My friend Raymond Dix is an African-American, Baptist pastor in a neighboring community. I asked him to read and respond to my post on “color-blindness“, knowing that he would disagree with me on some key points. I offer his careful critique with his permission to further this needed discussion.
A Critical Analysis of Todd Benkert’s “A Color-Blind Denomination?” By a Black Baptist Pastor
Raymond C. Dix Jr.
Berean Fellowship Baptist Church
Let me begin this analysis by stating two of the most important facts found in my response to this piece written by Dr. Todd Benkert. First and foremost, Dr. Todd Benkert is my friend. Over the course of numerous coffees and snacks he and I developed a personal friendship of which I believe to have basis in a mutual respect and admiration for one another. Therefore, my writing finds root in our friendship and seeks to expand our mutual love and respect.
In addition, I believe it factual that Dr. Benkert writes from a heart filled with a desire to see the day arrive when men and women will find judgment truly based on the content of character and not the hue of skin. After many conversations with Dr. Benkert on the subject of race, and after reading this blog; I remain convinced that he is pure of heart in his efforts to seek a remedy for the stain of racism that rest too visibly upon this nation’s soul and history. This is why I felt compelled to respond to my friend.
The context of Dr. Benkert’s writing is the possible election of the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention of America. The SBC is on the verge of a historical undertaking for this religious body, especially in light of the fact that the racial history of this convention of churches closely connects and parallels America’s racial past. Dr. Benkert deserves applause for his courage in writing this piece to his peers and all who would read it. Believe me, as a black pastor who stands against government policies designed to create and maintain dependence among my people, I know firsthand the courage needed, as well as the pain endured in writing from the soul on topics often ignored or considered taboo by one’s peers, community and even ethnic distinction. For this reason I further admire my brother for his faith and conviction.
Yet it is within this context that I say Dr. Benkert’s assertions and theme deserves critical analysis. I do not answer to condemn, as the “contrarian” that some label me; but to simply offer an alternative view that might spur the conversation a bit further along, with the goal of reaching the ever elusive common ground.
In his opening paragraph Dr.Benkert states, “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.” It is my belief that Dr. Benkert offers a very simple and easy to digest definition of color-blindness in order to make the larger point that such a position while ultimately desired is not the path necessary for this moment in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention. My contention with my brother’s point is this; it is the road of least resistance. Dr. Benkert suggests a path to racial unity devoid of the hard work necessary to achieve such a goal; true relationship building and cultural competence on both sides requires a deliberate and intentional effort greater than spiritual affirmative action. The purposeful intervention in a matter that should resonate from the heart and not forced upon the head presents a myriad of difficulties while it achieves a visual goal. If we choose purposeful intervention, we will see desired effects, yet what remains unseen possibly presents the greatest calamity. The hearts and minds of those forced to accept intervention may never truly receive the light necessary to achieve the goal of true color blindness.
Dr. Benkert further writes, “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.” My response to this required me to think carefully before I wrote. Many people may misunderstand, especially those with whom I share ethnic distinction. I am sure some, maybe even most will believe my position naïve and short-sighted, ignorant of the devastating effects of racial injustice, past and present. However, on Dr. Benkert’s point I realize that I cannot fairly judge his perspective as a white male speaking for white people. However, as a black male liberated from the bondage of seeking the approval of others outside my ethnic group regarding my ethnicity or anything else for that matter; I can state that I am not now, nor ever have been a victim of institutional racism. I have encountered discomfort among other ethnicities regarding cultural distinctions, and this is very different from institutional racism. I have even convinced myself in times past that my failure to achieve was due to my color and not my competence because this was the easy means of assuaging my disappointment and hurt feelings over rejection. I am not naïve enough to believe that many have experiences quite different than my own upon which to call. I am merely stating that careful analysis of the times when I used my color as excuse for lack of achievement I experienced a sort of bondage that left me at the mercy of my skin color and how others perceived it. I realized that there is little difference between perpetual aggrieved status and perpetual victim status. The problem with assuming institutionalized racism in current times is that it runs the risk of keeping blacks in the cupboard of perpetual victims, needing some effort by the “oppressor” in order to be free of failure and enjoined on a path of success. I am sure that Dr. Benkert means well, as I stated, he is my friend and I believe we converse enough on this particular subject for me to sense the heart of my brother. However, it is a dangerous and historically unsuccessful path for blacks to depend on white efforts alone for uplift. Black Americans must stand tall, address the negative images that are true in our own community and then watch with an indwelt dignity as the Lord moves upon the hearts of those not like us, and sets us on a path of true reconciliation with our fellow human beings.
Regarding the Southern Baptist Convention’s current disposition toward race relations, Dr. Benkert makes three important statements:
- “Like the systemic racism in the larger society, our Southern Baptist culture, left alone, prefers whites.”
- “…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.”
To each of these observations I say that Dr. Benkert insists throughout this piece that racism is systemic in our larger society. I realize that in a short blog there is hardly room for citing many examples of such an assertion, but examples are necessary for a view so often repeated and so seldom substantiated, especially among so-called black leaders who profit on the notion of pervasive and systemic racism. Yet the need for persuasive evidence is necessary by the very nature of the assertion. For if by some means that systemic racism is irrelevant or at least impotent in preventing the efforts of blacks and other minorities to achieve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; then the argument for purposeful intervention fails upon this point. This argument requires that racism be systemic and perhaps even permanently woven into the fabric of the American experiment. This is why it is important to weigh the evidence of real instances of racism against other factors which may contribute to the failure to achieve. In essence, this was Bill Cosby’s argument before the NAACP in 2004, as blacks we must pay attention to factors beyond racism regarding our plight in America.
Furthermore, my friend cites a “privileged status” and a culture of preference for whites within the SBC. I ask two simple questions. Is this assertion based solely on the fact that the leadership of the organization does not reflect the ethnic demographics of the SBC? Also, is it reasonable to assume race as the reason when the leadership of an organization is mainly white while the ethnic demographics of that organization may be 90% white? Giving my friend the benefit of the doubt, I am willing to say that race may be a contributing factor. However, I would like to see the list of minority candidates for offices who ran and were rejected or the list of less qualified whites who won the elections. It is this type of evidence that Dr. Benkert may be privy to, but does not state to support the assertion of race as a predominant factor in the lack of minority leadership in an overwhelmingly white organization. A parallel example might be the NAACP, an organization that is overwhelmingly demographically black. In fact, the entire executive board is black, with most of the board members being so as well. Should we cite racism as reason for this? Or is this simply an example of an organization electing leaders reflective of constituency? One might even substitute any of the demographically black Baptist conventions and find the same reflection in leadership, despite some member white churches.
I believe that Dr. Benkert reveals the truly honorable intentions of his heart by writing, “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.” I emphatically believe that this day has already come in the heart of my friend. If one-quarter of pastors, both black and white possessed half of the passion of Todd Benkert, then racism and all conversations pertaining to it would be moot. The profound nature of this statement demonstrates and sets the path by which we must walk. It is a statement in which I stand in firm agreement with my friend. This should be the goal of our efforts. If each person applies themselves to this goal, then the integration of leadership within the SBC will happen without purposeful intervention. The danger of purposeful intervention is three-fold: a) It addresses a symptom and not a/the causal agent; b) as previously stated, it relegates the recipient to the possibility of long term victim status; c) It historically created bitterness and resentment by those force to accept this intervention in practice long before the premise finds root in their hearts.
Dr. Benkert completes this offering by writing, “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.” Again, Dr. Benkert states a worthy goal but it is the same reasoning and logic that brought the United States the election of President Barack Obama. Based largely on this argument, many admittedly voted for President Obama as an effort to demonstrate they were not racist. The mainstream media refused, in my opinion, to properly vet Senator Obama because the prevailing wisdom said it was time for the United States to distant itself from its history of violent and oppressive racism; and the election of a at least partially black president would demonstrate a post-racial America. In fact, opposing the President now has become the litmus test for being a racist. Regrettably, this means his election has had quite the opposite of this intended effect! Just after the President’s election I wrote that in my opinion, the election of President Obama would set race relations back in this country because many voted for his color. That is not to say he is not qualified, I prefer to leave that to individual judgment. However, voting for him based on skin color, in spite of the good intentions, results in an angry black populace feeling the need to defend “our President” against any criticism however warranted. It also produced a segment of white America now exposed to the need to defend themselves against charges of racism simply because they do not agree with the President. What have we lost in the process? As a nation we set aside honest debate about the real issues facing this country in exchange for a defensive posture where our citizens remain at odds over race. The SBC as a faith based, Bible believing organization must be careful not to adopt a process that could potentially leave the denomination in the same quagmire as we find this great nation. The Church must lead the way into a new paradigm, no matter the level of pain and discomfort; and refrain from adopting a means that is simpler even for the sake of expedience and conscience.
In closing I would like to join with Dr. Benkert in passionately endorsing a real conversation on race amongst the people of God. It is past time for pastors and teachers of the gospel to engage in meaningful and even sometimes difficult conversations and actions designed to build firm and lasting relationships across ethnic boundaries. Let us look to a simple yet profound effort by the Church of Acts for inspiration. The church in Acts built relationships by sharing meals. Yes, simply eating together is an awesome way to break self-impose limitations that perhaps each of us, black or white, have stamped on our actions. I am naïve enough to believe that a God that breaks the power of sin in our lives will also break and remove the power and stain of racism from our hearts, if we are willing to submit ourselves. God will and indeed has replaced the indignity of racism with the capacity of love for all of his creation in the hearts of many. It is to this end I believe that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke regarding character based judgment and it is to this end that I join my friend Todd in praying for and working toward.