as subhuman. The story continued into the earliest feature films where blacks were depicted as either incompetent buffoons or savage beasts to be feared and treated with the utmost contempt. Once again, the culture was the fruit of the narrative. This is why editing civil rights into the laws of the land have never been enough to completely edit injustice out of our society. The narrative is still prevalent today and has become more subtle over time as life has continued to imitate art.

On May 25, 2020, a shaky cell phone video offered the whole world a front-row seat into the events that would finally shift the blurry truths about racism into focus. Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chauvin drove his knee into the neck of a handcuffed George Floyd for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. In less than nine minutes, the age-old story had come into sharp focus, and all eyes were fixed on East 38th Street in Minneapolis. It’s no coincidence that our eyes would be opened to see clearly in the year 2020. The coronavirus pandemic turned us all into a captive, quarantined audience. We were forced to watch and consider the parallels between the virus in the air and the virus in our hearts. Perhaps if we were quick to listen, slow to speak, and slower to become so emotional, we would attack racism with the same urgency as we’ve attacked COVID-19. Wear your mask but remove your muzzle and speak up for those who have no voice. Don’t allow your social distancing to become isolation from people’s felt needs. Recognize that blood is life; therefore, life is not black, white, or brown. Life is red, and it should always be valued regardless of the pigment of its carrier.

Jesus devoted the entire fourth chapter of the book of John to breaking down walls of prejudice. He sat at a well and asked a thirsty Samaritan woman for water. When she questioned his motives, he responded: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (John 4:10).

The living water that rushed forth from this lengthy exchange was the vaccine that cured the age-old hatred between the Jews and Samaritans. It was a conversation with a stranger that shifted the narrative. Perhaps the whole story changes for the good when we change ourselves and when we allow the Author and Finisher of our faith to dictate the masterful production of His redemptive plan.