Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Reflections on Race

On the occasion of Barry Moser’s keynote address at the Glen Workshop

St. John’s College, Santa Fe, New Mexico, August 1, 2016

I offer the following reflections as one footnote to Barry Moser’s moving and insightful presentation at the 2016 Glen Workshop. These are some things we might think about. The reflections are stated briefly and without much elaboration, and they are tentative, so I welcome your feedback and discussion.
The main thesis is that, in some circumstances, racism is natural and to be expected, but people of faith are obliged both to work to remedy those circumstances and to cultivate in ourselves, our children, and our communities a second nature in which our responses are redeemed and transformed toward love.

All humans, when we feel threatened, distinguish friend from foe, us from them. When not threatened, we may not draw such a distinction. That we make this distinction when feeling threatened is hardwired. Collies herd. Retrievers fetch. Humans distinguish friend from foe. How we make the distinction is learned during childhood and/or is circumstantial, influenced by features of the particular situation.
Hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution have rewarded (“selected for”) tendencies for in-group preference and in-group loyalty.
            The typical human group for hundreds of thousands of years was what is sometimes called a “hunter-gatherer group” or “small band foraging society,” composed normally of 5 to 7 families of 5 to 7 individuals each, or about 25-50 people.
During the late Pleistocene era, before the current Holocene era, radical climate shifts and associated fluctuations in food scarcity led to the flourishing and then diminishing of human populations. Our human ancestors who survived the bad times were the ones who stuck together and looked out for each other in their small groups. Others mostly died off.
Jon Haidt (The Righteous Mind, 2012) proposes this thought experiment: If, tomorrow, 90% of the world’s food supply vanished, who would make it? It would be individuals in cohesive, cooperating groups, not strong individuals who bully or try to survive by force.
“Race” is a common way people distinguish friend from foe. Race categories, like those on the U.S. Census, and the way individuals make their own classifications by race, are best understood as involving reference to a combination of phenotype (outward appearance) and ethnicity (cultural ways).
When someone says, “race is not biological,” they mean that there are no genetic markers for race. Of course phenotype is based on genotype. For instance, skin color, hair texture, nose shape, and eye shape are results of complex genetic codes within human DNA, and these are inherited. But socially determined race categories do not coincide with any interconnected markers for these physical traits. You can’t examine DNA to determine race. Race is not genetic.
Here’s the idea: If we categorized humans into racial groups, then took objective measurements on those four physical traits of every individual in each group, and then calculated average measurements for each racial group, the differences between individuals within the race groups on the four traits would be larger than the differences between the average measurements for each group. For instance, there is more variation of skin color within socially agreed upon racial groups than there is between the average skin colors of the different groups.
Though race is not biological, it is cultural. This means two things. First, it means that in different cultures, people use different race categories for understanding human differences, based on the histories of their own cultures. For instance, the race category scheme symbolized by the phrase “red, yellow, black, and white” is not universal. It wouldn’t have made sense in Jesus’ day of what they took to be the crucial difference between Jews and Samaritans, or what in the Middle East today are the differences between Jews, Arabs, and Persians.
Second, the statement that race is cultural means that in making race distinctions people have in mind not only outward appearance but also differences in social customs and family ways, though the generalizations we make about the customs and ways of different races almost always have exceptions.
In the Christian idiom and metaphor scheme, our nature as “fallen” puts us in need of redemption and the continual working of God in our lives.
Racism, according to this understanding, is sinful but is not caused by exceptional ignorance or depravity. It is a product of the human evolution of motivational impulses in conditions when we feel threatened.  That is, racism is a natural condition that God calls us to transform.
Cross-racial friendships and associations help cultivate a sense of “us” across socially specified race groups. Emphasizing differences and diversity is not as successful for cultivating “us” as is emphasizing shared purposes independently of race. This is part of loving our neighbors as ourselves.
But Jesus also teaches us to remedy the conditions in which people are and feel threatened. As followers of Christ, we do wrong when we either foster threatening conditions or passively benefit from them, for instance, when we either promote racial segregation or take advantage of race-based privilege in making the best life for our children that we can (when our privilege means others are denied privilege). For many whites, not being racist is easy. Facing up to white privilege is hard.
The beloved community is not simply color-blind. Not being an active racist is not enough. We have to cultivate a second nature, one redeemed and transformed, which some people would call “anti-racism.” How can one be an anti-racist? The beloved community is one in which we both remedy the conditions in which people feel threatened and cultivate love and shared purpose across social and ethnic divisions.  Only then do we love our neighbors as our selves.