Critical Race Theory and Christianity Part I: Racism is Ordinary
Good afternoon on a beautiful SoCal sunny day (Sorry Midwest friends!). This quarter I'm teaching two legal studies courses at UCLA. The first one is an undergrad class called Latin@s and the Law, and the second is a grad class called Chican@ Legal History. I love these courses! The first one examines the experience of us Latin@s in the U.S. legal system, and it covers fascinating topics like Voting Rights, Affirmative Action, Bilingual Education, and Immigration. The second course explores Critical Race Theory and similar subjects such as Mexican educational segregation, the history of the Border Patrol, and Mexican American civil rights cases of the 1960's. I love what I teach, and I can't believe I get paid to do what I do!
At the moment, I'm really loving learning about Critical Race Theory (CRT). I think CRT scholars have gotten at a lot of deep truths about race relations in America. I'm so inspired by what I'm reading and teaching that I've decided to launch this current 4-part series on CRT and Christianity. I hope that you find it meaningful and that it may equip you with another tool for your revolutionary journey.
First off, what is Critical Race Theory? Critical race theory examines the intersection of Race, Racism, and U.S. law and policy. In other words, it looks at how U.S. laws and public policy have been manipulated and constructed over the years to preserve privilege for those considered "white" at the expense of People of Color. For example, how did racism infect U.S. law and policy through slavery and Jim Crow segregation, and how does racism continue to cripple our legal, educational, political, corporate, and public health institutions? According to Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, "The critical race theory movement is a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up, but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, context, group- and self-interest, and even feelings and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law." (Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 3).
Critical Race Theory began as a movement among legal scholars in the 1970’s and 1980’s because most American law schools ignored the topic of Race and Racism altogether. Derrick Bell, currently a visiting professor of law at New York University, is considered the intellectual father-figure of CRT. Other big names include, Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic, Angela Harris, Kimberle Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda, Ian Haney-Lopez, Laura Gomez, and Kevin Johnson, Devin Carbado, and Cheryl Harris. I’m proud to say that many of the leading CRT scholars of the world are at UCLA!
CRT has continued to build as a burgeoning intellectual movement, and it has spawned offshoots such as LatCrit (Latino Critical Race Theory) and an Asian American CRT movement. LatCrit folks like myself research and advocate around topics such as immigration, education, voting rights, and affirmative action. CRT has also been adopted and developed by scholars of other disciplines such as Education and History.
As a follower of Jesus, I'm greatly intrigued by the truths in CRT which comport with the teachings of the Bible. Of course, not everything in CRT is in alignment, but many of the big tenets of CRT line up squarely with the teachings of Jesus and Scripture. Since all truth is God's truth, this does not surprise me at all.
The first major tenet of CRT is that “racism is ordinary.” This means that racism is an ordinary part of everyday life for People of Color in the United States. Us folks of color experience racism on a regular basis as we go about our daily lives. We feel it in our one-to-one interactions with people, and in big and small ways. We experience racism on an institutional level too—in our schools, hospitals, courtrooms, political institutions, and, unfortunately, even in some of our churches. According to CRT scholars, "[R]acism is ordinary, not aberrational--'normal science,' the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country" (Delgado and Stefancic, 7).
When racism occurs on an individual level, it often occurs in the form of “microaggressions.” Microaggressions are small acts of racism which us people of color experience on a regular basis in the United States. Often they take the form of rude or arrogant racially-tinged comments or actions. Every individual microaggression is painful in itself, but when they add up, they can take an especially heavy emotional toll. “Like water dripping on sandstone, they can be thought of as small acts of racism, consciously or unconsciously perpetrated, welling up from the assumptions about racial matters most of us absorb from the cultural heritage in which we come of age in the United States. These assumptions, in turn, continue to inform our public civic institutions—government, schools, churches—and our private, personal, and corporate lives (Delgado and Stefancic, 2). “
I know God has a sense of timing, because as I’ve been pondering this topic of CRT over the past week I’ve experienced two unexpected and crazy microaggressions! The first took place last Saturday night. I rushed my son over to Supercuts to get a last minute Easter haircut before they closed at 7 p.m. Thankfully, we made it in time, and he got a pretty cut. At the end of his haircut though, I noticed that he had a few stray hairs popping up in the back of his head. The stylist told me that this was because he had two colics, or “molinos,” as we call them in Spanish. I told her, “in Chinese culture this means that a person is mischievous.” In response she said, “oh is that your cultural heritage?” I replied, “I’m Mexican on my father’s side, and my mother is Chinese.” Guess what she said next, “That’s weird!”
Talk about a microaggression! And a painful one, too. For those of us who are mixed-race, these types of microaggressions are unfortunately fairly common—and painful.
I experienced a second microaggression yesterday at UCLA. It took place as part of a tour of urban Latino students at UCLA which I had co-sponsored with a Christian urban youth organization and a great campus group called Destino. After meeting them in the lovely Sculpture Garden, I walked them up to the elevator doors of my building, Bunche Hall. I had about 20 Latino high school students with me, together with a few staff members from the Christian youth development organization of which the students were a part. When we got to the elevator, I pressed the elevator button a few times like I normally do. In response, another professor—an older white lady--then told me, “You don’t have to press the button so many times; it will work if you just press it once.”
Can you imagine how I felt? I’ve been a professor at UCLA for eight years, and I’m a full-fledged tenured professor with two doctorates and an award-winning book. The problem was with my brown skin, shaved head, two earrings, guayabera shirt and Pumas. My professor colleague assumed that I was a Latino urban student (and what would be wrong with that) or visitor to campus, and therefore for some reason this gave her the right to talk down to me in a condescending fashion. If I was a 60 year old white male professor with a white beard and a tweed coat, would she have said the same thing to me? No way! This is not an uncommon experience for professors of color by the way…
I wish I could say that the microaggression stopped there. Together with about half the students, we walked onto the elevator. We pressed the button for our floor, and my professor colleague pressed the button for hers. We looked and for some reason, the buttons for several other floors were also lit up. Was it one of the teenagers that lit them up, or were they lit up for some other reason? My professor colleague proceeded to blame the students that were in the elevator and made some angry and disrespectful comments. (As it turns out, the students did not press buttons). I was so mad. I told her, “these students are here at college for the first time…” She then looks at them and tells them, “If they want to come to college, they better ‘buck up.’”
I was infuriated. I expressed my displeasure to my colleague and she got off on her floor without saying a word. I then apologized to the students for what they had just experienced. You know what they told me, “It’s ok we’re used to it.”
What gave that professor the right to talk down to me and to these beautiful brown kids? If they felt uncomfortable to start out with, can you imagine how they felt after that experience? That professor basically said through her words, intentionally or unintentionally, “You better buck up brown kids if you want to come to this institution run by rude and arrogant white people like myself.”
Does UCLA belong to this professor only? As a public institution funded by the state of California, UCLA belongs to these urban students from Southern California. Their parents pay her for her salary, pension, and healthcare at UCLA through their taxes and hard work doing the jobs nobody else wants to do. They have just as much right to be there as she does. And, would she have said those things to them if they were of a different color? Regardless of their color, she had no right to talk down to them. Please pray that God would help me to forgive her. I'm working on it...
And so, as a person of color in the United States, I totally “get” microaggressions and racism. It is an ordinary part of my life, too.
In fact, this idea of racism being "ordinary" and "just the way it is," lines up exactly with a biblical worldview. From the standpoint of the Bible, sin is ordinary. It is our natural bent, apart from God’s transformative work in our hearts and lives. As the Apostle Paul states, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). And, racism is one of the ugliest types of sin.
Racism violates the biblical truth that all people are equal in God’s sight because all people are made equally in His image. In fact, the Bible teaches that our distinct cultural heritage(s) contribute in a unique way to the image of God in us.
As we’ve spoken of in a previous blog post (http://www.jesusforrevolutionaries.org/category/mixed-race/), every individual uniquely reflects the image of God. The Bible teaches that “God created human beings in his own image” (Genesis 1:27 NLT). Every person holistically reflects God’s image in terms of her/his: (1) individual personality, gifts, talents (Psalm 139: 13-16); (2) cultural heritage (s) (Revelation 21:26) ; and (3) gender (Genesis 1:27). In other words, when you look in the mirror you are staring at a beautiful and unique reflection of who God is. This uniqueness encompasses all of who you are—your personality, gifts, and talents; your ethnic background (s), and your gender. Together, these traits make you uniquely you. You are beautiful, special, and unique, unlike anyone that has ever lived or ever will walk this earth. By God’s design, you are valuable and uniquely reflect who He is to the world. Your ethnic background(s) are critical components to the distinct image of God in you.
Racism—perpetrated on an individual or institutional level—rebels against this truth. God is deeply offended by it. Unfortunately it is ordinary.
Quite fortunately, however, God has designed a remedy. The only deep, lasting, and permanent remedy is having our hearts transformed by Jesus. We can’t do it on our own. Human remedies can be valiant and well-intended, but they’re always short-lived and superficial. Only Jesus can give us a new heart.
And after we’ve had our hearts transformed, then we can come to see and value cultural diversity through God’s perspective. This will change the way we see and interact with people from cultural backgrounds that are different from our own. We won’t call them “weird,” and we won’t lash out at them on elevators because we think they are brown inner city kids who don’t belong in the university.
Seeing cultural diversity through God’s perspective will also lead us to speak out against the racism we see in our public institutions. We won’t be content to allow our educational institutions to treat beautiful brown and black kids unequally; we won’t allow millions of Latinos and African Americans to suffer from lack of quality healthcare and massive wage disparities; and we won’t be able to sit still when we learn of the massive “justice gap” that exists in the United States for Latinos and African Americans in the legal system.
If God truly transforms our hearts, we can never see people the same way again. After this happens we’ll never rest content until the distinct image of God is valued equally in all people, and until all the ethnic cultures of the world find deep and transformative unity in Jesus Christ.
To this end, the following words written by the Apostle Paul to the Church in Galatia 2,000 years ago give me hope:
"So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:26-28
Still in process, but striving towards God’s diversity,
Robert Chao Romero