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QUICK TAKES – Struggling for A Deeper Understanding of What Racial Justice Means After Baltimore

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In this week’s edition of QUICK TAKES on current and newsworthy issues involving religion and theology by POLITICAL THEOLOGY TODAY, we take a hard look at the race crisis in America in light of the death of Freddie Gray and the turmoil in Baltimore. We posed the following questions to our contributors: What do the seemingly regular reports of deaths of young black men at the hands of police officers as well as the resulting protests tell us about the conditions of race and race relations  today?  How can theologians and religious thinkers join in a critical productive way the absolutely vital and imperative “conversation about race” that we all know we need to have, but have shied away from?  What are major points that need to be made, or themes that should be developed, that have been largely missing from run-of-the-mill journalistic commentary?

Two Quick Takes contributors respond to our questions.

QUICK TAKES is a feature managed by PTT Current Affairs Editor Carl Raschke.  If you would like to be part of the “rapid response teams” that responds in this section to news of the week, please send the editor an email along with a brief description of the general topics on which you would like to comment.

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Some Theses Concerning Racial Justice

I teach at a historically black university in Baltimore.  My students were directly impacted by the recent unrest in the city.

One had his car burned near campus, while another student saw her mother’s car get burned and could not get an ambulance to come to her home when her fiancé had difficulty breathing during the height of the turmoil. Students from our department have participated in cleanup efforts and have spoken at rallies.

Racial justice is obviously a problem that extends far beyond recent events in Baltimore and elsewhere in the nation. In the spirit of  “Quick Takes,” I offer here seven summary claims, or theses, about racial justice that have emerged out of eleven years of discussions with my students and colleagues about what racial justice is, and why it is often misunderstood.  These theses should be a productive starting point for any “conversation about race” we desperately need to have in this country.

Racial justice equals racial equality. If that is the case, it one of the easier forms of justice to conceptualize. Racial justice is not merely what happens to individuals, but rather what happens to groups. So long as deep and persistent racial inequality exists, no amount of commitment to anti-discrimination will yield racial justice.

Racial stigma, the “spoiling” of black identities due to persistent racial inequality, is the single most important consequence and cause of ongoing racial inequality. Unless one concludes that racial inequality is caused exclusively by forces external to the lives of blacks as a group, then one must conclude that some defect of character is disproportionately present among blacks and so blacks as group become stigmatized. It is this stigma that makes black poverty, black incarceration, black unemployment, black educational failure, etc. seem normal.

Given racial stigma, the problem of racial injustice must be characterized in terms of white supremacy. White people are assumed to be successful until proven otherwise, whereas black people are assumed to be broken until proven otherwise.

It is possible to think well of individuals from a group while thinking poorly of the group as a whole. Thus, no appeal by white people to having black friends, neighbors, and coworkers absolves them of implicit commitments to white supremacy. One aspect of the ongoing humiliation of black individuals is the need to prove to others that they are not one of “those” particular black people.

Failure to separate questions of responsibility for individual actions from responsibility for actions that effect groups of which those individuals are a part is one of the core confusions made when thinking about racial inequality. It is entirely possible to hold individuals responsible for their bad choices while insisting that those bad choices are not the cause of racial inequality.

Efforts to explain racial inequality, even in part, in terms of the bad choices made by some black individuals creates racial stigma and contributes to obscuring and denying the responsibility of “we the people” for the political, social, and economic policies and forms of discrimination that have created racial inequality.  Racial inequality is thus conceptually different from economic inequality.

While differences in effort and ability are partially relevant to economic inequality, no such partial appeal to internal forces is possible when thinking about racial inequality. If there is no difference in character and ability between races, then differences in effort and ability should track equally between racial groups.

To suggest that racial inequality is at least partially the result of black effort and ability is to suggest that blacks as a group are inferior to whites because their individual natures seem to have something to do with their group outcomes. The comparison of racial inequality to economic inequality is thus inherently stigmatizing.

Belief in the pathological inferiority of blacks as group leads some police officers to harass, abuse, and even kill black people at rates far in excess of whites, and white fear of black inferiority provides unspoken support for such violence on behalf of efforts at black containment.

The best ethical framework for thinking about racial justice is, in the language of recent work by Nicholas Wolterstorff, the duty not to treat people in a way that “under-respects” or “under-values” their (God-given) worth as persons. Racial justice thus begins not with a teleological consideration of what we can do better as a nation, but with the de-ontological horror of what we have done. We have a duty to create a nation that does not systematically deny the full human worth of entire groups of people.

That will not be possible until racial inequality is no more.

Joe Pettit is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies and Religious Studies Advisor at Morgan State University in Baltimore.  He has published essays in The Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Political Theology, The American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, and The Journal of Islamic Law and Culture.  He has also published numerous op-rds in the Balitmore Sun.  He is currently on sabbatical working on a book length manuscipt entitled Christianity After Evolution.

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We Need A Social Theology of Privilege in the Wake of Baltimore

Last week, Political Theology Today guest contributor Anna Floerke Scheid ended her reflection “Requiem for Freddie” with a poignant demand:

No More. Not in my name. No more slow deaths of grinding humiliation, harassment and degradation in my name. No more brutality visited on black bodies in my name. No more death penalties – judicial or extra-judicial – of black human beings in my name.

It is the repetition of the phrase “not in my name” that captured my attention with respect to thinking about Baltimore. I find it particularly illustrative of the ways we must call the state and its cadre of law enforcement agencies and personnel to task for abandoning the protection of the common good for all, privileging the protection of the common good for some, what I’d like to call a social theology of privilege. Those of us who enjoy economic, racial, gender, ethnic educational, religious, and other privileges are the subject of “not in my name”, called to acknowledge privilege as one side of the coin in our nation’s economic apartheid.

David Cay Johnston, in Al Jiazeera-America, described the ways in which economic apartheid shaped life in Baltimore decades before last week’s riot: “Poverty in Baltimore rivals even that of the developing world.

A 2014 Johns Hopkins University study found that 15-to-19-year-olds in Baltimore are worse off than their counterparts in New Delhi and the Nigerian city of Ibadan.” Johnston notes an economic geography divided by particular zip codes and streets, signaling different levels of poverty suffered therein, with stratified communities where economic prospects and life expectancy vary in levels comparable to a number of developing countries.

Under these conditions, Johnston very much agrees with the phrase “riots speak the language of the dispossessed”, as youth in certain districts go through their high school education conscious that their life prospects most likely include trouble with the police, and a life of scraping by on wages well below the poverty line for the US.

It is not difficult, then, to see damaging dynamics of a social theology of privilege rear their head as the nation tries to make sense of the events last week and since last summer’s demonstrations in Ferguson. Among them:

The moral divide between the deserving and undeserving poor: This dynamic is grounded on a theology of just desert. Some people deserve their poverty and its effects because they are considered lazy, making bad decisions, and chronically irresponsible in life.

This particular moral  anthropology was evident when folks in New Orleans were suffering the effects of Katrina in 2005, unable to evacuate the city, or whenever a rap sheet of offenses is brought up in relation to black victims of police violence. Such an anthropology of desert is applied wholesale to particular demographics (African Americans, migrants crossing the border, LGBTQ folk, Muslim communities), regardless of whether there is actually any criminal offense involved.

The primacy of order as divinely ordained:  I make the case elsewhere (here as well as here) against the violent effects of a theology that privileges civil order as divine command, especially when coupled with racialization and “othering”.  As a central tenet of a social theology of privilege, this vision places a premium on law enforcement as a way to protect the state, civil society, and private property as a sacred project, baptizing human institutions.

But without declaring a jubilee and its periodic admission of the sins of publically sanctioned violence, the primacy of order ends up condemning certain groups to perpetually be considered enemies of the state, suspect by their very being, and morally unworthy of the goods of society.

The ‘American Dream’ as the reward for the New Jerusalem. From Manifest Destiny to a Crusade Against Terror, the project to build the New Jerusalem in this nation has embedded in its DNA violence toward the other in the construction of a dream of the good life defined mainly in terms of private property and rights in civic life.

The images of boarded up and vacant buildings in Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis, and so many other cities in the U.S. do not reflect this dream. Its residents are therefore outside of the American Project and the concomitant American Dream, a threat to the divine reward of the New Jerusalem.

The proclamation “not in my name” is the radical call to unmask a social theology of privilege, and condemn the violence it sanctions. It is also a fervent call for jubilee, not just to set blacks and others free from being victims of this sacred violence, but also those condemned to perpetrate and perpetuate it. It is lament and prayer, condemnation and proclamation.

MT Dávila, a Roman Catholic laywoman, is associate professor of Christian ethics at Andover Newton Theological School. She has published in the areas of the use of force, Latino/a ethics, the role of the social sciences in ethical reflection, immigration, and race. She is currently focusing on two projects, a book on the preferential option for the poor in the United States (2016, Westminster John Knox Press), and research with leaders of communities of faith on the intersection of Christian discipleship and activism.

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