Race: August 2007 Archives

Reply to Anyabwile

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Thabiti Anyabwile has responded to my critique of his discussion of race. In several places, I think he has misunderstood my view or gone beyond my argument to attribute to me a view that I do not hold and that does not follow from what I said. In some places I think we just disagree about something fairly fundamental. I'll address each of his points in order

1. The issue of the image of God is largely irrelevant to the main issues. I just thought some of the way Thabiti was speaking had implications that I didn't think he would welcome. That seems to be a correct assessment. He doesn't welcome the suggestion that God has a body, but he wants to say that some of what the image of God constitutes is manifested in our bodily reality (both male and female). I don't have any problem with the idea that God worked into us certain capacities to carry out the mission of representing him, and some of those capacities have to do with our physical being. I do in fact think that's the case. I'm skeptical whether those capacities constitute being made in the image of God, however. I certainly would agree, however, that there are no people who are more in the image of God than others, as if white people represent God more fully. But I don't think you need to see the image of God as partially reflected in our bodies to say that. So I think this issue is largely a distraction from the issues we really do disagree about.

2. Thabiti clarifies that he presents his argument against the reality of races as a way of getting to the sections of his article that I agree with, not as a way to respond to the wider literature on race. I though I already knew that, so I'm not sure how this is a corrective to my understanding. He also says that once you accept race, you cannot get out of that trap. He doesn't want to enter it to begin with. I disagree. It depends on what you take race to be. I can acknowledge the existence of what I think race to be without falling into the trap of admitting to the reality of what he thinks race is supposed to be, because what I think race is isn't the same thing as what he thinks race is supposed to be. But that issue comes out in his subsequent points, so I'll look at the details further there.

3. I never claimed that races are like refrigerators in every sense. I simply claimed that the principles that something doesn't exist just because it isn't talked about in the Bible is false. It's no argument against something's existence just because it isn't in the Bible. I did give other examples of social categories that are more analogous to race, e.g. political conservatives or university students. Nothing biological determines whether you are a university student. Social practices determine that. But the category exists nonetheless. Since races are socially-determined categories, they are more like that. The difference is that people are classified according to characteristics at least some of which are biological, and that is not true of all socially-constructed categories.

There is a big difference between races and leprechauns. Leprechauns are people with some very strange properties, and no one actually has the properties of leprechauns. But they are concrete individuals. There just aren't any of them. Races aren't concrete individuals. They are categories based on classification schemes. Even if the criteria used for determining who is in what category are biologically arbitrary, there does exist a set of classification practices, and the people who are members of the races do exist. The criteria that are used rely on realities, and those realities include some biological differences (even if they are somewhat arbitrarily chosen in terms of the biology). Those realities include real social and historical facts, including severe mistreatment of entire populations of people. Those realities include somewhat reliably-identifiable properties that people do in fact use to categorize people.

Justin Taylor sent me an email asking me to comment on Many Ethnicities, One Race by Thabiti Anyabwile, author of the forthcoming The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Accomodation. This article is a Christian argument for an increasingly-common view today that races are not real, following by a biblical theology lying behind a call to end segregated congregations.

When I saw the links to a bunch of pieces on race on Justin's blog, I looked at a number of them and got a sense of what they were about, but I didn't pursue most of them (with John Piper's as a key exception). This was one I didn't look at in much detail, largely because what I initially saw seemed to me to be pretty far from what I think is the correct way to look at these issues. I must say (now that I've read the whole thing) that the second half of his piece was much more in line with my own thinking, but his initial arguments are very much not. Since Justin asked for my thoughts, here they are, and perhaps they will be helpful to others besides Justin. I'm not going to repeat the arguments in the article but will assume you have read it.

One worry I have is that I see no biblical warrant for taking the image of God to be anything more than being given a mission to represent God (which is what an image does for a god in the ancient near east). It is thus the same as being given the mandate to steward creation as God's representative on earth. Anyabwile rests a lot on his more expansive view of what the image of God is. all the while complaining that people's views of race go way beyond what the Bible actually says about race.

I'm a bit disturbed at the idea that our bodies could have something to do with being in the image of God to begin with. The only reason God has a body is because he incarnated himself in his second person as a human being. But that is in time after the creation of Adam, who is nonetheless made in the image of God. Even if being in the image of God is more substantive than the view I hold, it cannot have anything to do with having a body, since God does not have a body in any sense other than in the second person's incarnation, which is to reflect what human beings are like and not the other way around (although the new creation does reflect what Christ is like, but that's another step removed).

I think his general argument form is fallacious. It basically notes that the modern notion of race isn't in the Bible and thereby dismisses it. But the modern notion of a mailman isn't in the Bible. The modern notion of a refrigerator isn't either, nor is the modern notion of a university or the modern notion of a conservative. But all those things exist.

Another problem I have is that he keeps speaking of "races rooted in biological difference". Most race theorists who accept the existence of races do not think that races are a necessary implication of biological facts. They think social and historical factors have produced racial categories that rely on biological features in terms of how we classify people, but the root is in social and historical factors, not in biology. The fact that they are not rooted in biology doesn't mean they're nonexistent any more than the fact that categories like "conservative" or "university student" aren't rooted in biology doesn't make them unreal.

Race and Humor

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I was going to link to this a while ago, but I never got around to it. Someone who goes by the online name "tstorm" has put together an excellent short documentrary on race and humor, which you can find at Racialicious. It's been broken up nicely into small components in case you don't have a lot of time at once to watch it. It explores what factors go into evaluating whether a particular instance of racial humor is morally acceptable or offensive. I don't agree with everything he says in evaluating the instances in popular culture that he picks out, and a philosopher might want a more systematic treatment of some of the theoretical issues about what constitutes racism, whether causing offense is automatically immoral, and so on, but I think it's largely an excellent effort that's worth watching and thinking about. He says a lot of things that you might not have thought of, and he's done a good job of sorting through a wide range of issues that come to bear on this question. It's the sort of thing I'd show my students in class or assign for them to watch on their own.

Carmen Van Kerckove and Jae Ran Kim are criticizing a fairly common kind of statement among white parents who adopt non-white kids. It's not that uncommon to hear parents in such situations saying that they love their kids no matter what race they are, and it sometimes takes the form of "I don't care if they're black, white, green, or purple."

Carmen doesn't indicate why such a statement is offensive, but she quotes something from Jae Ran that is a reason. However, her reason seems wholly inadequate to me. She says it's merely because there are no green or purple kids. But there's nothing problematic about saying you would love your kids even if something were true of them that isn't true of any actual kid. There's no actual kid with six arms, but I don't think it's offensive to say that you'd love your kids even if they had six arms. So something more needs to be said to explain why this kind of statement is offensive. I have two suggestions, but at the same time I wonder if Carmen and Jae Ran are nonetheless being too critical.

1. There’s an ignorant assumption behind this well-meaning expression. It’s ignorant to speak as if color doesn’t matter at all. Color does have an impact. If this statement is supposed to be indicating that the parent thinks race doesn't matter in any sense, that is simply ignorance speaking. Also, it's going to be a rare white parent who is not in some way affected by having children who are not white. Most people imagine what their kids might look like long before they have any, and if that involves imagining white kids who look like them, then there will be at least some level of unmet expectations. If the statement is doing that, then it's a lie.

2. Another ignorant assumption seems to me to lie behind the statement. It treats any racial issues that might be raised by the race of their kids as if they are merely a matter of what color the kids' skin is. Why would it be relevant that the kids could be green or purple unless the mere fact of a different skin color is what might be problematic about race. But skin color itself is only our way of identifying and classifying people according to race. It isn't what causes any actual racial problems. So it's profoundly ignorant to speak as if red or purple skin color, which would be weird but doesn't bring any actual racially-loaded issues with it, is anything remotely like having kids of another race.

3. Some who say this may well be saying something that could be more explicitly put as follows. “I know it’s weird for white parents to have kids who are black or Asian or whatever, but I'd be ok with that weirdness. I don’t even care if their coloring is so weird that no other kid has ever had that coloring, e.g. if they had green or purple skin instead. I’d still love them.” The problem is that such a speech demeans the kids who aren’t white by treating them as ok despite not being white, and that does have a troublesome assumption. I can see how some who say this sort of thing really are assuming something like that. That reveals at the very least a kind of residual racism that sees non-white kids, even their own, as something they have to make an effort to love more than they might be expected to.

Tiffany Pridgen has a nice post about the tendency among some black kids to see being smart or caring about learning as a "white" trait that "real" black kids shouldn't have anything to do with. This is one of the more insidious anti-black narratives within black culture, because it masquerades itself as anti-white racism (because it sees a supposedly white characteristic as bad) while actually directing its harm toward blacks. It's really sad when it keeps smart kids from doing well in school.

Black conservatives have been quick to recognize this problem. See here for my summary of some of what they say about it. Liberals on race issues have tended to downplay this phenomenon. It amazes me that so many people will insist that something like this can't be part of the explanation for why black kids don't do as well on SATs and don't have as good grades. Just read some reviews of John McWhorter's books by liberals on race issues to see people denying that there's any significant peer pressure of this sort. I can't help but think that they're assuming such an admission would mean that white racism isn't the immediate cause of every problem within the black community, which would then undermine one of the reasons for affirmative action. But almost every black person I've talked to who cared about learning and grades before college has told me that the phenomenon is real and that it does lead kids to do less well.

There will surely be differences of opinion over how much of the SAT and grade gap is explained just by this. I myself don't think it's the only cause. For one thing, affirmative action itself is one further explanation, since it lessens the need for black kids to do as well if they want to get into a good college, and only the best students are doing well purely for the sake of doing well. But the traditional liberal "white racism" explanation for the racial grade/SAT gap is compatible with this as an additional contributing factor, so it's kind of lame to dismiss it out of a desire to maintain support for affirmative action.

Carmen Van Kerckhove has some helpful reflections on how to respond to racist jokes. She gives some good reasons why some responses that you might be inclined toward wouldn't be so good. She suggests of how to respond instead: play dumb to get them to explain it, which will require bringing the racist assumptions into the open, which you can then be puzzled about, asking them to explain why they think that, and they won't be able to defend the assumptions. I kind of like that.

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