Color-Blindness, Racial Privilege, and the American Dream
St. Paul spoke declared that in Christ there was neither Jew nor Greek, Slave or Free, Male or Female (Gal. 3:28). Baptism, he suggested, removed these barriers that divide society religiously, economically, and with regard to gender. While this is true is principle, we’ve still not reached the point in the church where we can say that all divisions have been removed. We could operate as if these divisions didn’t exist – be blind to them – but that wouldn’t make them go away. It would be better to instead recognize the problems and deal with them.
I make this statement regarding the wisdom of Paul’s word to the Galatians as preface to remarks I want to make about the recent debate over Section 5 of theVoting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act made it illegal to prevent citizens from voting and from creating barriers to true representation. Thus, with Section 5, in certain parts of the country, which have historically been known to discriminate, changes to voting laws or redistricting plans must be reviewed by the Justice Department. It has been argued that times have changed since the 1960s, and thus this burdensome process is no longer needed. At this point I’m not equipped to argue that point. In fact, I recognize that parts of the country not covered have had egregious policies. Perhaps all voting laws should be reviewed by the Justice Department, but that’s not my point.
I want to address two statements made by key Justices of the Supreme Court. First, Chief Justice John Roberts advocates for a color-blind approach. In this way of thinking laws that seek to address injustice through affirmative action in college admissions, job promotion, or voting policies are unnecessary. Just let the most qualified person receive admission, the job, and when it comes to voting, simply trust local officials to do the right thing. And quite often, advocates of this approach turn to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and suggest that King envisioned a color-blind world. Now, I don’t doubt that Dr. King meant it when he said that he dreamed of a day when we would be judged by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin, but I’m not sure Dr. King would agree that we’ve reached that point. Yes, we’ve elected an African American President, but a considerable amount of anti-Obama animus is racially tinged. Chief Justice Roberts may have the best of intentions, but I don’t think it carries true realism. It assumes too much of humanity, that we can – at this point in our lives – see the world in such a way.
The Roberts vision is problematic in its unrealistic vision of humanity – to put it in theological terms; it presumes a level sinlessness that we’ve yet to achieve. In the mean time ignoring the reality of race and gender won’t get us to the place we desire to be.
More troubling are the statements made by Justice Antonin Scalia, who suggests that the Voting Rights Act itself is simply the preservation of “Racial Privilege.” That is, it privileges People of Color over White People. He suggests that Congress is ill-equipped to deal with such things and thus the Courts must act. Here is the great Originalist who lambastes “Judicial Activism” while at the same time taking an extremely activist position, suggesting that the Court should strike down a law that has been reenacted by Congress several times and signed by Presidents of both parties. While I find his Judicial Activism ironic, his vision of racial privilege is in my mind dangerous. He’s essentially calling into question the need to rectify the hideousness of barriers that were put in place to keep African Americans and other minorities from achieving true representation in the political sphere. Those who have had “racial privilege” since the beginning of this nation have been white folks like me. In the last election Section 5 was used effectively to block attempts to hinder voting in predominantly minority communities. Abandoning the Voting Rights Act will not put a stop to “Racial Privilege.” No, it will help continue the unchecked hegemony of White Privilege.
Until such time as we’ve reached true sinlessness, there will be need for checks and balances like the Voting Rights Act against concentrating the political power in the hands of a few or of one group. My hope is that the Voting Rights Act stands, because it is a reminder that without checks and balances our democracy will become a farce once again.