Briefly Noted: On Affirmative Action and “Wishing You Were Black”

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on December 9, 2013.]

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education Angela Onwuachi-Willig argues that many whites do not understand affirmative action because they do not understand racism.[1] Moreover, she claims, some whites do not understand race itself. The occasion for Onwuachi-Willig’s essay is the recent Supreme Court decision on Fisher v. Texas involving the student, Abigail Fisher, whose initial complaint resulted in the case.

Fisher sued the University of Texas for denying her admission. She claimed, “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin.” To this comment, Onwuachi-Willig responds: “ . . . many whites spend so little time having to think about, much less deal with, race and racism, that they understand race as nothing more than a plus factor in the admissions process.” Whites such as Fisher fail to see the various systemic disadvantages many black students face simply for being black, according to Onwuachi-Willig.

Onwuachi-Willig details how she encountered a student who lacked this understanding. “During my senior year,” she states, “a classmate who had the same SAT score as I did remarked, ‘I wish I was black!’ after he learned I had received.” She recounts her shock and explains how she actually had a better GPA, more leadership positions and student activities, and had a job while he did not. Rather than list these, however, Onwuachi-Willig corrected him: “‘I wish I were black,’ I said. ‘And, no, you don’t.’” The correction reveals the fundamental point of Onwuachi-Willig’s argument. Her classmate did not understand, or was not aware of, the realities: the reality that she had worked harder than him; that she had spent weeks researching and applying for scholarships.

Furthermore, “my classmate failed to think for even one moment about what being black may have meant for his life. He never considered what it would have meant to sit all day in classrooms where he was the only white student in a sea of black faces.” As such, Onwuachi-Willig claims, he distorted her achievements, ignored her fortitude, failed to see her cultivating extra skills, and ignored the extra work she had to put in because she did not have a parent with “college knowledge” to guide her through the process. Because he did not recognize these realities, he ignored the broader disparity between whites and blacks.

Onwuachi-Willig finds the same sort of unawareness in the comments of Fisher and the Supreme Court decision on Fisher v. Texas. She argues that Fisher has an assumption that reveals her lack of awareness. Fisher thought her better resumé put her in as good or better standing for admission to UT than her black counterparts. For Onwuachi-Willig, Fisher overlooked the privileges that made her resumé possible, and that these privileges are not accessible to many students, especially to many blacks. Cello lessons, volunteering, and even AP courses are privileges not universals. So Onwuachi-Willig avers, “Nearly 25 years after my own high-school experience, we have not moved much beyond the ignorance reflected in my classmate’s remark about wishing to be black. . . . It is disappointing to think that students have learned so little about white privilege . . . that they still continue to wish that they were black.” In sum, privilege should beget at least awareness of the situation of those who are less than privileged.

In response to Onwuachi-Willig’s article, I wish to affirm her observations that many whites do not understand racism nor have we given much attention to privilege. (I’m not attempting here to weigh in on the merits of that particular Supreme Court case, as I know there is a good deal of complexity going into these issues. What I do wish to affirm is how many whites are blind to privilege.) We misunderstand racism in many ways, but in no way more than when the scope of racism is restricted to individual offenses committed by one person against another person. Racism is certainly perpetuated by individuals, and sometimes by one person against another. But it is not limited to that. Racism also can be structural. Societies can organize themselves in ways that their cultural institutions exclude, marginalize, and otherwise handicap and denigrate those of a certain race.  Furthermore, the same structures that marginalize some simultaneously offer advantages and privileges to others in the same society.

In addition to misunderstanding racism, often we have not even reflected on race itself. A good place to begin is with creation, where it is made clear that God’s creation is good, and it contained within it a diversity of colors and kinds. His creation order issued forth in a profusion of races, and those races are beautiful and good. In fact, in the aftermath of the fall, God crucified his Son in order to provide salvation for people of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. In so doing, God leveraged his divine privileges in Christ on behalf of those in need. Thus, he undercut hierarchies of racial pride and made clear that he does not elevate any tribe, but is Savior of all. In fact, we will not know him in his full glory until we know him as the king of all nations.

All of which brings me to my final point. “Colorblindness” is not the best model for dealing with race. Colorblindness assumes that race is a value-neutral, but in God’s eyes race is a value-positive. For this reason, it is not inappropriate for churches or seminaries to recognize and place value on a person’s race. Predominantly white churches, for example, might actively look for non-Anglo candidates pastoral and ministerial positions. A pastoral leadership team composed of white, African-American and Hispanic leadership is much more likely to be able build a multi-colored church, and a multi-colored church is a resplendent picture of our eternal state with our Savior. Likewise a predominantly-Anglo seminary is well-served to recognize the value of a potential faculty member’s cultural heritage in the spiritual and ministerial formation of its students. That’s a type of affirmative action that doesn’t get much “air time” but that we can and should support.



[1] Angela Onwuachi-Willig. “‘I Wish I Were Black’ and Other Tales of Privilege,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 1, 2013: B20–21).

Building God-Centered Universities: A Call for Transdisciplinarity in Christian Higher Education

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on May 13, 2013.]

Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a consultation on “Transdisciplinary Scholarship” sponsored by the Paideia Centre for Public Theology in Ontario, Canada. The meeting lasted for two days and was populated by thirteen scholars or public figures including Craig Bartholomew, R. R. Reno, Hunter Baker, Claudia Beversluis, C. Stephen Evans, Derek Halvorson, Michael Healy, Eric Johnson, Todd Ream, Robert Sloan, W. Jay Wood, Edward Zinke, and your scribe.

The notion of transdisciplinarity is fetching and, in my opinion, significant for the renewal of Christian higher education. Our discussion of transdisciplinarity began with a co-presentation by Bartholomew and Johnson, in which they assessed the state of affairs in Christian higher education. Their presentation was divided into three parts, which I shall try to distill in the next several paragraphs of this post.

First, Bartholomew and Johnson asked “Where are we?” In response, they noted that Christian scholars are still living in the shadow of the so-called death of Modernity, a complex ideological movement that handicaps Christian scholarship in myriad ways. This ideology “can be characterized by a reliance on autonomous reason and the scientific method for knowledge (often synonymous with positivism), skepticism regarding tradition and biblical revelation, the proliferation and growing specialization of knowledge, a commitment to individualism and human rights, and a strong belief in cultural progress.” Although many of the positive aspects of the modern agenda spring from the West’s Christian roots, the negative aspects arose because the Christian worldview was abandoned. Western scholars ultimately displaced a Christian framework for knowledge by embracing a naturalist metaphysic and epistemology, and a secular system of public and scientific discourse. As a result higher education came to have no center, and experienced disciplinary fragmentation.

Second, they asked “What is the next phase in Western thought and practice?” Although evangelicals have tried to overcome de-centered education and disciplinary fragmentation by embarking on a project of “integration,” this project often is tainted by late modern presuppositions and therefore often is unable to offer a truly Christian account of the academic disciplines. For this reason, we must go beyond “integration.” We must recognize the ways in which late modernity has reified and isolated the disciplines from one another, and replace the later modern paradigm with a truly Christian one. In order to do so we leverage the Christian Scriptures and worldview toward the end of promoting a Christian “transdisciplinarity.”

Third, they asked “What is transdisciplinary scholarship? Transdisciplinary scholarship is scholarship which promotes the synthesis of human understanding for a distinctively Christian viewpoint. Against the late modern academic model, which results in ever-increasing specialization and the fragmentation of the disciplines, Bartholomew and Johnson argue that transdisciplinarity’s goal is “the transposition of each discipline into a higher, ever-increasingly unified order of knowledge and love, based on a Christian metaphysic.” Transdisciplinary scholarship relies upon certain metadisciplines (biblical studies, theology, Christian philosophy) to guide it in building an integrated body of knowledge, understanding, and practice. Instead of merely learning within isolated disciplines, therefore, we are able to bring the disciplines into conversation with one another, with each discipline being enriched, and with new transdisciplines being created.

Bartholomew and Johnson’s presentation was followed by several others. Robert Sloan spoke on “The State of the Nation” in regard to higher education. Eric Johnson presented “Transdisciplinary Scholarship as an Alternative Model.” Craig Bartholomew presented “Spiritual Formation, Intellectual Community, and Transdisciplinarity.” C. Stephen Evans presented “Philosophy and Transdisciplinarity.” Finally, yours truly wrapped up the consultation with a presentation which sought to point the way forward in light of the previous presentations.

The consultation was refreshing, in part because it was a small collaborative discussion rather than a sprawling and disconnected “conference,” but also because the concept of transdisciplinarity is a useful one for bringing unity to the field of Christian higher education in upcoming years. I agree with several of the presenters that the academy is experiencing an ever-increasing fragmentation, that this fragmentation keeps us from building an increasingly unified and God-centered body of knowledge, that it further handicaps the specialized disciplines themselves, and that it impoverishes human existence by separating out what ought to be held together.

I am not arguing that the universities and seminaries should discourage specialized knowledge, but that specialized fields of knowledge should remain in conversation with one another, and they should together be informed by certain metadisciplines (such as biblical studies, theology, and Christian philosophy) which are vital to their ultimate fruition. In other words, the Christian university should seek truly to be a uni-versity, a unified endeavor. The Christian university should center itself on biblical studies, Christian theology, and Christian philosophy, allowing the various scholarly disciplines to flourish within this truly Christian framework.

The obstacles to building a transdisciplinary Christian university are many, but not insurmountable. Presidents and Provosts must re-prioritize by hiring faculty members who will invest in the project, providing forums in which professors from various disciplines (e.g. arts, sciences) remain in close conversation with one another, and in which they together converse with biblical scholars, theologians, and Christian philosophers. Professors must re-prioritize, by investing time and energy in reading more broadly (in the meta-disciplines and in other disciplines) and engaging in their research projects communally. To re-prioritize in this manner poses a challenge, in light of the fact that many scholars are already stretched thin because of their teaching, advising, writing, and committee-attendance. However, the challenge is not insurmountable, and those persons and universities will be rewarded who meet the challenge in order to forge a genuinely transdisciplinary environment.

One final note: I hope the reader does not come away from this post with the impression that I think “all is bad” in Christian higher education. On the contrary, there is much about which to be optimistic. There are many Christian universities who have a vision to build a truly Christian university and who are realizing the fruits of their efforts. Union University, California Baptist University, and Houston Baptist University immediately come to mind, as do others. However, although everything is not bad, neither is everything good. Christian institutions of higher education have been adversely affected by our late modern and postmodern context, and find themselves struggling to build a truly unified and God-centered framework for knowledge. Toward that end, the concept of transdisciplinary scholarship seems a helpful one, and worthy of extended discussion and reflection.

On Russell Moore, Evangelicals, and Political Engagement

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on January 27, 2014.]

The sharp-sighted cultural commentator Russell Moore strikes again. In “Evangelical Retreat?”, published in the December edition of First Things, he responds to the concern that younger Evangelicals’ drift away from conservative political activism is underlain by closet liberalism, political disinterest, or perhaps some other infelicity.[1] His answer, which I think is correct, is that most young Evangelicals are not withdrawing; instead, they are engaging in ways which are more deeply theological and ecclesial.

Moore begins by noting certain concerns expressed by Christians outside of the Evangelical orbit: “Dispensationalist fascination with prophecy has waned in recent years, as Evangelicals seem to be recalibrating to the larger church tradition on eschatology. But I find that in talking to Catholic and Orthodox friends, some of them fear a Rapture of a different kind. They worry that Evangelical Christians will soon evacuate not the earth but the public square” (p. 46). The concern stems from several factors, and central among them is the breakdown of the religious right as a centering force for Evangelical cultural impact. In the wake of this breakdown, where and how will Evangelicals engage the culture? Will they try? This is a concern held not only by Catholic friends, but also by old veterans of the Moral Majority.

Moore notes that “engaging the culture” has changed in Evangelicalism because the present generation defines these terms differently from previous generations. No longer does “engage the culture” mean “get out the vote.” Rather, young Evangelicals regularly engage the culture at the congregational level primarily and the political level secondarily. As Moore points out, “They focus on helping the poor by, among other things, working for marriage stability [the healthy union of one man and one woman], family accountability [including the sanctity of life], and personal responsibility [the practice of purity and community]” (p. 46). These actions are underlain by deep and profound theological and ecclesial concerns.

For this generation of Evangelicals, faithful and appropriate public action sprouts from the rich soil of orthodox theology. Moore observes:

As Evangelicalism grows increasingly estranged from American culture––especially from the evaporating culture of the Bible Belt––it grows increasingly committed to the ‘strangest’ aspects of the evangel itself: atonement, resurrection, reconciliation, and so on. Some younger Evangelicals’ flight impulse from issues deemed ‘political’ isn’t a move to the political left as much as a move to the theological right. (p. 46)

In this case, “engaging the culture” will not look like Evangelical public action of the past. “As a matter of fact, today the center of American Evangelicalism is, theologically speaking, to the right of the old religious right.” Evangelicals have begun to realize slowly “that they are no ‘moral majority’” in America (p. 47). So a more expansive theology, rooted especially in the Reformed Tradition, has replaced extensive campaigning.

Such theology also undergirds a more rigorous church polity and accountability. “Unlike the Bible-Belt congregation of the twentieth century, the new kind of Evangelical church has strict membership requirements . . . The pastor typically preaches forty-five minutes to an hour of verse-by-verse exposition . . . He is pro-life and pro-marriage” (p. 47). The challenge for many “young Evangelical” pastors and elders (a growing trend, too) is not whether to teach all that Jesus has commanded (Matt 28:19–20), but whether public engagement fits within the mission of the local church. This is because he has most likely seen attempts at packaging “a transcendent message for decidedly worldly, and often cynical, purposes of pulling the levels of power” (p. 47).

With every theology and polity comes a worldview, or vice versa. As such, Moore observes, “To understand the Evangelical tension on public engagement, one must understand that Evangelicals are a narrative-driven people.” This refers to the biblical narrative but also to personal narratives. Personal testimonies demonstrate the reasons young Evangelicals worship, for example, in Reformed and liturgically oriented churches. These churches are decidedly different from, for example, the theologically vacuous and/or super casual churches in which they grew up. And as Moore notes, “What’s true at the personal level is true also at the level of the movement” (p. 48).

Moore also clarifies that the term “young Evangelical” is also confusing for many. The theological conservatives of whom he speaks are quite different from the “young Evangelicals” often sought out by the national media. “It would be a mistake to lump the convictional Evangelicals of whom I speak with the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic” (p. 46). So “liberal” does not describe the “young Evangelicals” of whom Moore writes.

The current status and ethos of Evangelicalism, then, reflects a return to the evangel. “Evangelical Christianity, it seems, is moving back to a confessional centering on the Gospel.” But this does not mean that such “Gospel-centered Evangelicals” should retreat from public engagement (p. 48). The past mistakes caused by divorcing the Gospel from the kingdom cannot and must not be repeated. How then do we engage?

Moore argues for prophetic distance and prophetic engagement. He contends that the increasing secularization of America “ . . . will ensure that Christianity must either capitulate or engage. The engagement will not be at the level of voters’ guides or consumer boycotts––and thank God. The engagement will be first congregational . . . ” (p. 49). Moore also encourages Evangelicals to look to Rome for help: “Rome’s witness to a Christian sexual ethic will keep the question alive . . . .” Likewise, though, Evangelicals can remind Catholics that natural law is as good as far as it goes, but that the universe “is shaped around the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 50). So Evangelicals are still here, still engaging, albeit in new, more theological ways. “You can call that a ‘Rapture’ if you want, but don’t call it a ‘retreat’” (p. 50).

I agree with Moore’s assessment, and add only a few thoughts.

First, I hope that Evangelicals in general, and Southern Baptist Evangelicals in particular, will take Moore’s lead, learning from him how to engage in public political conversation in ways that are not only theologically robust but also gracious and kind. If we fail to do so, the resulting combination of theological vacuity and dispositional snark will kill our gospel witness. If we succeed in doing so, the potent combination of truth and kindness in civil discourse portrays the gospel faithfully and strengthens our ability to be persuasive.

Second, I hope that Evangelicals will not neglect the fact that politics is a function (and a part) of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion. Religion’s influence expands outward across the entirety of culture (through the arts, the sciences, business, schools and universities, sports, home life, the public square, etc.), and it is this entire culture-religion complex which influences and underpins the political sector. For this reason, Christian “political” involvement must be “political” in the very broad sense (concern for the public well-being, including the spheres of culture listed above) as well as the narrow sense (concern with public policy, public administration, etc).

Third, such broad-based political engagement does not, of course, preclude activism, but such action must always come from something deeper and broader. We have a hope that paves the way for us to simultaneously move forward with boldness and lay down our swords to pursue interactions in a civil manner. We aren’t fighting to protect a Kingdom that is dependent on us for its very survival. We are on mission as part of a Kingdom that is already here.


[1] Russell Moore, “Evangelical Retreat?” First Things (Dec 2013: 45–50).

 

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