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As African Americans enter into new levels of social and economic status, the solidarity that once defined us is being shed to reveal a diversity of thought that has always existed. Unfortunately, some of those thoughts, particularly about race, aren’t always helpful.

In recent years, I have noticed a different tone and tenor from some African Americans when they talk about race. I couldn’t explain the sense of disconnectedness and condescension I detected from these men and women, but it was there. Then I read an article on called, “Some Black Celebrities Just Can’t Stop Saying Messed-Up Stuff About Racism”. The author, Derrick Clifton, talks about three ways Black celebrities enter into “troublesome territory” when talking about race. But I think his categories apply not only to celebrities, but also to many well-meaning Black people of all social strata.

1. Colorblindness

We’ve all heard this one before, except we usually use it in reference to White people. But in a misguided attempt to transcend racial restrictions, African Americans, too, can claim “colorblindness.” In the article, Clifton cites actress Raven-Symoné (“The Cosby Show”; “That’s So Raven”) and her remarks to Oprah Winfrey as saying, “I’m tired of being labeled. I’m an American. I’m not an African American. I’m an American … and that’s a colorless person.”

The positive motivation behind claiming colorblindness as an African American is an attempt at letting character and actions define you rather than merely a racial label. But when Blacks claim to be colorblind, they often become blind to the ways racism has affected us in the past and continues to affect us in the present. More importantly, it is a denial of the glorious variety with which God made all people. Skin color, culture, and context aren’t ultimate, but they are important. The dizzying diversity of humanity is a reflection of the image of God. It is an image that will be perfected in heaven, not eradicated (cf. Revelation 5:9; 7:9).

2. Respectability Politics

“If Blacks would just pull up their pants, speak proper English, and respect authorities, most of their problems would go away.” So goes the line of reasoning for respectability politics. As defined in Clifton’s article, respectability politics is “the idea that racism will subside if black people perfectly embody values that fit with mainstream norms.” We have seen this angle taken frequently in the recent cases of fatal encounters between African Americans and law enforcement officials. Every case, from Trayvon Martin, to Mike Brown, to Walter Scott and more, has been cited as a case demonstrating that if the deceased had simply been good, upstanding citizen, he’d still be alive today.

There’s a positive manifestation of respectability politics. In the Bible, it’s related to wisdom.

Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” In Proverbs 10:13 we find that “On the lips of him who has understanding, wisdom is found, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks sense.” And Proverbs 14:3 says, ”By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back, but the lips of the wise will preserve them.”

In a biblical sense, many people can be accused of foolishness; that is, a lack of knowledge or wisdom about how to live in God’s world. While foolishness does bring consequences, no amount of wisdom on the part of African Americans eradicates the evils of racism. First, we have to ask, “Whose respectability?” In other words, who sets the standard for what is acceptable? Some biblical principles are universal, but some aspects of culture are not inherently better, they are just preferred. Whose preferences get privileged?

What’s more, as Clifton states, “An exclusive focus on black people ‘bettering themselves’ or appearing flawless negates their humanity, shifting responsibility for racism away from the people and institutions that sustain it. Black people can be model citizens, even affluent ones, and still face the evils of racial profiling, police brutality and other encounters with racism.” All people should strive for biblical wisdom, but no amount of respectability will shield African Americans from racism or relieve racists from their responsibility for pursuing wisdom as well.

3. Classism as the New Racism

Some African Americans claim race is irrelevant because discrimination is more about class these days. Rapper Kanye West represents this view. He said in an interview, “Class is the new way to discriminate against people, to hold people down … to somehow say this person right here means more than this [other] person.”

The Bible has much to say about the poor: “‘What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?’ declares the Lord God of hosts” (Isaiah 3:14). We are urged not to “oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” in Zechariah 7:10. And Jesus admonishes us, “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13).

Classism as the new racism is the least wrongheaded of the errors African Americans make when talking about race. Clearly, being rich or poor profoundly impacts your experience of life in the world. Even for African Americans, money gives you greater access to excellent education, expert healthcare, better food choices, and more. The error here is to say discrimination is only based on class. Race is a powerful factor, no matter how much money you make. Why do African Americans and other racial minorities face poverty at disproportionately high rates in this country? How does the history of race-based chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation continue to affect the economic standing of African Americans? When it comes to classism and racism, it’s a both/and, not an either/or.

The New Black

I agree with Derrick Clifton when he says that these “statements appear out of touch and even dismissive of how many other black people deal with racism on a daily basis.” Attitude is important, but a change in mindset is insufficient to substantively reduce racial discrimination. Not only that, colorblindness, respectability politics, and classism as the new racism can shift responsibility for racist attitudes from the racists to the recipients. Everyone, especially Christians, has the command to love their neighbor. But in the attempt to focus on our own agency and potential, let’s not ignore the reality of imposed sin (i.e. oppression).

To counteract the mindsets described above, Clifton offers a final word of advice: “Lived experience, while irreplaceable and important, is but one part of the equation. The other part is a commitment to remaining educated and informed about issues that affect black people…More than anything, it’s a call for nuance, improved education and, ultimately, accountability.”

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