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Acton Commentary: Human Dignity, Dark Skin and Negro Dialect

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Distributed today on Acton News & Commentary:

Human Dignity, Dark Skin and Negro Dialect

by Anthony B. Bradley Ph.D.

Black History Month is a time not only to honor our past but also to survey the progress yet to be made. Why does the black underclass continue to struggle so many years after the civil-rights movement? Martin Luther King dreamt about an America where women and men are evaluated on the basis of character rather than skin color. The fight for equal dignity, however, was derailed by a quest for political clout and “bling.” The goal of equality measured by outcomes, sought by means of government-directed racial inclusion programs, overshadowed the more challenging campaign for true solidarity based on widespread recognition of the inherent dignity of all people.

Beginning in the 1980s, many civil-rights leaders began to identify justice on the basis of social cosmetics, including how much “stuff” blacks did not have compared to whites—size of homes, number of college degrees, income disparities, law school admissions rates, loan approvals, and the like—instead of whether or not blacks were treated as equals in our social structures. Equal treatment by our legal and social institutions may yield unexpected results, but it remains a better measure of justice than coercively creating results we want.

When Democratic Senator Harry Reid spoke the truth about President Obama being particularly electable because he neither had “dark skin” nor used “negro dialect,” it served as a prophetic signal that Americans still struggle to embrace the dignity of many blacks. Reid’s comments expose what many know but would not publically confess: namely, that having a combination of dark skin and “negro dialect” is not only undesirable but also damages one’s prospects for social and economic mobility. After all—some would ask—are not the stereotypical dark-skinned folks with bad English skills the ones having children outside of marriage, dropping out of high school, filling up America’s prison system, murdering each other, and producing materialistic and misogynistic rap music?

Civil-rights leaders would do well to restore the priority of fighting for black dignity so that having dark skin is respected and improving one’s syntax is encouraged. Theologian Nonna Harrison in her 2008 essay, “The Human Person,” offers a clear framework for unlocking human dignity by stressing human freedom, responsibility, love for neighbor, excellence of character, stewardship of creation, and human rationality. Imagine an America where resurgent civil-rights energies were dedicated to creating the conditions that support the life-long process of formation and transformation into citizens who know and love our neighbors, regardless of race or class. Imagine a resurgence of dignity that orders our passions, impulses, and reason to excel in moral character; a resurgence that elevates good stewardship to the status of a social norm; a resurgence that entails sustaining human life in terms of what is good for nature and human society; a resurgence committed to cultivating practical reason, enabling women and men to creatively contribute to the arts and sciences, to economics, politics, business, and culture.

A movement dedicated to fostering dignity in those engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors would have positive spillover effects everywhere: from homes to schools, from streets to the criminal justice system. For example, if freedom, responsibility, and dignity became the new platform for the “advancement of colored people,” black marriage rates would be redirected back to their 1950s levels, when the percentages of white and African-American women who were currently married were roughly the same (67 and 64 percent, respectively). An emphasis on practical reason would foster a return to the notion that education—not sports and entertainment—is your “ticket” out of “da hood.” Imagine an America where what it means to be a black man is to be a morally formed, educated “brutha,” ready to contribute to making the world better.

Decades ago, when the black church was at the center of the black community, these values were deposited from generation to generation. Today, in an era when “justice” means obsession with redistributing wealth rather than restoring dignity, character formation has been abandoned. Disadvantaged blacks are generationally doomed until we recognize that social mobility for those with “dark skin” and “negro dialect” flows from the expansion in tandem of dignity and freedom, not from pursing the siren songs of riches and power.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • Good commentary. We are all created equal in dignity.

    BUT there are undeniable differences between the races. That doesn’t make one race superior or inferior to another race. It makes the races different. And difference is good – it helps mix up the human gene pool.

    Also, I know people who have a “negro” dialect. What’s wrong with that? I suppose that when Vulgate Latin started to devolve (or is that evolve?) into Italian, Spanish, Portugese, French and Rumanian dialects about 600 to 800 AD, people who spoke proper Vulgate Latin would be equally critical of their “uneducated” brethren in the hinterlands of Dacia or Gallia or Hispania or wherever. And I just have to wonder what in 100 AD all the classically speaking Latinists in Rome proper would have thought about the barbarians speaking Vulgate. None of this was based on skin color of course.

    Now back to differences in race. I don’t think any differences are substantive with regard to human dignity. BUT a few examples are in order. Generally, black people (particularly those directly from Africa) make better marathon runners. Not always, and not in every case, but generally. And generally Caucasians are better swimmers. Not always, not in every case, but generally. I would even wager that different races might have different mental aptitudes and skills. I have been reliably informed that Anasazi Jews make excellent mathematicians. Me a Gentile? I am lucky to get through algebra and trigonometry. But I doubt that’s true of all European descendants – look at Sir Isaac Newton. Likewise, there are certain mental aptitude and skills that many black people would excel at, but not necessarily other races.

    Again – there is no hard and fast rule because there is infinite individual variation (we have a black Christian apologist at work who puts me – a northern European descendant – to shame!). The problem is that studying these kinds of things nowadays is described as racist and is forbidden because it isn’t politically correct.

    Personally, I thank God He made different races. God likes variety and variety is a GOOD thing. Just imagine if everybody thought like I did – heaven forbid!

  • Well thought out post Dr. Bradley. I agree with the idea that we need to look beyond power and wealth, and get back to character and dignity building. I am not from the black community, but do have some difficulty with what I experience on a weekly basis. My perception of our culture is that we continue to foster racial tension and differences. We have “Black churches” instead of churches. Many are encouraged to only support “black businesses” in their daily shopping. As seen in the past election, many voted for our President based on the color of his skin paying no attention to who he was or what he stood for. It was just that he was “one of us”. These are first hand experiences that I only wish I could have made up. I was told by a co-worker…”I wish you could be a black man for just one day.” Why?? How rude to say such a thing as if you are not proud of how God created you! This particular man had absolutely nothing to complain about inasmuch as his father was a respected university coach, and he had more opportunity for higher education that I did from my factory working father of germanic decent! If I were to replace any of these statements regarding being “black” with the word white, I would be drummed out of my community. We all need to put away this mentality and move toward the future. All of us are created for greatness. None of my life coaches are “white” guys. Yet, they have moved me to higher levels of knowledge and education than I have ever known. Integrity, Character, Dignity, Discipline. These are truly more profitable than wealth and power in order to change our families and world. Thank You