What my African-American sons taught me about race in America

“He is my son!”  

The man behind the counter felt my anger.  I stood beside my black son as the man rolled his eyes and glared at my son with disgust saying, “I can’t do anything for him without his parents.” I was there to sign him in for a birthday party at a kid’s recreational place. There was no mistaking his racial contempt (I saw it all too often in my rural hometown) as he began ranting about those people who would just dump kids off. I quickly interrupted him and said, “He is my son!”  

I’m white. Two of my sons are black. One of my white sons walked in later, not even on the party list, and strolled right by the desk without a word or being asked to sign in at all. Seemingly, it did not matter whether he had a parent with him or not. I could cite countless other examples. Being the white dad of white and black sons has allowed me to unmistakably witness that many people treat them differently because of their skin color. We have many humorous stories about our trans-racial family but we also have too many that evoke tears.

My wife and I have worked hard to communicate that all our kids have the same rights and privileges in our family. We believe the truth that, by faith in Jesus Christ, we are adopted into a family called the church. In God’s family, no matter your skin color or background, you are granted full rights as a child of God. We believe such multi-ethnic love is a visible display of the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our desire is to reflect this gospel reality in our home by the way we treat our kids. We are also abundantly thankful that our kids are growing up in a church full of diversity where this reality is being fleshed out.  

I have not wanted to believe that my sons are looked at differently because of the color of their skin—but they are. My family and friends are just as offended as I am when hearing the stories of people treating my black sons differently. They think, “Why would anyone treat Isaac or Jonah that way?” They know them. They love them. And that is the problem.

The world in which my sons live does not know their story. They do not know their siblings died of malnutrition. They don’t know they are ours—they are Haskins. All they know at a glance is that they are young black males. I hate to say it, but in totally neutral situations, there is no actual neutrality. Too often they are being judged, directly and indirectly, by preconceived notions about who they may be. In the end, it’s a direct assault on who they really are. I’ve seen it. My family lives it.

This knowledge has made me shudder as I have watched the events in Ferguson, Mo. Details concerning the evening Michael Brown was killed are still evolving. I’m not sure at this point anyone really knows exactly what happened. I am not sure we ever will. However, I am certain of one thing: After seeing the response to this tragedy, we are still tragically a racially divided nation. I also know that I have to prepare my black sons for situations my white sons will never have to face. They will have to work to gain respect that my other kids will naturally be given. I have learned from my African-American friends that there are certain things my black sons must do to avoid conflict and suspicion. Five years ago, when we adopted Isaac and Jonah, I naïvely had never considered these things.  

Not only does my personal experience lead me to believe that such problems really do exist, the ruins of an ancient tower found in Genesis 11 tell me why they exist. Men walked away from the kingdom of Babel with hostility in their hearts toward their Creator. This rebellion is the source of our racial animosity. It is through our enmity that we have all sought to create kingdoms of power and privilege that divide and war against one another. The sin in our hearts that first led us to alienate ourselves from God continues to cause us to alienate one another. This is a crucial chapter in our story that we must not deny.    

Sadly, I have not only experienced feeling racially superior—I have expressed it. As a white man born and raised in a rural community in Tennessee, I am well aware of the tendency I have to hold on to certain prejudices. It is easy to excuse them as the way I was raised. Desegregation, alone, never has and never will transform a racist’s heart. The Christian knows that the only ultimate hope for the racial divide in America isn’t some sort of generic sentimentality about a peaceful society. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is why I am so troubled that at times like the events in Ferguson, Christians of all colors tend to become much more committed to defending themselves and their group than admitting our hostility and working to end it through the mission of the church.     

Our reluctance to acknowledge racial sin and injustice makes me fearful for the future of my sons. I am also fearful about what our reluctance means for the church’s witness to the world. In the shadow of Ferguson, our churches are to be a beacon of racial harmony. And yet, when we look at our black brothers and sisters nonchalantly, as if to say, “Oh come on get over it,” we deny our gospel family identity.  

The tragedy of Ferguson has angered me in many ways. I have been angered by the fact that an unarmed black man was shot six times. I have been angered by the horrendous riots, looting and unjust treatment of good police officers. I have been angered by the misinformation. I have wept for my children. I have been angered most by the responses of many conservative whites to the tragedy. Many white evangelicals have acted outraged at any suggestion that black Americans face unique challenges in a white-dominant culture. Some have sounded gleeful over any snippet of evidence that would seemingly prove Michael Brown was not an upstanding citizen. It is sickening to hear evangelicals say things like, “See, he was drunk. See, he robbed a store. See, he was a thug.”

Is this a gospel response in the face of unspeakable tragedy? Is that what we would say to parents in our church whose son was killed while doing things he should not have been doing? I fear many evangelicals would give a safe head nod to racial reconciliation and equality without really taking the risk of identifying with our suffering black brothers and sisters. It is easy to deny the reality that being white in a white-dominant culture makes your path easier—if you are white. Too often, our response to racial injustice becomes a self-protecting mockery of the self-sacrificial One who bore the penalty for our racism.   

The only hope for my racial sin is found in a backwoods Galilean who was willing to pay the penalty for my sin, one who was willing to suffer discrimination in order to identify with me. As he declared himself to be God’s Son, the question was asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” As he was crucified, he was humiliated as a pathetic King for the Jews. In his afflictions, he too felt the rage of Babel.

Just as Jesus identified with us, we must be willing to identify with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ—no matter their color. In doing so, we must realize we will never totally understand their sufferings. It also means we must repent of denying such suffering and injustice exists. We must stand beside one another knowing that through faith in Jesus we have the same heavenly Father. And, standing together, we must seek to reflect the love of our Father who stands with us, black and white, and says, “He is my son!”   



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