Is Racism a Permanent State?

A young woman from Virginia pits mercy against justice.

Posted Jan 01, 2021

Mimi Groves, a 15-year old freshman at the time, had just received her driver's permit. She immediately made a three-second Snapchat video in which she exclaimed, “I can drive,” followed by a racial slur.

Black Lives Matter protests erupted when Groves was a senior. She decided to post on Instagram again, this time urging people to “protest, donate, sign a petition, rally, do something.” She never anticipated the response she received.

“You have the audacity to post this after saying the N-word,” a stranger responded. This set off a furious round on social media calling her out for her racist behavior.

Groves, who began class at the University of Tennessee in September, was a member of the cheer team. First, she was removed from the team and then withdrew from the university after the administration received hundreds of messages from alumni, students, and members of the public calling for her dismissal.

Last year, the Loudoun School District in Leesburg, Virginia (where Groves attended high school), reported that school leaders frequently ignored the widespread use of racial slurs by both students and teachers, leading to a sense of despair on the part of students of color.

Groves now says that she’s appalled at having used the word and isn’t trying to excuse the behavior. Her attorney is appealing to the University of Tennessee to reinstate her.

What is the proper response to Groves? It hinges upon your answers to these related questions: Do you judge a 15-year-old by adult standards? What is the role of forgiveness in a case like this? How is it balanced against the needs of those who have been hurt by racist language?

The times in which we live often glide over such questions as we have fallen into cleaving the world into good and bad, right and wrong, true or false with nothing in between. But people are more complex than these binary divisions make out.

Few are the same as adults as they were at 15. That’s why at 15, you aren’t eligible to vote and are unable to choose not to attend school or join the military. The University of Rochester’s Medical Center’s Health Encyclopedia reports that:

“Recent research has found that adult and teen brains work differently. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part.

In teen’s [sic] brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing—and not always at the same rate. That’s why when teens have overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking. They weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling.”

This leads to the question of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a necessary quality for mercy and implies that a person once culpable can learn from mistakes. It is a generous view of life, a quality that mends broken relations.

But some acts may be awful as to be unforgivable. Is a vile racist epithet beyond the pale of forgiveness? In my view, this depends upon how frequently it is used, how it is used, and in what context. Used one time only, in the fit of excitement by a teenager who has apologized and made some tangible efforts on the behalf of racial justice is far different than an adult bigot whose hatred leads to murder.

Mimi Groves, like every white person, benefits from systemic racism. She is privileged because she is white. Does that make her a racist? It does if racism is like being pregnant—either you are or you aren’t. But what if it is more like lying? Everyone tells a lie at some time: throwing a surprise party or saying you’re fine when you’re not. You may lie to protect another’s feelings or out of your embarrassment. A self-serving lie, though, is different, as is one motivated by malice. A person who lies every once in a while isn’t a liar, but someone who lies habitually is.

We need to embrace people with their flaws and contradictions. It is to accept that life is complicated, it is complex and resist reducing them to one "essential" quality.

Society can be both merciful and just. Making nuanced judgments is the way towards achieving the proper balance between these two necessary values for a humane society.