Racism: Does the struggle continue?

Can we seriously talk about fulfilling the cultural mandate if we sit around and allow the legacy of racism to be perpetuated, even in the church? Vincent Bacote is Assistant Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics.
August 17 th 2006

Recently, I was riding to airport with a friend through a very beautiful area outside of Philadelphia. There were lots of nice homes, we drove through horse country, and you could not escape the fact that it was quite a display of fine living. Surprisingly, my friend asked me at one point "why do white people live so much better than black people?" This caught me off guard because my friend is an African-American male who has been very successful in the pharmaceutical industry, and he perceived something about the reality of life for many African-Americans and other minorities in the United States: even with casual observation, minorities don't seem to live as well as the majority culture. This conversation reminded me of another conversation that I had with a successful African-American businessman who remarked that in subtle and explicit ways, racism is alive and well in the United States, and the result is that it remains significantly difficult for non-whites to have the same prospects for success as their Caucasian counterparts. It raises the question that refuses to go away: "to what degree and extent is racism the cause for the plight of minorities in North America? Are the social problems that endure primarily a racist legacy or are other factors more to blame?"

For sure, the current situation is exponentially better than it was in the sixties and decades prior, but it would be an exercise in denial or a willful embrace of myopic vision to think that we are anywhere near the end of racism in North America. While many people can point to numerous successful entertainers, athletes, and business successes like Kenneth Chenault, Richard Parsons, John W. Thompson and Robert L. Johnson, the reality is that such people are noteworthy because they are the exception rather than the rule.

This is not solely because of failures in the educational system, corporate glass ceilings, or racist social structures, but these old obstacles have not vanished. Indeed there are laws to protect minorities from racial discrimination in hiring and from real estate zoning practices, but why do minorities continue to struggle? I do not doubt the reality of pathologies within minority communities related to illegal immigration, the welfare state, out of wedlock pregnancies, high male incarceration and a commodification of hip-hop culture, but the concerns for personal and community responsibility like those Bill Cosby famously raised are not the only problems.

Perhaps a psychological analogy may help: if we assume that there are no active racist practices going on today (a pipe dream, but let's play along), what does that mean for today's minorities? I believe it is similar to a person who has been abused for the first two decades of their existence, and even though the abuse has stopped, deep invisible scars remain that take a long time to heal. To use a different illustration, even if minorities are at the same starting line in a race as whites, many come to the race in an impaired state because of the legacy of racism. How can they compete on an equal playing field if they don't start out as healthy as their counterparts?

More than passing legislation

For many African-Americans, for example, the reality that they live with stems from social, economic, and educational deficiencies that confront them every day, even for those who are not living in ghettoes. Or what about the state of Native Americans (the closest thing to genocide over here)? To have communities that are healthy requires more than passing legislation. The legislation is a victory for justice, but to carry justice to completion requires working to remedy the long legacy of racial injustice that continues to cripple many minorities.

Some Comment readers may remain skeptical, but here's a question for such persons: how many minorities do you know and how closely do you know their experience or that of their relatives and forebears? If you have many minority friends, I doubt you can question whether racism is still an ongoing challenge for some of them, from experiences of personal prejudice to subtle manifestations of corporate and structural injustice. Although laws prevent people from being excluded from opportunities for success, why do many minorities remain on the outside or ignorant of the "normal" patterns for wealth creation?

To venture into a different domain, within conservative Protestant circles, people like myself remain a rarity. Try this quiz: name all of the minority scholars in theology and biblical studies who teach at evangelical (or evangelical friendly) institutions. How many names did you come up with? It remains a challenging question for me, and a source of frustration. Here's another conundrum: what is the percentage of minority students and faculty at Christian institutions such as colleges, parachurch groups, or historic evangelical denominations (this excludes denominations like the Church of God in Christ and the National Baptist Convention)? Why do the same stories about minorities feeling unwelcome in evangelical institutions get repeated again and again?

What's the point of all these questions? The answer takes the form of an inquiry: if there is diffuse minority presence and participation in the evangelical world (even if it has increased in the last decade or so), is it primarily a matter of self-segregation (in some cases, this is indeed the answer) or is it a reality that reveals that "people of the book" have not come very far when it comes to countering the deep roots of ethnic strife? Why aren't there more PhD's or high-profile leaders in the evangelical world? Why is Michael Emerson and Christian Smith's Divided By Faith still an appropriate title?

Perception and practice

Is there any help that theology can provide on this? The doctrine of creation is a good place to find insight. First, we must resist the idea of embracing colorblindness, however, because unfortunately it is a well-intended strategy that tends to make a virtue of ignoring the blessings of diversity. It only goes part of the way to the transformation we need. It is proper to not hold someone's ethnic background against them, but it is unhelpful to neglect the contribution diversity brings to our understanding of our common humanity. Instead, a robust doctrine of creation should not only affirm the commonality that we share as people created in God's image, but also that God is glorified in the diversity of the nations. In Revelation 21:26, the glory of the nations is brought into the New Jerusalem. If the contributions of diverse groups don't matter, I fail to see why the text mentions it, or why it is such a marvelous vision of the multitude in Revelation 7:9. The glory of creation includes the manifestation of kaleidoscopic, not monochrome beauty.

Of course, to counter racism requires more than practical appreciation of the contributions of minorities. It must be a matter of perception and practice. It must be a matter of the stewardship of creation and the exercise of biblical justice. The cultural mandate compels us to care for God's world, and this must include concern for the flourishing of all human beings, the crown of creation. Can we seriously talk about fulfilling the cultural mandate if we sit around and allow the legacy of racism to be perpetuated, even in the church? It is irresponsible creation stewardship to perpetuate—passively or by intent—social structures which thwart human flourishing. Furthermore, if we take the entire Bible seriously, can Micah 6:8 be ignored? Can we do justice faithfully if we ignore the ongoing legacy of racism? God desires that his covenant people stand out from the world by exemplifying life in God's creation in ways that reflect the standards of a righteous God. To throw our hands up in a gesture of helplessness is to remove our hand from the labouring in some of the most difficult terrain in God's creation. Hard work remains in North America, and the church should take the lead.

I would like to be able to tell my friend that although it is true that the legacy of racism has yielded drastically divergent outcomes for minorities, the people of God are leading the way toward transforming society so that "equal opportunity" will be more than an empty slogan. I hope Comment readers and the wider church won't leave this task to me alone.

Topics: Culture
 

Vincent Bacote is Associate Professor of Theology, and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics, at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He is the author of The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper (2005). He is also co-editor with Dennis Okholm and Laura Miguelez of Scripture in the Evangelical Tradition (InterVarsity Press, 2004). He is also the editor of the Precepts for Living Annual Commentary (UMI).

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