30 April 2008

Race and power in the world: The sociology of prejudice

This one I found really fascinating.

In her treatment of the subject of prejudice, which encompasses (in part) the intersection of race and power struggles, Laura Jennings discusses the current debate about “new” or post-Civil Rights era versus “old” prejudice. While some argue that a decline in outward signs of prejudice show that society is in fact less prejudiced, others (including Jennings) would hold that racism has simply been driven underground by pressure to be politically correct.

Several theories exist describing the new prejudice, including
aversive prejudice (fear and discomfort towards and avoidance of out-groups);
colorblind racism (assertion that success is purely merit-based, that racism no longer exists and that to acknowledge it at all is to be racist);
and laissez-faire racism (protection of group interest and condemnation of those who fail to achieve the American Dream).

Do these sound like anyone you know? I can think of some right now.

What these have in common, according to Jennings, are “beliefs and rhetoric about the cultural inferiority of non-white groups,” and especially that the less fortunate remain that way because they both chose and continue to choose it, and, therefore, the group in power has no responsibility to help.

Helpfully, the author also summarizes current study on modifying prejudice attitudes and behaviors. She notes that some have advocated education as a cure, but focuses instead on those who suggest that the remedy “lies in increased contact between members of various groups” to alleviate ignorance. Experiments with increased contact have showed mixed results for improving prejudiced relations. The most successful instances have been those in which different groups are able to interact in positive, cooperative, non-competitive ways, and when they are of equal status in situation (one is not given authority over the other, for instance).

Since people do not change prejudices easily, proactive measures must be taken to create a favorable climate for change, including “leadership support for change and the willingness of authority figures to impose rewards and sanctions” ( which agrees with Glen Kinoshita's analysis). This hypothesis, if proven successful, would deal a fatal blow to the future success of “colorblind” approach in improving race relations.

Finally, Jennings points out the “naturalness” of prejudices, not all of which are negative, in the human experience. Sociologists have shown that even young children show preference for those of their own group, and defining one’s “in-group” as opposed to “out-groups” is a natural part of one’s formation of self-identity. This speaks to the insidiousness of negative prejudices, while reminding us that some prejudices are necessary and even helpful, and it is essential not to become overzealous and to separate the two.

29 April 2008

Race and power in the world: Some definitions.

In his 2001 article in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology on racism, C.D. McConnell quotes Bowser in saying that racism is a broadly human and cultural assumption in which there are “no neutral forces,” and which is typically perpetuated by cultural myths and narratives. Though writing in a Christian publication, even McConnell does not attribute the plights of minorities simply to failure of personal responsibility, implying that “the common explanation of economic disparity being due to laziness” is in fact an overgeneralization and a manifestation of racism. He also assumes racism to be a sin, antagonistic toward God and contrary to His nature. Finally, he succinctly states his diagnosis of racism within evangelicalism: “Opposition to the oppression and injustice of institutional racism is a widespread claim among Christians. The presence of racism within the church and within society, however, is clearly a continuing problem for Christians.”

In the heavily socio-theological Encyclopedia of Christianity, Gerhard Sauter broadly defines reconciliation in a social-ethics context: “The making of peace between classes, races, and nations.” Within ethics, he says, reconciliation primarily concerns social relations. In a Christian realm, Sauter believes that it remains unclear as to whether human reconciliation must “always bear reference to the preceding divine reconciliation [humans to Christ].” Taking a sociological view, Sauter also writes that reconciliation can only appear when active steps are taken “to change hardened relations, something that can take place only if there is hope for change.” He calls it a “healing power” that should involve not only present-day and future measures but also somehow eliminate the historical grounds of prejudice and division, though he does not specify how.


25 April 2008

Race and power in the world: Introduction & MLK

If the study of special revelation can tell us how things ought to be, then the study of general revelation can show us how things work in a fallen reality. To this end, in addition to a biblical theology, I surveyed current academic literature pertaining to various facets of this complex subject.

In this survey, I studied sources discussing theoretical definitions of power and racism; the American Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century and its present-day manifestations; the modern history of both evangelical-fundamentalist and liberationist theology and politics in the public arena; and current trends in both secularist and evangelical thought about power and race in America. The relevant disciplines span the social sciences from political science to anthropology to theology. All are important if we aim for a view that is both broad and holistic, attributes not often found or even valued in many discussions about such a sensitive topic.

The first source I'm posting is sort of a seminal primary source from the heart of the Civil Rights era in twentieth-century America, written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These days, that man's name and legacy is thrown around every which way by all kinds of people to defend and attack all sorts of things. Despite the powerful clarity of expression in both spoken and written language that he left us, it's difficult for me to know where exactly Dr. King stood on theological issues without doing a ton of hard research on his doctrine, which I didn't have time for. Nevertheless, I believe I can safely and proudly get behind his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," written in April 1963, just a few months after my dad was born.

What's valuable about this open response to concerned white Alabama clergymen is the firsthand perspective it provides - not only one African-American man caught in a tumultuous time in American race relations, but of the leader of what King characterizes as the black moderate position.

King condemns both those members of his community who do nothing to change the status quo and those who wish to use violent means to gain power from their so-called “white devil.” Along with moderate methods of non-violent yet direct-action resistance, King seems to espouse a moderate philosophy as well. His aim is not to gain “power over,” but “power to,” as he emphasizes again and again. One of the main thrusts of his letter, in addition, is a desire for unity in tension with a profound disappointment with “the white moderate,” particularly the religious and Christian community, for consistently playing it safe and demanding patience rather than change.

What are perhaps his most famous penned words sum up his message well:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live within the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.

Read the whole thing in a PDF.

23 April 2008

Race and power: Some biblical conclusions & brief summary

Standing on the shoulders of Old Testament theology combined with the ministry of Jesus bringing the new covenant, New Testament writers, particularly Paul, compile a robust theology of reconciliation, some specifically pertaining to racial relations and others that are applicable. From this corpus of writings we find diversity in the church from the beginning, both by circumstance and by design.

At times, Paul celebrates and encourages diversity among believers, and at other times he (along with James) emphasizes unity and abolishment of external distinctions. As McConnell summarizes, “diversity must not separate or divide, or it becomes an offense to the gospel. There is an inherent tension to be preserved, a celebration of both unity and diversity, which at once acknowledges the unique contribution of people of different races and cultures while maintaining the reality that the differences are brought together by the common faith in Christ.”

We have also examined power in the context of racial reconciliation, and some of the basic tenets of liberation theology placed in a biblical context. As I mentioned before, though liberation theology can be skewed and potentially dangerous, summarily dismissing its concerns would actually be equally dangerous in my estimation.

There are no specific commandments to participate only in mixed-race churches, or to pursue diversity above all else. But based on the biblical data, the current standoffish state of ethnic relations, the rampant (both voluntary and less-than-voluntary) segregation of local churches, and the lack of communication, cooperation, and concern by churches for ethnic and socioeconomic communities other than “their own” all seem to be at least somewhat contrary to the biblical model. It appears that we ought not be perfectly content with the way things are. The question remains as to exactly what we are to do about it.

22 April 2008

Race and power: What did James say?

Possibly the most practical and therefore challenging NT passage is in James. Often seen as Paul's antithesis, the two are not theological foes, but are stylistically different. Remember that James was heavily involved with the Jewish believers while Paul went out to the Gentiles. Nevertheless, notice the complementarity of their epistolary themes.

Though he does not specifically address race or the doctrine of reconciliation, James gives crucial imperatives about church life and practice in a diverse community of fallen people. As in Acts, James’ epistle tells us that social problems existed in the early church, precisely because the church “was the only place in the ancient world where social distinctions [were not supposed to] exist.” Clearly this church needed to be exhorted in how to manifest that reality in their conduct, namely through godly impartiality.

James 2:1-17
The concept of impartiality is central to biblical discussions of both reconciliation and power. In Scripture, impartiality is much more than cold tolerance. In James, the discussion of impartiality is inextricably linked with the proper use of power and of the “royal law” to love one’s neighbor (Jas. 2:8). Lipp believes that the “unity of power and love is a basic NT theme,” and that “the impartial turning of God’s love to us is an expression of his specifically divine power (note Mt. 20:1-15).” The Hebrew and Christian scriptures “unite in condemning that partiality of judgment and favoritism of treatment which comes of giving undue weight to a man’s social standing, wealth or worldly influence,” to which we could fairly add race, kinship and familiarity.

In addition, these themes are emphasized in an extended passage on “faith that works” for good reason. William Barclay gives historical context for James’s admonitions here: a first-century struggle between traditional Jewish piety, which emphasized practical help and active emotional involvement in the plight of others, and Greek Stoicism.

It is somewhat painful to see a bit of mainstream American Christianity’s reflection in the mirror of Barclay’s description of the Stoic: “The aim of life was serenity. … For the Stoic blessedness meant being wrapped up in his own philosophic detachment and calm.” When Christians, especially those not of minority races, hear of the ills and struggles of the black or Hispanic communities, they may indeed feel compassion. But Barclay, along with James, warns, “There is nothing more dangerous than the repeated experiencing of a fine emotion with no attempt to put it into action”; every time we do, we “become less likely ever to take action.”

Those who do possess power, and yet do not offer spiritual and physical partnership to those who do not, are the equivalent of the first-century Christian saying to his coatless brother, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” (Jas. 2:16).