In this fourth post in our series on J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account, Vince Bacote — professor at Wheaton College — weighs in.
As one who grew up in the 1970s with the advent of integrated schools, I grew up with a view of race relations that seemed to suggest that the path toward resolving racial strife required a commitment to a colorblind perspective. At that time, this seemed to be a wise approach because the problem seemed to be that racism was all about the oppressive application of prejudice against minorities; racists explicit and subtle held something against African-Americans and others because of the fact of their race. A way out of this was to take to hear Dr. King?s great words about judging people according to the content of their character instead of their race. If we as a society could arrive at a way to disregard color and eliminate the prejudice and oppression based thereon, then we could move toward a truly United States of America that was a land of liberty and opportunity for all.
It took a long time for me to realize that colorblindness was insufficient to address the modern problem of race, and that in fact it was really an example of good intentions without the capacity to accomplish them. Colorblindness at its best reflects an aim to resist holding someone?s race against them, but the very posture of ignoring a vital aspect of identity leaves much to be desired if the aim is genuine relationships across racial divides. Moreover, in the end colorblindness becomes a perverse code for assimilation to the norm of whiteness that is built into the fabric of modernity. This was a hard reality for me to grasp for many years; the reality of white supremacy as an unspoken assumption of the modern world just didn?t compute. This was especially the case because I associated white supremacy with the hoods of Klansmen and the swastikas of neo-nazis.
Yet, as J. Kameron Carter?s book argues, the invention of whiteness is a key to how ?race functions to support the coming-to-be and the sustaining of modern society at an inarticulate level.? (39-40) It would also explain why it was hard for me to ?buy? the idea that white supremacy was fact of the modern world; when such a view of racial supremacy operates at the level beneath articulation while sustaining the modern world, it takes some work to unearth a reality that persists in ways far more subtle than the aggression of Klansmen and Nazis.
One thing I have found fascinating thus far is how Carter in the prologue links the emergence (social construction) of whiteness to a strategy analogous Ptolemaic Gnosticism?s separation of Jesus? Jewish humanity from a ?spiritual? Christ. This separation turns theological discourse into a discourse of death because it has no place for material existence and because Gnostic salvation aims toward an escape from the creaturely existence.
The similar move in modernity is the construction of the modern conception of race which removes the Jewishness of Jesus and yields a conception of the ?white? race as central to the ideal of humanity, all the while rendering problematic the actual humanity of those not of the white race. Theology in the modern world becomes a discourse of death to the extent that it silently assents to assumptions of white supremacy, denying the full humanity on those who are non-white.
In the evangelical world I inhabit, the way this can work out is that one can say ?we?re all brothers and sisters in Christ? to those who are of a different race and never recognize that to truly have committed relationships across races requires a kind of theology that unearths and exposes the subterranean assumption about white supremacy with the subsequent implication that life together means a rejection of an idolatry of race and a recognition of the image of God expressed in other ?races.?
Ask many minorities in evangelical institutions, and see what kind of answers you get (disclosure: I am African American and things for me are pretty good and I have few complaints, but I know of many who have a different story). Of course, many would say that they believe all humans are created in God?s image, yet I would then ask ?what do you tend to envision as the ideal human?? ?In what ways do you appreciate and affirm the gifts offered by those who aren?t white (especially when you take entertainment and athletics off the table)?? It is not without reason why these are difficult questions to answer in our most honest moments.
Perhaps another path of inquiry is to ask ?how do your theological convictions compel you to regard others?? I have become aware that one of the great challenges to our theology is the test of whether it really has what is necessary to address the legacy of the construction of race in the West. I think Carter is helping us to move toward a theology that has the right stuff. We?ll see as our reflections go on.