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Will We Ever Get Beyond Race?
Image: ROBYN BECK / AFP / Getty

I was raised in a largely white culture. I even thought I was white until a classmate directly informed me that I am Chinese. The revelation was puzzling, given that I am Korean. More strangely, I am a Korean who can speak hardly a word of Korean. The only word I know is the one for "dummy," which my relatives often called me: bah-boh.

And now? My family and I live in a largely African American neighborhood where I serve as interim pastor of a multiethnic church in urban Washington, D.C. I'm not sure how to identify myself anymore. I'm a vaguely Asian person who grew up listening to Pearl Jam and trying to play hacky sack, but who sings Fred Hammond on Sunday morning. I think that makes me "post-racial."

I first heard the phrase in January 2009, during the inauguration of President Barack Obama. I remember watching the event with deep pride and rising hope. Commentators noted that the moment marked our transition to becoming a post-racial nation, where race no longer played the divisive role it has throughout our history. We were finally beyond the whole race thing, they said. Although I brimmed with excitement, I also knew that this analysis was hopelessly optimistic. The election of our first black president would not put the issue of race to rest.

Fast-forward four years, and without a doubt we are still very much a racial society. There is no clearer evidence of this than Trayvon Martin.

Seemingly clear at first, the facts of the shooting were quickly muddied by political pundits and media moguls on all sides of the spectrum. An unarmed black youth, carrying nothing more than Skittles and iced tea—or an imposing teenager who thuggishly assaulted a man? An overzealous and prejudiced vigilante who ignored calls to not follow Trayvon—or a responsible neighborhood watch captain who defended himself? Videos were doctored, e-mail accounts hacked, expert opinions thrown about with reckless and inexpert abandon. The blogosphere ignited and the Twitterverse raged, even more so this week, after a Florida court handed down a not-guilty verdict to George Zimmerman. The only thing now clear to me is how far we are from being a post-racial society.

Although I have strong opinions about the Zimmerman case, I am not writing to take sides. Although I pray for justice, I don't think that any greater purpose can be served by demonizing those who are involved. Instead, I want to point out the central role that fear played in these events.

Our Primal Fear

You see, Zimmerman's zealousness as a watch captain was motivated largely by fear—fear of crime and of unfamiliar people, stoked by ubiquitous news reports of violence that forever threatens all that we hold dear. Martin was surely afraid as well—of the man who ominously followed him, afraid that he was being singled out because of his skin color, a fear that countless young black men share. Of course there are other dynamics in this case: pride, hatred, and stupidity. But fear is the constant. Fear of the unfamiliar is the deepest root of prejudice in our country.

Fear is not a complex human emotion—it's a primal one. It originates from the most buried and hidden portions of our brains, geographically the farthest from its more complex and nuanced regions. It is tenacious, and is rarely changed through conscious thought. So you cannot tell a person not to be afraid, or that they are foolish to feel frightened. If they are truly afraid, it is for nearly subconscious reasons that they themselves may not discern.

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Will We Ever Get Beyond Race?