As American cities burn amid riots and communist activists carve out micro-states for themselves in the wake of George Floyd’s death, we’ve also borne witness to a vast army of conservatives rising up to affirm the one core principle that truly matters in such uncertain times: Racism is bad, mmm’kay.
But that’s pretty much business as usual. Conservatives have a long-standing tradition of trying to prove our not-racism to progressives whom we all know to be the real racists. It’s become a wholly irrelevant song-and-dance number for a variety of reasons.
For one thing, every significant cultural institution we possess already believes, teaches, and confesses that race-based enmity and prejudice are wrong. “Preaching to the choir” is an understatement. Most people in America already recognize that George Floyd’s death was an injustice. The situation might be more nuanced than the stark narratives painted by media and rioters–which is why judgement should be reserved for the courtrooms–but the reality is grim enough. Even so, I haven’t seen any people arguing that he simply got what he deserved–certainly not that he got what he deserved because he’s black.
For another thing, conservatives’ brand of abstract denunciations aren’t terribly meaningful to blacks for whom racism is part of their experience, heritage, and identity. Communication tends to break down when abstraction confronts visceral reality. It’s like telling a man who has lost 5 family members in different plane crashes that such crashes are definitely bad, but planes are safer now than they used to be, and flying is statistically still the safest way to travel. It’s not exactly wrong, but neither is it particularly relevant.
(That factor is probably worth its own blog post at some point because for some readers, I’m doing exactly the same thing here. I absolutely critique myself with my own observation. I deal with racism philosophically–I don’t grasp it in my heart the way victims do, and dealing with it is not part of my identity. That said… for now, I’m putting that on the back burner as a matter of intended audience. This post will be dealing with racism philosophically, and so I suspect it’s not going to be too compelling for many of those whose experience is more concrete. But frankly, I’m writing this primarily in response to what I see white people telling me about racism lately, and that conversation has to happen too. I just want to pause and point out that it’s not the only conversation that has to happen.)
Racism: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.
But there is a different factor I’m going to focus on in this post–one which makes our dutiful affirmations harmful rather than simply irrelevant: The very concept of “racism” has been transformed into a political bludgeon that’s only tangentially related to the enmity and prejudice we all already outwardly condemn.
I wrote a piece for The Federalist about that transformation five years ago, and very little has changed since then. However, I’m revisiting it now because so many are telling churches that God has commanded them to start doing the conservative song-and-dance as well. We must condemn racism, and for the Church that means proclaiming it a sin. But what exactly are we saying when we make such an assertion? What exactly does it mean to say that racism–in it’s contemporary sense–is a sin?
The word “racism” began it’s life as an umbrella term for all manner of genuine wrongdoing that proceeded from racial prejudice, enmity, and partiality in America. But as subsequent generations were raised from childhood to believe that racism is the ultimate wrongdoing, the word began to take on a different significance. It became something akin to a curse–a convenient label we can apply to people to make them social pariahs.
For the sake of political pragmatism, the term was deliberately transformed so that it could be applied more expediently. Even 20 years ago, I was already being taught in college that racism was a matter of being born white in a historically white culture–one in which social structures were designed by whites for their self-interest. “Privilege” language wasn’t yet in vogue, but that’s essentially what they were talking about. And nowadays, that’s how the younger generations fundamentally understand the word. Even the dictionaries are finally following suit on the academic trend. (And note from the article that it’s being changed specifically because white people had been successfully demonstrating that they weren’t racist and that was simply unacceptable. Ironically, “racist” has effectively become a racial slur.)
But it’s not a sin to be born white in a historically white country. It’s not a sin for a society to build structures that privilege its members–on the contrary, that’s the very purpose of society. It’s not a sin for parents to privilege their children–again, that’s the very purpose of parents. Neither is it a sin to actually benefit from such privilege–rather, we should be grateful for it.
To be sure, this can and has been done in sinful ways. Say, for example, your culture kidnapped thousands upon thousands of people and sailed them across an ocean to be used as beasts of burden for the sake of privileging your posterity. That would be altogether unconscionable. We cannot treat other peoples as resources to be consumed for the sake of our own. And for the last century and a half, America has been reckoning with the fact that we did exactly that rather than picking our own cotton. But we cannot reckon with it through condemnations of privilege as such as though it were the privilege that’s the sinful part of the situation.
Neither are we going to reckon with it by burying our noses in the concept of microaggressions. It’s certainly not a sin to engage in the ever-growing list of trivial activities which are deemed racist by our society–things like asking someone where they’re from, singing Baa Baa black Sheep, asserting that all lives matter, preferring white meat chicken to dark meat (as absurd as that preference may be), and so forth. This nonsense has been going on for a long time now, and the label of racism has been inextricably linked to it.
For most of us–especially those of us who understand racism abstractly–these two things, privilege and microaggression, are the lion’s share of the weight carried by the word “racist” in 2020, and they’re not sinful. So why are our churches all rushing to say that racism is?
Oh, but you didn’t mean it that way? You meant it according to it’s older and “truer” definition? Then why are you shouting it to the heavens alongside those who are quite explicitly using the present culturally accepted definition? How exactly did you think people were going to understand what you meant?
We all have our reasons for overlooking that reality: concern for the oppressed, a desire for peace in our nation, an attempt to show solidarity, and, of course, virtue-signalling. But today, charges of racism do nothing but muddy the waters with the term’s philosophical and political baggage.
Like it or not, every time you apply the word racism to a person (or a race) you’re bringing all that nonsense into the conversation alongside anything important you’re trying to address. If you want to address the truly sinful aspects of our present circumstances, you can surely do so without using a word that’s been redesigned specifically to shut down conversation. And if you can’t avoid that word in your condemnation… then maybe what you’re talking about isn’t really a sin after all.
Other Sins of Heart and Tongue
But I’ll go a step further than saying racism–in it’s 2020 sense–is not a sin: More often than not, it’s a sin for us to throw that label around as freely as we do. I would not have said that even a year ago–I merely would have said it’s foolish. But I’ve spent that time going through Luther’s Large Catechism for a class I teach, and I now cannot help but come to that conclusion.
If you consider racism according to the prevailing definitions rooted in privilege, accusations of racism are clear violations of the 9th & 10th commandments–the entire concept is inherently covetous. As Luther writes:
No one should consider or intend to get what belongs to another, such as his wife, servants, house and estate, land, meadows, cattle. He should not take them even with a show of right, by a trick, or to his neighbor’s harm. For above, in the Seventh Commandment, the vice is forbidden where one takes for himself the possessions of others or withholds them from his neighbor. A person cannot rightly do these things. But here it is also forbidden for you to alienate anything from your neighbor, even though you could do so with honor in the eyes of the world, so that no one could accuse or blame you as though you had gotten it wrongfully.
According to Luther, the 9th & 10th Commandments concern deliberately alienating your neighbor from his household and possessions so that you may ultimately acquire them for yourself. In 2020, the word racism is used almost exclusively for that purpose: to create guilt over one’s possessions, social standing, culture, and heritage so that these may be carved up and reapportioned to others who are deemed more deserving of them. More than ever before, that word is compelling people to tear down monuments, loot stores, destroy property, deprive others of their livelihood, and exile any dissenters from civil society–depriving them of their good name and reputation along with everything else. And all of it is being done with honor and accolades from the world.
How, then, could I dare to join myself to that chorus of denunciation–knowing what it means?
And even if you’re one of those whose commitment to the obsolete meaning of the word blinds them to the reality of its current meaning, you still must reckon with the 8th Commandment. Indeed, the broader sins of prejudice, partiality, and superficial enmity remain sinful when they have to do with race. But how exactly can you apply that judgement to people today? Going back to the Large Catechism, Luther teaches us that false witness is whatever cannot be “properly proved.” “Proved,” of course, refers to what we actually know from evidence rather than our speculations or gossip. And “properly” refers to our vocations–for most of the time, the sins of others are none of our business.
It’s virtually impossible to properly prove a charge of racism today. A century ago, people would be quite open about their prejudice and enmity–willingly making it a matter of public record and therefore a legitimate topic of conversation and accusation. In America in 2020, virtually no one is going to publicly announce their enmity for any race other than whites (a subject most people whose piety supposedly forces them to denounce racism by its old meaning remain curiously silent about.) You are left with no recourse but to guess at motivations and attitudes. You infer them from actions that may very well be innocuous simply because they fit a narrative–a prejudice–that you’re familiar with. And based on that alone, you presume to pass judgement on people–to punish them. After all, applying the label of “racist” is undoubtedly a punishment today. It deprives your neighbor of their good name and reputation–and often their livelihood as well once the SJW’s get involved.
Now, some readers will no doubt call this whole thing an excuse. “Matt, I’m no progressive. Like yourself, I hate Critical Race Theory, Marxism, and grievance studies in general. But there are travesties of justice happening to blacks every day in this country, and compassion compels me to act. I suspect your fixation on critiquing progressive errors is ultimately just a way of avoiding engaging against those very real problems–maybe even because of your own unconscious prejudice.”
To this all-to-common objection, I have three things to say. First, though you may claim to reject the progressive mindset, you just engaged in it. Your judgment is exclusively against what you presume to be hidden in my heart based on my race, heritage, and the structures of privilege I enjoy. Maybe you’re even correct, for who can understand the desperately wicked hearts of men? But its entirely presumption–a presumption you have lifted wholesale from philosophies you claim to find repugnant in any other context. So how sure are you of your own heart? How sure are you that there’s no plank in your own eye obstructing your vision of mine? Do you truly believe that you can resolve partiality by trying to balance one form against an other?
Second, it is yet another example of the fallacy of desperation. “We have to do something!” But what you want to do is wicked and counter-productive. “At least it’s something!” Make no mistake: when we knowingly do evil out of desperation, it is never an attempt to help our neighbor–it is only an attempt to make ourselves look or feel better. It’s like smacking your television when the picture gets fuzzy. It has more to do with working out your own frustration and impotence than it does with fixing the TV. When you remember your deep and abiding concern for the plight of blacks only when the world tells you to, it’s probably not as deep and abiding as you’d like to believe.
Lastly, it’s ultimately nothing more than ad hominem. It’s a judgment against me, but even if true, it has no bearing on my argument. You can believe what you want about me–I can only find my righteousness in Christ anyway. It doesn’t wipe away my argument.
So what then are we to do about those very real problems? Well, there are two ways of approaching this–both necessary. One is to address discrete issues, and the other is to address relations between whites and blacks in America. Charges of racism, unfortunately, hinder both of those endeavors.
On the matter of discrete issues, it should be quite possible to work together. Let’s take the issue of police malfeasance as an example. This is a very real problem that’s due in part to the increasingly militarized role we expect police to play in society. It’s made worse by the increasingly tribal mindset of police in which they protect their own at the expense of the rest of us and often cover up for one another when they should be investigating. (Both of these are ridiculously exacerbated rather than solved by the current unrest, by the way.)
This is, of course, a concern for blacks at the moment for obvious reasons. They want to fix this because their lives matter and they don’t think everybody else truly believes that–completely reasonable. But it’s an issue that affects many others–potentially all of us, for we all encounter the police at some point or another. Some will want the issue addressed because they have a different personal stake. I, for example, am father to an autistic son, and those of us on the spectrum have documented difficulties interacting with police–often with dangerous consequences. Others will want the issue addressed because they believe all lives matter–in other words, simply for the sake of justice in the abstract. And there could be any number of other reasons to get on board with rectifying the issue.
Except that anytime anyone says “all lives matter,” they’re called racist now.
Now, I get that that slogan isn’t compelling to many blacks. It takes black lives for granted when many believe they’re specifically being devalued. But different motivations can still lead to cooperation towards common goals–as long as you don’t immediately jettison anyone who disagrees. That’s the problem with tribalism: It makes people incapable of cooperating unless they’ve already made the proper commitment to the one true group. But today’s anti-racism fanaticism demands exactly that. If you don’t confess to only “right” rationales and priorities, you’re placed into exile. It forces division where cooperation and positive change would otherwise be possible.
And that leads us to the last issue I’m going to raise here: relations between black Americans and other Americans. You may or may not have noticed, but I’ve written this entire blog post in us/them terms. I honestly have no idea whether I should have been doing that or not.
On one hand, American blacks seem a nation unto themselves. I see “nation” primarily in terms of heritage and identity–race plays a real role in both of those things, but it’s not the definitive factor. But in terms of heritage, their experience of American history is radically different than mine. “Freedom” has an entirely different flavor when your ancestors were slaves. The Constitution has a different meaning when it failed to protect your people. Our legal institutions are experienced differently when they would have considered you 3/5 of a person not all that long ago. The Malcolm X line that “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us” isn’t an entirely unreasonable sentiment. And the common call for reparations from blacks follows this same kind of thinking, for a single nation doesn’t pay reparations to itself.
But that’s not the whole of the story either, because we have a distinctly American heritage in common as well. Black history in America obviously involves slavery and it’s continuing fallout, but it’s not exclusive to those experiences either. Not all blacks have been slaves. blacks have voluntarily shed their blood in all American wars. Blacks have held offices both high and low in American institutions. They have lived in American communities for centuries. However they got here, they’ve been here and part of America since the beginning. Blacks are inheritors of the American legacy just as the rest of us are. There have been various “back to Africa” ideas over the years, but I suspect they’ve never really caught on precisely because blacks’ experiences in America tend to be more tangible and important than earlier African roots (which is not to say that those African roots don’t matter at all.)
But are we two peoples or are we one? That’s the question I struggle with. If we’re two, the historical fact that multi-ethnic societies tend to end in a division that is bloody more often than peaceful gives me a great deal of pause. If that’s the case, we’re better off dividing the inheritance by offering a handful of States as reparations and peacefully seeking our separate destinies. If not, then we need to find ways to live together peacefully by sharing the inheritance.
I’d much rather the answer be that we’re one people rather than two–I want the answer to be more like this:
Why do I like this video (which I first saw in the excellent Hoaxed) of Black Lives Matter leader Hawk Newsome standing up and addressing a Trump rally? First, because listening actually occurred–the organizers offered the mic for two minutes when they didn’t have to and the BLM activists accepted it when they didn’t have to. Second, because Mr. Newsome started out affirming some common identities–“I’m an American! I’m a Christian!” Third, because after stating his grievance, he acknowledged counter-points and clarified: All lives matter, but he’s concerned first about the black lives he sees being lost every day without retribution. He’s not anti-cop, but wants bad cops punished and removed from service. And fourth, because two opposing sides had a little conversation without losing their identities, without ceding any ground they valued, and without fighting, but walking away with a better understanding of one another, at least some measure of camaraderie they didn’t expect to find, and some hope that their respective concerns can both be addressed. That’s what I want. I have no illusion that I wouldn’t have major political differences with the man, and his comments about “undocumented” residents suggest that we’d view what “American” means rather differently. Nevertheless, it seems like there’s room for genuine conversation and possibly cooperation.
That’s what I want. But it’s not about my wants, my hopes, or even about how I see blacks. It’s about how blacks see themselves, and that’s why I can’t answer the question of whether we are two peoples or one people. Black identity isn’t going away regardless, but I don’t know if the greater weight in “black American” falls on “black” or “American.” I don’t even know whether blacks generally think about it in those terms. I’m ignorant because I deliberately avoid broaching those subjects. I deliberately avoid broaching those subjects because doing so risks receiving the very dangerous charge of racism. (Note that I’m not pointing this out to measure my risk against others’. I’m merely pointing out a practical barrier to understanding.)
Both discovering what the answer is and dealing with it appropriately requires conversation–and negotiation as well. This, in turn, depends on having things like good-faith, clear intentions, self-respect, and all parties honestly contending for their respective interests. Most contemporary charges of racism completely undermine all of those things. When I see white people bowing down to blacks and shaving their heads in a desperate attempt to be declared not-racist, it’s neither healthy nor helpful. When I see blacks looting and burning using racism as an excuse, it’s neither healthy nor helpful. There’s no listening going on in either of those things. I see a lot of people tacitly defending rioting as “speech”, but I’d much rather see adult conversations like this one in which two people can find both agreement and disagreement without a Sword of Damocles hanging over anybody’s head.
But my preferences don’t matter. Reality matters.
I don’t know the solutions to our current problems; I don’t know if solutions even exist; and I don’t know how this all ends. I do know that I’m absolutely not going to make things worse by jumping on the anti-racism bandwagon. In 2020, charges of racism do far more harm than good, and the contemporary philosophy of anti-racism makes things worse, not better. And so I pray for peace. I pray for unity. I pray for justice. I encourage you all to do the same. Call that “doing nothing” if you like. Christians know better.