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Almost 30 years ago, I had my first introduction to the tactics of postmodern argumentation.  A professor at Texas Lutheran made the statement that he could not be racist because as a Latino, he had no power.  Racism was prejudice plus power.  I scratched my head.  I had been taught that racism was prejudice towards another person on the basis of skin color or a sense of moral superiority towards one’s own race.  Where did this other definition come from?

Since then, I discovered the origin of the professor’s definition, and I have also discovered that such shifting of definitions are a strategy to shift an argument to heavily favor one particular side by causing confusion, obfuscation, and, in the case of racism, an avenue where one does not need to examine one’s own prejudice towards those of a different color. 

There are times to call such obfuscation out and refuse to play the game.  There are times to say, “I simply refuse to engage your definition of that word because it is not the culturally agreed upon definition of that word.”  However, there are also times to do what apologists call “defeating an argument on the opponent’s terms.”

When you can show that an opponent’s definitions or stances will fail to accomplish what they set out to do, you can cut through the confusion and bring the argument around to your favor.

Such is the case with the definition of racism embraced by those of a more left-leaning bent.  Prejudice plus power is their definition of the word, so logically, if you get rid of either of those things, racism is dismantled.  Get rid of power or get rid of prejudice, and racism comes to a halt. 

So, here is the question to ask in regards to power: has there ever been a system of thought or practice that gets rid of power?  You really shouldn’t have to wait long for an answer.  The self-evident answer is no.  Even that professor from Texas Lutheran was a bit misguided when he said he had no power.  He handed out grades, after all.  One simply cannot get rid of power structures.  They emerge no matter what, and as power shifts and prejudice remains, you simply shift who is racist and never eradicate racism.

Therefore, you must look at the prejudice part of that equation.  How does one get rid of prejudice?  Can one pass any sort of legislation which will eradicate it?  Again, the answer is no as prejudice pertains to the state of a heart and mind.  In order to change prejudice, a heart and mind must be changed.  What is the most effective way to change a heart?

From a Christian standpoint, it is the power of the Gospel which brings to fruition the baptismal promise: “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). 

As far as I can tell, and please tell me otherwise if not, this particular approach completely dismantles those who would like to excuse racism by changing the definitions, and it brings the discussion to a place where Christianity offers the best answer to truly tackle the problem of racism.

Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • Mark Ellingsen says:

    Kevin, you are forgetting our Two-Kingdom Ethic. The power of the Gospel is not about the Kingdom on the Left. Our job as Christian citizens of the state, inspired by the Gospel’s power, is to work to ensure that the power of state is distributed evenly (with a bias to the poor [see Luther’s explanations of the 5th and 7th Commandments]). The Gospel should have no direct role in informing such political efforts, lest we run the risk of trying to legislate the Gospel. And would you not agree with me that right now the power in American society and its government is not equally distributed? At least Madison and Hamilton would agree that we dare not take for granted that everyone start on an equal playing field (see The Federalist Papers, Nos.10,51,59). No, fighting racism is not just a matter of changing hearts and preaching the Gospel.

  • Kevin Haug says:

    Hello Mark,

    Thank you for your response. I fail to grasp your argument. Can you explain it a little better? I am strictly dealing with definitions and the definition set forth by those of a more left-leaning bent. I raise the critique that by the operating definition: 1) that one cannot get rid of power, which is observationally and historically a fact, and that 2) one cannot legislate the removal of prejudice as prejudice is a matter of the heart. One can legislate the removal of discrimination as our laws have done, but that does not remove prejudice. The question stands: what changes a heart so that prejudice is no longer operative?

  • Mark Ellingsen says:

    Glad to have your further clarification Kevin, but there are still several problems in your point of view which I contend “miss the boat Confessionally.” You seemed to claim that all we need when dealing with racism is the Gospel. Were racism simply about attitudes, then I agree with you. The power of the Gospel would be enough. But in fact, there are all sorts of systems in America which remain racist. Originally understanding you to recognize that point with me, it seemed that you were contending we should use the Gospel, not reason and the Law, to change these structures (a position in violation of the Two-Kingdom Ethic). See what Luther says in Luther’s Works, Vol.13, p.198 and also The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, XVI.3 to support my point. But now it seems that you contend that our laws no longer countenance racism and that we do not need to make any changes in them, just change remaining racist attitudes of individuals. On one level, I can agree that the wording of most laws on the books avoids racism. But the systems that they support are racist (and if you don’t agree you seem to have forgotten the simul iustus et peccator character of life)! Examples: Consider the Comp Stats method of policing which dominates in our police systems. It is inherently racist because it leads to the deployment of more police in high-crime areas which tend to be predominantly Black. In other words, African Americans are more likely to be targeted by police. The Gospel and good intentions alone will not change that system. Regarding economics, we say red-lining is no longer in place, but how do you then explain that a house in a white neighborhood is worth more than the same house in a Black neighborhood? In short, African Americans do not start on a level playing field with whites, and as long as that continues (no matter how many good-hearted whites there are), the system is rigged against them. For more details and examples, a book I wrote with a young Civil Rights advocate James Woodall, titled, Wired For Racism? will be of interest to you.

    This brings me to another fallacy I see in your thinking. The Gospel does not remove all sin and racial inclination (on this side of the End Times). The book my colleague and I wrote provides neurobiological evidence that we are all racist, and though the Gospel may ameliorate that somewhat, we must forever remain on guard for it in our lives and in our government. The Founders I cited in my original intervention issue warnings against the kind of optimism you reflect in your comments. Hope this clarifies my position for you. I feel like I now understand you better, but my new recognition of your optimism about the human condition does not minimize my concern about your Confessional identity. To be a Lutheran is to be suspicious of governmental structures and human motives (see Luther’s Works, Vol.14, pp.66-67). Of course, be suspicious of me too, check me out on my references, and that’s why we need a dialogue like this

    Happy to be in dialogue with you,
    Mark Ellingsen

  • Kevin Haug says:

    Hello again Mark, and thank you for your further thoughts. They helped me see things much more clearly.

    First, I will point out that your statement “it seemed that you were contending that we should use the Gospel, not reason and the Law, to change these structures,” is a very bad read of what I wrote. I am strictly dealing with the proposed definition of racism which is “prejudice+power.” If racism is defined in this manner, then get rid of either of those two pieces, then racism is gone. My argument above is that one cannot get rid of power. Power structures emerge regardless of attempts to get rid of them. Attempting to get rid of racism by dealing with the power part of that equation is fighting a battle that can never be won. Nowhere did I suggest that the gospel be brought to bear upon society’s structures, laws, or the like. Unfortunately, you seemed to have read that into my post instead of dealing with my post at face value. One might say that you have produced a strawman… I know this is perhaps not a charitable reading of your post, but it seems like you are attacking something that frankly isn’t there in the first place. I have suggested that the power of the Gospel be brought to bear upon the attitudes people hold–that is the job of the Church working in society from the ground up. From what I can tell, you seem more interested in top down solutions that are brought by the government. My interest is not in this area at this particular time. I have written about that in another Lutheran Core post about Christian Nationalism.

    The second point I would like to make is that you seemed to do the exact same thing about my position on the human condition. You might find that I actually share your position in regards to how much sin infects us and the world. But is it a stretch to say that the Gospel offers transformative power which moves us strongly away from prejudice? Hardly. St. Paul would not have written eloquently so in Galatians 3:27-28. And while we must be continually on guard against the Old Adam, the Holy Spirit does bring sanctification. We are both saint and sinner after all as you pointed out.

    Finally, I am curious as to your operative definition of racism. On the one hand, you argue that racism is more than simply prejudicial attitudes, but extends to systems within society. This would match the “prejudice+power” definition in the OP. Then, however, you also say that there is neurobiological evidence that we are all racist–but that would negate in some fashion the “prejudice+power” definition as racism would be defined as a prejudicial attitude towards people who are different than us. (BTW, I share the understanding that racism is linked to neurobiology. Some time ago I read a lengthy article stating that our brains are hard wired to notice differences. We automatically categorize based upon difference, but the actual problem comes when we automatically categorize the other as a threat.)

    Peace,

    Kevin

  • Mark Ellingsen says:

    Kevin, you offer helpful further clarifications. But the problem for me is that you seem to think our present American socio-legal structures are not infected by racism. Here’s my definition: Racism is not just prejudice against people of another race (I understand this to be your position), but also a system in which power is not shared equally, in which one or more races have social and/or legal disadvantages. I do not understand you to be sharing this second t part of my definition with me with regard to the US. And your silence about my points regarding Comp Stats and the imbalance of home prices between Black and white neighborhoods does nothing to alleviate my fears that you think that these socio/legal problems no longer remain in America. Should we not at least be suspicious that our structures remain racist (be on guard for it) if we believe that sin is evidenced in all human undertakings, as you now claim in your most recent comments? And because or if such imbalances exist in America, this is why we need Affirmative action to continue. (By the way, if we follow Luther’s definitions of the 5th and 7th Commandments in their First Use of the Law application, I don’t see any logical way for Confessional Lutherans to oppose Affirmative Action for the poor or those with with unequal power.) I’ve also got some juicy quotes from the Founders on that too in my forthcoming book with Vernon Press, Dialoguing with Critical Race Theory: Constitutional and Christian Links, This is why we need the natural law (First Use, and not just the Gospel) to norm and guide our political interventions. Will you join me in making that affirmation and then maybe together we can persuade all the political conservatives in the network to join us?

    I am glad we agree on our human Neuro-biological racist dispositions. I am with you all the way on how the power of the Gospel can in fact make a difference in overcoming these dispositions. But as Lutherans we know that the sin of racial propensities will not die on this side of the Eschaton. And if you grant this with me, then don’t we need laws which will balance out our sinful (natural since the Fall) racist dispositions — especially in business decisions and in job or school applications? Hoping this could be the beginning of a Left-Right coalition between us, and if we achieve it, who knows what partners we might find

  • Kevin Haug says:

    Thanks again for your questions, Mark.

    You are correct in stating that I do not share your definition of racism. I do not do so because it was introduced as an academic definition in the 1970s and did not arise organically within the culture. It was imposed from the top down and not from the bottom up, and it has been used abusively to say that it is impossible for certain groups to be racist because they do not have power. That is a bold faced lie. Now, that does not mean that I do not acknowledge that there were, are, and will be effects of racist, discriminatory laws and policies that once held sway in the U.S. Indeed, there are still effects, but I have intentionally not engaged in dialoguing about potential solutions to those problems. That was not and is not the point of the original post. The point was and is, and I do not believe that you have come close to debunking, that this definition of racism is flawed and that it fails to accomplish what it sets out to accomplish.

  • David Charlton says:

    When I attended seminary from 1988 to 1992, I was taught that racism requires prejudice, power and faith. The third element arises to justify the first two. I agree with Kevin, that it is a form of slight of hand to redefine a common term. I wish that there was another term for prejudice + power + faith. Perhaps we should borrow a way of speaking from Charles Taylor and refer to Racism1 and Racism2.

    So lets talk about Racism 2. One of the questions that I used to ask my professors in seminary was, “What do you call prejudice and faith seeking power?” I never got a satisfactory answer. Another question is whether “ideology” is a better term than faith. Its true any true ideology requires faith, but I think it important to make it clear that we are talking about more than a vague sense that one is correct. Such ideologies often masquerade as scientific theories. One of the things that distinguishes an ideology is it resistance to falsification and critique. White Supremacy was such an ideology. In fact it combined pseudo-historical, pseudo-theological and pseudo-scientific claims.

    However, while Racism2 is one of the most powerful and toxic combinations of prejudice, power and ideology in Western history, it is not the only one. The history of the 20th Century is full of examples of elites who used ideologies of liberation to gain and perpetuate power. In fact, I submit that when coopted by white elites, DEI and CRT have serve very well as ideologies that bolster prejudice and power. We all know of a powerful white leader of a Lutheran denomination who coopted anti-racist theory to excuse her own failure to confront racism. There needs to be a meta-critique of the critique or we will simply exchange one ideology for another.

  • Mark Ellingsen says:

    I agree, Kevin, that we are finding convergences in our common Lutheran commitments. Glad you see sin permeating our social structures. And that is my point. Since sin permeates the power structures, we need to take action towards trying to make the power structures more just, not biased as they are against the sons and daughters of Africa. And you have done nothing in your comments to speak to the data I provided regarding policing techniques (Comp Stats) and the imbalance in real estate values. I’ve got a bunch more to share after you have addressed those racist dynamics, convincing me how just and fair the system is. I also note that you and other conservative readers in the network have not responded to my points about how Luther’s explanation of the 5 and 7th Commandments mandate Affirmative Action when deployed as First Use of the Law. Now I take you at your word that you were not aiming to address the remaining injustices in society in your original article. And that was my initial problem. I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt that you did not want to let African Americans continue to endure these injustices. Alleviate me of that worry, and then let’s get together on seeking programs of redress. By your own admission now, it seems, that we agree that the Gospel alone will not make these changes.
    I wonder if what is in the background of your agenda, Kevin, is akin to David’s objections, and so I address him here along with you. I concede that the liberation agenda can readily lapse into oppression, and has done so in many non-democratic settings. But please give examples of that happening here in the States. If the episode to which you allude is the one I am thinking about, I need evidence to see how the definition of race in terms of power structures played a role in that episode. David, you object to the definition of racism in terms of power structures. But note that it is a definition widely held among African-American intellectuals (I know from 30 years of immersion in Black intellectual culture), and I would say that the polls of African Americans and their perception that racism remains suggests that this definition is is widespread in Black culture. (We need a Brother or Sister to give us some authoritative input on this matter.) But if I am correct (I am certainly correct about the definition of racism for Critical Race Theory proponents), then is not the right thing to defer to our African-American Brothers and Sisters, endorse their definition of racism, and out of Christian love work with them to address their concerns? The pastor in me tell me that if someone says they’re suffering, the thing to do is care for them on their terms, not tell them, “Oh you have the wrong definition. It’s not so bad.”

  • David Charlton says:

    Mark,

    I am aware that what I call Racism2 has been widely held among African-American intellectuals for over 30 years. I learned it 36 years ago from an African-American professor at my seminary. I don’t think I said I object to the term. I said that I would appreciate it if people acknowledge that the term is equivocal. Neither those who mean Racism1 or Racism2 when they use the term are acting in bad faith. As an aside, I have never spoken to an African-American, saying, “Oh you have the wrong definition. It’s not so bad.” That is not a reasonable inference from what I said.

    Regarding the episode that shall not be named, I see a white person who has substantial personal wealth and hold the highest office in that denomination confessing the sins of the ELCA as a body, but never confessing her own personal failure. This is typical of the way the elite white Americans use the language of CRT and DEI or their predecessors for self-justification and to perpetuate their own personal power. The fact that most elite universities in America, bastions of white privilege par excellence, have embraced the language of DEI and CRT ought to give one pause. We should remember that Class still exists in America. DEI and CRT have become markers of class status among American elites. In that way, DEI and CRT have been coopted to perpetuate the very things the set out to “critique”.

    Returning to the question of the definition of racism, this is one of the ways that elite whites signal their moral superiority over those of lower social status. When the equivocal nature of the word racism causes confusion, white elites often use that as an opportunity to belittle and shame those who are less sophisticated than they. That inflated sense of moral rectitude then reinforces the sense they have that their own wealth and status is unproblematic.

    Regarding Critical Race Theory, I am more than willing to entertain it as a theory. Theories are falsifiable and open to critique. In fact, from what I know of CRT it offers important insight to how racism operates. However, I refuse to subscribe to it as an ideology, especially when such subscription is a way to garner status. As a Lutheran, I subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions. I don’t feel the need to subscribe to political, sociological and economic theories. We would both object to a Lutheran denomination that required subscription to Creationism or Libertarianism as a condition for membership or employment. The difference between us is that I also object to requiring subscription to CRT or DEI. Not everyone who has reservations about them is acting in bad faith.

    David Charlton

  • Mark Ellingsen says:

    Thoughtful reflections, David. I understand you to concede that the definition of racism in terms of unjust structures is a valid definition in your view, just not the dictionary meaning, and so requires the speaker to make clear what he/she means. I can agree with you. When I use the term racism in that sense without clarifying it right away it is for the shock value of getting those complacent with the status quo to pay attention (too often I’m guilty of that complacency too) and get off their buts. Now, I will day that I have heard Black intellectuals and the Critical Race Theorists correct our ordinary white usage of the term, but i have been hanging out in the Black community full time for the last 30 years. As for hypocrites who use this position to their own ends, I agree they exist, but there is a lot of hypocrisy on the Right as well, and too often i see hypocrisy in me. How about you?

    The one important theological point I want to make clear is that I am not arguing that Critical Race Theory is the only way to fight racism. It is a tool belonging to the Kingdom on the Left, along with Constitution and the natural law. Our Two-Kingdom Ethic ensures that political disagreements only rarely are over matters of faith (when the natural law is violated), and most times we are arguing about best strategies. That’s the level at which I hope you , Kevin, and I are conversing. Nobody’s faith commitments are being challenged. (I had worried about Kevin that he was only focusing on the Gospel. and therefore making his positions articles of faith which would not entail disagreements with him were matters of faith. But he has since assured me that this was not his position.) I would want to nudge both you and Kevin, though, to revisit the Two-Kingdom Ethic with me, look at racism as an issue not just to be addressed by Lutherans in the Kingdom of God (to be overcome or wrestled with the Gospel), but also see it as a problem in the Kingdom on Left, and then using Confessional insights about the First Use of the Law along with reason and the natural law strategize along with the Lutheran CORE network to come up with some actions and policies — to get as worked up about this problem and poverty as we have over homosexuality (which is only a Kingdom on the Right issue regarding ordination, right?)

  • David Charlton says:

    I’m glad we are understanding each other better. However, there is an area where I think you still misunderstand me. I don’t have a preference for one definition of “racism” over another. What I prefer is dialogue facilitated by and understanding that all language is used in a cultural linguistic context, and that within different contexts there are different “grammars”, so to speak. I agree that when a European American is speaking with an African-American, the burden is on the European American to understand the African American use of the term “racism”. Arguing the point or insisting that the African-American usage would be wrong and potentially racist. On the other hand, when the dialogue is between a European-American intellectual and a working class European-American, I would hope that the intellectual would refrain from brow-beating and condescension. In that case, the European-American intellectual would be reinforcing class hierarchy. Neither is good. To some degree, what I hoping for are linguistic skills and sensitivities that are akin to those used in interreligious dialogue. (I could say more about that if you want.)

    I completely agree that racism should be address in both the Right and Left Hand Realms. As always, most of our problems arise because of our failure to properly distinguish the Realms. Christians live in both Realms and have callings in both Realms. In the Right Hand Realm, we are called to preach Law and Gospel, not Gospel only. In the Left Hand Realm, we are called to work to establish justice, which is the Civil Use of the Law. You and I agree that racism should be addressed in preaching the Law. We also agree that racism in the Left Hand Realm should be addressed through civil law. In other words, we should agree on ends even if we disagree on means. The end of dismantling racism is a matter of faith. The means of dismantling racism are a matter of reason. (I’m speaking in general terms.)

    One of the my complaints against the liberal Church in recent years, is that in practice it has tended to make agreement on means a matter of faith. To disagree on means is not only to be in error, but to be evil. I also think that the liberal Church does not know how to preach the Gospel to people after it hammers them with the Law. When you preach the full Law in regard to racism, what do you say next? In my experience, the usual answer, “Get out there and try harder!” Even worse is the answer, “Adopt the right political theory and you will be forgiven.”

    Regarding the weaknesses of the conservative Church, I think you and I would agree to a large extent. There are a lot of un-Christian things that go on in the conservative Church. Every congregation I have served has been in a majority “red” area. I have had to be vigilant against a lot of theological errors and un-Christian ideologies over the years.

  • Mark Ellingsen says:

    David, you and I are in complete agreement about how the Left too often confuses Law and Gospel, using rhetoric and actions which imply that its favorite agenda is the only valid Christian alternative. Of course the Right does that too. Since the Fall we are all legalists, confusing Law and Gospel. Now since we have reached agreement (I have the impression we even agree that racism remains in a lot of American structures and legal practices [like how we police]) , how about looking together at Luther’s expositions of the 5th and 7the Commandments in terms of their implications for First Use of the Law, and what Confessional Lutherans should do politically and lobby for in order to seem implemented in government policies. That is an invitation to the whole network, not just to you. If Affirmative Action and generous safety nets the only way to go if we want to be rationally consistent with Luther’s view of the Law here (note this is not a Gospel matter)? If not, let’s do a text study, and convince me that I misread our Confessions at that point? OPEN INVITATION TO ALL IN THE NETWORK

  • Peter Douglass says:

    If two men go fishing and one man catches 10 fish and another catches one, is that evidence that an injustice has occurred? Is ‘justice’ having the coercive power of government take away some fish from the 10 and give it to the one? Is that what Luther was advocating for in his explanations of the 5th and 7th commandments? The use of disparate impact thinking as evidence of racism makes it easy to paint over a whole host of complex problems by simply saying racism. Show me in the text of our laws where racism is endemic. If our laws are not the true source of the problem then more laws likely will not remove the problem. Theology is meant to work on people’s hearts. Turning to ‘progressive’ laws and government policy in an attempt for social engineering often just causes more disparity and division.

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