Unless you have been living under a rock this week I am sure you have heard about the troubles of Republican front runner Herman Cain. I really have no comment on the man’s politics as this is not a political blog. What I have been fascinated by in this whole episode is the racial angle. It is a classic representation of the flexible modern racial identity. Self proclaimed hip hop activist and media assassin Harry Allen has stated that “being black is incredibly random.” What does he mean by this? Mainly that there really is not a predictable pattern to it. In the 21st Century the black identity can be incredibly paradoxical as well as slippery. Cain’s posture in this episode is a great case study.
Let’s rewind to a little over a month ago. Cain gives an interview to CNN where he states that “I don’t believe racism in this country today holds anybody back in a big way.” Concerning African Americans and the struggling economy he said, “They weren’t held back because of racism. People sometimes hold themselves back because they want to use racism as an excuse for them not being able to achieve what they want to achieve.” This is post racial thought at its finest. He is the black candidate with really no black constituency, which is not a shock with comments like these.
Now lets look at this past week when the news broke of the sexual harassment accusations. Almost immediately the post racial GOP candidate plays the race card, answering columnist Charles Krauthammer’s question as to whether race had anything to do with the attacks by saying in part “I believe the answer is yes, but we do not have any evidence to support it.” Not a very post racial answer. Cain is now experiencing the whole problem with taking a post racial stance, which I’ll define as the belief that in today’s world it is no longer useful to look at life through the lens of race. When one takes such a position it makes light of the complicated and bewildering reality of race in America. It is ironic that when Cain finds himself in his first tough spot of his campaign his post racial world view goes out the window and out comes the race card, right off the top of the deck. I’ll leave it up to you to decide why he is playing it. But I will say that playing it in this situation is ambiguous at best.
One of the most dumbfounding experiences of my ministry career is when I heard a influential black pastor address an audience of close to 2,000 white pastors on the topic of race taking a post racial posture. At the end of that sermon I was very nervous about how this man of color with tremendous influence was framing the issue of race. I can’t imagine how someone of color could even take such a position, but its becoming more and more common. Bottom line is being post racial is operating under a flawed root assumption that it is possible for human beings (in particular Americans) to operate out of a space that isn’t racially influenced.
His observations concerning race were accurate in terms of his theoretical positioning of race not being biologically-based and that operating from racial lenses has caused many ripples of hurt, harm, and pain throughout the world. Also, his theology on the subject was fantastic. However, here was my main concern with his message. Preaching from a post racial posture allows too much wiggle room for people, especially Christians, to claim racial innocence. Operating under the premise that race does not matter anymore has the potential to be extremely dangerous as well as impractical.
What the preacher was missing is race is a cultural reality. Cultural reality is just as relevant to the formation of our worldviews as the theological. This is because culture is the space in which we form our values, attitudes, and beliefs about life. There is no way race will go away because culture will never let it go away. The lens of culture is permanent, and therefore the correction is not (in my opinion) to operate under the root assumption that race does not exist. People then can say “well if it doesn’t exist, I don’t have to acknowledge it.” And if you don’t acknowledge it, then there is no practical way for correcting the sin of racism. Race does exist – culturally.
To take a post racial posture is an example of racial bargaining, a term used by many scholars who observe culture. Racial bargaining is what we do (especially Christians IMO) to put ourselves at ease with the topic of race. This diffuses the anxiety that goes along with being Christian in a racially guilty society. Here is a quote from scholar Shelby Steele:
“Bargainers make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America’s history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer’s race against him. And whites love this bargain — and feel affection for the bargainer — because it gives them racial innocence in a society where whites live under constant threat of being stigmatized as racist.”
This is a strong statement. However, I challenge you to not have a visceral reaction to. Read it, analyze it, think through it, and pray on it. Then make a decision about what this scholar is saying and how it intersects with your faith. I have to wonder if this sermon would have been as well received if the audience was 95% African American, as opposed to 95% white. I know of several situations where diversity efforts in Christian ministries have been derailed because of post racial posturing.
Our world is not colorblind as it exists in full living color. Understand the differences, act on the commonalities, and let’s move forward.