Thoughts on Racism – Part 1
Racism is a prominent theme in today’s societal conversation. Racism is a hate-sin and a hate-crime. Its eradication is an important social goal of which Christians are supporters. It is incompatible with Christian discipleship. Yet the term “racist” is being cast about recklessly. Typically, it is left undefined. Not just individuals, but whole classes of persons are being labeled as racist while other groups are said to be incapable of racism. The word racist is often modified by other terms such as “implicit,” “structural,” “institutional,” and “systematic.” A whole nation is branded with the term: “America is a racist nation.” Yet the meaning of racism is left vague and illusive.
I have a pastoral concern about this. It is important that sin be identified so that it can be repented of and repudiated. Imprecise accusations lead to unresolved guilt feelings. Believers are being told they are guilty of something though they are not quite sure of what that something is. Worse, if they deny that they harbor any negative attitudes or feelings against people of other races simply because of their race; or that they are not guilty of prejudicial, bigoted, or discriminatory attitudes or actions against other races simply because of their race, this denial itself is said to be evidence of racism. The accusation itself is unfalsifiable: one is guilty no matter what, without recourse, except to admit to what one does not believe is true.
What is racism?
What then is racism? Let me start by answering what racism is not. This may prove to be the most helpful way to clarify what we should mean when we speak of racism.
First, a preference for what is familiar is not necessarily racism or bigotry or sinful preference. A recent publication, the Human Network supplies statistical and transcultural support for what we all already know about our fondness for the familiar. The author, Matthew O. Jackson, introduces the term homophily (homo=same; philia=love; love of the same) which he defines as “the general tendency of people to interact with others who are similar to themselves.” This phenomena, he maintains, “occurs along many dimensions including gender, ethnicity, religion, age, profession, (and) educational level.” He cites an example of homophilia in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, where nomadic hunter-gatherers group themselves along common features such as height, weight, and strength.
Scan the sidelines of any typical college or professional sports team and one will find athletes grouped primarily according to race: the black players standing or sitting together, and likewise the white. Is this wrong, or sinful, or evil? It can be. It may be that “like seeks like” because it hates all that are unlike. On the other hand, it may be merely an expression of the universal preference for the familiar. The rich, the famous, the poor, the middle class, the educated, the uneducated all tend to seek out their own. We are comfortable with that which is familiar to us. We live with, play with, work with, worship with “our people.”
The word “home” is surrounded with sentiments of warmth because home is where we are most at ease. “There is no place like home,” we say. The reason is obvious: home is that place like no other where things are the most familiar and therefore with which we are the most comfortable.
By the same token, we all experience a measure of discomfort with the unfamiliar. My transition from a lower middle-class high school to an upper middle-class college fraternity was an uncomfortable one. So also was my visit for tea at Lambeth Palace in London with the Archbishop of Canterbury David Coggan along with other foreign theology students. Let’s just say I was the proverbial fish out of water. We are uneasy when we encounter an unfamiliar environment, whether a neighbor’s house or a foreign culture. A middle class American suddenly thrust into the midst of an elite social event is unsure of himself. It is unclear to him what is expected of him. On the other hand, he is perfectly at ease at his church’s cookout. We are comfortable with our own people and our own culture. We are uncomfortable and perhaps even threatened by a strange or foreign cultural context. This in part explains why like seeks like, and explains such without resorting to motives such as hate or racism.
Second, a recognition of racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural differences is not necessarily racist, sexist or bigotry. It is not sinful to observe a concentration of intellectual ability in the Jewish community, a concentration of athletic, musical, and rhetorical ability in the African-American community, or a concentration of academic aspiration in the Asian community. It is not sexism to recognize that men are physically stronger than women, or that women place greater value on relationships than men. Stereotyping is wrong. It is wrong to deny that people cannot be other than what typifies their culture, race or gender. Yet it is not necessarily wrong to recognize that the British are not the French, the French are not the Germans, the Germans are not the Italians, the Cubans are not the Peruvians, and the West Africans are not the East Africans. We may recognize these differences and indeed must, lest we be guilty of reverse stereotyping, assuming that all nationalities, ethnicities, and races are alike. Ironically, the charge of racism works in both directions. Ignore racial or cultural differences and one may be accused of being insensitive, even wrongly unaware of the expectations or customs of a given group, of assuming that all groups are like one group. Respond to racial or cultural differences by treating groups differently and one may be accused of being biased or prejudiced for not treating all groups alike. We want to confess our sins of race-based hatred or bigotry. Yet we also want to be sure not to afflict others with false guilt. It is important that our guilt feelings be a result not of a general sense of unease about that which is of itself not sinful, but only because of actual evil as God defines evil, of which we ourselves are guilty.
(to be continued)