Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Seeing Against Our Self-Interest

As I noted here Saturday, the existence of retrospectively obvious injustice does not mean it is discernible to people at the time, even to those who participated in it. That's how you get white people in the deep south in the 1960s expressing genuine puzzlement about why blacks would be protesting. After all, they said, blacks had it better than whites did. Many people were that blind to what was actually occurring. It was in their interest to be blind.

It is important for us to face the fact that it is in our interest as well, yours and mine, to be blind. One of the great stumbling blocks for readers is the sense that, if ongoing inequality and discrimination were as bad as what this blog describes, you would know about it. If reality was as I describe and as the statistics show, you would be hearing about it from more sources and would be seeing it with your own eyes.

But why must that be so? I raise the opinions of white southerners in the 1960s not to claim a false symmetry between then and now, but only to show that it is possible to believe people are getting a fair shake even in a society whose entire structure is designed to ensure that is precisely what does not happen. It is all the more understandable that we believe it now, after so many improvements have been made.

Polling shows that the majority of whites believe that the remaining work to be done primarily involves minorities fixing their cultures and getting to work.  Whites who cling to this view do not have much in the way of statistics or social science research to back them up. They just have, like southern whites in the 1960s, a strong sense that it ought to be so.

Think of it this way. Let's say you are, like most of my readers, white and middle class, and were probably born into a family that fit the same profile. What do you possibly have to gain by admitting that you're privileged? From a typical American perspective you really don't have anything to gain, and may have much to lose. That is one the reasons the realities of an unequal and unjust society often make so little impression on us. If we let reality intrude, we find that responsibility is not far behind.

For Christians this is all the more true. From the proverbs of the Old Testament to the letters of Paul, the Bible consistently calls us to recognize our privilege and treat all we have as a gift to be poured out for others who have been less fortunate. This is the ethic we are called to live by across spiritual, social, and material dimensions. The common sense American attitude that we have worked for what we have and are entitled to it is considered sinful in Christian thought. Yet we frequently function as Americans first and Christians second.

I know enough of the culture of evangelicalism to understand that the preceding paragraph might be confusing to some readers, because many pastors do not preach in ways that challenge their parishioners' most deeply held Americanized beliefs. We're not accustomed to thinking in this way. But I challenge you to read the Bible for yourself. You'll find that the ideas above are basic Christian theology.

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