Saturday, December 5, 2015

Race, Person, and Power

A peculiar parallel has been resting with me over the last few months, one that I'm not quite sure what to make of.

On the one hand, we have the Republican party, which tends to be nativist and reactionary, a party that is increasingly and perilously limited to old cantankerous white people.  On the other, the Democrats, progressive centrists who are deeply concerned about racial justice.  Looking out at the attendees of their conventions speaks to the truth of that distinction.

Yet the GOP slate, as has been noted by many commentators, is far more diverse.  Sure, the leading candidate is a bizarre reality TV freakshow, but the rest of the candidates look like America.  Women, Latinos, people of color from a variety of cultures.

The Democratic slate: it's various riffs on good ol' vanilla.  Would you like vanilla with organic free-trade almonds?  Or maybe with gluten-free white chocolate chunks?  Or mayhaps a dollop of vanilla on your latkes?  Mmmm, latkes.

So the "racially conservative" party has a diverse slate, and the "racially enlightened" party does not.

That reality resonated with an observation made during my doctoral work, as I contrasted small church life with the corporate megachurch.  It's a reality often observed in congregational research.  The Jesus MegaCenter I visited as part of that research was very, very conservative and also very, very diverse.  The leadership?  All white, all men.  But look into the congregation, and every hue of humanity was represented.

More progressive churches?  They tend not to be so good at that.  The liberal, open-minded oldline social justice denominations are incongruously divvied up by race, segregated out as rigidly as the Jim Crow South.  My own denomination, which is increasingly progressive, frets endlessly over what we pale-faces insist on calling "Racial-Ethnics."  And for all our fretting, we remain almost exclusively "white."

That parallel has me wondering about the impact of the conservative and progressive ethos on functional inclusion.  The progressive movement has moved beyond the universalistic humanism of the 20th century into an endlessly fractal subdivision of humankind into academic subcategories of gender and race.

That means, frankly, that you've divided folks up.  And if you divide people up, they neither get to know one another nor really share power.  When you break everyone out by socially-constructed categories, the powerful are made more powerful.  The moral, teleological unity required to create coalitions and share power?  That just isn't present.  Instead, there's a complex and tense system of alliances and competing interests.  With an intentionally divided system, where identity and particularity are the ruling principles, power rests with the strongest faction.  Their definition of "justice" rules the balance.

And on the other hand, you have the conservative ethos, which denies that race is a meaningful category.  It's all about the integrity of the individual, about personal morals and values.  Within that system of belief, individuals manifesting and articulating that position are inherently trusted.  Race may be there, but it is viewed as irrelevant.  Are you "good?"  Or are you "bad?"

The challenge in that system, where lines are blurred willfully by a shared aim, is that the net effect is the same.  The dominant culture defines the flavor of the melting pot.  And leadership, in that ethos, tends to fall to those representing the dominant culture.  In a radically individualized system, where particularity has been atomized down to the personal level, power flows to the strongest.

So sure, you may see more diversity.  But the result will be mostly the same.  Power will flow to the powerful.

Which it always does.

Both systems think they have the answer to race and power, both progressives and conservatives.  And both are wrong.