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Hanging a "Black Lives Matter" banner on a church in 2019 (Public Domain)
Body Politics

Defending Racial Particularity within Tran’s “Deep Economy” of Grace

Racial identity as a source of cultural, political, and personal pride predates the North Atlantic slave trade; therefore, racial identity must be part of the calculus when articulating a theological anthropology.

Race matters. In Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2021), Jonathan Tran cautions that racialized identity politics are captive to a certain conceptual framework that creates social division because its notion of identity is grounded in asserting one’s particular racial identity over against an oppressor. In other words, the constructive vision of identarian antiracism entails a “deconstructive need to subvert, destabilize, and attack racial kinds deemed responsible for harming others (i.e., whites and others party to their racism)” (3).

The central argument behind Tran’s analysis and constructive proposal is simple: identity politics perpetuates racialization. That is not to say that Tran does not take racism seriously—far from it. Tran is equally suspicious and critical of the rhetoric behind claims of a “color blind” postracial America, which he describes as “the fantasy that results when one fails to differentiate race from racialization” (9). In other words, race matters. However, neither identarian antiracism nor postracial color blindness adequately diagnose the origins of racialization nor provide a constructive proposal past the political impasse of divisive identity politics. Consequently, Tran “does not press the case for racial kinds possessed of racial identities” and “considers orthodox antiracism’s intense focus on racial identity a serious impediment to the work of democratic life on the one hand and political liberation on the other” (7). Rather, he carefully unearths the layers beneath racialization in order to reveal “the political economy by which racial identity came to matter at all” (7).

Tran offers a Foucaultian genealogy that traces how the categories of race and racial identity were created to facilitate political economic domination and exploitation, in order to argue that the language of antiracism—despite its emancipatory goals—remains trapped within the conceptual world of racial capitalism and continues to racialize people according to the nation’s founding white/black binary. As a genealogical investigation, Tran’s book pushes back on several orthodoxies undergirding racialized thinking: (1) it rejects the notion of race as either a natural (scientific) or metaphysical (ontological) category, (2) argues that racial identity is indistinguishable from racial capitalism and as such creates more problems than it solves, (3) critiques orthodox identarian antiracism for failing to adequately describe the realities of those groups, like Asian Americans, who fall outside the dominant white/black binary, and (4) posits religious identity—specifically, a particular reading of the Christian tradition—as an alternative political economy to racial capitalism.

Needless to say, I have opinions on all four points. First, while I agree that race is not a biological category, it remains a necessary political category precisely because of the societal structures birthed by the original sin of racial capitalism. This is, after all, the logic behind the Black Lives Matter movement: so long as black lives in the United States continue to be treated as easily exploitable and cheaply replaceable commodities, it is vital to focus antiracist political action on the problem of anti-black racism. Yes, all lives matter, but because we as a nation continue to act as if black lives do not matter, those of us committed to eliminating racism must make a preferential option for black lives. 

Second, while I agree with Tran’s analysis that the racialization of black and brown lives is part of the political and economic domination and exploitation originating with the modernist project of European imperial expansion, I argue that racialized identity does not arise solely from some primal economic transaction. In other words, I find his political economic analysis of racial capitalism somewhat reductionist. Racial identity as a source of cultural, political, and personal pride predates the North Atlantic slave trade; therefore, racial identity must be part of the calculus when articulating a theological anthropology.

Third, as Latino, I sympathize with Tran’s frustrations about the inadequacies of the dominant white-black dichotomy for discussing race and racism in the US. The very terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” are constructs imposed by the US Census Bureau to classify a rapidly growing, predominately immigrant population that does not neatly fit the biracial dichotomy that has historically defined US society. Reading Tran’s book it is evident the same can be said mutatis mutandis about the complex cultural mélange that, for political expediency, has been labeled “Asian American.” I too seek an antiracist vocabulary that transcends the white-black dichotomy, one that allows me to find myself within US culture without losing my distinctive particularity, and so I agree with Tran about the limits of identarian rhetoric: “Emphasizing race above all other forms of identification—where one’s racial identity determines everything about one’s identity—then has the effect of misconstruing how identity works altogether” (12). I am just not convinced an antiracist political economy is inherently more effective at dismantling racism here and now.

Race matters. Therefore, I am convinced it is a bad idea to abandon racial identity just as historically marginalized racial groups are finding their political voice and effecting concrete change on oppressive societal structures. Given this, despite his assurances to the contrary, I find it very hard to distinguish Tran’s “deracialization” from colorblind “postracialism.”

Race matters, but God matters too. Which brings me to the fourth and arguably central discursive direction explored in Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism: the need for an explicitly theological analysis of the political and economic roots of racism that yields a constructive proposal grounded in an understanding of religion “predicated on the absolute value of God” (14). While Jonathan Tran’s book will likely have a long life, widely impact future conversations on racial identity, its explicitly stated goal to articulate an alternative political economy to the dominant racial capitalism is as much a “conversation stopper” (Rorty) as identarian antiracism. Tran offers the world a vision of Christianity as a “deep economy” that stands over against the bifurcated and deeply racialized status quo; the world’s non-Christian majority is likely to view this proposal with suspicion, or simply dismiss it as sectarianism.

Jonathan Tran is a careful and nuanced thinker. He is careful to differentiate the kind of Christian tradition he is here defending from the “white supremacist Christian religion” he rejects as “distortions of God’s kingdom and economy, rejections of divine rule and divine desire” (15). Nevertheless, in asserting an explicitly Christian solution to racial capitalism, he elevates Christianity above other spiritual and intellectual traditions, which, despite Tran’s criticism of ontological essentialism, can be wrongly interpreted as the assertion of a Christian grand narrative (Lyotard). Take for example, this brief exchange, in which he differentiates “distortions” of Christianity (like white supremacist Christianity) from authentic Christianity: “Christian theology (what Augustine of Hippo called, in relationship to deformations like white supremacist Christianity, ‘true religion’) envisions creaturely existence in terms of depth, ever-deepening—involving, revolving, evolving—participation in the divine life as the consummation of creaturely longing” (16).

Whether intentionally or not, Tran’s articulation of Christianity (“true religion”) as an alternative to dominant political discourses here resembles John Milbank’s Radical Orthodoxy. Simply put, Milbank does not view theology as one among many competing voices in the marketplace of ideas but argues instead for an understanding of theology as its own distinct ontology providing an alternative metanarrative to the modernist secular politics of statecraft, which according to Milbank, also includes most so-called political theologies: “The task of such a theology is not apologetic, nor even argument. Rather it is to tell again the Christian mythos, pronounce again the Christian logos, and call again for Christian praxis in a manner that restores their freshness and originality. It must articulate Christian difference in such a fashion as to make it strange” (Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 380). I am not suggesting Tran is making a similar move. However, Tran’s presentation of Christianity as its own kind of alternative “deep economy” is vulnerable to the same kind of criticisms that can be made about Milbank’s project.

Milbank argues that modernism has developed a secular reductionist descriptive framework within which all human experiences are subsumed after having been distilled to their universally “common” core. Therefore, the only way forward is to posit Christianity as a distinct ontology from the myth of modernity and secularism. A stand alone conceptual framework from which to view the world independent of dominant modes of thought. Tran is arguing that identarian antiracism (and the Black Radical Tradition that informs it) “prioritize[s] some people to the exclusion of others,” and offers instead an approach where “each racialized person counts the same, as racialized and therefore commodified” (13). Whereas the Christian Gospel, as Tran articulates it, is capable of transcending the oppressed/oppressor binary of racial identity and thereby bringing the faithful into the deracialized Promised Land: “the church through the Spirit makes that resurrection, redemption, and reconciliation known. The church enlivens the world to God’s deep economy. The church, which ingests Christ’s resurrected, redeemed, and reconciled flesh and baptizes converts into enlivened flesh, offers the world a foretaste of what resurrected, redeemed, and reconciliation creation looks like” (283). Not the clear mark in the sand Milbank draws, but dangerously close to it. Furthermore, by arguing that religion is not a necessary component for the dominant forms of identarian antiracism—“Identarian antiracism can be as agnostic on religion as it is on the metaphysical status of race. Neither is crucial for its primary concerns” (3)—Tran ignores the contributions of James H. Cone and Black liberation theology (Cone is cited only once in Tran’s book).

In the works of James Cone one finds an approach that takes the evils of capitalism seriously—even identifying capitalism as a Christian heresy—since in his analysis “all institutional white churches in America have sided with capitalist, rich, white, male elites, and against socialists, the poor, blacks, and women” (For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church, 182). At the same time, Cone’s theology cannot speak about capitalism independently of race and racism. More to the point, the theology of James Cone articulates a liberative vision grounded in the grace of God that seeks the liberation of both the oppressed and the oppressor without surrendering racial identity.

As a liberation theologian, Cone addressed the major crisis facing him—antiblack racism—in a way that integrated his experience as a Black man living under Jim Crow with the Christian faith that nurtured him within the Black church:

“White people were virtually free to do anything to blacks with impunity. The violent crosses of the Ku Klux Klan were a familiar reality, and white racists preached a dehumanizing segregated gospel in the name of Jesus’ cross every Sunday. And yet in rural black churches I heard a different message, as preachers proclaimed the message of the suffering Jesus and the salvation accomplished in his death on the cross.”

The Cross and the Lynching Tree, xv

Yet, in doing so, the end goal was not a permanent cleavage between the races but a reaffirmation of the Christian gospel as liberation and salvation for all, not the heresy of white supremacist religion. James Cone knew his language and approach would offend many fellow Christians, even those sympathetic to his antiracist efforts, but he would respond to the charge in Tran’s book—that identarian antiracism creates “a serious impediment to the work of democratic life on the one hand and political liberation on the other” (7)—with this simple assertion: “I never said that blacks were the only people suffering or that liberation was the only message in the Bible. But I replied that white supremacy is America’s original sin and liberation is the Bible’s central message” (Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, 18).

Recently Pope Francis, a defender of liberation theology, compared the church’s mission in the world to the work of triage in a field hospital:

“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.” 

America: The Jesuit Review (September 30, 2013)

What the world needs right now is not a grand overarching vision, but localized crisis care. First treat the most critical—life threatening—wounds, then work on the larger project of building a foretaste of God’s kingdom here and now. Identarian antiracism and Tran’s “deep economy” need not be mutually exclusive approaches. Rather, identarian antiracism could perhaps be viewed as a vital, even necessary preliminary step to the work of kingdom building. In the words of the apostle Paul, the Christian church is called to be a community in which “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28, NRSV). This is the vision at which Tran’s deracialization aims. 

The current historical moment, however, in which white Christians have allowed white bigots to hijack the language and symbols of the Christian religion for their hateful ideology, then employed the language of love, forgiveness, and tolerance to undermine the radical urgency of Black Lives Matter by proclaiming “all lives matter,” exposes the cultural and political impotence of progressive Christianity. At this moment in US history, the outcry and organized response to white supremacy originating within the African American community—Black Lives Matter—deserves the support of brown, yellow, red, white, straight, gay, trans, poor, rich, working class, and all other lives. Admittedly, the language of identarian antiracism perpetuates a white-black binary, but as the emphasis on black racial identity has developed in the theology of James Cone, the ultimate goal is the liberation of both the oppressed and the oppressor.

So long as black lives continue to be exploited, brutalized, and destroyed with impunity, God is most clearly revealed in the suffering of black men and women. If as Christians we believe in the Incarnation—that in becoming human God has made the suffering of the oppressed God’s own—then we must be able to affirm that Christ is black. Consequently, for white Christians who want to live in solidarity with black lives, Cone’s Christological assertion that Christ is black is one obvious point of departure. Therefore, all Christians—not just black Christians—ought to resist white supremacy in an America where black lives don’t seem to matter, because the Savior who revealed God’s self to the world as a Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine now chooses to become incarnate in the suffering of black lives. 

In this context, the cross becomes the lynching tree, inverting “the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 2).  This is a vision I find compatible with Jonathan Tran’s glimpse of the divine “deep economy” established by Christ on the cross: “The cosmic reparation God pays in Christ comes sharply into relief here as God in Christ, having fully inhabited creation’s wide ecology—having fully given himself to it—pays for all that cannot be repaired, which is much” (Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, 212). I don’t think Tran wants people to abandon their racial identity in order to participate in this divine economy; he simply wants people to acknowledge the brokenness of identarian antiracism in this “world as open wound” (ibid) to remind them that our political activity does not ultimately bring restoration or healing but at best only provides triage care. We can relieve immediate suffering, but only God brings redemption.

In other words, identity politics can become another false idol, so we as Christians ought remember that we are always called to bear witness to God’s work in the world: “Doxology as political speech” (212).

Defending Racial Particularity within Tran’s “Deep Economy” of Grace

Racial identity as a source of cultural, political, and personal pride predates the North Atlantic slave trade; therefore, racial identity must be part of the calculus when articulating a theological anthropology.

Attuning the Church, Debating What Lies Beyond Racial Capitalism

The true gift Tran has given us is a theologically provocative understanding of the church as a certain kind of deep economy. I will be thinking with it and learning from it for a long time.

Beyond the Binary

The reality into which we are called to participate, to embody, and to invite others is profound in that it promises to create the very sociality for which we long. It promises to establish the Kingdom of God that is not yet our everyday reality and, at the same time, is present to us in certain spaces and in moments of profound connection.

Dangerous Memories, Costly Faith, and a Faithful Future

How I understand Tran’s story is that the script for Asian American Christian resistances to racial capitalism needs to be formed by the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ’s witness. Otherwise, Asian American theologies end up resisting identarian essentializations of Asian America that do not always speak to concrete challenges and dynamics that Asian Americans experience.

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