Please Think Better about Race

Please Think Better about Race December 12, 2023

I shouldn’t be surprised by now but I still am. As both a pastor and a scholar, I continue to face what I can only describe as sloppy modes of thinking about race. I’m sure you see it too. It came to my mind recently in considering the controversy over the statements of university presidents concerning the Israel/Hamas war, but specifically Michael Harriot’s tweet (yes, I will continue to call them tweets and I will call the platform Twitter):

Harriot is, of course, referring to the way that race works rather than precisely what race is. And this is precisely the way we ought to address it. The assumptions that undergird race are the true nature of the game: insofar as race is a category that tells you whether or not someone has ability, is hardworking or is intelligent, then it is a category that is going to have social and material meaning. Harriot is referring to the phenomenon that when some see racially minoritized people in positions of power, there is the refusal to believe that they are there because of their hard work, intelligence or ability. But the fact of the matter is that none of us are where we are purely because of our hard work or intelligence. That is especially true in a racialized society like ours. To explain, I want to begin with what is my favorite explanation of race.

Adolph Reed, Jr. gives what I still think is the best definitional framing of race: he calls it “a taxonomy of ascriptive difference”, an ideology that creates and solidifies a social order by “legitimizing its hierarchies of wealth, power and privilege, including its social division of labor, as the natural order of things.” If you want more, you can read his excellent article, “Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism”, but race as a justifying set of narratives is one of the things that lies behind the assumptions that Harriot lambasts in his tweet. That understanding of race can also, however, help us understand why one of our favorite narratives, the lie of a meritocratic society, is so enduring. History suggests that merit and success are not linked by necessity.

Knowing the history of race, its creation, and its mobilization launches us into a history of domination and exploitation that created our current state of affairs. This in no way negates the amazing accomplishments of individuals; it merely sets the context for those accomplishments. One of the assumptions of a meritocratic society, especially a capitalistic one, is that success comes as a somewhat inevitable result of hard work, grit and developed skill. That would indeed be nice. But there is a piece missing that often goes unstated: a society that intentionally rewards the particular kind of work that you’re doing.

I consider this personally. As I went to my first day of public school in kindergarten, my parents went to meet with the principal to get a feel for the school. That conversation did not go as planned. My parents were told that little Black boys became troublemakers by third grade and that they regularly had trouble reading. This was surprising and off-putting to my parents; after all, I had been able to read since I was 3. My parents would remind me of an assembly at the school I would attend (not that first school!) when we saw a skit of 1st graders, where they sang about learning to read. Apparently, I loudly exclaimed, “They can’t read?!”, much to my parents’ embarrassment. When I was in 1st grade, a teacher noticed that I and one of my classmates had an aptitude for math so she took us aside. I still remember doing long division in her office. In second grade, I was in a class full of fourth-graders. In third grade, I was the eight year old in a class full of sixth graders. By that time, I exhausted the math of that school. A trajectory was set in those formative years.

But now I reflect, after finishing my PhD, on those “little Black boys” of my would-be principal’s imagination. Surely it was a mixture of experience and racialized thinking that led her to such conclusions but what happened to those kids? How many of them went off to college at a private university like I did? How many of them got masters degrees and PhDs like I did? Nothing in myself separated me from these dear brothers. But a broader matrix of circumstances did: a mix of the grace of God, the resources of my parents, the particular part of the country in which I was born, and a slew of other things over which I had no control. What happens when that entire matrix is ignored because of the smokescreen of racialized thinking? 

Well, we’ve seen it happen throughout American history: you get the racialization of Africans and later Chinese and Mexican people to push them into particular modes of exploitative labor. You get a series of assumptions about intelligence, skill and what people are “best suited for” in order to justify and maintain a status quo. But of course, most of us don’t think about race as an ideology of ascriptive difference. More often we think of it as descriptive difference: that is, we assume that people are racially different, rather than understanding that society has created these categories, ascribing difference rather than describing it. All of the meaning that the idea of race has in our minds has been placed there, and not by benign forces, but rather by people and systems intent on maintaining their influence, power, and resources. How then do we think better about race?

The first thing is to refuse to consider race apart from its material effects. Race is not a matter of anthropology; it is a matter of political theology. Christianity’s anthropological claims are pretty clear: all human beings are created in the image of God and stand equally before their Maker and Judge. The thing is that even many pro-slavery apologists affirmed this theological and anthropological fact. But they, of which James Henley Thornwell was one, would also argue that God placed particular groups, races, in positions of servitude for their own development. This was Thornwell’s account of racialized chattel slavery in his sermon, “The Rights and the Duties of Masters”: 

Think better about race.
Think better about race.

No, James, the particular arrangement of racialized chattel slavery was not an act of God, but an act of greedy men and women. It was not “adapted to the degree of [African] moral progress”. It was constructed to maintain the domination and exploitation of African peoples for European profit. Your goal, as much as you may have claimed it, was not the individual development of your slaves; it was the maintenance of your position as their master. In fact, Thornwell revealed his hand in this paragraph: race is not a matter of anthropology. It is a matter of political theology. 

So then what does this mean for us? It means that when it comes to race, there are only two questions that are really important in considering it broadly: where is the money and where is the power? As a construct, race and racism are meant to keep those two things out of the hands of some and in the hands of others. In seeking to be a people committed to justice and equity, we ought to want money, power, education, healthcare and all of these basic human needs in the hands of everyone so that they can live and flourish. So, I beg of you, think well about race so that you can do good to your neighbor, brother and sister. Love is not just a matter of feeling and thought; it is action.


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