Wednesday, September 20, 2006

What "Race" Does Not Explain

Recently, I received a very thoughtful comment from a visitor to the blog who disagreed with a position I had taken. I am very thankful for the reader and the comment. While I think he missed the gist of my post (and therefore we probably disagree less than he thinks), I was prompted once again to think about the construct of "race," and particularly the explanatory power of "race." I was prompted because his underlying thesis was that racial difference explained the current state of affairs for the topic we were discussing.

It is often the case, whether in the social sciences or in political debates or discussions about athletic prowess among other things, that "race" is trotted out as an (and sometime the) explanatory factor to be considered. So, we think about educational achievement, in part, along racial lines. We think and write about race as a factor in history and politics. We assign certain social and cultural customs to "race" as an explanation of difference. And we even huddle to worship in racial enclaves, insisting oftentimes that "race" explains preferences in everything from music to preaching to fellowship choices.

The economical explanatory shortcut that the construct suggests is powerful and seemingly intractable. For once you enter into "race as explanation" for whatever you're discussing, it is almost certain that you will never emerge with a solution premised on anything but "race." In other words, you can't solve problems associated with "race" by thinking about them racially. In my experience (as a trained psychologist focusing on racial identity attitudes, as a student of African and African-American history, as someone who has put in his time working on "racial" justice at grassroots and national policy levels), "race" is a trickbag that tears away at the more fundamental anthropology revealed in Scripture from Gen. 1:26,27 to Acts 17:26a.

Though it poses as an efficient explanatory variable in the popular and scientific mind, "race" as a construct does not in fact deliver on its promises to explain very much. So, here's a short list of things that are not explained (or perhaps a better word is "caused") by race, in no particular order, with brief suggestions as to why the construct fails. It's a partial list, perhaps a debatable list, but one that I hope triggers us to be less anchored in a way of viewing people that falls short of how God views people.
  • Individual educational achievement. You're proficient at what you practice.
  • Prevalence of certain diseases. Usually has more to do with an individual's or family's diet and lifestyle.
  • Election of God. Obviously.... Eph. 1.
  • Crime rates. Perhaps James 4 is a better explanation.
  • Musical preferences. Cases in point: the success of Hip Hop in Japan... and Mark Dever bobbing his head to Shai Linne and Timothy Brindle... or my strange enjoyment of country music.
  • Illegitimacy. Rates are high across the board, but the biggest decreases in recent years have been among African Americans (teens in particular).
  • Church preference. Allowing there may be many positive reasons for making a choice, on the negative side spiritual immaturity can play a prominent role here as the superficial trumps the fundamental. And, a certain idolatry of the group self plays a part.
  • "Receptivity" to spiritual things. Romans 3:9-18.
  • Athletic ability. Again, you're generally proficient at what you practice.
  • Sexual habits or ability. Everybody does it... with varying frequencies and enjoyment levels.
  • Reading levels, eloquence or writing ability. Did I mention you're generally proficient at what you practice?
  • Racism and racist attitudes. Idolatry is a better explanatory factor and cause.
  • Quality of preaching. Good and bad to go around.
  • Political orientation or party affiliation. Self-interest, even incorrectly calculated, is probably the bigger factor.
The sharpest way of putting it is that "race" as we've grown accustomed to thinking of it... social and cultural practices rooted in biological differences and categories... does not exist. And since a thing doesn't exist it can not explain very much... much less cause anything. It's like saying the universe came into being "by chance." "Chance," strictly speaking, doesn't exist. It's a mathematical device for explaining probability (i.e., "the chances of something happening is..."). Chance is not a power, has no substance in reality. Likewise, we may use "race" to discuss probabilities of a sort... but strictly speaking, "race" does not exist as a power or causal agent in the many areas of life we care about.

However we understand ourselves, it's essential that we recognize our overwhelming sameness, all of us having been made in the image of God, from the same blood, fallen in sin, and in need of the Only Savior, Jesus Christ. And though there are observable differences between nations (ethnos, ethne), the purpose of God in creating such difference is to reflect His lordship over all (Eph. 1:22; Rev. 5:9) and His unsurpassed wisdom in the Gospel and the Church (Eph. 3:6, 9-10), not so we could further the alientaion of men by erecting a new middle wall of separation called "race."


Shawn Abigail said...

You are probably referring to something different than me, but there are differences in the prevalance of some diseases within some races, religions or population sub-groups. Tay-Sachs Disease is essentially only seen in Ashkenazi Jews. Blacks have a higher incidence of Lupus. Due to a small gene pool, Cystic Fibrosis is very common among Hutterites. And some of the large pharmaceutical companies are learning that different drugs have different effects on various population groups. For example, if your testing of a drug is done on a largely White population, you cannot make definitive statements about the effectiveness of a drug at a certain dosage within a Black population. This is not an issue of being Black or White or Jewish or Hutterite, but a simple matter of variation within population sub-groups. It makes no difference with regards to essential humanity, but it is something to be aware of.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Thabiti. If you ever get a chance, I think many would be blessed if you could classify Christian books on racial reconciliation with regard to the premises of the various authors. It is easy to get lost in the fog, but I'm learning that pastors mean very different things when they talk about the importance of racial reconciliation (in terms of the methodological approaches they advocate).