For a variety of reasons, I have found myself thinking and reading quite a bit on racial issues over the course of the last year or so. Most recently, I read Divided By Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. The book, written from a sociological perspective, is a fascinating look into the racial views of evangelical Christians. The authors discovered (or confirmed?) that overindulgent individualism keeps white evangelicals from seeing and addressing the impact of structural issues on society. The heartbreaking truth is no matter how much we say we love and treat all people equally, our inability to see discriminating structures enables continued inequality.
The authors sum up the predicament of white evangelicals with a very effective illustration, maybe the best I have heard on the issue. It is somewhat lengthy, but I want to reproduce it in full:
Both Maridel and Parker were overweight, to the point of being unhealthy. They decided it was time to do something drastic. Responding to an ad for a Fat-Away program, they drove to a rural area in their state, where they were taken to separate areas of the woods. For six weeks, they would be locked into these “compounds,” as they were called. In each compound, according to the ad, were the perfect ingridents needed to lose weight. Their goal was to each lose forty pounds. What they did not know is that the less-than-ethical Fat-Away organization was really a research laboratory studying the effects of various diets, exercise programs, and weight-loss expectations on people’s weight change. Without a word to Maridel and Parker, they placed Maridel in a compound designed to help her lose weight, but they placed Parker in a compound designed for Parker to gain weight.
In Maridel’s compound were running trails, a swimming pool, state-of-the-art exercise equipment, a basketball court, and a sauna. In her cabin were magazines on proper nutrition, instructional videos on how to lose weight, an abundance of natural, healthy, low-fat, low-calorie foods, and no sweets. Each day she was greeted by fit and trim people who asked Maridel to go on a run with them, talked about how much they loved being thin, and encouraged her that she too can be thin – wonderful conditions for losing weight.
In Parker’s compound was only a tiny cabin. No exercise equipment was available whatsoever, but there were plenty of videos and movies that showed high-calorie foods looking sumptuous, more high-calorie goodies than even a sumo wrestler could desire, and just a few fruits and vegetables. The only other people Parker saw were also obese, and though they talked about losing weight, they seemed not to really care about their weight – not good conditions for losing weight.
The program called for each participant to weigh in at the start, and then every two weeks thereafter. At the end of two weeks, with neither aware of what was inside the other’s compound, Mariel and Parker were taken to the weighing room. Thy each took their turn on the scale. Maridel stepped on the scale first. She had lost nineteen pounds! Parker’s turn produced far less excitement. He actually gained two pounds.
Mariel, who assumed that both she and Parker had the same type of compound, was irritated with Parker. “We paid good money to here, Parker. How can you waste it? You have to exercise. You have to eat right!” Parker tried to make his case, but it only made Maridel more irritated. Maridel told Parker he needed to try harder. Parker, though he was depressed about his weight gain and the difficulty in exercising adequately and eating right, resolved to do so.
But try as he may, Parker kept eating too many bad foods. And he exercised very little. He became depressed, and his depression only made him eat more and exercise less. After another two weeks, back he and Maridel went to the scales. Maridel, with wonderful weight-loss opportunities, and taking full advantage of them, lost another fifteen pounds. Parker, however, actually gained more weight then he had the first two weeks. Maridel could not believe what Parker was doing to himself. “Don’t you know why we are here? Parker, this place is designed for us to lose weight. If you can’t do it here, where can you?”
“I don’t think this is a great place to lose weight,” Parked sniped. “The food here is fatty, and exercising is next to impossible.” Maridel was taken aback. Finally she replied, “It wouldn’t matter if that were true, Parker. When we get home, the food can be fatty and exercise difficult, but you must learn to eat and exercise right, regardless.” Parker, increasingly frustrated by Maridel’s comments, retorted, “No way is it as easy as you’re making it seem. I think that Fat-Away is treating me unfairly. I’m not even sure I want to lose weight.”
With that Maridel was dumbfounded. If Parker was not even going to try, if he was going to blame others, perhaps he deserved to be obese. But she also thought if only Parker could have a vision of what he could look like, he would take advantage of Fat-Away and lose weight. She encouraged Parker to image being thin, toned, and healthy. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Parker? If only you would try.”
Back they went for another two weeks. At the final weigh-in, with the predictable result of Parker not having lost weight, Maridel simply resigned herself to the idea that Parker wanted to be overweight. Why Parker would want this, she was not sure, but of one thing she was sure – until Parker decided he wanted to lose weight, he would not.
Maridel is partially correct in her final assessment. Parker will not lose weight unless he tries. His “attitude” will have to improve. He needs a vision, a goal, and the motivation to get there.
But she misses the vast difference in environments that render the correlation between individual initiative and outcome far less than perfect. Due to structural differences, only a very few with incredible willpower could possibly lose weight in an environment like Parker’s. And likewise, in an environment like Maridel’s, only a very few could possibly gain weight.
In this example, the white evangelical tool kit would direct evangelicals only to look at Parker’s effort and personal responsibility, or to render them supreme. But missing the structural conditions that both constrain and shape Parker would actually serve to maintain Parker’s weight. By not recognizing the structure that impacts Parker, the weight-gain compound is allowed to continue enticing and constraining him. Further, to tell him that his effort alone determines his weight does little more that frustrate Parker and might even, in his frustration, make him less able to lose weight. This is not the intent, but it is the result.
The same holds true for racial inequality. By not seeing the structures that impact on individual initiative – such as unequal access to quality education, segregated neighborhoods that concentrate the already higher black poverty rate and lead to further social problems, and other forms of discrimination – the structures are allowed to continue unimpeded.
It’s time to think, pray and act on these issues together.