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).

Guest Post (David Prince): Jesus is Not Colorblind: Celebrating Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Local Church

[Editor’s Note: Every so often, we at Between the Times wish to share with our readers especially important thoughts. Such is the case today. This post is by David E. Prince, Pastor of Preaching and Vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church and Assistant Professor of Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.]

On Aug. 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. took his place alongside Abraham Lincoln as a preeminent shaper of American culture when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 civil rights supporters. The most oft quoted line of the famous speech is, “I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Some have appropriated King’s words (wrongly I think) to argue that a colorblind society should be our ultimate goal.

King was arguing for racial equality, which does not necessitate a colorblind society. He uttered those words in a context where sinister Jim Crow laws legally codified the message that white skin meant a man was inherently superior and black skin meant a man was inherently inferior, even something less than a man. King’s rhetorical masterpiece publicly exposed the hypocrisy of America: A country founded in liberty as the land of “freedom and justice for all,” subjugating a people for no other reason than the shade of their skin.

“Separate but equal” was the bankrupt cry of segregationists opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The segregationist mindset has been largely repudiated in American culture. Tragically, the one time in which America still functions as a segregated society is on Sunday morning. One article, “Race, Diversity, and Membership Duration in Religious Congregations,” published in Sociological Inquiry (July 2010) found that 90 percent of congregations in the U.S. are segregated (a single racial group accounts for more than 80 percent of membership). That Sunday morning worship is the most segregated hour of Christian America has become cliché, but it is largely true.

The usual defensive response when these facts are mentioned is that we all believe in racial equality, but we cannot help the fact racial groups have different preferences when it comes to worship, preaching and how church is done. In other words, we may be separate but we’re equal, so it’s nothing to worry about. After all, we reason, if someone of another race wants to attend our church, we would be glad to have them, so there is no problem here. Thus, tolerating racial and ethnic diversity amounts to doing our Christian duty.

However, a genuinely Christian attitude toward racial and ethnic diversity is not one of toleration, but celebration. The entire human race was made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27, Acts 17:26) and shares a common descent as the fallen children of Adam (Gen. 3:17, 1 Cor. 15:22). The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is composed of redeemed image bearers described as “one new man” (Eph. 2:15), a new race and ethnicity of people whose identity is found in being united by faith to Christ (Eph. 2:11-22). Racial hostility is a gospel issue, it is the spirit of Antichrist, and on the cross Jesus killed it (Eph. 2:16). The inclusion of ethnically diverse peoples in the household of God is God’s intention, fulfilling his gospel promise (Gen. 3:15, Gen. 12, 15, Ps. 67, Acts 2, Rom. 4, Gal. 3, 4, Eph. 2, 4, Rev. 5, 7, 14).

Sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark notes that the city of Antioch, during days of Roman rule, was divided into 18 different and intensely antagonistic ethnic groups with almost no social integration (The Rise of Christianity, 157-158). It was followers of Christ in the multi-ethnic church of Antioch (Jews, Africans, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Asians) who were first called Christians (Acts 11:19-26) and who took the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world (Acts 13:1-3). The gospel advanced as the Greco-Roman world stood in awe of the people who formerly hated each other because of ethnic distinctions, who now loved each other as family and worshiped and served together in the name of Jesus.

When we re-create Jesus and the biblical story in our own image, we ignore the gospel implications for how we are to understand racial and ethnic diversity as a cruciform community. Jesus is not colorblind and his followers must not be. Our differences are now seen in Christ, as celebratory markers of God’s expansive providential grace. The gospel does not erase our cultural, racial and ethnic distinctions, but rather reinterprets every aspect of our story in light of the gospel story (Rev. 21:24). The Christian community trades ethnocentricity for Christocentricity and is liberated to celebrate the breadth and length, height and depth of the love of Christ (Eph. 3:14-21).

In dominant white evangelical culture we often unwittingly proceed with a white Messiah attitude toward living out the demands of the gospel in our churches. Well-intentioned social ministry is often done with an off-putting aura of white evangelical aristocracy, albeit a benevolent one toward needy ethnic people. A local church unwilling to celebrate racial and ethnic diversity, interracial marriage, and transracial adoption, has a gospel problem. It is an inadequate justification for inaction to assert that intentionally pursuing a multi-ethnic congregation might disturb congregational peace. Jesus is at war with that kind of serpentine pseudo-peace.

We need to exorcise Jim Crow’s ghost that tragically still lingers in too many churches. “Separate but equal” was empty rhetoric used to defend cultural racial segregation in the 1950s and 60s. And it still is empty rhetoric when it is used to defend segregated churches today. The problem of latent racism will not be overcome by resolutions & conferences (though they have a place) but by integrated local churches. You do not need a platform at the Lincoln Memorial to do something about racial and ethnic segregation today. You already have the gospel and a local church.

By David E. Prince

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Race & Faith (2): Four Secular Models for Dealing with Racism

In the previous installment of this series, we noted that evangelicals have not quite made the progress we might think we have in terms of overcoming racism. One reason is that many of us have not crafted a biblically informed and conceptually clear model for understanding race and racism. If we give any sustained thought to race and racism, we tend to adopt secular models and assume that they are compatible with a Christian framework for thinking through the issues.

In the United States, four models dominate the discussion of race and racism: colorblindness, Anglo-conformity, multiculturalism, and white-responsibility. Each of these models is “secular.” Moreover, each of the models stems from one, or both, of two deficient definitions of racism. These definitions do not account for the full biblical teaching on sin and redemption. None of the models are shaped by the Bible’s storyline, and therefore none of them are fully sufficient for addressing race and racism.

Yancey thus begins by noting how the four predominant models for dealing with racism stem from two contrasting definitions of racism: individualism and structuralism. The individualist’s “understanding defines racism as something overt that can be done only by one individual to another. This definition relies on the concept of freewill individualism . . . . The individualist definition of racism holds that racial strife is the result of an individual choosing to act in a racist manner” (20). Citing work by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Yancey notes that white evangelicals are especially prone to adopt this definition because evangelicals have a strong concept of personal sin (21).

The structuralist definition, however, holds that “society can perpetuate racism even when individuals in the society do not intend to be racist. The structuralist viewpoint rests on the idea that humans are affected by the social structures in which they live.” (21–22) Again citing Emerson and Smith, Yancey observes that blacks are more likely than whites to be structuralists. Yet the difference is even more acute among evangelicals: “white evangelicals are even more individualistic than other whites, and black evangelicals are even farther apart than whites and blacks in general” (23). Yancey argues that both of these definitions on their own “ . . . ignore the spiritual dimension of sin. They are secular definitions.” (24).

Emerging from these two definitions of racism are four secular models for dealing with racism. Yancey describes the models and evaluates them, finding each one insufficient for building a Christian understanding of racial unity and diversity. The remainder of this post includes a brief summary of his description and evaluation of each model.

Yancey first describes the colorblindness model. Its proponents claim (or imply) that, “to end racism, we have to ignore racial reality. Advocates of colorblindness contend that efforts to alleviate our economic racial divide only elevate the importance of race, which in turn only reinforces the negative power of race in our society” (29–30). Yancey notes that politically conservative Christians often baptize this secular view because they believe the individual is (largely) responsible for his or her own flourishing in society. The strengths of this model are twofold: its laudable goal (for individuals to stop being racist) would certainly improve our society, and it helps minorities avoid looking for racism where it does not exist (32–33). Yet Yancey finds marked weakness in this model. Advocates of this view are, at best, naïve about their own ability to deal with the historical effects of racism. Further, this model can also lead to distortions that actually perpetuate racism. Also, and more subtly, Yancey sees the possibility for an incipient avoidance of racial equality in this model (34–36). Finally, a certain doctrine of sin, which errantly tends to locate the causes of racial disunity exclusively in the individual, underlies this view (39).

Second, the Anglo-conformity model overlaps with the colorblindness model in that its proponents assume “that minorities’ lack of success cannot be blamed on contemporary racism.” That is, “If racial groups can obtain relative economic equality, then conflict between them will lessen or even disappear” (41). In other words, in this view non-Anglo persons should seek the sort of upward economic and social mobility that many whites have. Racial problems are class (economic) issues. Once the class-economic problems are alleviated, usually through government-sponsored programs, the race problems will likewise be alleviated. Positively, this model acknowledges economic realities and it looks for minorities to take the lead in solving the ills of their families and neighborhoods (45–46). However, the model has several weaknesses: it puts too much emphasis on economic solutions, devalues minority cultures by making such a big deal out of Anglo culture, and finds itself so tied to a certain view of capitalism that any alternate economic proposals find no place in the discussion. Even though many Christians have adopted this view, Yancey argues that it comes up short of the humble nature of Christianity, which eschews rather than gobbles up power (51).

Third, the multiculturalism model seeks to build a “society in which distinct racial and ethnic groups preserve their own identities.” Examples of multiculturalism include the use of multiple languages on official government forms, and the way primary school curriculum (especially history) represents multiple cultures. Yancey finds that this model helpfully tries to correct many of our society’s “Eurocentric excesses” (55), and allows minorities to both know and critique their own cultures from within. Yet ironically, under the multiculturalist model minorities tend to degrade the culture of the majority (57). Yancey finds this reality working its way into Christian perspectives, as the work of Randy Woodley and Clarence Shuler illustrates (60–61). Again, the problem with this model is how its relativistic impulse overrides the Christian claim of moral right and wrong. Thus, minority cultures go un-critiqued while the majority culture is perpetually on the hot seat.

Fourth, the white-responsibility model places the blame for racism squarely on whites (64). In this perspective, “racial minorities can have prejudice, but they cannot be racist because racism requires structural power” (65). The dominant group, i.e. whites, hold the structural power. This model emerged from the civil rights movement that birthed ethnic studies programs in American colleges. These in turn gave birth to critical race theory, which argues that racism is an inherent part of American culture (65). Proponents of white responsibility therefore seek to change the power structures in our country. Yancey notes that the greatest strength of this model is its observation of the subtle ways a single group can dominate society and so other groups. However, this model discounts the responsibility of racial minorities: if the majority is always at fault, then minorities have no responsibility. Further, it “alienates whites who do not already feel a significant level of racial guilt” (69). Finally, and most significantly, it ignores the fact that all people––majority or minority––are sinners. As such, it is hard to call the Christian version of this model “Christian.”

Yancey weighs the secular alternatives and finds them wanting. He is right to find them deficient.

I agree with him and will voice that agreement in the last post of this series. I will also offer an additional line of argument.

Before doing so, however, in the next two blog posts we will turn to Yancey’s proposed model. His model seeks to diagnose the problem of racism by building a more full-orbed biblical doctrine of sin, and then by encouraging us to embrace a “mutual responsibility” model. In this way Yancey hopes to bring healing to our racially divided communities.