January 25, 2013
The Persistence of Prejudice
Just how “post-racial” is our society?
My wife and I just adopted our first child. We have learned a lot about ourselves and God and the Christian community through this journey. But one lesson that has been driven home time and again is how deeply entrenched racial prejudice is in the United States.
This fact was reinforced in our adoption training. Because we pursued a domestic adoption (i.e., a child from the United States) and were happy to adopt a child of any ethnicity, our licensing and preparation involved learning to be a “conspicuous” family: one that can’t hide the fact that a child is adopted because he or she is ethnically different than the adoptive parents. We’ve taken classes on how to respond to insensitive comments from strangers and family, such as: “Is that your real baby?” or “Does he speak English?” or “She’s so lucky to have you,” which implies that the child would be less fortunate to be raised by parents of her own ethnic background. We’ve even learned to anticipate the question “Is that one of those crack babies?” which implies that the biological parents of a minority child must be drug addicts. Because our son, James, is African American, we are prepared to be on the receiving end of racial prejudice for the first time in our lives.
Perhaps a greater outrage is the dollar amounts that are often affixed to skin color. At our agency, the placement fee is the same for children of all ethnicities. But in many places in the country, adopting a Caucasian child can cost almost twice as much as adopting a non-white or biracial child. This is because ethnic minority children are deemed “hard to place”—fewer families are willing to adopt them—and are thus considered less desirable. Often, the lighter skinned a child is, the more expensive he or she is to adopt. This is true even among Christian adoptive parents and at Christian agencies. The Bible says all humans are created in God’s image. There should be no 50-percent discounts. How, then, can Americans—even American Christians—tolerate a practice that deems some children to be “less desirable” than others?
Equal but Different
As Christians, we are firm in our convictions that all ethnicities are equal in value: “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile” (Rom. 3:22). As authors we are deeply committed to and convinced of the fundamental equality of all peoples. We also believe that to understand a culture, you must be aware of ethnicity and especially the prejudices that may exist within a particular culture. To ignore them is naïve and can result in serious misunderstanding.
Consider this example. Let’s suppose a Korean missionary decides to move to Birmingham, Alabama, to start a church. He notices that a lot of the people are dark-skinned. He asks us, “Is there a difference between blacks and whites?”
In our piety, we might answer, “No, everybody is the same.” It is certainly true that all are equal, but our pious answer is misleading in several ways. We are likely setting our Korean missionary up for trouble. First, he will be blindsided by the first racist he meets. Second, he will notice some differences among the locals in worship and dialect and perhaps even in dress and cuisine. Third, he might assume that the majority culture of his neighborhood is representative of the majority culture of North America.
Many white Westerners feel that the worst thing they could be called is a racist. We know deep down that we’re not supposed to make value distinctions between people of different ethnicities, as if it’s better to be white or black or whatever. Because we’re hesitant to make value distinctions—and rightfully so—we’re often slow to make any distinctions at all. Thus is goes without being said for many that to be truly equal, everyone must be the same. This is what we mean by being colorblind: the belief that ethnic differences don’t matter. Of course it would be fine if what we meant was that everyone should be treated with equal dignity or enjoy the same rights. But we suspect what is commonly meant is that everyone should be treated as if they were the same.
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, culture-watchers began debating whether the United States had finally become a post-racial society. The logic runs like this: now that an African American has been elected to the nation’s most powerful position, the glass ceiling is shattered. The limitations and obstacles that once held back people of color are gone. The long-awaited dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that people will one day be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” has been realized. The United States is now officially colorblind. The wealthy and powerful hail from all ethnic backgrounds. In terms of policy, it is against the law for a company to refuse to hire an employee or for a university to refuse to enroll a student based on the color of her skin. It can be easy to believe that, at least on paper, the country has put racial discrimination in the past.
The radical nature of the multiethnic body of Christ is sometimes lost on those of us who believe we have put prejudice behind us once and for all. Columnist Jack White once observed, “The most insidious racism is among those who don’t think they harbor any.” His point is that those of us who leave our ethnic stereotypes unexamined will inevitably carry them forever, perhaps even pass them on to others. We would add that failing to come to terms with our assumptions about race and ethnicity will keep us blind to important aspects of biblical teaching.
In the end, the Christian message is clear: ethnic prejudice is morally reprehensible. It is wrong. The Roman world was filled with racism. The interior of Anatolia (modern Turkey) was filled with tension between the Romans, the locals and the immigrants (Jews in the south and Celts in the north). Nonetheless, Paul tells a church caught right in the middle of that mess, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11). This was a radical claim in the first century. It is no less radical today, even in a country in which people have been fighting for equality for decades.
This is an excerpt from Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes.
What do you think President Obama’s second term says about the realization of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream? Is this an example of actual racial reconciliation? How can Christians affirm equality without undermining the vibrant ethnic and cultural diversity seen in Revelation 7:9?