Yesterday, my fellow contributor Bruce Ashford published an important blog post titled “On Affirmative Action and ‘Wishing You Were Black.'” Bruce accurately points out what I’m just beginning to learn: it is difficult for caucasians to understand exactly how minorities view racism because our position of cultural privilege so informs our perspective. The whole idea of a “colorblind” approach to race matters is really only beneficial to those who are already sitting in the proverbial catbird seat in our culture. I would add that it is also a decisively “modern” interpretation of race since it assumes a sort of neutral vantage point that simply doesn’t exist.
The reality is that white evangelicals have often botched the race conversation, normally without intending ill toward minorities. Just look at the way so many of us fumbled the Trayvon Martin tragedy, often sounding more like rightwing radio and television personalities than redeemed vessels called to be instruments of peace in a fractured world. Perhaps closer to home, or at least white evangelical subculture, are the recent reminders that some evangelicals are profoundly ethnocentric in their understanding of African American culture and history. (See the articles here and here, but note that several of the men who participated in the controversial event have offered apologies in recent days.) It has never been more important than now for evangelicals who look like me to work hard to engage the race conversation winsomely, thoughtfully and with an open mind and a teachable spirit.
I want to recommend two books that evangelical pastors and other leaders should read, especially if they are caucasian. The first is Soong-Chan Rah’s book The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (IVP Academic, 2009). Rah is a professor of evangelism and church growth at North Park Seminary in Chicago. Rah argues that American evangelicalism is thriving spiritually and numerically, though most of this vitality is ignored by evangelical leaders and the media because it is primarily among ethnic minorities and immigrants. Rah provides numerous suggestions, some of them quite provocative, for how white evangelicals can better understand these trends work to create space for minority evangelicals to make a more meaningful contribution to evangelical institutions and leadership.
The second book is Anthony Bradley’s recent edited collection Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (P&R, 2013). Bradley is a theologian and ethicist who teaches at The King’s College in New York City. Bradley assembles a theologically and ethnically diverse set of evangelicals to engage topics such as the paucity of ethnic minorities in evangelical institutions, the relative lack of minorities on the faculties of evangelical colleges and universities, the non-participation of many minority scholars in the evangelical academy and the challenges and potential perils of white churches and denominations planting congregations in minority-dominated communities. Bradley’s introduction, which recounts his own experiences with evangelical racism, is particularly poignant.
I hope you will read these books and find them as challenging as I have. I know there are loads of other helpful books out there, so please feel free to recommend some in the comments. And for those of your who are Southeastern Seminary students, I would urge you to consider taking Prof. Walter Strickland’s January course on Black Theology.