I am encouraged to write on the issue of race after finishing a gracious two-minute interview afforded to me by Dr. Albert Mohler and, in Dr. Mohler’s absence on Thursday, Dr. Russell Moore. I had fully intended to write on the Democratic debate. However, I think speaking generally on the issues of race and racism in America may be more beneficial.
(Disclaimers: 1) I do not speak for all African Americans, for all African American evangelicals, or for all African American Southern Baptists. You must ask others about their positions. 2) This is not intended to be a critical analysis; the points are for discussion starters. Each point needs to be developed in conversations in your own spheres of life and ministry. 3) There are others who have done much more thinking on this topic. I recommend some resources below. 4) This is in no way a slight of the hardworking teachers of the Prince George’s County Public Schools, nor is this meant to discourage any PG County student from striving for excellence and academic success, for each of you can compete with any student in Montgomery and Fairfax counties.)
As a precursor to what follows, let me establish that it is my opinion that the Democratic debate assumed the philosophical, economic, and moral definition(s) of “African-American” rather than a simple ethnic description. In both popular and academic (read “nationalistic” or “liberation”) terms, to be “African American” is more than being “a person of color” who is “the great-great grandchild of slaves in America.” To be “African American” is 1) to be philosophically committed to liberation, nationalistic, or liberal-Democratic ideals for progress for race in America, which places a priority on one race above all others, 2) to be economically impoverished or significantly disadvantaged (or a least be able to portray your identity with the economically disadvantaged even if you live at or above a middle-class standard and/or do nothing personally to help the economically disadvantaged), and 3) to be morally libertine in one’s analysis of (solutions for) social crises in America or the world. For one to be “African American” morally, HIV/AIDS must be an issue of education, research, health insurance and access to medical care, but not of purity in singleness and marriage or of denouncement of homosexual behavior as morally reprehensible; the disparity in criminal sentencing rates demands an end to Federal capital punishment rather than an examination of sentencing practices. Therefore Shelby Steele, Clarence Thomas, and the like do not have the right secret handshake to be “African American,” and neither do any African Americans who could be identified as “conservative” (socially, Constitutionally, politically, or theologically), or as “evangelical” (the “c”-word and “e”-word for African Americans, so to speak). Once we understand that this is the assumption of the debate and The Covenant with Black America, then, we can proceed full steam ahead.
This then is how I would suggest we, as evangelicals, might want to think about race in our dialogs:
1. “Race,” of which there are only three sociologically and anthropologically (and theologically) speaking, is a work of the providence of God in a fallen world. Mongoloid, Caucasoid, and Negroid (and some would add Australoid) are what we find in The Table of Nations being displaced at The Tower of Babel and explained in Acts 17:26-31. It may be better for us to speak of “nationalities” and “ethnicities”—people who are the intended targets of the Great Commission.
2. “Racism” or “rationalization” exists because of sin in the world and the heart of every person. The results of racism, such as antebellum slavery in the US, Jim Crow laws, a counter-Civil Rights movement, institutionalized racism, and simple bigotry are issues of sin. Therefore, we should not be ashamed to say that Biblical preaching about the power of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ is the most significant answer to the problem of race in America or anywhere in the world. Legislation cannot change the hearts of sinful people; it can only curb the illegal expressions of racism, establish standards for fair practices regarding race, and impose penalties for those who break the law. But fair housing laws have not eradicated unfair mortgage-loan practices towards the richest African Americans. Moreover, I now hear African Americans in upper-middle class neighborhoods saying, “if another Hispanic family moves in, we are going to move out.” Such racist talk is coming from those who previously felt victimized by Whites who made such statements and demanded fair housing laws so that Whites could not prevent them from living in affluent neighborhoods. I think the similar attitudes toward neighborhood exclusion on the parts of Whites and African Americans is just one example of the depravity residing in each of us: we are self-centered and ethnocentric to the point of mistreating others or desiring separation from others who we think should not be living at our same standard of living. In short, we are full of pride. It is the Gospel that changes the hearts of people. Institutionalized justice is needed for fair practices in the nations of men. But believers can act on the Gospel prior to the creation of human legislation.
3. “White Privilege” is not equal to racism. White Privilege exists as part of a world in need of Divine Redemption. But White Privilege does not have intent to harm. It is a by-product of scores and centuries of racist practices in this country. Analogously speaking, White Privilege is like bad quality air; it is breathed without one knowing it. Only those paying attention to Ozone-Alert days consciously think about bad quality air. Only those paying attention to White Privilege see it. Every non-White in America is paying attention daily, because we cannot help it, for racial minorities think about race with respect to every issue in America. For example, when I go to the grocery store, I remind my children, especially my sons, that they are not allowed to touch anything. This keeps them away from any prejudiced suspicion of stealing in the eyes of a White or Asian store owner who, I think, automatically consider my children candidates for thievery by virtue of our ethnicity. Similarly, I do not allow my smaller children to run in the store aisles freely or talk loudly in the store, even when I see children of other ethnicities having such privilege without fear of a store manager approaching them or their parents about a “disruptive” child. Those in the ethnic minority tend to define life in White, Black, Latino, (East) Asian, Native American, and Middle-Eastern colors as a social, linguistic, and ethnic survival technique. (Thank you Lisa Kang, Bryan Lee, Michael Min, Byung Ham, and Marcus Chung for helping me to see that thinking daily about race is not just an issue of African Americans.)
4. The Gospel levels all people of all races as depraved God-haters in need of grace to be poured out through Christ by God in order to escape the wrath of God—a wrath which will be indiscriminant of race. Beyond skin color, we are looking at sinners in need of grace or saints saved by grace. These are the primary identities of all people (cf. 2 Cor. 5:16). We must include this in our worldview when we think of Christian living and ministry. The command to “love one another” – where love is defined as the overflow of joy in God which gladly meets the needs of others (John Piper, “Love: The Labor of Christian Hedonism,” in Desiring God [Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1986], 103) – if obeyed, would put a tremendous dent in the problem of racism in America. Forcing diversity in our churches is not the answer. Welcoming diversity is the answer. (For more on this, hear my two minutes on Thursday’s Albert Mohler Show. My segment is about twenty-one minutes into the broadcast. Also, please know that Russell Moore is really one of my heroes.)
5. Being “colorblind” is not the goal of the Gospel, per se, for I, like Paul, should be able to maintain a burden for my own people. Where “colorblind” means “no preferential treatment” and “no discriminatory treatment,” I agree. Where “colorblind” means, “we should not recognize that differences in the races exist” or “one should not feel attachment to a group of people based on race (or language or cultural practices),” I disagree. In saying this, I recognize that I am standing on the edge of the precipice that drops off to “racist preferences.” But Christians do not have to make that leap. I can love my non-African American brother as much as I love my African-American brother while I remain burdened to reach fellow African Americans with the Gospel in a way my non-African American brother may not be burdened, and I can enjoy listening to contemporary African American Christian Music with other African Americans without having harmed my non-African American brother. However, I must use my liberty Christianly, with a good conscience and without causing a brother of any ethnicity to stumble. (I explain this in the last question on the air.)
6. Race is an issue complicated by economics. Tuesday’s WaPo article on AP scores among African American students in Montgomery and Fairfax counties failed to mention that those two counties have two of the highest – if not the two highest – per capita incomes in the nation. Prince George’s county, my home and also mentioned in the article, has the highest per capita income for African Americans in the nation. Yet we have one of the worst school systems in the state of Maryland, in spite of this county’s AP scores among African Americans. It is well known that the good school systems have followed (the money of) upper-middle class Americans, who are largely White ethnically. Good and poor school systems are a racial-economic issue. Therefore, as evangelicals, we must be cautious, lest we make idols out of education and social mobility. I cannot determine God’s will for my residence solely based on good or bad school systems or my desire to be in a nice or safe neighborhood. I say this hypocritically as a homeschooling-parent living in a nice suburban neighborhood; I am part of the race problem as much as I desire to be part of the solution. I push academic excellence on my children for the glory of God and in the hopes that they will have social mobility as adults. But social mobility is not the goal of the Gospel, and neither is a Harvard, Cambridge, St. John’s (MD) or TC@SW education, even though we are to do all of our labor and study as faithful stewards before God. A result of our faithful labors may be social mobility, but that should not be the goal. The goal is to be available and positioned wherever in the world God wills to use us. For some of us, this will be suburbia and exurbia. For others it will be rural or urban America. Either way, we need to keep in mind that we have “better and lasting possessions,” unlike those without Christ (Heb. 10:34-38). Mammon cannot be our God.
Finally, when depravity and the grace of Christ are not in one’s worldview, you get the sort of naïve analysis the candidates consistently gave last night. They were so naïve about social stratification that I could not believe there are any thinking people considering any of those candidates for the office of “leader of the free world.” Instead of critiquing each instance of naïve statements, I would invite you to consider a small portion of a document I wrote to my students on the eve of the Presidential Election in 2000:
Is there anyone in this country who votes from a purely selfless – “this is in the best interest of the entire country” – stance, or do not we all vote from either a “survival” or “success” stance? What I mean is that those who have experienced financial/material “success” in this country only care about issues that will ensure that “success” is maintained. Issues of survival seem trite to them for they have “made it” by one means or another. Those attempting to “survive,” or to get to a (perceived level of) success (i.e., to gain the American Dream and get out of coal mining and Black Lung disease, or get out of a neighborhood of poorer schools and crime to the suburbs), or to simply maintain their current status without loosing all they have (such as many lower-middle class to lower class elderly citizens who unfortunately “need” big government to help (because Churches really do not – churches, instead, build bigger buildings, which is another soap box…)), these survivors do not care about the issues of the successful. They want “access,” opportunity and aid and, (forgive me for saying this, as it is considered cursing to most conservatives, even evangelicals), a handout! What “successful” person would selflessly vote in the interest of those wanting handouts at the “successful’s” expense? And what “survivor” would vote for smaller government and less government intervention, although this would certainly be the wisest and best choice for any businessman/owner? Only a schizo “survivor!” Moreover, both the Survivor and Successful schemes – and I’m sure there is another scheme – reveal that wealth is what really drives our voting in this country. For if Al Gore were unashamedly pro-life, do you think the Christian Coalition would say, “well, this election is a toss up…”? I doubt it.
In last night’s debate, the candidates spoke as if equality in social stratification is possible in a Capitalistic society, or even in this world. It is not. We can make laws for fair practice, but short of the return of Christ, economic parity is a utopian dream in a world of sin. Am I to believe that millionaires John Edwards and Hillary Clinton are going to create policies so that they will have to lower their standards of living, and that I am somehow less patriotic if I do not share their ideas of fixing the problem of racial disparity in the American economic and justice systems? I appeal to Caesar.
Cornel West, Race Matters, New York: Vintage, 1994. This is a very significant book.
Michael Eric Dyson, Debating Race, New York: Basic, 2007; Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster, New York: Basic, 2006.
I would also recommend Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act.