Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Race Stuff 101

I've been enjoying the exchange with Thabiti regarding affirmative action and racial justice. At the end of the day, I believe we agree on much more than we differ. Most importantly, we are united in our love for the Savior and a deep desire to see all peoples bow the knee at his feet. I said before and I'll say again that there are few people I admire more than Thabiti. His graciousness and gospel-centeredness are models for me. In other words, I want to be like Thabiti when I grow up!

In his latest response, he asked me to expand on my suggestion that affirmative action is based on cultural relativism, proportional representation, and collectivism. I thought it might be worth doing this as a separate blog post here rather than putting it in the comments section of his blog.

First, a caveat: Anyone who knows me or has read something I've written on race and race relations in America will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I'm no expert on such matters. What's probably not so clear, however, is whether or not I think of myself as such an expert. Rest assured that I don't. I want to be a learner and a listener--not in some cross-legged, campfire, Kumbaya sense, but in an wise, humble, aggressive, biblical way. With that said, here's a brief overview of some of my basic presuppositions and the framework within which I am operating.

Well, one more caveat: any post like this filled runs the risk of coming across as clinical and analytical, cut off from real pain and real solutions. I know that's a risk, and I simply ask for forbearance and a fair hearing. Feel free to disagree, but be forewarned that I will be unfazed by responses that suggest I just "don't get it" or that suggest that my views are, by definition, evidence of prejudice or bigotry. At the same time, I invite correction on this (or any other matter!).

Let's start by going back to President Lyndon Johnson, who eloquently expressed the core ideas of affirmative action in a commencement address at Howard University (June 4, 1965):
You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.
I affirm and join in this desire. But lurking beneath the surface, soon to sprout up, were two interrelated philosophical presuppositions: (1) cultural relativism and (2) proportional representation.

Cultural relativism says that all groups and cultures are equal and, absent injustice, will produce equal results. Proportional representation is the expectation of cultural relativism--any institution should "look like" or represent its broader cultures. If we were to use the U.S. Senate as an example, proportional representation with regard to race would look something like 75 white senators, 25 black senators, 4 Asian senators, and 1 American Indian senator. You can then break it down for other variables: 50 would be men, 50 would be women. 80 would be professing Christians. Etc. A classic expression of this can be found in this 1977 Supreme Court ruling:
Absent explanation, it is ordinarily to be expected that nondiscriminatory hiring practices will in time result in a work force more or less representative of the racial and ethnic composition of the population in the community from which employees are hired.
To sum up, we have the idea that all groups are equal (cultural relativism), which should result in all groups being equally represented (proportional representation).

But, all groups are not equally represented. Why? The standard answer in progressive thinking is that the presence of inequality is de facto evidence of discrimination. Intentions are immaterial in comparison to results. Unequal results = injustice. In the wake of the Civil Rights era, overt racism receded while obvious disparity of results remained. It was in this context that there arose the label of "institutional racism" (coined, I believe, in the late 60s by Stokely Carmichael)--an invisible, impersonal form of structural, systemic racism so pervasive that, like the air we breathe, we are scarcely aware of it.

Because the framework of proportional representation is the standard for justice, the result is that the ends can justify the means. Discrimination based upon race can be used as a means to end discrimination based on race. Discrimination can be fought by means of discrimination.

Related to this is a collectivist notion of racial groups, which seriously downplays individual responsibility. When evangelicals enter race discussions, they often adopt this mindset and refer to it as "covenantal." The idea is that it if you are in the majority culture, it doesn't matter if you are personally guilty of an injustice--by your very membership in the group you are thereby guilty, needing to take responsibility and make reparation. Conversely, if you are in the minority culture, it doesn't matter if you were not the personal object of injustice--by your very membership in the group you are thereby a victim deserving of preferential treatment to correct historical injustice.

Now how should we think about these things from a biblical standpoint? First, we must affirm the ontological equality of all people: each person is created in the image of God with inherent dignity. At the same time, there is nothing in Scripture to require that all cultures are equal or relative. Therefore, there is no reason to expect--much less demand--proportional representation. Spelling out the details and nuances of a biblical understanding of the concept of "justice" (e.g., in its universal, commercial, remedial, distributive, and social forms--to name the major categories) is a complex, difficult task. But so far as I know, the Bible no where presupposes that justice requires equal results. Furthermore, biblical ethics is deontological in nature, such that standards of justice apply to both ends and means. In other words, biblical ethics rejects any sort of "ends justifies the means" reasoning. If discrimination is wrong as an end, then it is wrong as a means; and if affirmative action involves discrimination (as I would argue that it does), then it is wrong.

With regard to collectivism, I am not in covenantal relationship with Americans, with whites, with residents of Illinois, or with residents of Wheaton. I am either in covenant with Adam or Christ as my federal head, and with those who united to one of these two Adams.

Well, at this point, I'm beginning to feel a bit long-winded, and I'm not sure how many readers have persevered this far. In conclusion, let me briefly touch on a fair and necessary question that Thabiti poses: if I reject affirmative action, what would I do in its place? Let me expand it a bit to some general principles I would suggest in moving these debates forward:

First, I think we need to start with getting this issue on people's "radarscreens." Our best Reformed thinkers, by and large, have little to say about this issue, and I think we should encourage that to change.

Second, I think we need to speak more about love than justice. Obviously justice is a biblical and necessary concept in this discussion. But it tends to swallow up the call to love, and I think it tends to focus the discussion upon "my rights" rather than on my obligations to seek the interests and welfare of others before myself.

Third, I think both sides need to work harder at developing moral imagination.

Fourth, I think we need to commit to sticking with the discussion through thick and thin. I love the way John Piper has expressed this, when he says that he made a decision along time ago that no matter how rough it gets and what folks say, he's just not going to take his ball and go home!

Finally, I sincerely hope that God will raise up black, evangelical, gospel-centered, Scripture-driven Thomas Sowells, John McWhorters, or Shelby Steeles. In my opinion, these three scholars--all black--are the most insightful writers working today on the issue of race in America. From my limited vantage point, their writings are not engaged at a serious level by evangelicals of any color. When I read their writing, sentences leap out from virtually every page demanding gospelcentric reflection, refinement, testing, and application.

I welcome any feedback you might have.