Monday, January 17, 2005

Defining Racism

In June of 2004, the Presbyterian Church in American (PCA), in their 32nd General Assembly, adopted “The Gospel and Race: A Pastoral Letter.” The point of the letter was “to provide a definition of racism, a theological perspective on racism, pastoral responses to racism and discussion of pastoral issues relating to racism.” The PCA defines racism as follows: “Racism is an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races.”

Upon hearing that definition for the first time recently, I was initially attracted to it—and still am, in some ways. The value of this concise explanation is that it actually attempts to define a very plastic word—a word that has become so overused to the point of being rendered virtually meaningless. Some seem to mean by “racism” thinking negatively of someone of another race (usually African-American). Others think that any colorblind policy, such as the rejection of affirmative-action, is de facto a racist policy. (Ironically, they call “racist” what MLK “dreamed.”) Others believe that racism is by definition the attitude of the race in power toward other minority races and ethnicities.

Upon further reflection of the PCA definition, however, I’m starting to think that the definition is true, but insufficient.

In the hopes of coming to further clarity on the definition of racism, I’ve asked a guest contributor (who will remain anonymous for the time being) to weigh in on his reaction to the PCA definition. I believe his provocative comments are well worth our consideration. Feel free to forward this on to others and to contribute to the discussion in the comments section below.

The PCA statement is altogether too anemic. To say this—“Racism is an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other race”—is to say little more than is self-evident to virtually everyone.

If we are going to attack real racism in whatever form it shows itself, then we have to make a statement that is far more engaging of our politically correct culture and society than the PCA statement begins to do. Here is why. Many, if not most people, have a superficial understanding of the nature of racism, as is evident even in the PCA. They understand racism to be the belief that one race is superior to another. True as this is, racism is far more subtle and far more insidious, so insidious that the very people who claim loudest to be opposing racism are actually acting out of racism. They do injury to the very people they claim to be aiding. What do I mean? Racism entails the notion that race (ethnic descent) determines one’s identity. Racism is the belief that a person’s convictions, values, and character are determined by one’s ethnic bloodline, not by the judgment of one’s heart and mind. Racism is like sexual bigotry. If male bigots believe that sex determines one’s identity, so that one’s convictions, values, and character are determined by one’s physical and physiological anatomy, are not feminists (particularly radical feminists) sexual bigots? Women of NOW surely believe such nonsense.

Remember the mantra that emerged from the Clarence Thomas inquisition? “Men just don’t get it!” What the feminists meant is that men can’t get it because their genes cripple their minds to apprehend and to understand what it is that they don’t get.

If Christians are going to denounce racism, then we had better do it in an informed manner, for we had better denounce racism in every form, including the racism that has sneaked into our churches by wearing the seeming garb of virtue, the virtue of multiculturalism baptized with Christian lingo, even with “gospelese.” But reverse preferential treatment is just as sinful and wicked as the racism that reverse preferential treatment (read “affirmative action,” etc.) allegedly endeavors to oppose and to overcome (cf. James 2:1-9).

The very push for “diversity” (usually in terms of pigmentation), even in churches, has subtle ramifications that few Christians are willing to admit and even less willing to address and to oppose. Such a push necessarily implies that individuals have worth to the extent that they represent the collective to which they belong, namely their race. Their race is the true source of their identity and value. So, Christian institutions, following the lead of the worldly institutions, pursue “diversity” because “diversity” enables the larger “community” to feel good about itself by encountering “black ideas,” “Hispanic ideas,” “Native American ideas,” etc. Is this not repugnant racism? Of course it is! This is precisely the same repugnant belief slave traders held in the Colonial Period and in the first century of the U.S. It is the same repulsive belief that enabled the Nazis’ SS troopers to haul Jews like cattle and to slaughter them in ways worse than they would treat cattle whose flesh they would eat.

Whether people give a particular race or ethnic group of people preferential treatment or special punishments on account of their race is really immaterial. Both are racism. Both need to be denounced courageously and plainly by Christians. The essence of racism is not primarily “an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other race.” To be sure, the PCA needs to denounce with strong terms the kind of racism that shows itself in the opprobrium of slavetraders, of Nazi storm troopers, of the KKK members, etc. However, we need to denounce with equally strong terms the kind of racism that bestows special favors and preferential privileges upon individuals for the simple reason that those individuals are members of a particular race. Any notion that allows anyone to regard the individual important because the individual is a member of a specially protected ethnic group is also reprehensible, for to the racist, individual members of the favored ethnic group are interchangeable. It is no act of Christian love. It is an act that is born of political correctness, which is no virtue at all that counts in the Kingdom of God.

In this era of political correctness, when Ted Kennedy is touted as virtuous for his gestures toward Blacks (never mind the fact that he suppresses them and subjugates them to welfare enslavement), we Christians need to expose such acts of alleged virtue as hypocritical actions that are actually repugnant and wicked. We Christians need to distinguish sharply between the grace that the gospel births in us called “acts of mercy” and the virtue that political correctness births among us which is a cheap knock-off that apes the grace of the Holy Spirit. Mercy is blind. We are not to administer mercy because of ethnicity. Mercy is utterly undeserved. Preferential treatment is not merciful. It is insulting, demeaning, dehumanizing, and Godless, for it strikes at the fact that humans are made in the image and likeness of God.

James’ illustration of preferential treatment (James 2:1-9) does not provide any warrant for treating the poor man with preference because of his poverty by giving him the best seat in the congregation. In other words, we as teachers and preachers must address the subtle but ubiquitous sin of preferential treatment of reverse discrimination in the church today in the U.S.A. as much as James had to address the default preferential treatment of favoring the rich.