Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Are We Naturally Born Racists?

This title in the July/August "Reader's Digest" was timely given the events that took place in Charleston, SC when Dylann Roof murdered nine men and women because of the color of their skin.
There has been much discussion and reaction to this event--much of it particularly misguided in my estimation.   I mean, some have used this shooting as a platform to rid the nation of symbols of the Confederacy.  But removing the Confederate flag from public grounds will do very little to address the real, underlying issue regarding racism and prejudice.  There is much more to this issue--much which is not being discussed.

I am going to take just a moment to deal with particular definitions in this subject.  I think it is important to do so because if we cannot agree on terminology, then we cannot agree on solutions.  Therefore, in this post, I will define

Racism as prejudice with power.  (A definition I was exposed to in college.)

Prejudice as an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics. (from Merriam-Webster's third definition)

It is important, I think, to deal with prejudice.  The appropriation of power, history shows, changes over time.  It rises and falls among groups over and over and over again.  If prejudice is combined with that power, racism occurs.  

The Nature of Power

The philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche penned many influential writings which actually underpin much of our surrounding culture these days.  Philosophically, Nietzsche removed transcendence from reality.  Essentially what he said was: human reason cannot prove any sort of reality above and beyond this world.  Therefore, what is our motivation for doing things?  What is our reason for engaging in whatever activity we engage in?

Nietzsche's answer was: will to power.  Essentially, we strive to put ourselves in the most advantageous position possible.  We strive to get our own way; to make our own lives easier; to put ourselves in a position of power and authority so that we do not answer to anyone.

One might argue Nietzsche's basic postulates; however, I don't think he is far from the truth.  For Christianity also says that humankind tends to act with its own self-interests in mind.  Christianity states that humankind tends to seek autonomous authority where we answer to no one and make our own decisions without regard to anyone else--but with regard to our own well-being.  This is the original sin of the garden of Eden where humankind wanted the knowledge of good and evil so that it no longer needed reference to the One who created them.

"What does this have to do with racism?" you might ask.  Everything, I think.

The Nature of Prejudice

I personally do not believe we are naturally racist or prejudice, but we become prejudice very, very fast.  In the July/August issue of Reader's Digest an article caught my eye.  It was titled "Are We Naturally Born Racists?"  I encourage you to read the article in its entirety to see the research that the following quotes are based upon.  [The research is based on the IAT, and if you would like to take the test you can find it here.] I found the following one particularly fascinating:

"Humans are tribal creatures, showing strong bias against those we perceive as different from us and favoritism toward those we perceive as similar.  In fact, we humans will divide ourselves into in-groups and out-groups even when the perceived differences between specific groups are completely arbitrary."  Reader's Digest, July/August 2015 "Are We Naturally-Born Racists?" Pp. 113-114.

Let that sink in just a moment before reading the next one.

 "In other words, if you give people the slightest push toward behaving tribally, they'll happily comply.  So if race is the basis on which tribes are identified, expect serious problems."  Reader's Digest, July/August 2015 "Are We Naturally-Born Racists?" P.114.

We only need the slightest push to begin drawing lines in the sand and acting tribally.

It Should Seem Obvious, but...

In my Sunday School adult class we have spoken at length about race issues and whether or not racism is on the decline.  Racist behavior I think is significantly less because of the Civil Right's Movement; however racist attitudes, I think, have not abated.  The above research perhaps gives us an insight as to why.

One of the gentlemen in my class who is over seventy recalled in the early days in the Cat Spring, TX community how Germans and Czechs drew sharp lines of distinction.  Intermarriage was "verboten".  Drinking beer socially was acceptable, but that was about it.  The two groups sought to be distinct and separate.  They clung to their differences.  Over time, those barriers faded, and the cultural distinction is almost gone.

"Why?" one might ask.  These groups were  divided based upon clinging to a particular culture and language that kept them distinct.  As time passed and generations lost many cultural practices and children learned English only, the differences evaporated.  There were no longer lines that caused divisions.  Remember, the brain needs only a slight push to draw the boundaries and become tribal. When language and cultural distinctions evaporated, tribalism vanished.

That's not easily done with physical attributes, is it?

One cannot simply wait 60 years for skin color to change.  It won't.  Intermarriage will not produce a "greying" of color anytime soon.  This distinction will remain regardless of our best efforts to become colorblind.  You cannot help but see the differences.  And if our brains just need the slightest push...

We will become tribal.  Not we will, we are tribal.

This is not just a "white" problem.  This is not just a "black" problem.  This is not just a "brown" problem.  This is a human problem that demands a radical answer.

Society's Answers

Society over and over again has tried to teach us that no matter what is outside, we all bleed red.  This is most certainly true.

Society has taught us since the overthrow of the Jim Crow laws that skin color is irrelevant compared to our identity as human beings.  This is most certainly true.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech resounds with words that touch many of us to our very core--the dream of a nation where we are judged by the content of our character instead of the color of our skin.

If these truths are embraced by many and believed by many, why do we still find such division?  Why do we still see so few integrated neighborhoods?  Why is Sunday morning still the most segregated morning of the week?  Why do kids congregate among kids of their same color?

We only need the slightest push toward tribalism.

Do we naturally disregard these ideals and continue to cling to our respective culture of color?

I think we do.  And no matter how much you point to the ideal, human nature has a tendency of taking over--whether we want it to or not!


Because of two things: 1) In the deepest recesses of our hearts we want to be with others who are just like us.  Our brains make distinctions and cling to them, so nothing less than a total restructuring of our brain's natural state needs to occur.  2) Our Western, enlightenment society still tells us to cling to our racial identity!  Embrace the color of your skin!  Let no one tell you, your skin color is bad or wrong or ugly!  This is central and core to your being!

And in one way it is, but in another way, it perpetuates the problem.  For if I cling to my skin color and if my skin color is central to my being, then those who do not share my skin color are categorized as different by my brain--whether I want my brain to do this or not.  And we only need a slight nudge toward tribalism...

The Gospel's Answer

Christianity proposes another answer--one that is much more difficult, but much more liberating and all encompassing.

The Christian answer begins with dying to self.  That's a hard thing to swallow because we love ourselves.  We do everything we can to preserve ourselves.  Evolution has bred us to look out for ourselves and protect everything about us--not only my physical self, but also my identity.  I am who I am, and no one is going to tell me to be otherwise!

Yet, Jesus says, "Find your identity in me.  Don't look to your race, gender, ethnicity, or social status.  Don't look to your wallet or your possessions.  Don't find your sense of self-worth in how many Facebook likes you get or in how many degrees you possess.  Find your worth, value, and identity in me."

St. Paul articulated this in brilliant fashion when he penned the words of Galatians 3:27-28, "For as many of you as are baptized in Christ Jesus have clothed yourself with Christ.  For there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.  All of you are one in Christ Jesus."

The White Privilege Accusation

When my wife and I adopted our first daughter (who is bi-racial), I sat down to fill out my parochial report for my congregation.  As I contemplated the report, I became very uncomfortable.  You see, my denomination wants me (on the basis of my best judgement) to write down the racial/ethnic composition of my congregation.  As I looked at the places to fill in such categories, I unequivocally thought about my own family.  Do I look at my daughter and think, "Oh, she is bi-racial.  Her skin tone is black."?  NO.  UNEQUIVOCALLY, NO!!!!  I simply see her as my daughter.

The human brain only needs the slightest nudge to draw lines and act tribally...

I filled in the blank under "other" for the entire congregation.  I wrote in "Children of God."

I ended up in a heated discussion with someone in Chicago, IL where our church offices are located.  I was accused of having viewing the topic with white privilege and that "with all deference to St. Paul's theology, the Division for such and such requires these numbers."

So you are putting the Division for such and such ahead of the clear biblical witness?  Which one do you think I am going to listen to?

"You are speaking from a position of white privilege."

Now, I am going to go back to Nietzsche because Nietzsche was remarkable in his assessment of human nature.  He says we all seek our own will to power.  We don't, by default, seek the greater good.  We don't, by default, seek the betterment of society.  Nietzsche argues (and rather successfully since much of philosophy has been trying to deal with him for the last 100+ years) that we only seek things that have some direct benefit to ourselves.  It's a great understanding of original sin.

The claim that folks like myself are speaking from a position of white privilege is nothing more than a power play to lessen the force of a particular segment of society and increase the power of other voices within that same society.  In this case, the claim of white privilege places a priority on the voices of people of color (putting them into ascendance of power) while making secondary (putting them in a lower position) the voices of people labeled as "white."  It's a power play, plain and simple.

I expect to be soundly bashed for that comment, but I think I am on solid ground with my assertion.  The claim of white privilege allows society to continue to draw lines based upon skin color, and:

The human brain only needs the slightest nudge to draw lines and act tribally.

Toward a Solution

Christianity offers a pathway forward because of the nature of the Gospel.

The Gospel does not allow anyone to take the moral high road.  It does not allow anyone to place his or her race in a position of moral superiority or authority.  For Jesus died for us WHILE WE WERE STILL SINNERS.

The Gospel also does not allow anyone to wallow in victim hood.  For the GOD OF THE UNIVERSE BOUGHT YOU WITH GREAT PRICE showing your immense value to Him.

These two things try to address something that society cannot touch: the heart.  For it is the heart which seeks power and privilege.  It is the heart which has selfish intentions, and it is these selfish intentions and desires for self-preservation that lead us to isolate ourselves from others and draw our boundaries.

The human brain only needs the slightest nudge to draw lines and act tribally...

But if those lines are destroyed because all have sinned.
And if those lines are destroyed because God's desire is to redeem all.

Then, no racial group can claim to be better than another with these two fundamental understandings.  There is something that cuts us down at the knees while at the same time building us up.  There is something that humbles us in our interactions with God and with one another without making us feel like we are worthless.

I simply cannot look at a person of a different color and see myself as better than him or her when I know that I was and am a sinner.  I cannot look at a person of a different color and see myself as somehow superior when I know that person is made in the image of God and clothed with the righteousness of Christ--the same garment I am clothed in!!!  I cannot see myself belonging to another group based upon ethnicity or skin color when all has been covered by Jesus.

And for those who are not part of the Christian faith, I am not commissioned to see them as anything less than fellow human beings who need to hear the Gospel just as much as I needed to hear it.

For certain the Church has not done a very good job of following through on the implications of the Gospel, but I believe part of this is due to the fact that we've forgotten the nature of that very Gospel.  But that is another topic for a later date.

1 comment:

John Flanagan said...

As Christians we identify with the kingdom of God and fellow believers in all lands and times, however, we are still the sum of our individual and collective experiences, our social and cultural influences, our nationality, our values and traditions, and our educational background. Of course we gain some prejudices and preferences along the way. So why do some people agonize over these differences? God knows we are to avoid mistreating others on the basis of race or other features. Liberals, who are essentially psychotic and delusional idealists, can never wrap their heads around these differences, so they simply wish what exists among human beings were not so.