More than the Absence of Bad

I give credit to my parents for teaching me at an early age that God loves all people. My childhood home was no place to share a racially insensitive comment or joke. From an early age, I would have confidently identified as a non-racist. Thanks to the modelling and influence of my parents, I am confident there was no “bad” in my heart connected to race. 

However, I’ve come to appreciate that meaningful race relations requires more than simply the absence of bad. It requires the absence of bad plus empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Empathy is hard. Until we’ve walked in another’s shoes, it’s difficult to understand that person’s journey. While I surely have miles to go on my personal journey regarding complicated issues of race, two stories from my past have shaped my appreciation for the importance of empathy in the context of race. Both are connected to an African-American friend of mine named Jonathan.

During my first year in law school, the OJ trial happened. Just to be clear – I was an OJ fan. I had and treasured one of his Buffalo Bills football cards. I remember him running through airports hurdling chairs as he advertised for Hertz. I remember his generally awful performances in the Naked Gun movies. I was shocked that one of my childhood heroes could have been arrested for murdering two innocent people. Surely not. But, as I watched that trial unfold on CNN, I became convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that OJ had committed murder. Had I been on the jury, I would have voted to convict. 

However, I watched much of that very public trial as a second semester law student with my good friend and classmate, an African-American. In many ways, he and I had a similar view of the world. We generally saw family and friends and Contracts and Civil Procedure in the same way. But not the OJ trial. When defense attorneys suggested that Detective Mark Fuhrman had a racist past and might have planted critical evidence to convict an innocent man, I simply couldn’t believe it. Jonathan could. And both of our reactions to that trial made perfect sense. 

Growing up in a white family that valued all people, it was hard for me to fathom a world where white police officers would do something so horrible. But Jonathan could easily fathom such a world. He knew all too well that such things could happen…and did happen…to members of his own family. In the end, Jonathan may have believed that OJ committed murder. But had he been on the jury, he would’ve had a reasonable doubt about whether or not Mark Fuhrman planted that evidence. I began watching that trial with the absence of bad in my heart. But thankfully, as I watched the OJ trial with my friend, he helped me have a far greater understanding of how and why the OJ case was such a lightning rod for race relations. While I disagreed with the jury’s verdict, I understood it to the best of my ability. If I had Jonathan’s skin color, life experiences, and perspectives, I’d have voted to acquit. I am thankful Jonathan helped me understand what happened in that trial.

As a professor at a private university in the South, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching bright students of many colors and nationalities. During my first several years of teaching, I would have smugly asserted that I viewed every student the same, regardless of race, gender, etc. After all, there was no bad in my heart. I appreciated all my students and made every effort to treat each one equally. 

Then a wedding further enlightened my view of race. My friend Jonathan finally decided to tie the knot, and he was kind enough to invite me to his wedding. My wife and I went, thinking we would find a diverse crowd. We did not. As I scanned the church that was full of 400 or so attendees, I saw one other white couple. I realized that my wife and I were minorities. While every person I encountered was kind and gracious, throughout the duration of the wedding and reception I was continually mindful that I was different. 

Obviously, this is no parallel to those who have been victims of racism. Nonetheless, this experience enabled me to have a greater understanding of race. When I returned to my classroom the Monday following the wedding, I couldn’t help but pay closer attention to the two African-American students sitting in my classroom. Unfortunately, it’s not terribly uncommon to have just one or two African-American students in a class of 25 students. And for years, I thought it was enough to treat every student the same. Until that wedding, I had no understanding of how different some of my students may feel – even if everyone around them is kind to them. I still have the absence of bad in my heart. But I also have empathy.  

I am thankful that my parents taught me the value of all people. I am grateful that they helped prevent any bad from entering my heart regarding issues of race. I am also thankful for Jonathan. He helped me understand that the absence of bad simply isn’t enough. We must do more. We must empathize. I hope we will all find ways this year to practice empathy towards those from whom we are different.  

Bryan McKinney
Attorney/Dean/Professor, Ouachita Baptist University
Park Hill Baptist Church
Resides in Arkadelphia