by Phil Morice Brubaker
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. – Hebrews 4:12
One of the problems with bringing legal action for civil rights cases is that the prosecutor must clear a bar that includes, essentially, “judging the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” In the wake of the DOJ’s inability to bring a case against Darren Wilson, attorney general Eric Holder has said that he would like to see the legal bar lowered in relation to proving intent. This would have made it easier for federal civil rights charges to be brought against the killers of Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and other high-profile cases of racialized violence.
As it stands, unless it can be proven that the defendant made an unambiguous statement of hatred towards the victim’s group status, such as using a racial slur while committing the crime, there’s not much of a legal case to be made.
A robust analysis of racism reveals that intent is not required for racist outcomes. One can have the most noble intentions, with not even a “racist bone in their body” as the formula goes, yet still inadvertently support white supremacy. It happens all the time. I am guilty.
In our reflections on racial justice during this Lenten season, let us take a moment to list and judge the intentions of our hearts. But, not stopping there, let us consider how well our intentions line up with the outcomes of our actions. How do our actions perpetuate white-skin privilege? (Yes, I assume that there are ways that we all – regardless of racial identity – do this at times.) How do we accept without challenge institutions that operate with white cultural norms?
Living God, pierce us with your Word and Wisdom to reveal our intentions, and guide us to examine our outward lives so that we can more truly act in ways that align with your justice. Amen.
Phil Morice Brubaker is coordinator and trainer with Roots of Justice.