How Do We Think About Affirmative Action as Christians?

A New York Times’ article came out August 1 that said the U.S. Department of Justice is seeking “current lawyers interested in working for a new project on ‘investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.'” Affirmative action can have a polarizing effect on people. Those two words—much like White Privilege—can invoke a fire within.

Affirmative Action

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed executive order #10925 which was the first of several executive orders for affirmative action. Three years later, the Civil Rights Act was signed and with it educational institutions, places of employment, election facilities, and public accommodations were prohibited to discriminate based on race, color, origin, religion, or sex. Of course de facto and de jure remain segregated on the issue of American discrimination.

Affirmative action may feel like “reverse racism” but as I wrote about in my article The Travesty of Philando Castile, the Need for White Repentance,

Racism is often defined as prejudice plus power. Prejudice is a preconceived judgment based on insufficient knowledge. While people from all backgrounds portray the sin of prejudice, the sin of racism is accomplished through dominance and power.

Fifty-six years after Kennedy signed that first executive order, we are sitting under a president who has a clear bias in the executive orders he signs. He’s signed ‘travel ban’ executive orders #13769  and #13780 and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) related EOs including #13767 and #13768.

To be fair, the president also signed EO #13779 “White House Initiative to Promote Excellence and Innovation at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” However the order has been received with a lot of skepticism from students and HBCU leaders. Additionally, “Trump’s order revokes a similar order signed by President Barack Obama. The biggest difference between the two actions is that the White House is now in charge of the initiative and not the U.S. Department Education.”1

The Counterfeit of a Colorblind Society

For many Americans, it is quite clear to see the racism of our current president. Yet others see reversing affirmative action as a way in which to create a more colorblind society. I have to ask the question though, as Christians, is racial colorblindness what we should strive for? As Christians, is racial colorblindness something we should strive for? @genaLthomas Click To Tweet

Let’s just use me as an example for a moment. I am white, I’m a female, a mother, half-Italian, a writer, a wife, a Christian. There are many other ways I can describe myself, but these are what I feel are the essences of my identity. Let’s just imagine that my society wants to take one of those ‘essences’ away from me. Let’s just say that I’m no longer to identify with my Italian heritage so that as a society we can create a fresh, new way of identifying as American. There’s no longer room to say that I am Italian-American. To create a more unified America, no one can be a hyphonated American—for the greater good of society.

Those who call for a colorblind society must ask themselves would they be willing to give up a piece of their identity? What if it were reversed? Would every white American give up his/her identity as white and become a person of color? What if the colorblind society was a society full of color?

Even if we all agreed to give up a piece of our identity, our issues would not go away. Every human being is multifaceted, and to reduce a person to one facet is dehumanizing. Yet we do it to each other all the time. If we gave up one piece, we’d still pre-judge each other on another piece. As Christians, I don’t see a way to justify colorblindness from the example of Jesus’ life. Jesus set about to heal people’s blindness, both physical and theological. The truth, He said, sets us free. Not the partial truth. This is why I firmly believe:

Racial reconciliation does not involve a diminutive of the truth but rather an expansion of it. Diversity is beautiful not because we are all blind to each other’s differences but because our differences allow us to collectively see the world more clearly, more fully.

In order to even arrive at the debate of affirmative action, we must first journey with, through, and in another hot topic: white privilege. The full truth is often found as we push through the things that offend us. Often the truth is found as we push through things that offend us, like 'white privilege.' Click To Tweet

Confronting & Contending with White Privilege

A Twitter-invoked Reflection

The ‘Things Only Christian Women Hear’ chat on Twitter a few months ago was louder than some people wanted it to be. Maybe even annoying to others. But it’s a place where women found camaraderie and openly spoke about the injustices they’ve undergone in serving the Church. Because of it, I realized that it was unjust when I didn’t land a church job because “it seemed better suited for a man.” Before, I believed this injustice to be a biblical truth.

The chat taught me something else even more important. I realized my offense to white privilege comes in waves. I realized I must push through these offenses to find truth.

If you are thinking ‘Ugh. Not that phrase again!’ I hear you. I invite you to push through those thoughts with me.

Sarah Bessey started the hashtag #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear. Then Ekemini Uwan (@sista_theology) started another one called #ThingsOnlyBlackChristianWomenHear. And that’s when the offense hit me. My immediate reaction was, “Why do you have to make it about race? Why do you have to make your own hashtag?”

I know too many minority women serving in the church that feel silenced on a daily basis. During the Trump election, they suppressed their concerns about racism and misogyny. They are silent, fearful of what economic or spiritual consequences might come if they show their true hearts. These are personal stories I’ve heard. Backs I’ve patted. Hugs I’ve given. And yet, my white privilege waddled its way right to the tip of my brain when I saw Ekemini’s hashtag. The offense I took made me ready to pounce.

So I speak to myself and to anyone else who had that thought or thoughts like it:

Sometimes what looks like what we whites like to call ‘reverse racism’ is actually just boldness carving a safe[r] space out for a collective of voices to be heard. Most times we whites don’t know what nonwhites have gone through even though we like to say we do. Instead of shying away from those carved-out spaces, can we press into them?

  • Can we read through ‘Things Only Black Christian Women Hear’ as much as we read through ‘Things Only Christian Women Hear?’
  • Can we stop looking at blacks and browns in our congregations as means to market a diverse church?
  • Can we see nonwhites as gifted human beings created in God’s image who have hearts, souls, minds, and strengths that can offer much to our congregations?

If we don’t, we have simply transposed exploitation from that of labor to that of looks.

A Christian Posture Toward Offense

White Privilege is a havoc-wreaking reality, and the first phase of that havoc is offense. Most people don’t move past this. ‘Most people’ shouldn’t include Christians.

Offense is self-indulgent. Offense makes us buck up and throw down. It helps us justify our anger and leads us to sin. Offense can readily lead to violations of biblical justice. The trap of getting offended is easy to get caught in. Here are two ways out:

  • Curiosity. Exploring those feelings of offense. Asking ourselves tough, self-reflecting questions. Asking ourselves questions outside of the current framework of our worldview.
  • Empathy. Imagining the lives others have lived. Imagining what we would do in specific situations where another human being is degrading us for our skin color.

What if White Privilege really does exist? What if I have played a role in it? What is meant by that phrase anyway? Why are so many nonwhites talking about it? What if I imagined for a day that it does exist?

Then comes realization as we seek the answers to these questions in places we wouldn’t normally go to find them. As we intentionally listen to nonwhite friends and other Christian minorities who publish podcasts, videos, books, and articles on the topic, we must actively silence the inner voice that wants to buck up in offense. Only a posture of humility will give us a Christ-like response to injustice. Only a posture of humility will give us a Christ-like response to injustice. @genaLthomas Click To Tweet

Ken Sande in his book The Peacemaker says,

Listen responsibly by waiting patiently while others speak, concentrating on what they say, clarifying their comments through appropriate questions, reflecting their feelings and concerns with paraphrased responses, and agreeing with them whenever possible.

Reconsidering “Equal Opportunity” Spaces

Racial Egalitarianism/Complementarianism

One of the many church debates today is that of egalitarianismm vs. complementarianism with respect to gender. I was ominously aware of this issue but unsure how to name it. It’s a rare conversation to have face-to-face where I live. Then I went to Missio Alliance’s Awakenings conference where female friends were discussing it en masse. At the base of this argument is a belief that all human beings—female and male—have the same intrinsic value; all were made in the image of God. I can’t help but turn this same discussion toward race.

Most of us American Christians who are not minorities, who are not economically poor, and who are not marginalized, naturally take the position that African American Christians, Latino American Christians, and Asian American Christians are complements in the church. Typically they are seen for the “diversity” they bring to a predominately white church. They are a means to an end of a more diverse church. If there is nothing more to that end, we are dehumanizing God’s image in a way that perpetuates our hypocrisy.

Minority Christians are not complements to the church. Yet in many cases, they sit lower than complements, especially for those who have two minority labels. I recently listened to two Asian women share stories of their church-worth that broke my heart. Minority Christians are not people we can extract bits and pieces from and then push them away when they start telling us more—just as men cannot treat women this way. Minority Christians are not 'complements' to the church. @genaLthomas Click To Tweet

When we whites interact with minority churches, we cannot just think—oh they do their thing and we’ll do ours. I am not saying we all need to worship together on Sunday or that we need to assimilate into one culture; I am saying we all need to do justice together throughout the week, within our geographical spaces as a unified front for the Kingdom of God. At the least, the predominant outlets (whether platforms, stages, magazines, or publishers) need to first lament and then listen, responsibly listen, to the voices that are different, that might incite offense, that are uncomfortable to our selfishness.

“Unlike the #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear Twitter discussion involving mostly white women, the Twitter conversations specifically tied to the black Christian woman experience did not get much attention outside of the social network. For example, the Religion News Service, Premier Christianity, Christians for Biblical Equality, Relevant magazine, Patheos and all published stories on the conversation White Christian women were having about the negative things they often hear from other Christians,” Nicola Menzie (@namenzie) said in her article Black Christian Women Break Silence Facing Sexism and Racism in Church, in Faithfully Magazine.

Reading the paragraph above and the responses below should make us lament as white Christians. The following are some responses from #ThingsOnlyBlackChristianWomenHear:

  • “Hearing sermons about being slow to speak when someone gets shot, but being told to speak for the unborn,” Armchair Commentary @thearmchaircom
  • “Racism can only be solved with Christ. There is no point in political activism” Lorrayya Williams @epigenticschick
  • “I was pleasantly surprised at how well spoken you were on stage. You’re different from the other ones.” Ilesha Graham @cocospeaks
  • “’Racism is a sin issue not a skin issue.’ Whaaaat does that even mean!?” Cami Jones @camijonesssss
  • “We need more diverse people! Do you know any awesome black women who’d like to participate?” Elsbeth Tascioni @seelolago

Acting in Affirmation as Jesus Followers

Just as the new hashtag Ekemini created was a way to create space for different voices to be heard, affirmative action mandates that space is created in employment and education. Affirmative action does not exist so that less qualified individuals can attain something only because of their skin color, but so that individuals can have a fighting chance for opportunity in spite of their skin color. In a country with a wretched history of racism, certain policies must be in place so that spaces are created where equal opportunity is actually attempting to be equal. Even if our government decides to discriminate by suing universities who have affirmative action policies in place, our call as Christ-followers is to fight for those safe[r] spaces. Sometimes we have to fight ourselves first.

At the end of the day I suspect the question we must contend with as followers of Jesus, a savior whose primary lived experience was one of cultural and religious marginalization, oppression, and persecution, is this: What are the postures and practices we must adopt in order to intentionally and proactively act affirmingly toward those who have been deprived of their dignity and opportunity in our world, as those created in the image of God?

Diversity is a colorful, scent-filled rose not a colorless opportunity trap. We have to move past our thorny offenses to grasp the beauty it offers us, our society, and most of all, the Church. Diversity is a colorful, scent-filled rose not a colorless opportunity trap. Click To Tweet [1]