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)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).
Liberal Model: Extrinsic factors are the most important (e.g., environment, social location)
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.