Questions You Have Always Wanted to Ask About Race by David M. Bailey

Everyone has questions when it comes to race. David Bailey, Founder and Director of Arrabon sits down with Q to answer a few questions on the current state of race in America.

Q: Are we in a post-racial culture?

If you were to ask a random sample of people whether race matters in American society anymore, you would get a variety of answers. Many would say that great strides have been made since the civil rights movement. Looking back at MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” they would offer that people are now judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Others would contest that racial identity still strongly influences many aspects of their lives in American society. How do we reconcile such opposing opinions?

Undeniably, we have made significant legal and sociological progress in the area of race relations since the Civil Rights Era, but it’s important to realize how recent the civil rights era was. My generation of black people are the first generation to be born with full rights as American citizens.

Cultural norms don’t change as quickly as we would like them to change. What if on January 1, 2015 there was a law that was put into effect that stated, “America’s favorite sport will no longer be baseball, but soccer.” How long would it take before that law becomes a cultural norm?

Baseball has been a significant part of American culture for 150 years. How long would it take before the sport of soccer would become the cultural norm of American society? 10 years? 50 years? 150 years?

If you think it would take a long time to change America’s favorite sport, then what about a 350-year old cultural norm that denied the image of God in certain people groups and esteemed the cultural norm of another group?

I think the better question to ask is, “Are we in a society that honors and affirms the image of God in ALL people?”

Let’s just take media for example. There are various representations of white people, whether good or bad on television shows and movies, but the majority of Hispanic, African-American, African, Asian, and Middle Eastern characters on television shows and movies are stereotypes that have roots going all the way back to the film Birth of the Nation and other films of that period 100 years ago.

So let’s assume that every law that denies the image of God in ALL people has been eradicated. Still, there are negative social narratives being told that prevent us from being post-racial. We all want to be a post-racial society, but sociologically it’s evident that we don’t yet have a post-racial culture. Historians 100 years from now will be a better judge of the progress that’s been made and the work left to do.

Q: With the events in Ferguson, a new conversation has erupted about the new face of racism. You are speaking at Q Boston on the topic of Implicit Racial Bias, would you explain more about that concept?

American society has become more diverse, but it is still segregated. Sadly, local churches are 10x’s more segregated than the neighborhood that the church building is located in and 20x’s more segregated than the neighboring school. This is why this conversation might feel “new” to the Christian community.

Here’s the challenge for people who are recently joining the conversation about race. Most of our formal education about race has been shaped by the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”. Our formal school education narrative has been, “Native Americans were happy that colonizers came to America, so they made a happy thanksgiving meal to celebrate… Black people were slaves, and that’s not good… There was a civil war and black people aren’t slaves any more… there was something called Jim Crow that was wrong… Martin Luther King, Jr had a Dream and got shot. That was really messed up, but now we are a post-racial community… Thank you Dr. King!”

In this narrative, we are taught that racism is bad, but don’t learn that culture is good.

Generally speaking, we’ve taken the civil rights understanding of race and a section of Dr. King’s speech where he says, “I have a dream that one day my four children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character” and have thought that the best thing that we could do to combat racism is to be “colorblind”.

My friend, Greg Holder has said, “In the colorblind paradigm, we have learned that blindness is a good thing. Blindness is not a good thing. We want to be able to see. We just want to see the right things.”

The race narrative that we are taught in school doesn’t tell us that people are made in the image of God, therefore they have something valuable to contribute. The race narrative we are taught in school doesn’t teach us that we should discover the great cultural distinctions that help us become the Beloved Community, the theological vision and motivation of Dr. King.

Because we are sociologically segregated, we have something that Chris Heuertz calls a “poverty of relationships”. We tend to only make friends with people who are culturally similar to us and, in many cases, that cultural similarity falls along racial lines. When the majority of our friends are similar to us racially and culturally and we don’t know people who fit within other categories, media and other cultural narratives within our community shape the way that we think about the “other” and that is called, “Implicit Racial Bias”.

Implicit racial bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner along the lines of race.

It’s now socially unacceptable to be racist in the civil rights era understanding of racism. Therefore I believe that the majority of people are not racist according to that understanding. With that said, I believe that we all have “implicit racial biases”. I have them, you have them, and whoever reads this interview has them.

I think what people are calling “the new face of racism” is really a recognition of the influences of our “implicit racial biases.”

Q: What’s the difference between saying “racist or racism” and “racial bias”?

That’s a good question, but a complicated question.

The sin of racial superiority is both personal and social, interpersonal and systemic. Denying the image of God in ALL people has been a part of our American culture for 350 years.

It’s important to understand that the notion of race started within the legal system and created a racial class system within American Society. Just like it takes time for cultural norms to change, it takes time for past sins of racial superiority to be cleansed from our systems and institutions.

Prejudice is also not easily uprooted. Nowadays, most of us don’t believe that our own race is superior. We rarely hear of or see actions of violence or discrimination against racial minorities that were once common, such as lynchings, derogatory name calling, forced segregation, etc. The KKK has been ousted from our current cultural narrative as a social norm. With this said, there are still people who do believe and/or act on the belief that their own race is superior. Prejudiced people will always exist because people are fallen and broken.

Finally, we all have implicit racial biases. They can result in prejudice and maintain systems of oppression. The only way that we can truly discover our biases is by having a close, safe community of diverse people who help us see past our own worldview. Having these biases doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means that you’ve made sense of the world in a way that was logical for you and your cultural context.

The Apostle Peter struggled with uncovering his own implicit racial biases and prejudice. It was only through the Holy Spirit and his relationship with Paul that Peter learn to recognize his own biases. His worldview affirmed the superiority of the Jews but God confronted him to include the Gentiles as equal brothers and sisters. Even after this moment of revelation from God, Peter struggled with racial bias. It was through community with Paul that Peter was able to expand his worldview and expose his implicit biases.

Q: As a follow up to the previous question, what are some practical steps for people interested in identifying their own “inherent racial bias”?

I think the first step is to recognize your “poverty of friendships”, which Chris Heuertz so eloquently articulates. Chris has an exercise where he says, “Take out your cell phone and look at the last 10 calls that you had. Look at the call list and think through the demographics of the people you are talking to and it will demonstrate the richness or poverty of your relationships. If everyone is in the same demographic as you, then your cell phone is telling you that you have a poverty of relationship.

The first practical step is to diversify your cell phone calls. Our cell phone calls represent the people who are are closest to you, so if you diversify your calls, then in essence you are diversifying your friendships.

When you have close friends who are ethnically, racially, and socioeconomically different than you, then you can create a safe place to ask “dumb” questions.

The second practical step is to youtube and google racial stereotypes, so that you can begin to see the social history of racial stereotypes. Begin to read books about how people of color are portrayed along racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic lines.

The third practical step that I would say is begin to read authors and theologians of people of color. Read stories and histories from the perspectives of people of color. The story of American history from my First Nations (aka Native American) brothers and sisters is much different than the story I was taught in school.

Q: Bill Clinton recently stated: “We only have one remaining bigotry. We don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us.” Can you explain more what is meant by that?

I think Bill Clinton’s analysis is true in general for American society. Unfortunately, it is true within the Christian community also. I think Christena Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ addresses this issue and what to do about it very well. I really encourage everyone to read her book because it’s an insightful and enjoyable read.

I think the core of this issue, for the Christian community, is that we don’t embody the doctrine that ALL people are made in the Image of God. It’s a common practice within Christian community that people with money have more influence than people who don’t have money. Christian communities are divided along racial, ethnic, economic, and theological lines in a way that makes light of Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17.

It’s important that we own that this is a problem that we should address in honest reflection. When Chris gets us to take our cell phones out and look at who we are in intimate relationships with, we need to be open to hear what the Holy Spirit is telling us to do in order to diversify our friendships. Confessing our need for grace is the first step of doing anything Christian and we need to apply it in this situation.

Personally, I disagree with a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. My understanding of God has provoked me to think about and practice the following things:

  1. I endeavor to honor the image of God in people whom I disagree with.
  2. I intentionally acknowledge that I’ve been affected by the Fall, just like the person I disagree with.
  3. I try to develop friendships with people who have differing perspectives.
  4. I endeavor to listen deeply until I’m able to repeat the opposing viewpoint as well as they would share it.
  5. I read deeply from both sides of the argument.
  6. I endeavor to always dialog with civility.

Q: Some African American’s refer to “structures and systems” that historically have oppressed people of color. And on this 50th anniversary of MLK’s work in Selma, the Voting Rights Act helped end an example of that kind of systemic racism. What are the systems today that oppress others?

I think this question is primarily a theological question and not just a legislative question. Most Christians (not just African-Americans) would agree that no government here on earth is the Kingdom of God. The Bible tells us that the only government that has never oppressed a people group is the Kingdom of God. Therefore, every earthly governmental system from biblical times until present has oppressed some people at some point. The tension of this reality is that in Romans 13, the Scriptures tells us that all authority is ordained by God. God sovereignly and mysteriously uses government for divine purposes. We have to realize that even though God uses broken systems, every system is still in need of redemption. This will always be the case until we experience the vision of the City of God in Revelation 21:1-5.

So, the question for Christians to ask should always be, “What are the systems today that oppress others?”

Here’s a very important step when we ask this question… we have to ask oppressed people and people on the margins for the questions and the answers.

People who are educated and affluent will have a different viewpoint than people who don’t have formal education and are materially poor. People of color will have different perspectives from white people. Going back to this “poverty of friendship” phrase, if we only ask this question with a certain demographic, then we can’t take our answer seriously, because we haven’t heard enough perspectives to have a holistic understanding.

Once we enter into these types of conversations with people from other perspectives, a follow up question is “How can I sacrificially serve like Jesus in an empowering way that allows the power of God to resurrect new life in these oppressed people?”

These two questions are the questions that Christians asked for the first 300 years of Christianity. Rodney Sparks and D. James Kennedy have both written about the history of early Christianity and its effect on society as a result of asking these questions.

I think the answer to your question is that we should ask our brothers and sisters that are different than us and we should humbly listen and pray.

Q: This may seem silly, but most people want to be aware and sensitive to cultural norms so one more question. Is “African American” or “Black” the correct way to describe those with brown skin?

I don’t think that is a silly desire or question. What’s behind this question is the desire to honor a people group. I think these are the type of questions that we need to build deeper relationships.

My short answer would be to use the term African-American when you are speaking about the African-American community. Here’s the thought process behind it.

“African-American” and “Black” are often times used interchangeably, but it’s important to understand the history and sociology of the terms.

“Race” is a social construct that was created to categorize people by physical features. If my memory serves me correctly, the actual biological difference between one “race” and another is .03% or something. Race is a pseudo-science that was created for economic reasons.

During the slave period, there was a rebellion in Virginia, called “Bacon’s Rebellion” where poor Europeans, African slaves and other indentured servants unified to fight against the plantation owners. These unified oppressed people almost won, so the rich land owners decided to get legislation to pass that would do away with identifying people according to their country of origin and, instead, categorize black people as slaves and white people as free people. At this point in our history, the concept of white and black races was created. Countries of origin no longer had as much legal significance as whether one was categorized as black or white.

The challenge with the label of “black” is that various ethnicities are tossed into that label. Ethnicity is used to classify people groups that identify with one another based on common ancestry and often have shared cultural traits and group history. Carribeans, Africans, and African-Americans are labeled as “black” and that category doesn’t always fit from an ethnic perspective. Unfortunately, “black” still has meaning from a sociological standpoint.

For example, my best friend in high school is ethnically a first generation Nigerian-American and I’m African-American. When we were walking in the streets, we were treated the same as “black” men. When we went into each others’ homes, we had two different ethnic cultures going on.

My recommendation would be to use ethnic identities like African-American, Nigerian, Bahamian versus the broad label of “black” unless you are specifically talking about the sociological dynamic in America of “black people” as a whole.

If you’re interested in growing in your understanding of African-American culture and the nuances of “Black America”, I would recommend that you read Eugene Robinson’s books Dis-Integration: The Splintering of Black America.

Note: AP Photo