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Accidentally Segregated Sundays

September 2, 2013
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In my most recent article I discussed the various ways speech is used and how we can be tripped up by speech because speech always carries more than we intend.  We intend, for instance, to inform someone of some facts but are tripped up because we also communicate unintended emotional content.  This is clearly and obviously related to the topic of this article which is racism.  I’m serious about the linkage between these topics (although not the obviousness of that linkage).

Let’s take the most obvious area in which race relations amongst Christians are still noticeably fractured: Sunday morning when American Christians attend majority white and majority black churches.  I’m not merely speaking of just-over-the-edge majorities either but churches where almost everyone will be one race.  I’ve spent most of my life in churches like this (although when I was very young I was one of the few not in the majority race at church) and I’ve never heard anyone tell me that they are happy about this.  I’ve certainly never heard anyone claim that they intend for this state of affairs.  It’s just something that is and even when people intend otherwise (or at least wish very hard otherwise with little concrete action) nothing much changes.  I’m sure that there are churches where segregated Sundays are embraced (contrary to the will of God) but these churches aren’t what drives the larger social pattern.

Here’s the problem: we know what to do with intent.  If a person of one race deliberately insults or mistreats a person of another race on the basis of race we have some clear social and moral protocols: that’s a bad thing, act like the offender has done something beyond the pale.  In a lot of the places I’ve lived this is so effective that even people who are almost assuredly solidly racist won’t say anything that sounds racist for fear of social repercussions.  (Of course this isn’t true across the board.  In the small towns near where I went to college the KKK held rallies often enough that I heard a number of stories involving people running across these events or trying to prevent them from being held in their town.)  However, even with fairly stringent protocols against intended racism we still have plenty of problems.  Take a look, for instance, at this map of the United States broken down by racial composition.  The entire map shows concentrations of particular groups of people but when you zoom in on cities you see this same large-scale pattern repeated in miniature.  New York, for instance, has sharp-edged white, black, Hispanic, and Asian areas.  Even more alarmingly there seems to be a pattern where white and black areas are “buffered” by Hispanic and Asian areas (normally with the Asian areas on the white side of the “buffer zone”).  New York seems to be an extreme case in this regard but I have yet to zoom in on a major city and not see geographic segregation.

One response to this would be to assume that someone, somewhere, harbors deeply racist attitudes that cause them to deliberately create these demographic patterns.  Perhaps realtors hate particular races and don’t show houses in certain areas to certain people because of that.  Perhaps neighbors make life unpleasant for anyone of the “wrong” race in a deliberate act of racism and drive people who are not of their race away.  Were this so we would be well equipped to denounce this.  There would be someone to blame, someone in the wrong, and (as Christians) someone to threaten with God’s wrath.

A second response to this would be to believe that there isn’t a problem.  Failing to find the evil realtor or dastardly neighbors we might conclude that whatever is happening must be just fine.  We can’t find anyone to assign blame to and without blame there isn’t any crime (a silly thing to believe but one that is apparently quite common).  Without crime everything must be just fine.

A third response to this would be to acknowledge the problem but to believe that it stems mostly from unintended actions.  Take an example I am much closer to.  I (a white man) teach biology at a historically black university where about half the faculty and more than 90% of the students are black.  I had never stopped to think about the racial bias of biology textbooks but when I started preparing presentations for my classes the first semester (when I didn’t have a single white student) I noticed that the images the publisher had sent along for me to use didn’t look much like my class.  Most of the “generic” humans (and generic scientists) were white.  For the lecture on inheritance there was an image of a family to show familial resemblance.  The family was white.  For a lecture on taxonomy humans showed up amongst photos of other mammals – white humans, that is.  The basic genetics examples I’ve heard a million times were repeated in these textbooks to but I noticed a problem.  Mendelian inheritance of freckles?  None of my students have those.  Eye color?  Hair color?  Only Caucasian gene pools have any real variance there.  I ended up spending a lot of time on attached earlobes and widow’s peaks.  However, I am 99% sure that the authors of the textbooks and the people who selected the images for the lectures did not intend to be racially biased.  Instead, they just followed some societal defaults: white people (white men really) are default and anyone else is special.  What does an American look like?  A white man and so that’s the picture you pick unless you’re trying to be sensitive (and some textbooks do try).  What are the standard genetics examples?  A bunch of genes found in multiple alleles only in a tiny minority of the world’s population, Northern Eurasians, but if you don’t stop and think about you’ll just use the same examples that were used to teach you.

Here’s where I finally circle around to the real point I want to make.  Who do we blame?  Dead people, mostly.  There are a lot of people who are now dead who had horrible intent to enslave and dehumanize people who didn’t look like them.  They were very successful at it.  Look at that map again and you can trace the Old South’s agriculture in the map of the descendants of slaves.  This week we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s great “I have a dream” speech[1] but only the fiftieth.  We’re less than a human lifetime beyond the Civil Rights movement and the evils that were deliberately wrought by huge masses of people before us have yet to be corrected.  Can we blame some people who are still alive?  Of course.  But the people who built the machine are mostly dead.  Its gears still whir and scream with malevolent energy but those who tune it to its evil purpose are growing few in number.  The problem is that the machine is still running.  To do nothing is to let that machine guide us still – far less effectively than our own venomous hatred would but there is still malignant guidance involved.

Most Christians I know who are even remotely theologically conservative want someone to blame.  We want intent, malign intent that reeks of original sin.  This talk of “my environment made me do it” is nothing but a cop-out, a way for sinners to absolve themselves of blame.  If something is wrong someone is to blame.  If no one is to blame then there is nothing wrong.  The first problem is that this denies the continuing power of evil frameworks.  An evil man may do personal evil but for his evil to outlast him he must build a system in which the natural path is to do wrong.  There is sin in the system but it is not in our intent but in our training.  We need God’s grace not just to absolve us but to open our eyes to the systems we are blindly guided by.

The second problem in requiring clear intent is that it denies our tendency to evil.  If I required clearly evil intent to do evil then I would be a nearly perfect person.  My natural course through the world would be goodness and light.  Instead, all I require to do evil is inattention.  Could I address systematic racism through better intent[2]?  I could – I could intend to scrutinize my actions and remove any trace of racial bias from them.  However, all I would need to do is stop intending and I would fall back in those patterns.  Allow me to demonstrate with two examples.

When I was in graduate school most of my fellow students and most of the professors were white or Asian.  Most of the African-American men I ran across were panhandlers on the edge of campus or one of my rather sketchy neighbors.  What I was running into was a legacy of deliberately racist policy that has left a racially-biased pattern of poverty in our country.  The way my brain tried to subconsciously process this was by grouping a particular look (dark skin) with a particular experience (being asked for money by sketchy people).  Without (and probably despite) deliberate intent my attitudes would have become racist[3].

A second example.  A while ago I was speaking with a young black woman who mentioned something that made me think she was getting a lot of attention from men.  Once she said this I realized that she was extremely good looking.  However, my brain has been trained by my culture that white men and black women don’t really go together (it’s an exception and not part of the norm) and so the part of my brain that notices whether women are attractive (a part I often wish I could find the off switch for) simply didn’t notice her.  While this may be a convenient bias for a man who has a lot of African-American female college students it is still rather disturbing that some subconscious part of my brain would treat someone so differently based merely on skin color.  But isn’t that what my culture has been teaching me, a white standard of beauty?  Or, perhaps more bluntly, that white women are women and black women are a different, non-standard type of women?[4]

In the Kingdom of God such things as the amount of melanin in one’s skin are so trivial as to be unworthy of mention.  However, we don’t live in the fully-realized Kingdom of God.  We live in a world that has built a different system of rules that we still mostly-unconsciously follow.  It can be exceptionally hard to deal with the ways in which we accidentally follow these rules if our only concept of sin is as intentional crime.  This is perhaps why white evangelicals have not been anywhere close to the front lines of racial reconciliation.  Words like “white privilege” sound like accusations of malice if the only way we can recognize brokenness is as deliberate evil acts[5].  However, if we can think seriously about sin that does not involve the willful commission of evil but is instead the manifestation of the rift between ourselves and God in blindness and lostness we could confront these issues without feeling personally maligned.  Even if we could simply think of sin as anything that is not the way God wants it we could deal seriously with some of the issues that I have mentioned without stopping to being insulted first.  Indeed, I believe that recognizing that sin traps us as much as it is committed by us would help us in a multitude of ways.  I hope that one of those ways is that my grandchildren will find the world I describe in this article incomprehensibly backwards.


[1] Ironically, this has absolutely nothing to do with the timing of this article which really is just a follow-up on the previous article in a way that is probably fairly hard to track.

[2] Most systematic racism isn’t intentional of course which is one reason it is generally overlooked or not understood by people who can’t understand racism as anything other than intention.

[3] Project Implicit is an interesting project that looks at attitudes that you yourself are unaware of.  I have no idea how good the science behind it actually is (that’s well out of my field) but it’s certainly an interesting idea and a relevant concept.

[4] A last example if one is needed.  I’ve been focusing on the black/white racial divide here mostly because it’s the only one I’m really aware of.  Growing up in schools where 25% of the class might be Asian trained me in a totally different way: unless I stop and think about it I don’t realize that being Asian is being part of a racial minority.  A better system has trained me to think of Asian people without thinking “Asian” before I think “person”.  But it’s still a system that trained me and not my own superlative moral effort.

[5] The best definition of white privilege I’ve heard yet is simply that I as a white man can choose to ignore the fact that I’m white whereas my African-American students must constantly deal with how people treat them as black people.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 4, 2013 12:43 am

    Totally agree, especially about placing blame. So much of the disconnect seems to lie in the need to place blame (we don’t typically differentiate between unintentional and deliberate racism on a personal level, we tend to label people rather than attitudes as racist, and we tend to see racism as an unforgivable sin), and the inability to see evil without clear blame (made worse by the fact we generally want to see ourselves as moral, complete people, and will respond aggressively if this is challenged).

    Fear of panhandling is a great example. In my experience, it’s a mix of valid and exaggerated fears, and of effective and prejudiced ways of being cautious. It cuts through the idea that, if you can prove an attitude has a legitimate purpose or benefit, it shouldn’t be subject to further scrutiny.

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