In his final book before assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asks, “What is racism?” In answer, he quotes Dr. George Kelsey’s The Christian Understanding of Man:
Racism is a faith. It is a form of idolatry… In its early modern beginnings, racism was a justificatory device. It did not emerge as a faith. It arose as an ideological justification for the constellations of political and economic power which were expressed in colonialism and slavery. But gradually the idea of the superior race was heightened and deepened in meaning and value so that it pointed beyond the historical structures of relation, in which it emerged, to human existence itself. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 73)
It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their acts in the garments of righteousness. And so, with the growth of slavery, men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable was morally justifiable. The attempt to give moral sanction to a profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of white supremacy. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 76-77)
Just as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has—for all its potential faults, both real and imagined—reoriented modern New Testament scholarship away from shoehorning 1st century Jew/gentile conflicts into the interpretive paradigm of 16th century Catholic/Reformation conflicts, so I’d suggest a new perspective on Christian antiracism is needed to reorient modern antiracists away from shoehorning 17th to 21st century racial “conflicts” into the interpretive paradigm of 1st century Jew/Gentile conflicts. Though NPP scholars were seeking to rid New Testament hermeneutics of a much later distorting imposition, I’m suggesting many Christian antiracists are unintentionally doing the reverse, viz., distorting our understanding of modern racism by the imposition of very unlike circumstances recorded in the New Testament.
When we presented the tenets—or, as I prefer, “commonplaces”—of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in, “What is Critical Race Theory? An Introduction to the Movement and its Ideas (With Further Reading)” (see section 16), I closely followed the order given by Mari Matsuda, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Charles Lawrence III, and Richard Delgado as found in Words That Wound. Here I would like to rearrange these same commonplaces in a way that suggests a logical development of the central ideas of CRT, somewhat in contrast to my previous presentations based more on the historical development of the movement. While it does leave the enterprise looking woefully anemic, I nevertheless believe it is a helpful path for the more analytic among us to grasp some of CRT’s basic commitments.
In our last post, we grappled with Carl Trueman’s claim that CRT is just Marxism with “class” replaced by “race.” I showed that CRT, following CLS, rejects this “vulgar Marxism” as both “essentialist” and “racialist.”
Today we move onto his fifth claim. (I will note that these posts are intended to be read in order; please see Part 1 for the general introduction to the series.)
(5) “Critical race theory rests on simple, therapeutic premises,” including that life is a “zero-sum game”: “Some people do not have power. They struggle and do not flourish. This happens because somebody else has seized power from them and oppresses them in an ongoing and unrelenting way.”
To begin with, no CRT scholar I’ve ever heard of “portrays life as a zero-sum game.” I think we could leave this at “citation needed,” were I that type of guy. But since Trueman believes Ibram X Kendi is somehow representative of CRT (he is not), he should actually read him on this. In this case, Kendi captures well the sentiment of most CRT scholars:
Racial reformers have customarily requested or demanded that Americans, particularly White Americans, sacrifice their own privileges for the betterment of Black people. And yet, this strategy is based on one of the oldest myths of the modern era, a myth continuously produced and reproduced by racists and antiracists alike: that racism materially benefits the majority of White people, that White people would lose and not gain in the reconstruction of an antiracist America. (Stamped From the Beginning, loc. 7980)
In our last post, we considered Dr. Trueman’s claim that CRT “relies on the concept of false consciousness—the notion that the oppressors control society so completely that the oppressed believe their own interests are served by the status quo,” concluding that CRT has taught much the opposite. We further suggested that Trueman might be succumbing to the same Eurocentric reading of the Civil Rights inspired critical tradition that led CLS to “trash” rights discourse. The unique voice of color, due to “double consciousness,” was suggested as remedy.
Today we move onto his fourth claim. (I will note that these posts are intended to be read in order; please see Part 1 for the general introduction to the series.)
(4) “Critical race theory is the Marxist horse, ridden by the jockey of identity politics rather than the jockey of class warfare”; that is, CRT simply replaced the role of “class” in Marxism with “race” (as Trueman’s offensive Mao example is supposed to illustrate).
Carl Trueman’s claim here is all too familiar to CRT theorists. One of the first major critiques of CRT came from within the ranks of Critical Legal Studies (CLS), the movement from which CRT emerged in the late 1980s, and it was precisely this claim.
Thus far, we have witnessed the movement from a disparate group of indentured servants—originating from various European and African nations, working side by side in the English Colonies—into a bifurcation of (1) “white men” and “white women” and (2) “Negroes, Mulattos, and Indians.” Through the developing legal code, we have also seen the class “white” receive legal protections and privileges while the class “Negro and Mulatto” alone became subjects of life-long chattel slavery—they and their children.
As stated at the end of the last post, the only element lacking in the construction of the “white race” by 1723 was the concept of “race” itself. We will now briefly turn to this, though with an eye to our purposes rather than the details of the “science” itself, its definitions, etc. We will then move on to the post-Revolutionary era and conclude with some application.
In what follows, we continue to consider the construction of the “white race” and “whiteness” as developed in Colonial American history. As noted before, there simply was no such thing as “white people” prior to the 17th century. We have already witnessed how, through legal changes, a disparate group of indentured servants from various European and African nations, working side by side at the beginning of the 17th century, were transformed into roughly two groups, (1) “Christians” and those from “Christian nations,” receiving legal protections, and (2) those imported from non-“Christian” nations, comprising (with few exceptions) those of African descent alone—and their children. The latter increasingly became subjects of life-long servitude, while the former were granted more and more legal protections and comparative privileges. But as we have also seen, once conversion to Christianity was legally clarified to not require manumission, new lines of demarcation and categorization were needed to maintain the social control system necessary for a slave-based economy, wherein a few wealthy land-holders employed with scraps and chains an overwhelmingly large labor class.
And possibly more than any other event, Bacon’s Rebellion made clear to Virginia’s leadership the necessity of new lines of demarcation among these laboring people groups. To this we will now turn.
[I found it necessary later to offer one clarification to what follows. Though mentioned below, I want to make it abundantly clear that I do not think that the Jew/Gentile relation is one-to-one comparable to modern Western racial relations, but am only here responding in-kind to those who would press color-blindness via the passages discussed. Please see “What Does “Jew & Gentile” Have to do With “Black & White”? : A Clarification.“]
Among the greatest barriers to acknowledging—or even recognizing—the extent of racialization in American society, and the extent of white privilege in particular, is the post-Civil Rights ethic of “color-blindness.”
Not only does the color-blind ethic obscure the history and currency of the centuries-forged “color line” in America, it also allows for only historically unhinged explanations of current disparities, lending to the continued maintenance of the status quo, cemented through 450 years of both overt racism and racialized institution building. In fact, it renders racial and ethnic disparities nearly un-stateable, collapsing all problems into individual events among individual bad actors with “perfectly reasonable” individual explanations—usually some deficiency among minorities themselves.
While I intend to explore the interpretive patterns and social ramifications of color-blind racism in the next post, I would like here to first address the so called “color-blind theology” which is thought to furnish a Biblical justification for a color-blind ethic within the Church itself. Just as the majority of Americans today believe color-blindness to be the highest expression of anti-racism, so also many theologians seem to believe it is the God ordained basis for unity within the Church as well as the Gospel cure to any prejudice or disparity within the Body.
[T]here is nothing particularly pernicious about the social construction of race as such, any more than there is in the construction of genos, ethnos, or phulé [in the New Testament]. The insidiousness of the concept comes when a society, consciously or unconsciously, constructs racial distinctions for the very purpose of division, systematic subjugation, and a permanent caste system. And this brings us to our next post, “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 2. ‘Race’ and the Racialized Society”.
We will now discuss “race” in the racialized society as we find it today, particularly in the United States. I ask only that you forgive the relative length of this piece; it will prove fruitful context for the topics that will follow. Also, I would like to make explicit that this discussion is in no wise intended to ignore the plight of other minority people groups in American society. Much of what is said here can apply to the experience of other race and ethnic groups as well, though there is a very definite distinction of degrees, length of history, and legal specificity within racialized institutions. As Condoleezza Rice once said, “I do think that America was born with a birth defect; it was slavery.”
As there has been much discussion over the topic of Racial Reconciliation in recent months, I thought I might do my best to clarify what is and isn’t being said by RR advocates such as myself. Of course, I cannot speak on behalf of everyone pressing the case, but I hope to at least clarify some of the terms, phrases, and assumptions being debated. This might constitute a lengthy series, but if it proves to be beneficial to any interested in this discussion, I will indeed continue—hopefully at least two topics per week. Topics will include “race,” “white privilege,” “color-blind,” “institutional racism,” and more. Feedback is welcome.
1. “Race” and the Bible
Many argue that the concept of race is unbiblical and is nowhere to be found in the Scripture. While I understand the intent of this claim, specifically to reject any basis for “scientific racism,” I think there is a complex of concepts in the Scripture which nevertheless capture what well-meaning English speakers mean by “race.” We find throughout the Scripture similar concepts of “kind,” “kindred,” “tribe,” “nation,” etc., attributed to men, and not just as Old Testament categories, as is commonly thought.