Tennessee lawmaker Stacey Campfield, one of Knoxville’s white state representatives, has shown, once again, that whites do not understand racism.
Campfield, who last month compared the Black Legislative Caucus to the KKK, recently clarified his statement to apply only to the similarity of the bylaws of each group. In his view, the fundamental character of both organizations is grounded in an ethos of discrimination.
When he asked to join the group, the 37-year-old freshman Republican learned that membership is open only to African-Americans.
This prompted the ‘R’ word. “When you define someone by the color of their skin instead of the content of their character, that to me, is the definition of racism,” he said in the Tennessean.
While Campfield’s ill-chosen comparison should be in itself a death-knell for his charges of racism, the rationale behind his allegations must be firmly rebuked.
Discrimination can be understood as a practice or a rubric of practices that disadvantage some groups. Campfield is arguing that his being denied membership in the Black Caucus disadvantages his black constituency in East Tennessee.
It might be the case that the representative from Knoxville believes he is serving the public interest–and particularly the black interest–by exposing inequities in our political structure.
It might also be true that the Black Caucus is discriminating against white officials through its membership rules. Based on anti-discrimination law operative since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Black Legislative Caucus–if it receives state monetary support, as Campfield claims–must not and cannot discriminate according to race, national origin, sex or religion.
What is not true, however, is the charge of racism. Not all discriminatory practices are equal. The government has applied different forms of President Johnson’s originally titled “Compensatory Preferential Treatment” program since the 1960’s. Affirmative action is the program’s common name, not racist action.
What Campfield fails to understand is that in his quest for race-blindness, fairness and equality for all publicly constituted groups, the Black Caucus can never be equated with the KKK or any other white group or organization. By doing so, the sin of race-indifference is perpetrated.
What is race indifference?
Race-indifference is the attitude, to paraphrase Glenn Loury, that race-blind policies and practices do not have racial consequences. Deficiently simple, it is a moral blunder tantamount to valuing the widow’s two-bit offering in Mark 12 as irrelevant when compared to the large tithes given by the rich. It lacks a gospel vision of the way things really are.
In Campfield’s case, it is the assumption of the myth that the KKK and the Black Caucus can be equated because at the core, they are both social organizations grounded in the same moral world. Such a belief can only be counted as fantasy.
What he fails to understand is that you can only fight discrimination with discrimination in a system that must constantly negotiate rights, duties and interests.
In fact, many preferential treatments are not only tolerated in law and in culture, but also are held as morally necessary. Without them, blacks are not only disadvantaged, but harmed.
It is because of the KKK that blacks–and all Americans–need groups like the Black Legislative Caucus of Tennessee. Would those blacks in Knoxville, in whose interest Campfield claims to be acting, see his campaign as a sincere and neutral application of race-blind standards rather than morally repugnant and race-indifferent tactics cloaking a racial agenda?
Tragically, it is Campfield who must be charged with racist behavior. By pulling constitutional rank on an organization composed of citizens from a group historically unprotected by the constitution, he has revived the ethos of the southern slave owner.
During slavery, brush-arbor gatherings were for black slaves a sacred and secret place of Christian fellowship and worship. They were a place of justice and the presence of God amid the unholy alliance of slavery and Christianity.
They were a politic, as well, and one loathed by the slave owner, who always presented a danger to the slaves’ determination against oppression and a threat to the gatherings.
Even if Campfield believes his actions to be those of fairness and equality, the real meaning in his encroachment on the Black Legislative Caucus “gathering” teeters precariously on the precipitous actions of a different, and sinful, age.
Andy Watts is an assistant professor of religion teaching ethics at Belmont University.