One thing you learn as a social scientist is that your past creates part of who you are. I’m not a social determinist who thinks the demons of our past control us. But I am realistic enough to know that many of my current beliefs result from past experiences.
My eighth-grade year was one such experience. In some ways, it was my hardest year of school. I was a mess. I was tall but didn’t have much muscle. Others could easily push me around. I had little confidence and few friends. I wasn’t a good athlete but tried my best to be a football player. The one thing I had going for me was my intelligence.
Junior high is challenging for most kids, but I also had the misfortune of being an African American at a school with thick racial tensions. I tried to keep to myself to avoid trouble, but trouble seemed to always find me. To this day, that experience can partly explain why I believe in human depravity. Understanding this basic human condition is vital to overcoming the racial dysfunctions of our society.
In my eighth-grade class, plenty of white kids looked for a weak link, and I fit the bill. They made fun of me. Many times, I heard the “n-word” thrown my way; with my slight build and lack of confidence, I was an easy target. I felt powerless against racism.
With my slight build and lack of confidence, I was an easy target. I felt powerless against racism.
But I also found little solace from fellow black students. In grad school, I learned about the concept of “oppositional culture.” This social phenomenon helps explain why some blacks might reject education. Oppositional culture is an attempt to refuse anything deemed inherently white. And getting an education was understood as white by many of my black peers. They saw excellent African American students, like me, as sellouts. We were characterized as “Oreos” and not authentically black. That’s how my peers of color viewed me.
Of course, I could’ve tried to fit in. But being good at school was what I cared about. If I didn’t have good grades, I felt I had no identity. I wasn’t going to give that up to “fit in.” Decades later, as a professor of sociology, I’m so pleased I didn’t.
By ninth grade, I was at a different school with a better environment. In high school, I developed more confidence and was even popular. The eighth grade didn’t scar me for life. Quite the opposite. It taught me a valuable lesson.
I learned that no racial group has cornered the market on jerks. Not all whites in that school were racist, and not all blacks saw me as a sellout. But I had to endure dehumanization from both sides. Low character doesn’t have a race. Even though I wasn’t yet a Christian, that year reinforced to me that human depravity is common to all groups.
That experience continues to shape my thoughts on racial issues today. I learned that we shouldn’t allow complete power to reside in any one group. Because of human depravity, all groups are tempted to misuse their influence and oppress outsiders.
Eighth grade showed me that, left to our own devices, we’ll push around others. We’ll pick on the weak to feel good about ourselves. For this reason, I emphasize the need to have a mutual engagement with each other where no single racial or social group has the final say.
The hard but necessary truth we must admit is that we all tend toward sin. And since we generally think of ourselves—and our group—before others, we need to be willing to subject our ideas to scrutiny from out-group members. Within healthy relationships, and as we develop healthy community, we can hold each other accountable and limit the worst tendencies in all groups.
The hard but necessary truth we must admit is that we all tend toward sin.
I saw examples of this many times studying multiracial churches. Often a group of older white Christians was uncomfortable with new initiatives designed to appeal to a younger, multiracial congregation. Instead of splitting the church apart, both groups engaged in productive conversation to find solutions for everyone. Learning to share the church’s mission became an opportunity to surrender self-interest, fight our human depravity, and listen to and care for others.
Human depravity is the biblical concept that describes our current racial dilemma. Too often, people think we can produce racial harmony on our own. But we can’t because we’re self interested. Only God’s Spirit can kill our sins of self-interest and enable us to step outside ourselves in love to have the kind of healthy conversations that can lead to unity and peace.
As hard as it was for me to endure eighth grade, I don’t regret what I experienced there. Retelling this story helps me see how that year developed me into the man I am today. It reminds me that under the right circumstances, I might be the one using racist language or pressuring those in my own group to conform.
I pray that I can retain the humility that keeps me from becoming that person. Working in an atmosphere of mutual accountability to those around me is one way to pursue humility and avoid that destructive path.