When it comes to the issue of race, many today advocate that we take a “color-blind” approach. That is, in our interactions with people we should refuse to allow race to be a factor at all, whether we are interacting with a neighbor, talking about social issues, or choosing a Convention president. At this point in our history, however, a color-blind approach is counter-productive to achieving the racial unity we all desire.
Certainly, the sentiment behind a color-blind approach is a positive one. It stems from a desire to act in a way that is free from racism and achieves the dream set forth by Dr. King that we judge others not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” A worthy dream indeed! We desire to be color-blind because we want to put racism to rest – relegate it to the past. The only problem is that racism is not yet past. We have not yet achieved racial reconciliation. Race still matters, especially to people of color who remain on the receiving end of institutional racism. As much as we want to move past racism, we dare not act as though the problem is already behind us.
One reason many of us whites stumble, and why we don’t see racism where it exists, is that we view racism almost exclusively in personal, individualistic terms. As a result, we often deny or at least ignore the systemic racism that pervades our culture. We reject the idea of institutional racism precisely because we are not consciously engaging in discrimination and therefore do not feel racist. Yet, when we the majority unconsciously create systems in which whites have a favored status and white culture is preferred, we are indeed perpetuating a form of racism. Further, by keeping ourselves ignorant and thus silent about systemic racism, we give it our tacit approval and are passive participants in it. We are racist, even though in our minds and hearts we hold no racial prejudice.
We Southern Baptists are not conscious racists, but that does not mean that we have overcome racism as a denomination. Like the systemic racism in the larger society, our Southern Baptist culture, left alone, prefers whites. Now, I expect a statement that provocative will cause some to balk. After all, we do not intentionally exclude Blacks and other minorities from participation. Yet, collectively, we have maintained a culture and system in SBC life in which whites have a privileged status and only whites have held the highest positions of leadership.
Even though we don’t feel racist, if we accept a culture in which our race is preferred and in charge we are accepting a form of racism. We cannot claim color-blindness until our collective actions match our sentiment. If at this point we select our leaders and say, “I don’t see color,” we may think we are saying something noble. What we are unconsciously communicating, however, is that it’s ok if we never include African Americans or other non-whites in the highest positions of leadership as long as we don’t have ill will toward them in the process. Everyone is white, but that’s OK, because we don’t see color.
In the end, our color-blindness will not be measured by how we feel about other races or what we say about racism. The true measure will be whether we have demonstrated in our actions what we believe in our hearts. The true gauge of a color-blind denomination will be when blacks and other people of color feel welcome, respected, included, and trusted as equal partners with us.
Color-blindness a worthy pursuit, but it is a pursuit that is premature. We must first pursue a culture in which all races are valued and represented as equal partners. Only then will we have the basis on which to truly move beyond the issue of race. We cannot shortchange that process. We cannot act as though race is no longer an issue. Our intentions may be honorable, but mere intentions are not good enough. We cannot afford to be color-blind if the end result is the perpetuation of a whites-only reality.
This reality is why I think that the election of black president is a needed step. This is why I think that this first step should be followed by the continued selection of men and women of godly character and competence, of every race, to share in the leadership of our boards and agencies and be included among our entity heads. Until that happens, I will still see race – not because I don’t want to be color-blind, but because godly color-blindness is incompatible with a mono-color reality.