Thoughts on Racism, Liberals and Conservatives (Particularly at ACU)

Last week I posted about the visit of Tim Wise who is speaking tomorrow at ACU on the topic of race and white privilege. Apparently, Wise's visit has sparked some controversy and provoked some heated exchanges within the ACU community. I thought I'd add my two cents.

First, for outsiders, some context about ACU. ACU is a private Christian school in Texas. Consequently, just based on demographics, there are quite a few conservative faculty on our campus. And yet, ACU is also a university. Which means we have a lot of liberals on campus as well. These two groups see Tim Wise very differently.

Here are my thoughts on the Wise visit.

First, I'm a liberal. But, then again, so are conservatives. So we need to get our terminology straight. Classically understood, all Americans are liberals. Our founding documents are two of the seminal documents in liberal political thought, the political philosophy associated with the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions. Thomas Jefferson summed up the Mission Statement for liberalism in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This notion--"that all men are created equal"--is the heart of classical liberalism. And as a liberal nation we've used this Mission Statement to inspire a variety of liberal advances within our society. Civil Rights and Women's suffrage in particular. We filter the Constitution through the liberal Mission Statement: All men are created equal.

So both Conservatives and Liberals are liberal (so I'll used capital letters to set apart classic small-l liberalism from the ideological Liberalism of the political Left). This might seem to be bland observation, but I think it important to start any debate about race with the observation that both Conservatives and Liberals are ideological blood-relatives. We are brother and sister. Our parent is liberalism. We both assert, and would die for, the notion that all men are created equal. That's what the American flag stands for, idealistically speaking.

So where do the differences come from? Personally, I think the differences between Liberals and Conservatives are due to our anthropological models, our view of persons. Practically speaking, these different anthropological models manifest themselves in issues of political implementation (crudely called "the role of government").

Broadly speaking, the two anthropological models are as follows:
Conservative Model: Intrinsic factors are the most important (e.g., virtue, effort)
Liberal Model: Extrinsic factors are the most important (e.g., environment, social location)
From these two models a host of, very reasonable, implications flow. For Conservatives, given the view that our destiny is largely in our own hands (intrinsic locus of control), the notion that "all men are created equal" is, at root, an issue of equal opportunity. "Fairness" is having an equal shot at "pursuing happiness." This is why conservatives value "competition." The government ensures a "fair fight" and, well, the rest is up to you. The only person you can blame is yourself. This is why conservatives dislike government interventions like affirmative action. Anything that looks like an "unfair" advantage runs counter to their view of persons and what the government should do to create a "fair competition" between self-interested persons. This view of persons also explains why Conservatives are religious. Their focus on intrinsic forces, virtue in particular, fits well with a religious worldview (i.e., sin is the social problem).

Liberals, by contrast, tend to focus on extrinsic factors when they confront personhood. Who you are, your virtue included, is hugely contingent upon your social location (e.g., male or female? white or black? ), environment (e.g., rich or poor? good family or neglectful?) and the fortunes of birth (e.g., beautiful or ugly? smart or learning disabled?). This creates problems because the world isn't fair. Some are born into privileged locations and environments (e.g., white, male, rich, Protestant Christian) and with a great set of genes (a shout out to all Homecoming Queens). Seriously, can anyone explain Paris Hilton's millionaire status independently of social location, environment, and genes? That she has the American Dream because she is virtuous and hard working? No, she's rich because she's lucky.

Given this luck (the critical role of extrinsic factors) Liberals are less concerned with "freedom" (the concern of Conservatives) and more concerned with equity and social justice. And since people in privileged locations aren't going to give up that privilege willingly the government has to step in to level the playing field.

This is why Conservatives and Liberals fight over the "role of government." Conservatives want the government to step back to create a maximal amount of "freedom." This clears the field for a fair competition. Work hard, be good and you'll get ahead. And if you aren't, well, work harder.

For the Liberal, the fight isn't fair. And the only way to make it fair is to intervene and level the playing field.

And all this brings us to Tim Wise and white privilege.

Actually, I want to back up to Martin Luther King, Jr. During segregation, when the playing field was obviously unfair, the case for white privilege was clear to all. Consequently, MLK could leverage segregation against the liberal Mission Statement. For anyone with an ounce of sense and empathy it was clear that the the Jim Crow South wasn't living up to "all men are created equal." Not to say that the Civil Rights fight was easy. It wasn't. But the basic liberal case for Civil Rights was very easy to make. The hard part was change. Again, privileged groups aren't going to give up their status without a fight. It's human nature. That's why the federal government had to step in.

But after Civil Rights the issue has become much more murky. Recall how, after the most significant Civil Rights battles were won, MLK turned to the issue of poverty. And his successes with poverty were pretty minimal. Why? The causal forces were less clear. A segregated bathroom in the Jim Crow South was easy to point to. Everyone could see the "No Negros Allowed" sign. But what could you point to highlight the cause of poverty? The system? Trouble was, every time a Liberal pointed to the system a Conservative pointed to a drunk. So where was the "real" cause of poverty? Go ahead, point it out. You can't. Not in any simple way. Not like a Jim Crow bathroom. Poverty is way more complex than that.

In short, the problem in America today (and on my campus) is that we've gotten to the place in America where the problems are too complex for the simplistic anthropological assumptions sitting behind the Conservative and Liberal worldviews. What is the cause of poverty? Is it extrinsic (per the Liberal) or intrinsic (per the Conservative)? Answer: It's both. And in varies from case to case, individual to individual. Both Liberals and Conservatives are right and they are both, frustratingly, wrong.

I expect that Tim Wise, as a Liberal, will highlight what Liberals tend to highlight, how the problem of race in America is extrinsic (e.g., social location, white privilege). I think he's got an important part of the truth. The role for the ACU faculty will be to take Wise's argument and fold it into a more complex dialogue. Wise's argument isn't right or wrong as such. It's an intense focus on an important aspect of the race issue: Extrinsic (often insidious) forces. Wise's talk isn't wrong. It's partial (as in "a part of a larger story"). And it's an important part to listen to.

Conservatives, rightly so, want to counter. I hope so. But not by way of rebuttal. Wise isn't wrong. He's just spotlighting one facet of a complex problem. So when Conservatives respond they should see their task as complementary. The issue is bigger and more complex than how the battle lines are shaping up on campus. It's not right versus wrong. Liberal or Conservative.

In sum, the debates between the Liberals and Conservatives on my campus are frustrating because each group is working with simplistic models and trying to use those models to understand a complex reality. I can understand how this happens on TV, where soundbites and pundits dominate. But on a college campus we should model complexity and critical thinking.

University professors should know better.

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17 thoughts on “Thoughts on Racism, Liberals and Conservatives (Particularly at ACU)”

  1. Great post. I've felt the same thing but have never put it in words. The idea of both being right seems very true. Waylon

  2. Well put! A similar understanding could be applied to our nation's healthcare debate.

    I am reminded of MLK's words, "...if we are mature, we will hear the wisdom of our brothers, who are called the opposition."

  3. Good post. I think more exploration and thought is needed on "all men are created equal." Equal in what way? Opportunity? No. Ability? No. Social position? No. Resources? No. Intelligence? No. Ethnicity? No. Privilege? No. So what does that leave? The answer could be helpful.

  4. Thomas Sowell discribes a constrained and an unconstrained view in his excellent book, A Conflict of Visions.

  5. Dave, I would say created equal is a statement about the comparative value of one person vs. another. That's what makes discrimination based on some of the other factors wrong. Waylon

  6. Dr. Beck you make a great point. I would add just one more thing. Because ACU is a Christian University, it's professors are required to profess Christianinty and be an active member of a church. I think the real travesty is that we have tried to fit all kinds of very complex realities (about racism, sexism, salvation,social justice, ect.) into the very simplistic models of liberalism and conservativism. What's worse is that we often use God to defend our position as the "right" one.
    As you and I have discussed previously in regard to my thesis, it is a constant struggle for majority groups to give up their elevated positions. The research even shows that we engage in psychological processes that justify our high status and their low status to the point that we can even manipulate low status groups to keep themselves at the status they find themselves in. It seems it is, as you said, just human nature. However, as Christians (and in this case men and women of God who are trying to teach highly impressionable 18-25 year olds how to live godly lives) we are called to resist the temptation to put ourselves first:
    "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." Phil 2:3-4
    I hope that Tim Wise's visit will provoke both liberals and conservatives on ACU's campus to work a little more at putting themselves in last place.
    Thanks for your post. I reminded me of a great article I read in October before the latest presidential election by a gifted columnist for the local New Orleans paper. In case you want to check it out:

  7. Hi Richard. First, thanks for your blog. It's great food for thought! On this subject of conservatives and liberals, do you have thoughts on the RWA theory ( It seems to have a fair bit of experimental support, and also some problems, but I really haven't checked it all out. Do you know this work and can you comment on it?

  8. Shannon,

    I was interested in what you said,

    "it is a constant struggle for majority groups to give up their elevated positions. The research even shows that we engage in psychological processes that justify our high status and their low status to the point that we can even manipulate low status groups to keep themselves at the status they find themselves in."

    Do you have some sources on that research?


  9. Excellent post. Thank you for your insight and articulate explanations.


  10. Greg,
    The sociological theory I was referring to is called system justification. It was first introduced by Jost and Banaji in 1994. Essentially, system justification argues that people are motivated to defend and legitimize the systems in which they operate—that is, the rules and sociopolitical institutions within which people function. Research has come out since then that focuses on specific mechanisms of system justification. For example, Altermatt et. al. found that subordinate groups may be less prone to challenge the status quo if they are regarded as superior to the dominant group on some socially desirable trait. Also just in 2009 an article came out by Kay describing the process of injunctification, that is, a motivated tendency to construe the current status quo as the most desirable and reasonable state of affairs. I studied this concept through the lens of sexism, however I listed a few citations of articles about the theory in general below. Hope that helps. Shannon

    Jost, J. T., & Banaji, M. R. (1994). The role of stereotyping in system-justification and the production of false consciousness. . British Journal of Social Psychology , 33 (1), 1-27.

    Jost, J. T., Banaji, M. R., & Nosek, B. A. (2004). A decade of system justification theory: Accumulated evidence of conscious and unconscious bolstering of the status quo. Political Psychology , 25 (6), 881-921.

    Altermatt, T. W., DeWall, C. N., & Leskinen, E. (2003). Agency and virtue: Dimensions underlying subgroups of women. Sex Roles , 49 (11/12), 631- 641.

    Kay, A., Gaucher, D., Peach, J.,Laurin, K., Friesen, J., Zanna, M.,Spencer, S. (2009). Inequality, discrimination, and the power of the status quo: Direct evidence for a motivation to see the way things are as the way they should be. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 97(3),pp. 421-434.

  11. Dave,
    I would hope that the "equal" would refer to inherent value as humans as
    we are not equal on other characteristics. So, whether rich/poor, male/female, white/black, we view one another as equally valuable.
    Mental health may hinge on the ability to neither view one's self as more OR less valuable than someone else.

  12. Richard,

    A couple of quick definitions. Conservative: a liberal who has been mugged. Liberal: a conservative who has been unemployed.

    Ambrose Bierce's definitions from his Devil's Dictionary. Conservative: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.


  13. Dr. Beck,
    Interesting post, but if you find the modern ideas of "conservatism" and "liberalism" to be more complimentary on this issue rather than at odds with one another, why then do you find yourself so much on the modern liberal side of the spectrum?

    I think both sides are so diametrically opposite of each other that while there is a little shared ground, fundamentally one side is predominantly correct in their approach, or neither are correct. Unfortunately, I think over examining issues such as racism and poverty through a liberal lens has been damaging for our society as evidenced by many failing public schools and impoverished inner city areas that have been dominated by left-wing politics for the last 50 years.

    Perhaps if our goal is to make all men more equal, we should find a different modus operandi than using the federal government to enforce equality on others because it does not seem to do a very good job deciding which groups are "more equal" than others. I do believe there are some macro and micro causes of poverty just as you say, but listening to Tim Wise only reinforces my view that the United States has handled this complex issue far better than any nation on the planet.

    For this, we have our Founder's belief in "E pluribus unum" (Out of many, one) largely to thank, not a belief in the equality of outcomes for all citizens guaranteed by the government. The sad truth is that somehow in our country we essentially have 50% of the population voting to make the other 50% pay for "equalizing" entitlement programs. This fact represents a stray down the path of democratic socialism that would have Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and an abundance of Founding Fathers spinning in their classic liberal graves. Regardless, the poverty question is indeed a tough one, but I just do not think the same old approach is the solution.

  14. Now, let's ask a question of our founders. "How many of you and your families would be willing to give back much of your blood-soaked freedom from imperial England for the sake of some vague, unworkable notion of socioeconomic uniformity and hyper-redistributionism?"

    The silence will be deafening.


  15. Thanks for this piece. I appreciate the nuance and attempt to treat both sides fairly. Perhaps my greatest fear when it comes to the liberal/conservative divide isn't so much the simple fact that we don't seem to know how to talk to each other (and we don't), but that we often seem unwilling to dig any deeper than a surface level of understanding. If we can't concede the nuance of where the other side may have a valid point from time to time, how can we ever expect them to listen to our arguments when we think we may have a better way of looking at things?

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