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

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[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).

Race & Faith (5): Concluding Reflections

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Race matters, and it matters to God. In this blog series I have attempted to address a less-than-optimal situation that often exists in conservative evangelical (e.g. Baptist) circles. In this situation race and racism are not given much attention, and our limited discourse about race and racism often are shaped by secular rather than Christian categories. I drew upon George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock in order to understand the shortcomings of four predominant secular models and to build a constructive Christian model for understanding race and racism.

In light of Yancey’s book, I offer two responses. Each response both supports and supplements Yancey’s thesis and concerns. First, the relationship between the Christian faith and secular discourses shapes this conversation. The philosopher William Hasker has rightly noted three different approaches relating one’s faith to a given field of knowledge or area of discourse: compatibilism, transformationism, and reconstructionism. These three approaches, in fact, can be seen as points on a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum are compatibilists who see a deep resonance between the Christian worldview and a given field of knowledge. In the middle of the spectrum are transformationists, who recognize that an academic discipline yields some true and helpful insights, but argue that it needs to be reshaped by allowing the Christian worldview to change some of its core principles or claims. On the other side of the spectrum are reconstructionists who see a deep and abiding tension between Christian teaching and an academic discipline; they believe that one must rebuild that discipline from the ground up, on overtly biblical grounds.

My own view of the spectrum is that a person’s approach to a given area of discourse depends upon the field one is dealing with. For example, one might be a compatibilist in relation to the disciplines of mathematics or English composition (since those disciplines might not, in their current state, be in a state of opposition to Christian teaching), while at the same time being a transformationist in relation to history (which is perhaps a mixed bag right now) and a reconstructionist in relation to literary criticism (which is now very much marked by all sorts of infelicities).

If I am reading Yancey correctly, his approach to this particular issue is along the lines of the transformationist model. The American evangelical conversation on race and racism has yielded some true and helpful insights, but needs to be reshaped by allowing the Christian worldview to change some of its core principles or claims. Yancey calls the Christian community to construct a more biblically informed model rather than adopting wholesale one of the available secular models. Yancey does so by highlighting the doctrine of depravity (to explain racism as a spiritual and social ill) and the life of Christ (to point to the healing that Christ Jesus brings). This transformationism is undergirded and shaped by Christian doctrines such as creation, redemption, and restoration, to which we now turn.

Second, the doctrines of creation, redemption, and restoration should undergird and shape our treatment of race and racism. The biblical storyline begins with creation and wends its way through the fall on the way to telling the story of redemption in Christ Jesus and the final restoration of all things. Each of these plot movements proves significant for building a Christian treatment of race and racism. I will focus on creation and restoration.

God’s creational design includes and invites unity-in-diversity. God called into existence the material world and shaped it by his Word, continually affirming its goodness along the way. Part of its goodness is its unified diversity. As Abraham Kuyper noted, God gives each domain of nature an “infinite diversity” and an “inexhaustible profusion of variations.” He writes, “Where in God’s creation do you encounter life that does not display the unmistakable hallmark of life precisely in the multiplicity of its colors and dimensions, in the capriciousness of its ever-changing forms?”[1] This infinite diversity extends beyond the non-human aspects of creation to his imagers, among whom God distributes diverse appearances, aptitudes, and talents. This multi-splendored diversity finds its unity in Christ who holds all things together (Col 1:17). God’s creation is a cosmos (richly diversified, yet coherently unified whole) rather than chaos, and God’s Word helps us to see the order and unity that undergirds our communal and cultural life. Therefore a fruitful theology of race will not minimize creational diversity by seeking to be “colorblind.” Neither will it subvert creational unity by elevating one race above another.

Furthermore such unity-in-diversity will be present on the new heavens and earth. One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is Revelation 5. In this chapter, God gives the apostle John a breathtaking and beautiful vision of worship in the heavenly court that will one day characterize all of creation, in which there will be Christ-worshipers from among all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations (5:9). Because of human depravity—and the racism that stems from that depravity—God killed his Son and in so doing made the way for racial unity and the subversion of racial arrogance. As Rev. 5:9 tells us, “they sang a new song, saying: You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”

This passage culminates a major theme of Scripture: the God we worship is so profoundly true, so deeply good, and so compellingly beautiful that he will claim for himself worshipers among every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. If God were worshiped merely by one race in the United States, his glory would be diminished. But as it is, he is worshiped by white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans. This unified worship is an object of God’s delight. Christ shed his blood to win white and black worshipers, so that he could delight in their unified worship. As John Piper puts it, racial unity is first and foremost a “blood of Christ” issue and only secondarily a social or political issue.

When our churches have the opportunity to become multi-racial but neglect the opportunity in order to remain racially divided, when they prefer to be monolithically uniracial, we send a message that is diametrically opposed to the gospel.[2] In effect, we say, “Christ is a tribal deity whose gospel is not powerful enough to transcend racial barriers, and whose beauty is not great enough to woo admirers from all races and cultures and teach them to worship together.” For this reason, we need to pray hard and work hard for a powerful display of Christian unity between believers of all races—Caucasian, African American, Asian American, Latino, and Native American. On this year’s Martin Luther King national holiday, may we drop to our knees and pray that God will glorify himself among our churches, and will do so first of all by teaching us to worship him alongside of one another.

[1] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” 34.

[2] In some contexts, multi-racial worship may not be possible or preferable because of language barriers. In other cases, it may not be possible because the cultural context is itself uniracial.

Race & Faith (4): The Life of Christ

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As noted in the previous posts, secular models fail biblically and properly to point the way forward in creating an environment hospitable to racial unity-in-diversity. They fail for various reasons, but they especially fail to understand human depravity, which underlies racism. They also fail to account for the life of Christ, which overcomes racism. In the most recent installment of the series we addressed human depravity. In this post we address the life of Christ.

In chapter nine, Yancey looks to Jesus for elements of the mutual responsibility model. He claims that we can learn much from Jesus because Jesus was at once part of a majority group, the Jews, living under the foreign rule of the Romans. Yancey finds the heart of reconciliation in Jesus’ high priestly prayer (John 17; 114). From Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), Yancey observes that Jesus surpassed all the weaknesses, while keeping all the strengths, of the four secular models for dealing with racial issues (115–118). Jesus also dealt in grace and truth in his interactions with Romans, those “in power” over him and other Jews. At the same time, however, he did not try to overthrow Caesar (120; cf. Matt 22:15–22).

The life of Jesus, therefore, illustrates the motives Christians should seek in mutual responsibility for racial reconciliation: “In Jesus we see the balance that we rarely see in our society. We see a man who, whether he was part of the majority or minority, sought relationships but also addressed issues of power . . . in all of his encounters with people of different groups, Jesus never deviated from the truth” (122–123). Thus, Jesus provided different lessons for majority and minority groups. “To those in the majority Jesus showed that it is inappropriate to focus on the maintenance of their own social position. . . . To people of color Jesus showed that even though he had concerns about societal evil, political revolution was not the heart of his ministry” (124). The next chapter addresses why Christians often fall short of Jesus’ example.

Yancey, in chapter ten, points to a subtle but powerful aspect of our sin nature that hampers any hope of racial reconciliation: fear. Out of fear of others and not God we can do things either to please them and gain favor, or excoriate them and gain emotional safety. Fear thus creates a vicious circle of dysfunction in race relations: “Whites are afraid of being labeled racist. . . . As a result, whites avoid addressing racial issues . . . .” On the other hand, “People of color . . . fear they will be ridiculed when they bring up their racial concerns.” This causes minorities to look for someone to point out racism and seek justice. Often times, “as a result, people of color begin to support leaders who foolishly play the race card but who at least uphold the importance of racial justice” (127–128). What, then, can Christians do to counteract this nexus of fear?

Yancey states that Christians “should work harder to create safe places in our churches” where we can “rid ourselves of the fears that drive racial mistrust” (132). Yancey proposes that the mutual responsibility model can help create such an environment. By applying corporate repentance and forgiveness to private and public discussions on race, churches might eventually become such environments. What is more, Yancey remarks that this environment must begin in our own hearts. After describing his fairly natural but racially motivated response to a news report of a police shooting of a man (“I hope that man was not black,” Yancey thought), Yancey discovered a scary but vital point: “racism is in me” (135–137). For racial reconciliation to begin, we must search our hearts for the sin that may lie buried deep within.

Chapter 11 contains Yancey’s conclusion to his argument for mutual responsibility in race relations. In responding to the question, “what would a Christian solution look like?” Yancey replies honestly: “I cannot say” (138). He can only sketch out some implications of his mutual responsibility model. Yancey theoretically applies this model to a controversial topic, affirmative action. He recognizes that it is not a popular answer for most whites. Yet rather than ask if Christians should support affirmative action, Yancey claims “we should ask whether or not this program serves the interest of all races” (142). There is no uniform “Christian” answer. Rather it is about Christians repenting, forgiving, and sacrificing for one another. “The Christian solution is not a direct answer but an attitude which leads to the correct answer. It is not unlike the attitudes of both partners in a good marriage. Both partners take into account the interests and needs of the other so their relationship thrives. A marriage in which one partner must acquiesce all the time is not healthy” (143).

According to Yancey, there are, however, some practical steps that Christians can take to demonstrate a Christian attitude of the heart. First, we need more multi-racial churches (144–145). Second, we need to belong to and create social networks (not only online, in person) with people of other races (145–146). Third, “we must reconsider how we participate in the political process” (147). Elevating one’s political party and goals above Christian fellowship does not hold promise for racial reconciliation. Fourth, we need Christian academic institutions––colleges, universities, and seminaries––that engage in honest, charitable discourse on race issues and reconciliation (149). Yancey concludes with the acknowledgement that he has painted an incomplete picture; his mutual responsibility model requires us to fill in the painting (150).