Current Page: Politics | Thursday, July 28, 2011
Black and Tired: Anthony Bradley Talks Race, Politics, and the Church

Black and Tired: Anthony Bradley Talks Race, Politics, and the Church

Dr. Anthony Bradley is associate professor of Theology and Ethics at The King's College in New York City and a research fellow at the Acton Institute. He talked to The Christian Post about his new book, Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development.

CP: What was your purpose for writing the book?

Bradley: The larger purpose for writing the book was to give people an example of what it might look like to bring a Christian worldview to issues, public policy and social ethics that are clearly grounded in a Christian worldview, but aren't always explicitly Christian, but still makes a point that is reasonable and persuasive. And, to help people really think about the connections between anthropology and the ways we think about our governance – how we govern people given what we think about the nature of the human person.

CP: Is it written mostly for a Christian audience?

Bradley: It's written mostly for a general audience, not necessarily Christian or non-Christian, these are public essays. One way to describe this would be, maybe, public theology. Some of the entries were actually published in major newspapers, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Detroit News, for example.

CP: You argue that many government programs intended to alleviate poverty and racism have actually made things worse. Is there a role for government in issues such as racial disparities and poverty? How would you see the government’s role changing to make things better and not worse?

Bradley: It's important to remember, I'm not one who thinks in terms of the binary, government versus anti-government, but rather, what is government good at? And, how can government's role create more freedom and liberation, more economic empowerment, for people who are on the margins?

What we have seen, especially in the last 40 to 50 years, is that some of the programs that have intended to bring social, political and economic empowerment for those black folks on the margins have actually been complicit in keeping them there – well intentioned programs that just haven't worked out.

What we see historically, at least in the states, when government is actually structured in a way to let its players, its shareholders in society, to actually function well and freely, it actually helps with black progress and black liberation.

Government's role is really to set the rules of the game so that institutions like the family, education, business, non-profit organizations, etc., can really flourish well and do the things they are specifically designed for, equipped for, and experts at.

Government is limited in its ability to do the types of things, for example, that parents can do. What we want to think about are ways we can position government to do things that it does well, but also to position those other institutions to be free to do the things that they do well.

CP: Is there an example of a government program that has done that?

If you think about our court system, for example, government is uniquely designed to enforce contracts, to settle disputes between competing parties, protect citizens from violence through the police department. There have been some infrastructure projects that have contributed to the economy moving ahead.

When the U.S. government was founded it was intended to secure those things that allowed other sectors of society to function well. When government sets the rules of the game and allows other sectors of society to function, things actually go well for those who are on the margins.

If you want an example of when government has tried to do things and not worked well, you can point to something like the minimum wage, which was intended to help people on the margins but actually hasn't.

What minimum wage intended to do was to set a floor on what people earn so that people could take care of their needs. The problem, of course, was that when the government set that floor it completely changed the incentives that influences the types of decisions that business people make to cover the costs of their artificial wage.

What happened, inadvertently, was that companies, because they had to find this money to pay people more than what the job was actually worth, had to find a way to cover their budgets, which actually included things like, moving out of the neighborhood, moving to a new country, things like that. So, folks on the margins, in the long term has less jobs available to them because companies had to find ways to cover those costs.

If you think about it in that respect, that well intentioned program actually hasn't helped as people intended because no one else thought about the long term consequences and what would happen next as you impose a minimum wage.

CP: What role to do you see for the Church in helping alleviate poverty, or racial disparities in society?

Bradley: What makes government work, what makes these institutions work in our context is a context where we've had shared social mores and shared cultural values. One of the things the Church has done in the West, and particularly here in the United States, is form and shape the mores and values of people so that we can take full advantage of those institutions.

So, one massive role that the Church plays in society, and this is why society needs the Church, is to form and shape the virtues of society so that men and women, when they enter into government, when they enter into the market, when they enter into all these other institutions, they exercise their rights and pursue those institutions to flourish in ways that are actually virtuous.

What makes a market function well is when consumers actually have moral virtue, because when a society doesn't have moral virtue, the market is going to produce things that are actually not virtuous.

The Church, therefore, has a role to play in shaping the mores of society. Without that virtue formation that happens in society, you end up with a culture, a society, a marketplace that can actually produce things that undermine human dignity and undermine moral virtue.

Just a recent example of this, there was a series of studies done by the Journal of Negro Education at Howard University in 2010 that demonstrated that when at-risk inner-city youth were involved in Church the black/white achievement gap in terms of academic performance and graduation rates were actually eliminated-eliminated completely!

The second most important determiner of academic success for an inner city black youth in a broken home at an under-performing school, outside of the family, is involvement in Church.

If we want success, especially for blacks on the margins, if you think about black kids, it's not that the Church is, sort of, a peripheral institution, or tangential, it's actually vital for the success of those on the margins because of all the other things that Church provides for people when other parts of their lives are actually broken. What we need in society, I argue, is more moral forming institutions involved in people’s lives so that the other things we have are not overburdened to do the things they're not equipped to do, so that people can actually flourish and live well.

Some of my secular friends are far too content on the one hand saying government can do everything and some of my other friends on the other side are saying let the market take care of it. Within the context of Christian social thought, that has never been the case. It has always been the case that even with these other institutions-government, markets, business, education, etc.-there still has to be moral formation that occurs in order for those institutions to do the things that equate to their own design.

When we have vital churches, strong churches, alive churches, that actually allows the other things in our society to function well. When churches are on the decline, we begin to look to other institutions to do the type of moral formation for individuals that churches used to do for society.

So, for example, the new definition of moral really becomes that which is legal. Without moral formation, what people define as right and wrong is not really what is virtue, but whether or not it's actually breaking the law. We're seeing a plethora of cases where people are doing all sorts of immoral things, but they're not illegal. So, people are defending themselves, saying “well I'm not breaking the law so what's the big deal?”

Or, what we find is that we're expecting institutions like schools to be places of forming and shaping moral virtues when the classroom is not necessarily a place to be teaching about morality. We lean too heavily, then, on institutions to do what they are not equipped to do.

Classroom instruction is for teaching people the subject matter. Teaching people how to be good and virtuous citizens, how to be contributors to the common good in terms of their own moral virtue, is not something that education has been traditionally assigned as its vocations. We didn't used to depend on schools for that, now we do-now schools teach parenting classes, they do sex education, teachers are given instruction in terms of teaching kids their own virtue formation.

One of the reasons I accumulated those essays in the book is to say, “listen, this is an 'all-hands-on-deck' approach we've got to have in society. If we want to address some of these issues, we cannot expect to depend solely on government or solely on the market to address the types of issues we have before us today. We're going to have to depend on a wide array of institutions to do the things that those institutions do well.

What we don't want is government to undermine the healthy functioning of other institutions by good intentions that haven't really been thought through beyond phase one. There are examples in the book where government begins to do too much and it actually undermines its own agenda.

You can think about it this way. If you tied someone's shoes for them for too long, they lose the incentive to tie their own shoes. If government does too much for people for too long it changes their motivation and incentive for doing the types of things that contribute to their own flourishing and their ability to help others flourish. So, we have to really think, with any government program or policy, how is this going to change how people behave in the long run? How is this going to affect what motivates people to act in the long run?

In low income areas, in rural America, and also in an inner-city context if you change the incentives for people, with respect to them taking responsibility for their own lives, what we saw with AFDC (Assistance for Families with Dependent Children) is people responded accordingly. That's why we had to change it in 1996, because people became too defendant on those programs and they got trapped.

The reason we went from AFDC to TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) is that government was doing so much for people it actually changed their incentives and motivations from doing the types of things that kept them dependent on government in the first place, and inadvertently made them more dependent on the system.

As we move forward we want to think about ways to introduce the types of incentives and motivations that allow people to take care of themselves and make contribution to the common good in ways that contributes to overall cultural virtue.

CP: What role does racism play in economic differences? I saw a (Pew Research) poll this morning, for example, that showed the wealth gap between whites and blacks have increased since the recession.

Not only has the wealth gap increased, the unemployment gap is unbelievable. I think for African-Americans it is 16.2 percent, for whites it's 8.7 percent, something like that. There are all sorts of disparities that have been exposed because of this recession, more blacks dropping out of the middle-class than whites.

When we look at disparities between whites and blacks when it comes to unemployment, when it comes to income, we continue to confuse race and class.

It would be a better measure of the role of race, for example, if we looked at unemployment versus full employment, if we looked at incomes according to economic class as opposed to the sort of white/black numbers. I'm not sure that always gives us the best information because upper middle class blacks are doing fine. That top quintile of folks have been doing great for 30 years. Blacks at the bottom quintile group continue to struggle, but you see the same struggle with white folks in that same quintile group in, you know, rural West Virginia.

We have to first ask, is it really about race, or is it about class as we look at some of those disparities. What I can say is that America is still in the process of recovering from its racial history and I certainly know enough of the reality of the effects of fallen sin to realize that, of course, there is some racial discrimination, there's class discrimination, there's gender discrimination, in various aspects of our economy.

Now for those organizations and institutions that want to racially discriminate, we should go ahead and let them experience the economic consequences of doing that. So, if you choose not to hire the best skilled people because of race, then let them go ahead and bear the consequences of letting them be out-competed by the company that hires the best people no matter what, in ways that disregard things like race.

If we allow race to actually play out, in terms of those who discriminate, I think what you'll find in an economy that's free, they're going to suffer because of it. In a global economy if you want to compete, you've got to hire the best people no matter what, and if people want to be that dumb and discriminate according to race, let them.

The only way that racial discrimination cannot affect a company’s long term viability is if government allows that to happen. That's what we saw with Jim Crow. Government protected racial discrimination so that it didn't hurt companies in ways that it actually would have in a free market. If you open that up, those companies that actually discriminate are going to suffer.

At least here in the states as we look at some of these racial disparities by number, we want to be careful not to assume that disparities implies discrimination, and, secondly, we want to make sure that we're paying attention to these disparities as they function along the axis of class. Because, poor whites in America continue to struggle, just as poor blacks, Hispanics, and Asians do as well.

Unfortunately, if we impose a racial hermeneutic on it we will actually continue to miss the root of the problem and attempt to remedy that aspect in ways that don't actually help people who are poor regardless of their race. The problem isn't that black folks are poor, the problem is that poor folks are poor.

So, what can we do to help those who are poor, on the margins, regardless of their race, be able to take care of themselves and their families and make contributions to the common good?

CP: If I can tie that back to some of the things you said at the beginning of the interview. Regarding dealing with the sin of racism, would you say that would be role for the Church to play, rather than the government?

Bradley: I would say that government is not the cause of racism. What you see in institutions, with respect to racial practice, is a reflection of people's morality. So, if you want to see institutions that function in ways that are virtuous, you have to form and shape the morals of the people who are full participants and decisions makers and leaders of those institutions.

If we want to see racial discrimination decline with respect to the workplace, making structural changes does not necessarily change people's virtue. It doesn't change their heart.

What we find is that when we make structural changes, it introduces some additional effects that may not actually get at the root of the problem. The root of the problem is that people, and this is a universal human problem, struggle to see every human person as made in the image and likeness of God. And, I'm not sure that government is the best at changing people's perceptions of other human beings with respect to their dignity and virtue.

You can still be a racist and hire African-Americans for your business. You can still be a racist and have a whole workplace full of blacks and Hispanics. And that racism is going to come through in the ways that you treat those workers on the job.

If we want to address some of those issues, we need to look at those institutions that get at the root of those problems. This is one of the things that the Church, historically, does well and excels at above any other institution, which is change people's hearts so that they begin to see their neighbor in a completely different light than they did before they were changed.

Unfortunately, in this country, we want people to be morally changed, morally formed, without depending on moral institutions that have been proven and that demonstrate historically that they are effective at changing those morals so that it’s reflected in the social mores of society.

Dr. Bradley's book is available on Amazon. You can also watch a short video of Dr. Bradley introducing the book on his blog.


Most Popular

More In Politics