Every time I read through the “Harvard Story” discussed in our LAST POST, I can’t help but think of our American churches—particularly our theologically conservative, predominately White, churches and denominations.
Harvard Law School (HLS) was certainly no conservative institution, yet it also had difficulty diversifying its leadership, its decision-making processes, its overall institutional commitments, and its racialized power structure. It became clear, as we saw, to students of color that those invested with institutional power at HLS considered it perfectly natural and just to have entirely unequal representation within the halls of leadership, so long as the “standards” were considered race-neutral, color-blind, and accorded with the traditional liberal conception of “merit.”
The dominant discourse on race and merit at the time was completely consistent with the notion that the standards for entry into law teaching were indeed colorblind, and that the so-called pool problem was simply the unfortunate consequence of meritocratic and fully defensible academic standards. (“Twenty Years of Critical Race Theory,” p. 1268)
In fact, an institution serving a diverse set of educational “customers” could, it was assumed, justly retain an entirely White faculty and still claim to have honored the goals of the Civil Rights Movement just twenty-five years prior. If the “pool of qualified minority professors” was too small, this reasoning inexorably implied, it was a problem falling entirely in the lap of minorities themselves; bootstrapping and time were the appropriate remedies. The Dean of HLS, and even many traditional Civil Rights lawyers, appeared to fully endorse a system whose terms of entry were considered fair, effective, and objective measures of “merit” despite yielding racially disproportionate outcomes.
The Most Segregated Hour and HLS
We, as the American Church, seem to have a similar set of issues. In fact, we seem to be further behind now than was HLS then. It continues to be true, 60 years following its first utterance by Dr. King, that “11 o’clock on a Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America.” And more than just segregated “customers,” minority representation in leadership bears little proportional correspondence to the racial make-up of parishioners and students. Of course, as we’ve learned from Dr. Bell, “mixing” is not necessarily an end in itself. Rather, the redistribution of institutional power and resources is what is necessary to change the subordinated circumstances of people of color, even within Christian spaces. But segregation and lack of proportional representation are nevertheless important indicators of lack of substantive progress, especially within institutions like the Church, premised on unity in Jesus Christ.
What the HLS students discovered in their own milieu was that the post-Jim Crow “standards” employed by Harvard—though ostensibly color-blind, race-neutral, objective, and merit-based, nevertheless preserved much of the institutional distribution of racial power that had existed during Jim Crow. Thus, these “neutral” “standards” themselves were rightly called into question. As we read before,
[U]nderlying the School’s inability to think beyond the pool problem was a failure to bring [its student diversification] commitments inside the institution’s everyday practices and norms, a failure to re-evaluate the givens and non-negotiables with an eye toward rethinking those dimensions of law school practice that were forged in, consistent with, and facilitated by formalized inequality.
It was at least remotely possible to imagine that aspects of legal education that had easily co-existed with and even normalized racial subordination might be reviewed with a skeptical eye whether or not the institution itself formally practiced segregation. The wholesale failure to consider the interests of underserved communities, the failure to interrogate the gaping contradictions between the formal commitment to the rule of law and the realities of racial dictatorship through much of the nation’s history, the failure to reward innovative legal theories or to explore the reformist potential of legal advocacy—all these features of the pre-civil rights elite legal education might have been viewed from a position of skepticism given their collaborative role in normalizing broad scale societal stratification. That “excellence” and “merit” could be attached to legal thinking that consistently failed to take up some of the most complex legal problems in society was troubling enough during segregation’s tenure, but to effortlessly reproduce these values in a postsegregation world seemed to undermine rather than enhance the claims of social progress. …
Obviously, a different conception of what interests and constituencies the Law School would serve would have created a different “pool” of people qualified to teach there. The School, however, was stubbornly attached to its traditional view of merit and its particular mission. Its insistence on viewing the crisis through the prism of the pool was a repudiation of the students’ larger demands that it rethink its foundational assumptions about how to prepare a new generation of students for the careers that they there were planning to pursue. (pp. 1273 – 1274)
I think we can better understand this phenomenon, both for HLS past and the American Church present, by applying what we’ve learned in Part 5 of this series, covering the critique of “liberal integrationism.”
Soon after the close of the Civil Rights Era, progressive White and middle-class Black Americans were able to successfully absorb the message of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) into White Americans’ existing ideals of liberalism. Racism, according to this analysis, is just a specie of the general mythological, backward, and irrational emphasis on the particularities of humanity, as opposed to the more enlightened, universal understanding of humanity, human nature, and the attendant ideals of transnational/transhistorical normative social relations. According to CRT scholar Gary Peller,
The meaning of race has been grafted onto other central cultural images of progress, so that the transition from segregation to integration and from race consciousness to race neutrality mirrors movements from myth to enlightenment, from ignorance to knowledge, from superstition to reason, from the primitive to the civilized, from religion to secularism, and, most importantly, the historical self-understanding of liberal society as representing the movement from status to individual liberty. In other words, integrationist ideology comprehends the issue of racial domination by viewing race relations through stock images about the nature of progress in liberal society…. (“Race Consciousness,” p. 774)
As a result, rather than addressing the subordinated circumstances of Black Americans, the civil rights establishment (CRE) began to center their continuing civil rights work on the liberal integrationists’ analytic of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation, thereby eschewing race-conscious remedies—those which would redistribute resources and power—in favor of “neutral standards,” like “color-blind merit.” Given time, the establishment argued, through ordinary legal challenges, appeals to antidiscrimination law and court precedent, knowledge would soon overcome prejudice, race-neutral standards would overcome discrimination, and integration would overcome segregation.
In fact, the real culprit standing in the way of this progression was soon understood to be race-consciousness itself—seeing race and allowing it to count for anything. For liberal integrationists, the way to overcome prejudice, bias, and stereotypes was to universalize social subjects by divorcing them from their historical context and group identity. The terms of this coalition between White progressives and Black “elites” would prove to be the rejection of both “backward hillbillies” and “Black agitators” in exchange for an ideal of universal liberal enlightenment.
[T]he price of the national commitment to suppress white supremacists would be the rejection of race consciousness among African Americans.” (p. 760)
Once the ideology of liberal integrationism had been widely adopted, both Black nationalists and White supremacists could together be rejected as backward, prejudiced, unenlightened, anti-liberal enemies of racial progress in America—and, more realistically, enemies of the presumed “race-neutral” status quo. Rather than racial subordination or unequal distribution of power and resources, “color-consciousness” itself became the hallmark of racist violation, whether “perpetrated” by White or Black Americans. And I don’t think there is any doubt that this has also been the predominate understanding of “racial reconciliation” in the American Church.
An Application for the Church
Now, an important corollary of this ideology, according to Peller, was that “integrationists assumed that fair, impersonal criteria simply would be what remained once the distortion of race consciousness was removed” (p. 777). That is, liberal integrationist believed that once all reference to “race” or “color” were removed from law, from institutional policy, and from metrics for decision-making, what remained intact would be race-neutral, fair, and undistorted by the trappings of bias and particularism. And here is where we get to some truly important application. Peller continues:
One manifestation of this assumption was that the purportedly broad social transformation reflected in the national struggle against racism resulted in hardly any change in administrative personnel. The transformation from a Jim Crow to an integrationist racial regime was thought to require only a change in the rules of social decisionmaking. The same whites who once carried out the formal program of American apartheid actually kept their jobs as the decisionmakers charged with evaluating merit in the employment offices of companies and in the admissions offices of schools in the post-segregation world. In institution after institution, progressive reformists have found themselves struggling over the implementation of racial integration with the former administrators of racial segregation, many of whom soon constituted an old guard “concerned” over the deterioration of “standards.” (pp. 777 – 778)
Is this not absolutely true of churches, denominations, conventions, and seminaries throughout the country? When a denomination finally condemned slavery, did the leadership, who had for so long argued in its favor, step down? When a church allowed African Americans to come down from the balconies and equally participate with White parishioners, did the pastor and elders give up the power they had recently wielded toward opposing ends? When seminaries finally allowed their first Black students, were those who had hired professors, set the institutional agenda, determined its standards, and oversaw its admissions replaced by those who had been objecting to the discriminatory practices? What about more recent racial reconciliation resolutions passed by denominations over the last few years? Are those who argued against these resolutions still pastoring, ruling, and teaching in our churches and seminaries?
To be clear, as Peller points out, this is not to suggest that there should be wholesale firing of all that had come before these important policy changes; rather, the point is that “the continuity of institutional authority symbolizes the limited nature of social reform that most integrationists associated with the achievement of racial justice.” Under liberal integrationist ideology, it would appear, all that was needed was removal of explicitly racial decision-making procedures and institutions would become race-neutral, regardless of the continuity of institutional authority.
Peller then takes it a step further:
Even more dramatic than the continuity of personnel (since the particular people in power eventually age, retire and die), the same criteria that defined the “standards” during the period of explicit racism continue to be used, as long as they cannot be linked “directly” to racial factors. Within liberal integrationism, racism, seen to consist of a deviation from neutral, impersonal norms, focused on the exclusion of people of color, with the idea that all the rest of the cultural practices of formerly segregated institutions would stay the same. From within the integrationist ideology of neutral standards, no conceptual base existed from which integrationists could question whether “standards,” definitions of “merit,” and the other myriad features of the day-to-day aspects of institutional life constructed or maintained during segregation might have reflected deeper aspects of a culture within which the explicit exclusion of blacks seemed uncontroversial. (p. 778)
Here again we must be willing to ask probing questions of our institutional histories. Are we to assume that churches and denominations—whose leaders and members had enslaved, segregated, and/or barred their own Black parishioners from institutional authority for centuries—could simply remove the shackles, take down the signs, open the doors, and nothing else internally would need to be changed? These institutions had held their doctrinal standards, understandings of virtue and justice, their qualifications for leadership, their diaconal commitments, and their order of service, music, and preaching to be consistent with racial enslavement and segregation for all the time they had participated. Are we then to believe that none of these inherited “race-neutral” ideas, practices, and institutional commitments are legitimate sites of racial critique? I think not.
Liberal integrationist ideology is structured so that some social practices are taken out of the economy of race relations, and understood to be undistorted by racial power. … This narrow image of the domain of racial power characterizes the tendency of liberal integrationism to become part of a self-justifying ideology of privilege and status. The realm of “neutral” social practices from which to identify bias and deviation constitutes a whole realm of institutional characteristics removed from critical view as themselves historical, contingent and rooted in the particularities of culture—a realm that is itself a manifestation of group power, of politics. (pp. 778 – 779)
I’d suggest that this is exactly what we’ve seen over the last few years. We’ve seen brothers blocked from ministry for voting Democrat, seminary professors called Marxist for addressing systemic racism and police brutality, multiple churches leaving the SBC after constant hostility, and we’ve recently seen 6 White seminary presidents unilaterally determine what can be considered acceptable antiracism. And all of this, to be sure, has followed decades of inattention, apathy, and inaction toward racial justice as White Christians seek comfort in color-blindness; “in Christ there is no Jew, no Gentile,” after all. Further, every explanation and justification given for these events is, predictably, cast in the “race-neutral” language of Biblical qualifications, doctrinal standards, merit, and preservation of unity, all supposedly for the sake of Biblical fidelity.
Finally, these supposedly race-neutral ideas, practices, and standards—many of which had coexisted with both slavery and Jim Crow—are now presumed to have emerged in a post-racial era unscathed, as God-given means of distributing access and leadership. They also just so happen to preserve the “most segregated hour” as well as the maldistribution of institutional power, resources, and leadership that continues to plague the American Church. In fact, the very presumption of race-neutrality accorded these inherited socio-religious practices allows those with institutional power to legitimize continued segregation and maldistribution, as well as their own positions within.
As with the Harvard Law story discussed above, it might be that the Church’s
failure to bring its [racial unification] commitments inside the institution’s everyday practices and norms [is largely due to] a failure to re-evaluate the givens and non-negotiables with an eye toward rethinking those dimensions of [church] practice that were forged in, consistent with, and facilitated by formalized inequality. [And i]t was at least remotely possible to imagine that aspects of [church practice] that had easily co-existed with and even normalized racial subordination might be reviewed with a skeptical eye whether or not the institution itself formally practiced segregation.
[t]he wholesale failure to consider the interests of underserved communities, the failure to interrogate the gaping contradictions between the formal commitment to [Biblical standards] and the realities of racial dictatorship through much of the nation’s history, the failure … to explore the reformist potential of [Biblical doctrine]—all these features of the pre-civil rights [Christian practice] might have been viewed from a position of skepticism given their collaborative role in normalizing broad scale societal stratification. … Obviously, a different conception of what interests and constituencies [Christian institutions] would serve would have created a different ‘pool’ of people qualified to [lead. Accordingly, the American Church’s] insistence on viewing the crisis through [supposedly race-neutral standards] was a repudiation of [Black Christians’] larger demands that it rethink its foundational assumptions about how to [minister to people of color].
It’s at least worth considering.