Why We Must Forgive Racism

By Paul Thomas Zenki

If we deny redemption, we’re all damned …

You may have heard of Daryl Davis. He’s a black guy who hangs out with Klansmen. Not because he’s sympathetic to the Klan, but because he believes at least some of them can change their ways.

He says once the friendship blossoms, the Klansmen realize that their hate may be misguided. Since Davis started talking with these members, he says 200 Klansmen have given up their robes. When that happens, Davis collects the robes and keeps them in his home as a reminder of the dent he has made in racism by simply sitting down and having dinner with people.

A man seated on a stage, wearing a blue button-down shirt, holds up a white robe adorned with emblems of the Ku Klux Klan
Daryl Davis displays a robe once owned by a former Klansman (photo: US Embassy in Jerusalem, public domain)

Yet there’s a trend of thought in America right now which holds that to combat racism we must confront and oppose it everywhere we find it, in any form, at any time — even when it’s in a person’s past.

Now obviously, accepting bigotry and hate as it’s happening is just inviting destruction. You can’t expect a parade of Nazis to do anything with an olive branch except turn around and try to beat you with it. These guys…?

Men lined up in the street, holding Gadsden flags, Nazi flags, and rebel flags
Participants in the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA (original photo by Anthony Crider)

They’re not asking for forgiveness, and would only laugh at you for offering. You can’t peacefully coexist with folks while they’re doing their damnedest to oppress, dehumanize, even exterminate people for being different from themselves.

But is all racism created equal? And once lodged in the heart, is it permanent?

Doing antiracism

A couple years ago, historian Ibram X. Kendi released How To Be an Antiracist, a compelling blend of academic treatise and personal memoir which popularized the notion — not original with Kendi but perhaps never so well explored and expressed, even by Dr. King  — that there’s no such thing as being passively “not racist,” that the very idea is absurd, like doing nothing while watching a neighbor’s house catch fire and claiming to be “not housefireist” (my analogy, not Kendi’s) as it burns. There’s a lot more to the book, and indeed to Kendi’s vision of building an antiracist society, but it’s this kernel of an idea that seemed to gain the most traction among the media and the general public.

Professor Ibram X. Kendi sits with a microphone, smiling and looking at an unidentified speaker (seen from behind) in a church with a small audience in the background.
Ibram X. Kendi speaks at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Montclair, NJ, 2019 (photo by Tony Turner for Montclair Film Festival)

Of course, like all popular boil-downs of complex issues, the Kendi-sourced soundbite that “one either allows racial inequalities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist” has taken on a life of its own, not always to good effect. To some, it’s served as a call to arms against any and all perceived instances of racism, both past and present, no matter how slight or subjective.

Combating racism is tragically necessary, but we have to be careful that we don’t find ourselves at times trying to treat the fleas by drowning the dog. In particular, we should tread with great caution when condemning people for past acts irrespective of who they are now, and when assuming that the mere appearance of bigotry is sufficient reason to attack.

Unforgiveable sins

All the great religions allow for redemption in some form, whether that be atonement, salvation, repentance, expiation, or awakening. I don’t believe that’s any coincidence. How could any society function, after all, if every one of us were eternally judged by who we’ve been at our worst?

And yet, human beings have always wanted to know when their neighbors do horrible things. Gossip, too, serves a social purpose. If a friend, coworker, or fellow congregant turns out to be the Son of Sam, well, that’s not a thing you want to be in the dark about.

That’s what makes cases like the story of Mimi Groves so alluring and, because of that, so destructive. I hesitate even to retell the tale, but by now there’s no further damage to be done.

Groves was a 15-year-old white high-schooler in Virginia in 2016 when she celebrated receiving her learner’s permit by Snapchatting to some friends, “I can drive ******s!” As I’m sure you’ve guessed, those stars stand for America’s most infamous racial slur.

Well, that snap made the rounds and, sometime during Groves’ senior year, landed in the hands of classmate Jimmy Galligan. Fed up with pervasive racism at his and Mimi’s school, Galligan decided “get her” by making the snap public. But not right away. He wanted her to hurt the way he felt hurt by the slurs directed at him and other black students. By his own account, he bided his time so “she would understand the severity of that word.”

In early June of 2020, four years after Groves had sent the “I can drive” snap to some friends, she posted an Instagram message supporting Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, urging her peers to “protest, donate, sign a petition, rally, do something.” Galligan responded, calling her out for what he saw as her hypocrisy, and posting the then four-year-old video clip.

God only knows why one thing “goes viral” while a hundred others just like it don’t. To Groves’ horror, her clip did, ending up on TikTok and Twitter, then local news outlets in Virginia as well as in Tennessee where she’d been accepted to a state university which was already mired in scandals over racist offenses on campus. It wasn’t long before Groves was booted from the UT cheer squad. Soon, she withdrew from the school altogether as admissions officials made clear that her chances of attending in the fall had evaporated.

A New York Times article notes that “since [that] summer, many white teenagers, when posting dance videos to social media, no longer sing along with the slur in rap songs. Instead, they raise a finger to pursed lips.” As for Galligan, he’s satisfied that he not only “taught someone a lesson” but also “started something” which, presumably, led to increased awareness of the harm caused by racist language.

But can any of the changes in public awareness in the wake of George Floyd’s very public murder and the ensuing global outcry really be traced to the outing of a fifteen-year-old’s post to Snapchat? Would the teens in those videos still be voicing the slur if not for that? Is our world actually a better place because of Galligan’s act of retribution, and if it is, was it worth sacrificing the apparently bright future of a young woman who, after four years of maturation, was urging fellow teens to take a stand against anti-black bigotry?

I think the world is arguably a better place because of the work and example of Daryl Davis. But I could not in good conscience urge anyone to follow in the footsteps of Jimmy Galligan. And I say that in full knowledge that I might have done exactly the same thing at his age if I could have been in his shoes — I had a lot of anger in me back then, although for entirely different reasons. We must remember that he, too, was still a kid at the time.

I’d think very differently about all this if Miss Groves had shouted the word at a black person, if she’d used the slur just a few days or weeks before posting her support for BLM, if there were some pattern of bigoted behavior on her part to point to. As it is, though, I have no reason to believe that she had not, in fact, done a good deal of growing up between her freshman and senior years of high school.

And if it’s true that the benefit of the doubt is merited here — I’m not saying it is, because I have no way of knowing, but if it is — then Galligan may have accomplished nothing more than putting that hurtful word into the ears of thousands more hearers than Groves ever did or could have. Does context or intent or identity excuse his broadcast but not hers?

The problem with making any sin unforgivable is that in doing so we declare the wound unhealable, and the sinner unredeemable. We cast the misdeeds of our fellow humans in amber, preserving them rather than remedying them.

I have to believe there’s a better way. Let’s use our finite energies to confront the evils besieging us in the present as white supremacist movements gather strength in America and elsewhere, rather than calling to account every past sin we can manage to unearth. Surely, it works to the bigots’ advantage if those seeking a reckoning tear each other down at the first sign of frailty or potential hypocrisy while the bigots remain united in their hate.

Police in riot gear hold back a crowd of men
Demonstrators clash with police at the “Unite the Right” rally, 2017 (original photo by Evan Nesterak)

Assuming the worst

Antiracism as a 24/7 state of mind can become a hair-trigger device, a kind of hypervigilance ever teetering on the brim of vigilantism. It doesn’t have to, but it’s a risk to be mindful of.

Consider the case of Jeremy Kappell, a weatherman who was fired from his job and mercilessly raked over the coals for on-air metathesis, a common speaking error in which sounds in words change order. Spoonerisms are the most widely known examples — as when an usher offers to “sew you to your sheet” — but vowels and interior consonants can be just as easily swapped up. We all do this from time to time.

In January of 2019, Kappell was reporting conditions at Martin Luther King Junior Memorial Park in Rochester, New York. But what came out of his mouth was “Martin Luther Coon- King Junior.”

Did Kappell call MLK “Martin Luther Coon”? Was he echoing the hateful slur that was hurled at America’s most famous civil rights leader so many times during King’s own lifetime? Probably not.

The most likely explanation is that the vowels in “King” and “Junior” got transposed as he was speaking. Realizing he’d flubbed his line, Kappell stopped himself before he could say “Koong Jeenior,” backed up, started again at “King,” and went on with his forecast. Had he been reporting instead on Frederick Douglass Memorial Park and said, “Frud- Frederick Douglass,” no one would have noticed or cared.

But wait. Isn’t this an example of subconscious racism? Doesn’t it reflect an association in his mind between the name “Martin Luther King Junior” and a well-worn racial epithet? Maybe. Our brains are more likely to make transpositions when they yield combinations of words that are closely associated in our memory, although metathesis can also produce gibberish. But let’s not forget that in order to perceive Kappell’s verbal slip as a possible racial slur, every person who heard it that way must also have that same association in their own minds. Merely being aware of the link is no indication of any positive attitude toward it.

Are all such “slips of the tongue” innocent? Oh, hell no. US Representative Dick Armey used that excuse in 1995 after referring to fellow House member Barney Frank, who is openly gay, as “Barney Fag.” Frank brilliantly rebuffed Armey’s attempt at self-justification by saying “I turned to my own expert, my mother, who reports that in 59 years of marriage, no one ever introduced her as Elsie Fag.”

Kappell is not the first broadcaster to make the error. Las Vegas weatherman Rob Blair made the identical slip on air in 2005, as did ESPN’s Mike Greenberg and Little Rock news anchor Matt Mosler in 2010. And this brings us to the crucial issue of intent.

At the time of the incident, Jerome Underwood, CEO of Rochester’s Action for a Better Community, reportedly argued that:

The question of whether Kappell intended to say the slur is largely beside the point… Focusing on intent rather than impact, he said, has the effect of shielding the wrongdoer from consequences in all but the most blatant cases. “You’ve got to understand the hurt we feel when we hear that (word),” he said.

But hold on a minute. The determination of wrongdoing itself is inextricably bound up with the determination of intent.

Intent is a cornerstone of the American justice system. We all recognize, for example, that a driver who kills someone because their brakes fail is not culpable for the death, as long as the malfunction is not due to the driver’s own negligence, whereas someone driving drunk who does the same bears the full guilt. What’s true for civil and criminal justice should hold equally for social and racial justice. The moment we decide that intent is irrelevant, that the ensuing distress is all that matters, is the moment we abandon justice in favor of mere vengeance. And if we can accept the fundamental truth that culpability for death turns upon intent, then by God, we can accept that culpability for distress, no matter how profound, must also.

I have no idea whether or not Jeremy Kappell held racist views before January of 2019. If he did, he kept them to himself. But I do know where he has ended up since then — as a convert to right-wing conspiracy theories about the Deep State, New World Order, and plots to murder Donald Trump which “until a year or two ago” he considered to be “sci-fi” but which he now actively works to spread online. I think we have to at least entertain the possibility that being publicly excoriated and losing his livelihood over a swapped vowel, without regard for what may have been in his mind and his heart, pushed him to the mouth of the rabbit hole into which he has so deeply plunged. If so, then the purported goal of reducing racism by hanging him up to dry has not merely been missed, but supplanted by a ricochet in precisely the opposite direction.

Progress or purity?

In my work with non-profits, I continually stress the distinction between outputs and outcomes. Focusing on outputs can make us feel good about ourselves even when we’re making no difference, or for that matter making things worse. Focusing on outcomes ensures that our work yields the results we’re after.

An output approach to antiracism is all about the self, about one’s own ideological purity. Have I confronted racism every time I believe I’ve encountered it? If so, I pass the test. I’ve done my part. Regardless of the actual results of that confrontation.

But such an approach risks — to borrow an apt phrase from Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s critique of the Puritans — insisting that good be done even if evil ensue. We can see the ill effects of purity-based policy, for example, in right-wing evangelical insistence on “abstinence only” sex education.

Liberals are often flummoxed by the utter ineffectiveness of pointing out statistics to defenders of abstinence-only sex ed which show that this approach results in more teen pregnancies, higher abortion rates, and higher rates of sexually transmitted disease among teens than does information-based sex ed plus access to birth control. Why does this not seem to matter?

Well, it’s because the liberal approach doesn’t take into account the importance of purity to evangelicals. From their point of view, abstinence is sanctioned by God and (as we all can agree) is a foolproof way to avoid pregnancy, abortion, and STDs. On the other hand, teaching kids about sex and providing them with birth control actively enables pre-marital sex, it seems to them, which makes teachers complicit in immoral acts. And how can anyone demand that teachers, or anyone else, become complicit in immorality? If kids are taught the sure-fire and moral approach to avoiding the perils of pre-marital, non-monogamous sex, and some ignore it, well, that’s not the teacher’s fault. Our role, in their view, is to show them the right thing to do, regardless of the statistics.

In the same way, an insistence on purity can also be the enemy of progress when it comes to antiracism. Exposing a public figure’s past bigotry or racial insensitivity lets us put a notch on our belt, but if we do so without considering whether they still merit the opprobrium, we risk shooting down someone who might otherwise have gone on to help build a less racist society. Insisting that the appearance of racism is tantamount to intentional racism, when it causes distress to viewers, is to invoke the same illogical “but you know it was” thought process that we hear from bigots who say “Oh, come on, you know that black guy was up to no good.” No, I don’t know that, and I also don’t know that a Chipotle line worker who insisted that some black men pre-pay for their food is a racist. And neither do you.

Not only that, but every case of injustice done in the name of racial justice is a win for the bigots, who will play it for all it’s worth. We have enough problems with white supremacist propaganda as it is without cutting more wood for their bonfire.

Racism is indefensible, but not incorrigible

I write this expecting to be accused, by a few, of excusing racism. So let me be clear: Racism is indefensible, unjustifiable, and evil. Growing up in the mid-20th-century Deep South, I’ve witnessed that with my own eyes even if I wasn’t targeted by it.

But precisely because our nation is coming to understand the seriousness of racial oppression, someone has to advocate for compassion for those who’ve changed their ways and those who are wrongly accused. (Which, I feel compelled to add, in no way implies that false accusations of racism are the norm.)

I’m not arguing against Kendi or the importance of antiracism. Quite the opposite. I’m talking about how to follow the path of antiracism in a way that doesn’t cause avoidable harm to those who are, or who may be, unjustly accused or who no longer deserve to be shamed, and doesn’t feed talking points to those who work against the antiracist cause. And the keys to that path are compassion and a willingness to forgive when forgiveness is merited.

Now you might ask, well, if I feel our energies are best spent confronting the most egregious cases of bigotry, why have I taken the time to write an article about these marginal and ambiguous cases? Wouldn’t that time be better spent writing about, say, voter-suppression laws and current attempts to erase America’s racial history from school curricula?

My answer is that it’s not an either/or choice. We must oppose those acts of oppression and others like them while ensuring we’re not courting new injustices in the process. If we are to seek true justice, social or racial or any other kind, we must distinguish between mistakes and malevolence. We must allow people to grow up, to grow wiser, to repent and to change without hanging their pasts around their necks and tossing them into the lake of public shaming to drown.

Whenever we declare an offense to be so heinous, so damaging, that the rights of the accused must be waived as a safeguard, we end up causing avoidable harm. I’m reminded of the child abuse hysteria of the 1980s and ’90s which ruined and jailed innocent people across the country before the panic subsided.

As Kurt Vonnegut famously remarked, the problem with life is that “it’s too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes.” We’ve all done things we could be deeply shamed for if they were made public, and if you claim to be an exception you’re lying to someone, either yourself or everyone else. Vonnegut’s solution was equally succinct: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind!”

I’m not saying, be kind to someone who’s punching you in the face. What I am suggesting is that righteous anger untempered with mercy and discernment can degrade into mere self-righteousness. And that rushing to judgment inevitably means rushing to misjudgment sooner or later.

That’s why we must forgive racists. Not those who persist in their prejudice, but those who’ve been willing to change. If we allow any and all past racist acts, even if unintentional or done behind closed doors, to permanently define a person, we are stifling opportunities for the very progress we were seeking to be a part of in the first place.

Peace -ptz

Header image: “Unite the Right” demonstrator is punched by a counter-demonstrator in Charlottesville, VA, 12 August 2017 (original photo by Evan Nesterak)

Read every story from Paul Thomas Zenki (and thousands of other writers on Medium).

Your membership fee directly supports Paul Thomas Zenki and other writers you read. You’ll also get full access to every story on Medium.


Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.