Recently, I had the opportunity to appear in the documentary Human Zoos, which features the story of Ota Benga, an indigenous Congolese man who was placed on display at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. The exhibit—meant to confirm that Africans were nothing more than highly developed primates—provided supposed evidence of a missing link and fuel for the American eugenics movement.
Comedian Roseanne Barr revived this awful history when she recently compared former Barack Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett to an ape. Jarrett is of both African-American and European descent. Barr’s comments are sickening not only because of their current implications, but also because they recall a time in which American eugenicists used false biological distinctions between ethnic groups to justify inhumane and racist public policies. This American movement was so effective in providing scientific support for bigotry that it was used as a tool of the Nazis.
For this reason, Barr’s comments are starkly different from other recent political insults. Barr’s defenders have compared her tweet to Samantha Bee’s comments likening Ivanka Trump to a female body part or Bill Maher’s suggestion that President Donald Trump looks like an orangutan, but they are clearly not the same. While hateful and demeaning, there is no organized ideology nor legacy of atrocities connected to these insults. It is either disingenuous or ignorant to suggest otherwise. Barr understood, at some level, that her comments would strike a particular historic chord.
Scripture teaches humankind is created in the likeness of God. This concept of the imago dei is what distinguishes human beings from the rest of creation. All human life has equal value because all human life has a direct connection with the divine. Racism is a clear rejection of this truth, restricting this reflection of divinity to certain groups of people. It suggests the idolatrous notion that a single trait, such as skin color, should determine a person’s worth.
All human life has equal value because all human life has a direct connection with the divine.
Barr’s supporters have argued that her lifetime of relationships with individuals of all ethnicities, including people of African descent, should inoculate her against charges of racism. They suggest that her heartfelt apology to African-American costar Jayden Rey is evidence that her comments are inconsistent with her character. In Barr’s case, as with others, it may be quite possible to have relationships with people of various ethnicities while retaining a bigoted belief in one’s own superiority. To be racist does not require the exclusion of others.
The American south during both slavery and the Jim Crow era of segregation had a plethora of interracial professional and even personal relationships. Racism simply requires an investment in a perceived biological hierarchy and a commitment to, or comfort with, a social system that reinforces those perceptions. Barr’s feelings of racial superiority, not uncommon in a society built to support them, were bubbling under the surface and ultimately revealed themselves in a very public and costly manner (in the aftermath, ABC canceled her recently revived sitcom).
For America to exorcise its demons of the past, it must retain a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of behavior. We can learn a great deal from how Germans deal with their tragic past. Expressions of Nazism are explicitly forbidden in Germany, as is speech that would promote racist ideologies. German children are taught about the Holocaust and in at least one region are required to visit a concentration camp. They are unequivocal in their condemnation of the past, vociferously rejecting any opportunity for these ideologies to rear their ugly heads.
Barr is not beyond the reach of God’s love and forgiveness. As a fallen human being who has been offered the gift of God’s grace, she deserves the possibility of redemption. That personal redemption, however, cannot be misconstrued as a tolerance for vile ideology. Racism has been such a pernicious force in the United States that it has threatened to destroy the nation multiple times. Roseanne Barr can be forgiven; if America tolerates her actions, it may not.
Topics: Culture At Large