The Common Good

Jesus and Affirmative Action

In a vote of 7-1 on Monday, the Supreme Court sent an affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas, back to the lower court for a re-hearing, while reaffirming the benefits of diversity in institutions of higher learning and authorizing the continued use of race as one factor in admissions. By sending the case back to determine if the University of Texas could find no “available, workable race-neutral” alternatives available to them, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg explained the court did not issue a strong enough support for affirmative action. I agree. By virtue of our nation’s not-so-distant history, race simply is a factor that should be considered.

For nearly 250 years, blacks were bought and sold like cattle and carriages on auction blocks across America. When the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1807, the U.S. bred slaves to reinforce the fundamental source of its wealth: free labor. When shackles fell from the wrists and legs of black men, women, and children — and the Reconstruction Era took hold — black families thrived and held public office. Then, for the next 80 years, thousands of white men in the South covered their faces with sheets, burned crosses, lynched 3,445 black men, women, and children, and instituted a web of laws that made it nearly impossible for blacks to vote, attain equal education, or own a home of much worth. At the same time in the North, blacks, Latinos, and Asians were redlined into urban ghettos where access to good housing, competitive education, adequate health care, effective law enforcement, and gainful employment was scarce.  

When did this reign of terror against African-Americans end? The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed so-called “Jim Crow” laws that had blocked blacks from voting and legally reinforced racial segregation. The acts laid the foundation for legal recourse against all manner of discrimination from that day to present. 

Now consider this: We have made only two generations of progress after 17 generations of comprehensive, structural, systematized, and racialized oppression. And the effects of that oppression still haunt us today.

According to a February 2013 Brandeis University Institute on Assets and Social Policy study, the wealth gap between white and black Americans in the United States grew from $85,070 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009.

The study, which tracked 1,700 working-age households over 25 years, revealed two primary drivers of the disparity: home ownership and access to higher education. The study also found that access to higher education is profoundly affected by the home ownership gap. The historic gap in years of home ownership coupled with the artificially disparate values of homes in white communities and communities of color have widened the education gap. Families of color simply have less home equity available to draw from for their prospective students of color. Further, these families have less historic accumulated wealth to pass down from previous generations. This, coupled with the rising cost of university tuition, causes higher rates of college debt and higher drop-out rates due to financial strain for low-income students, especially students of color. 

Affirmative action programs, such as the one instituted by the University of Texas, recognize and aim to reverse the impact of 330 years of systemic, structural, and race-based favoritism. They also recognize that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed only 49 years ago and the effects of three centuries of oppression will take more than 50 years to overcome.  

Furthermore, UT’s policy recognizes the value of diversity of worldview within institutions of higher learning in order to produce graduates that are prepared to compete in the pluralistic 21st-century global market. UT’s program made it possible for high-performing minority students in majority-white high schools to attend college even if they were slightly below the Top Ten Percent limit. 

Jesus offers Christians a profound model of affirmative action in the story of Jairus and the Bleeding Woman (Mark 5:21-43). Jesus was approached by Jairus, an affluent leader of the synagogue, which was the local seat of both religious and civic power. Affluent or not, he was still human and, therefore, vulnerable. So, when his daughter fell ill and lay dying, Jairus did what any desperate dad would do: He sought help where he could find it. Jairus pleaded with Jesus to come with him and heal his dying daughter and as Jesus went with him, suddenly, Jesus felt power go out from him in the midst of the pressing crowd. Jesus stopped and ended up listening to a bleeding woman. Imagine standing in Jairus’s shoes. Imagine how grueling every single minute Jesus spent with this bleeding woman must have been for Jairus. Every second that Jesus lagged, Jairus’ daughter slipped further and further away. The text says Jesus listened to the woman’s whole story. Imagine.

Why would Jesus do this? Jairus asked for his help first. Jairus was a leader in the community. He was in the privileged class, the class that got stuff first and got the best of it. This woman was a lawbreaker. She should not even have been inside the city gates with the kind of sickness she had. She could have been stoned for being in the midst of a crowd like that. How could Jesus put Jairus’ daughter’s life at risk for a law-breaking woman?  

Here’s how: Jesus knew the woman’s history. Jesus understood the anguish this woman must have felt when her body stopped working properly. And he understood the social implications of bleeding for a woman. Although he was a man, he was able to empathize with this woman. 

So, while Jairus waited, Jesus stopped and listened to the woman’s whole story. Finally, Jesus called the woman “daughter;” bestowing on her the dignity of belonging. To the one who has been ghettoized, Jesus says come into the center. It is time that we hear your story. It is time that we focus on you. And according to Jesus, this woman was worth Jairus’s wait. This is affirmative action.

And after Jesus affirmed the woman’s healed state publicly, thus clearing the way for her to rejoin society, word came from Jairus’s home; his daughter died. But, Jesus said to Jairus: “Do not fear, only believe.” Then Jesus raised the girl from the dead.

As Christians, we must recognize the moments when historic wrong and hardship make it necessary to stop, listen to the whole story of ones who have been pressed to the margins of our society, and take the time and resources necessary to heal, restore, and rejoin our hurting brothers and sisters with the larger society. 

More than 330 years of racialized oppression has created just such a need among people of color in our larger society. We must not miss this opportunity to realize and learn from the impacts of our racialized past on the plight and outlook of current generations of Americans. Rather, garnered by the faith that Jesus cares for all and is committed to all and can raise from the dead, we must join Jesus in the work of restoration and call on our nation to do likewise.

Lisa Sharon Harper is Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and a member of Emerging Voices

Image: Tower at the University of Texas, Katherine Welles / Shutterstock.com

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