This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume30, number3(2007) as a companion to the feature article In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit of Diversity: Multiculturalism Goes to College by A.B.Caneday. For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
Observant individuals may ask, “What are the dynamics that render members of a minority group in need of paternalistic assistance from the majority group?”
Shelby Steele astutely addresses this question in White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era (New York: Harper Collins, 2006). Steele incisively explains that advocates of multiculturalism (e.g., America’s whites, members of the majority group) endeavor by “affirmative action” to regain a sense of human dignity against a stigma of “white guilt” for slavery, for Jim Crow laws, for discrimination, and for racism. Steele demonstrates the seductive nature of “affirmative action.” It does not truly provide authentic assistance to minority individuals. Affirmative action puts recipients in a double bind. To receive the patronizing preferential favor one has to bow to paternalism and accept one’s inferiority and dependence upon members of the majority group. Affirmative action’s design is to provide a sense of redeemed humanity, of renewed virtue, and of restored dignity to members of the majority group who seek to purge themselves of “white guilt.” Its seductive power resides in the fact that while preferentially offering handouts based upon ethnicity or skin color it provides a sense of virtue. It is not virtue at all; it is paternalism and patronization. He writes:
So post sixties American liberalism preserves the old racist hierarchy of whites over blacks as virtue itself; and it grants all whites who identify with it a new superiority. In effect, it says you are morally superior to other whites and intellectually superior to blacks. The white liberal’s reward is this feeling that because he is heir to knowledge of the West, yet morally enlightened beyond the West’s former bigotry, he is really a ‘new man,’ a better man than the world has seen before” (White Guilt, 148). Steele observes, “Because dissociation is a claim of superiority, it generates a kind of collective narcissism—an irrational yet utterly certain belief in the moral superiority of post-sixties, dissociational liberalism. In this liberalism one does not argue by logic or principle; one argues by dissociation. Only in dissociation are authority, legitimacy, and power available. This grounding in dissociation, with its assertion of moral superiority, is what gives today’s liberalism its narcissistic quality (151).
As Christians, it seems proper that we should go beyond this explanation, good as it is. Preferentialism is prejudice dressed up as Christian virtue. To redeem themselves from the stigma of America’s past, Christian advocates of “affirmative action” seek deliverance from “white guilt” through dissociation from racism. They embrace the seductive notion that to treat individuals of “minority groups” with preferentialism based upon ethnicity or skin color is both permissible and virtuous, if not godly and Christian, so long as preferentialism is positive (favoring “affirmative action”) and not negative (advocating “prejudice” or “discrimination”). People who embrace this view fail to recognize that preferentially favoring individuals based upon ethnicity or skin color, though seemingly positive and godly, is simply another form of prejudice (James2:1–13). Preferentially favoring individuals based on ethnicity or skin color is as sinful as prejudicially discriminating against individuals based on ethnicity or skin color. This is because partiality, whether taking the form of paternalism or prejudice, looks to superficial human qualities as the basis for favorable or unfavorable action toward others (cf. 2Cor.5:13–21). Preferentialism, no less than discrimination, entails paternalistic dehumanization of individuals by treating them as members of an approved group rather than as individuals made in the image and likeness of God.