Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Deconstructing Racism


Few topics evoke as much emotion in our national conversation as the topic of race. In the wake of the Michael Richards episode, renown author Malcolm Gladwell writes about racism in his post Defining a Racist. He proposes that a racist may be defined on the basis of three criteria: content, intention and conviction. Here are snippets of what he says with regard to each criteria.


"What is said clearly makes a difference. I think, for example, that hate speech is more hateful the more specific it is...To make a targetted claim is worse than calling a name. Similarly, I think it matters how much a stereotype deviates from a legitimate generalization...All hate speech is hurtful. But racism crosses the line and becomes dangerous when it encourages false belief about a targetted group. "


"Was the remark intended to wound, or intended to perpetuate some social wrong? Was it malicious? I remember sitting in church, as a child, while our Presbyterian minister made jokes about how "cheap" Presbyterians were. If non-Presbyterians make that joke, it might be offensive. But a Presbyterian making jokes about Presbyterians with the intention of making Presbyterians laugh is fine, because there is a complete absence of malice in the comment. "


"Does the statement represent the individual's considered opinion? In Blink, I wrote a great deal about unconscious racism--how powerful and how prevalent it is. All of us, in our unconscious, harbor prejudicial thoughts. What is of greatest concern, I think, are not instances where those kinds of buried feelings leak out, but cases where hate speech appeuuars to have been the product of considered, conscious deliberation. Comments made in writing, then, ought to be taken more seriously and judged more harshly than comments made in speech; comments made soberly are worse than those made in anger or jest. "

As far as I know, Malcolm Gladwell is not a Christian but his analysis and comments are insightful. Clearly, identifying racist speech and actions can benefit from a more thoughtful analysis than simply the use of certain forbidden words. Gladwell's deconstruction of what constitutes racist behavior is a great help in this regard.

However, it falls short in understanding the heart of racism. If, as Gladwell says, much of racism is unconscious, it points to the fact that its malignancy is more than skin deep. Racism emanates from our souls and finds its roots from our rebellion against God. Racism is morally reprehensible not primarily because it is hurtful to others. Don't get me wrong - it is certainly hurtful and heinous but it is also far more than that.

Racism is first and foremost an affront to God, who as Creator, made each person in his own image. Each person, regardless of race is created to be a bearer of God's image. The notion that biological differences between races constitute a basis for exerting superiority over or discriminating against another person distorts God's intention in creation. Yet our societal attempts at solving racism through analysis, education and social programs fall short because racism is a problem of the heart. Racism is a stark reminder of the effect of sin on the human race.

This is where the gospel brings hope. At the foot of the cross, all are found guilty before God.

What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one"
Romans 3:9-10

In Christ, all are equally valued before God.

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:27-28

Here's the point of this post - the issue of race is strategically important in contextualizing the gospel to the world around us. It is a profoundly vital issue in our nation today but one that we've been unable to address effectively. God's answer to racism is to simply point to his church.

As the church, we have the opportunity to offer the only compelling picture of true unity and rich diversity. We also have the opportunity to tell them about the God who made such unity possible.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
Revelation 7:9-10


David Park said...

Great post. I completely agree with you that racism is sin, and an atrocious one at that. I think ultimately, that contextualization is absolutely necessary but that many ethnic church leaders do not know how to approach this. There is a notion that people believe that this world is static, that the sin is too pervasive, and that it will require the coming of Jesus to combat these issues, but I think more to the point is that we as believers, have a calling to usher the kingdom of Heaven on earth and to speak out against racism from the dominant majority and in our own cultures and churches.

The Asian churches have often only made it a point to serve their own communities and their own interests, but this is where I believe we are shortsighted. We need to understand that the sin of racism and oppression is so pervasive that even the economic structures that play favorably to us as Asians, often contribute to the further oppression of other ethnicities. This is something that the church needs to call believers to repentance and reconciliation in light of a more biblical definition of shalom.

We have yet to see the church do this, but I pray that within our generation there will be many who can speak to this issue from within our own ethnic churches as opposed to this being a multi-ethnic (read culture-less) issue. This is an issue that needs to be addressed in our "comfort" zone to be repented of.

jacksons said...

I read Blink and found it to be a very insightful book.

andre said...


Thanks for your comment. Yes, our measure of whether to act/speak in the face of racism cannot be whether we are disadvantaged by the racist action. As Christians we need to oppose racism and express care to those affected by racism. We do this because we're informed by the gospel

L.L. Barkat said...

I think you might appreciate the conversation going on over at Mark Galli's blog. Also, Ed's book (which Mark does mention) seems worth a look.

andre said...

LL Barkat

Thanks for the tip to check out Mark Galli's blog. I'll definitely do so.

Anonymous said...

Good job!

I found this post through the Christian Carnival.

God willing, I will be linking to this post in my post of Dec 27 or 28.

andre said...


Thanks! I'm honored.

Mark Fedeli said...

Great thoughts Andre. Very provoking. I have written a lengthy post in response to hopefully add some momentum to the discussion. I invite anyone to check it out and join what I hope to be an ongoing dialog about what truly is one of the strategic issues in our culture where the gospel can be most magnified if we present it properly.

andre said...


Thanks for commenting and I'll stop by to check out your post.