We Need a New Metaphor for Race Relations

Aaron Renn has an excellent episode on how metaphors shape the conversations we have around race in our country. He notes that we construct our lives around metaphors, and these metaphors in turn shape how we live our lives. Think of one common way of describing relationships: “Love is war.” How would it shape someone to believe that a love relationship will be a war-like conflict? Even theology is profoundly shaped by metaphors as the two dominant ways of conceiving of the church are metaphorical: the church is the body and bride of Christ. The church is not actually a body or literally a bride, but these metaphors communicate powerful truths about the church’s identity and what she is supposed to be doing.

We need a new metaphor for race relations in our country. It seems to me that the dominant metaphors for race relations are legal and economic metaphors. We ask questions like, “Is this person guilty of racism?” (legal). We ponder. “What do we owe current generations for past injustices?” (economic). Some people will only admit wrongdoing if there is incontrovertible evidence of racism against them (legal).    

And let’s face it. If you’re walking into a courtroom for a trial against another person, you’re really not going to be in a frame of mind of wanting to do good to him or her. You’re either going to want to win the case, or put up a robust defense. Viewing our relationship to others through the lens of legal or economic metaphors just does not seem a healthy way forward as a society. 

I think a much healthier metaphor to use for race relations is that of a family. Now, when I speak of needing to view one another in our country as family, I’m not advocating for some feel-good, squishy, kumbaya, “We just need to come together as one big human family”-type rhetoric. Those kind of sentiments are abstract and really just allow us to say nice things without actually solving real problems and mending real relationships. 

When I say that we need to shift the metaphor of race relations to family, I am speaking of a mindset and attitude that we take with us into conversations about our country and its future. How might shifting the metaphor of race relations away from the legal and economic toward the familial affect us?

First, how do families work out problems? They sit on a couch, in a living room, having face-to-face conversations. Things might get tense. The conversation may even end in a stalemate. But family members that love one another come back to the couch again and again and seek to work things out. It seems to me that broad national conversations about race relations, especially “conversations” attempted on social media are a dead end. The internet is not a living room. 

The American Christian political tradition has always encouraged the concept of subsidiary where the broader institutions of society must refrain from usurping proper functions performed by people and the institutions more immediate to them. In other words, decision making and conversations and building a sustainable future should be “pushed down” to the most local level possible. It seems wise, therefore, for conversations around contentious topics surrounding racial issues to be “pushed down” into the communities where real life happens rather than on some broader theoretical stage. 

Second, healthy families know that divorce is never an option. The plain fact is that no one in our country is going anywhere. White people are not leaving. Black people are not leaving. Many different ethnic groups are not leaving the country. So we have to learn how to live together in peace and mutual accountability toward one another to move forward together. Everyone who is a citizen of our country should be proud of America precisely because it is ours. Together. Triumphs, success, and warts, and injustices, in all. Because for healthy families, divorce is not an option.  

Third, families honor their elders but live in the present with an eye toward the future. In other words, we’re not in the 1960’s and 70’s any longer. The Civil Rights movement was a huge blessing upon our country. And thankfully, much progress has been made in our country in that so much formerly legal discrimination against black people has been dismantled. But because of the pace of rapid change in our country (mostly due to technological advancements), we cannot use the toolbox of the 1970’s to address the issues of today. Overtly racist laws have largely been abolished, so there has not been the same legislative “success” concerning these issues in the present. Furthermore, overt displays of racism have also become taboo in our culture. These are all good things! But they also mean that the “game” (see another metaphor!) has changed significantly. And therefore, the tools (metaphor) we need to address these issues have changed as well. We need new  mental models for engaging these issues, and evaluating the current available models is where I am going.

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