Short Review of Adams’ Teachings for Diversity and Social Justice

According to the book’s back cover, Adams, Bell, and Griffins’ Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice has been “the definitive sourcebook of theoretical foundations and curricular frameworks for social justice teaching practice” for “nearly a decade.”AdamsTeaching In other words, this text is not merely teaching social justice, it is teaching teachers how to teach social justice to an entire generation of students. The authors draw heavily and explicitly on Gramsci, Freire, Foucault, Delgado, and a host of other critical social theorists to elucidate their basic understanding of social justice. Interested readers can consult my other writing on the topic of contemporary critical theory for more details, but in this brief review, I’ll touch on three points that will be of particular interest to evangelical Christians engaging with the social justice movement.

Interlocking systems of oppression

One of the key premises of contemporary critical theory is that society can be divided into oppressor groups and oppressed groups along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality and a host of other factors:

The manifestations of social oppression in the United States that are focused on in this book are (a) ableism, (b) ageism/adultism, (c) antisemitism, (d) classism, (e) heterosexism, (f) racism, (g) religion oppression, (h) sexism, and (i) transgender oppression.” (p. 37)

Not only is this idea stated repeatedly throughout the text, it is helpfully illustrated in two very clear tables:

AdamsFig32AdamsMatrix

Crucially, the authors do not see a qualitative difference between various forms of oppression, whether that oppression is racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, or adultism. The book’s sections on racism (Chapters 6-7), sexism and heterosexism (Chapters 8-10), religious oppression (Chapters 11-12), classism (Chapter 13), ableism (Chapter 14), and ageism/adultism (Chapter 15) are merely different applications of the same basic framework. In all cases, a dominant group is valued and privileged at the expense of a subordinate group. And in all cases, social justice can be achieved only by dismantling systems and ideologies which perpetuate this oppression.

Moreover, the authors also insist that the interlocking nature of these oppressions requires us to struggle against all of them; we cannot separate racism from heterosexism or sexism from transgender oppression:

“oppression is manifested through racism, white privilege, and immigrant status; sexism, heterosexism, and transgender experiences; religious oppression and antisemitism; and classism, ableism, and ageism/adultism…eradicating oppression ultimately requires struggle against all its forms.” (p. 4-5)

The idea that evangelicals can adopt the analysis of contemporary critical theory with respect to race and sex, but not with respect to sexuality, gender identity, or religion is naive – at best. Why? Because these view all share the same root: a particular understanding of oppression.

Oppression through ideas

Contemporary critical theorists define oppression not merely in terms of violence or coercion but in terms of hegemony, the control of the ideology of a society:

Gramsci put forth the idea of hegemony to explain the way in which power is maintained not only through coercion but also through the voluntary consent of those who are subjugated by it… Through hegemony, a dominant group can so successfully project its particular way of seeing social reality that its view is accepted as common sense, part of the natural order, even by those who are disempowered by it.” (p. 10)

“We use the term oppression… to emphasize the pervasive nature of social inequality woven throughout social institutions as well as embedded within individual consciousness...Oppression signifies a hierarchical relationship in which dominant or privileged groups reap advantage, often in unconscious ways, from the disempowerment of targeted groups” (p. 3)

The authors recognize that this understanding view of “oppression” is non-traditional, yet it informs their entire project:

“We do not use traditional or popular meanings of oppression (such as a ruler’s tyrannical rule or a nation’s conquest and colonial domination of other peoples)… Oppression is ‘structural’ and ‘systemic,’ and usually operates under the radar because it is part of an unequal society’s ‘unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols’; its ‘normal processes of everyday life’; and its ‘assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules'” (p. 247)

Once we understand this redefinition of “oppression,” we can see why the social justice framework cannot be confined to a single issue. Norms, values, and expectations pervade society and speak not just to race, but to gender, sexuality, class, health, beauty, and many other issues: “In an oppressive society, the cultural perspective of dominant groups is imposed on institutions by individuals and on individuals by institutions. These cultural norms include philosophies of life, definitions of good and evil, beauty, normal, health, deviance, sickness, and perspectives on time, just to name a few. Cultural norms often serve the primary function of providing individuals and institutions with the justification for social oppression.” (p. 40).

Once a Christian has accepted the idea that “dominant groups’ norms” produce oppression and begins interrogating and dismantling concepts that justify the existing social order, where exactly do we stop? Men benefit from the expectation that fathers should lead their families or that only men can be pastors. Heterosexuals benefit from the expectation that male-female relationships are “normal.” Cisgendered individuals benefit from the expectation that a person’s biological sex will match their gender identity. Either we can accept the authors’ definition of oppression and processed to dismantle all these norms and values regardless of what the Bible says. Or we can reject this definition of oppression and subject all these norms to the authority of the Bible. But we’ll have to choose.

Social justice as worldview

Perhaps nowhere is this deep conflict between Christianity and the social justice movement’s understanding of oppression more evidence than the authors treatment of “religious oppression.”  Keep in mind that Christians and Protestants were both named as oppressor groups earlier in the book. In Chapter 11, they elaborate further:

The term Christian hegemony may startle readers who are not aware of the pervasive cultural position of normative Christianity in everyday life within U.S. schools, neighborhoods, and the workplace. Hegemony is another way of describing the cultural and societal level of oppression of ‘cultural imperialism’ as a form of oppressionHegemony refers to a society’s unacknowledged adherence to a dominant worldview (Chapter 1). In this case, we refer to a religious worldview that publicly names Christian observances, holy days, and sacred spaces at the expense of those who are not Christian and within a cultural that normalizes Christian values as intrinsic to an explicitly American public and political way of life. Christian norms are termed hegemonic in that they depend only on ‘business as usual.'” (p. 253)

Similarly, the authors compare “Christian privilege” to “white privilege,” talk about how the acceptance of Christianity as the norm marginalizes other religions, and suggest that evangelism is the product of ignorance and hegemony:

Christian privilege is a phenomenon maintains through the cultural power of normative religious practices that, by affirming the norm, exclude and disqualify what is outside the norm… Discussing the parallel concept of white privilege, McIntosh (1998) writes that privilege is ‘an invisible knapsack of unearned assets'” (p. 263)

Finally, the Christian norm is associated by the Christian majority with the idea of ‘goodness’ or righteousness, and these other faiths appear illegitimate by comparison” (p. 264).

“There are many ways in which minority religions are affected by the ignorance, obliviousness, misguided intentions, and harassment by a hegemonic majority. One form is the experience by non-Christians of Christian evangelism – that is the assumption by some Christians that it is their responsibility to bring the truth to so-called nonbelievers. Proselytizing shades into religious oppression when the person being proselytized experiences it as an act of harassment and as an assault on the legitimacy of their own religion.” (p. 265)

If it’s not clear, I’m not in any way attempting to defend the idea of a Christian “civic religion” that imposes Christian beliefs on an unregenerate populace and coerces external, behavioral conformity at the expense of genuine, internal conversion. But I’m trying to show that “social justice” goes well-beyond the idea of religious tolerance or a secular public square. To contemporary critical theory, the very idea that Christianity is objectively true and that Jesus really is the only way of salvation is an oppressive, hegemonic narrative that must be dismantled.

Summary

Whether we use the label of “social justice” or the “woke” movement or “Neomarxism” to describe this particular type of social activism, Christians need to recognize that it is informed by a coherent ideology and an extensive body of academic literature. More importantly, we need to recognize that its basic assumptions are antithetical to historic Christian beliefs about ethics, truth, and theology. Engagement with this movement will require careful evaluation. We need not reject it in its entirety, but we cannot accept it uncritically.


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Additional quotes:

“When we wrote the first edition of this book 10 years ago [in 1997], social justice education was a newly emerging field… [Since then] we have also learned the importance of distinguishing among biological sex, gender identity/expression, and sexual orientation” (p. xvii-xviii)

“[We examine] the enduring and ever-changing aspects of oppression by tracing ways in which ‘commonsense’ knowledge and assumptions make it difficult to see oppression clearly… The goal of social justice is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs… in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure” (p. 1)

“We use the term oppression… to emphasize the pervasive nature of social inequality woven throughout social institutions as well as embedded within individual consciousness...Oppression signifies a hierarchical relationship in which dominant or privileged groups reap advantage, often in unconscious ways, from the disempowerment of targeted groups” (p. 3)

“Oppressive beliefs are internalized by victims as well as perpetrators” (p. 4)

“racism functions not only through overt, conscious prejudice and discrimination but also through the unconscious attitudes and behaviors of a society that presumes an unacknowledged but pervasive white cultural norm… Racial images and ideas are embedded in language and cultural practices promoted as neutral and inclusive. However, the alleged neutrality of social patterns, behaviors, and assumptions in fact define and reinforce a form of cultural imperialism that supports white supremacy. Identifying unmarked and unacknowledged norms that bolster the power position of advantaged groups is an important strategy for examining other forms of oppression as well [including] male supremacy and patriarchy [and] heterosexual privilege” (p. 6-7)

“Asking who benefits and who pays for prevailing practices helps to expose the hierarchical relationships as well as the hidden advantages and penalties embedded in a purportedly fair and neutral system.” (p. 7)

“Oppression cannot be understood in individual terms alone, for people are privileged or oppressed on the basis of social group status.” (p. 9)

Gramsci put forth the idea of hegemony to explain the way in which power is maintained not only through coercion but also through the voluntary consent of those who are subjugated by it… Through hegemony, a dominant group can so successfully projects its particular way of seeing social reality that its view is accepted as common sense, part of the natural order, even by those who are disempowered by it… Hegemony helps us understand power as relational and dynamic, something that circulates within a web of relationships in which we all participate, rather than as something imposed from top down (Foucault, 1980). Through hegemony we understand that power operates not simply when persons or groups unilaterally impose their will on others, but rather through ongoing systems mediated by well-meaning people who, usually unconsciously, act as agents of oppression by merely going about their daily lives.” (p. 10)

Hegemony is also maintained through ‘discourse,’ which includes ideas, text, theories, and language. These are embedded in networks of social and political control that Foucault called ‘regimes of truth’ (1980). Regimes of truth operate to legitimize what can be said, who has the authority to speak, and what is sanctioned as true… Oppression operates through everyday practices that do not question ‘the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules’… One important mechanism for challenging oppression, then, is to make visible and vocal the underlying assumptions that produce and reproduce structures of domination so that we can collectively begin to imagine alternative possibilities for organizing social life (Freire, 1970).” (p. 11)

Members of targeted groups collude in maintaining systems of oppression both because they internalize false belief that the system is correct or inevitable, and as a means of survival. Internalized oppression includes such feelings as inferiority and self-hatred and often results in self-concealment, resignation, isolation, powerlessness, and gratitude for being allowed to survive.” (p. 11-12)

“The impetus for change more often comes from members of oppressed groups… Their lived experiences often allow them to see more clearly the contradictions between myths and reality and lead them to develop a critical perspective on the dominant society (Collins, 1990; Freire; Hartstock, 1983; Harding, 1991). These ‘subjugated knowledges’ of oppressed groups, these truths and insights about the social world that are suppressed, define the world and possibility for human existence differently and offer valuable alternative visions of what is possible.” (p. 12-13)

“The pedagogical dimensions of social justice education are anchored in a conceptual framework that describes the dynamics of oppression at personal and systemic levels of social analysis” (p. 16).

“Social oppression is distinct from brute force in that it is an interlocking system that involves domination and control of the social ideology, as well as the social institutions and resources of the society… Oppression is not simply the assertion of one group’s superiority over another. Nor does it consist solely of random acts of violence, harassment, or discrimination. Oppression provides the base from which oppressor groups define reality and determine what is ‘normal,’ ‘real,’ or correct. Gramsci describes this as hegemony” (p. 36)

“History is presented from the perspective of the oppressor group, and culture is defined by standards and norms that benefit the oppressor group(s).” (p. 37)

“Oppressed groups are variously referred to as targets, the targeted, victims, disadvancated, subordinates, or the subordinated. Oppressor groups are often referred to as advantaged, dominants, agents, and privileged.” (p. 38).

In an oppressive society, the cultural perspective of dominant groups is imposed on institutions by individuals and on individuals by institutions. These cultural norms include philosophies of life, definitions of good and evil, beauty, normal, health, deviance, sickness, and perspectives on time, just to name a few. Cultural norms often serve the primary function of providing individuals and institutions with the justification for social oppression.” (p. 40).

“The paradigm of ‘intersectionality,’ emerging from the fields of sociology, cultural studies, and critical race theory, informs our understanding of the complexities of how people experience privilege and disadvantage based on their social group memberships… Intersectionality suggests that markers of difference do not act independently of one another.” (p. 42)

Internalized subordination refers to ways in which the oppressed collude with their own oppression” (p. 44)

Internalized domination [includes] Christians who believe that their spiritual practices are best for everyone” (p. 61)

“Each of us could be said to be embedded in a particular way of making sense of the world [leading us] to take for granted our worldview as given, natural, and true, as simply ‘the way things are.’ In the social justice education classroom, these beliefs will be exposed to examination and questioning, unsettling the ‘taken-for-granted’ worldview.” (p. 73)

“Facilitators need to make sure to invite all perspectives and listen respectfully, even to those that challenge the very existence of oppression” (p. 109)

“It would be disingenuous to pretend that a social justice education course is neutral or objective any more than are any other courses” (p. 112)

“History provides the stories about how racism persists over time and, despite incursions against it at various periods in our history… how it has ‘shape-shifted’ and returned in modified, though often as virulent, forms.” (p. 118)

“The ‘New’ Racism: Meritocracy, Color Blindness, and Unearned White Advantage… By masking these ongoing advantages [in employment, health care, housing, etc…], color blindness maintains structural racism, and ultimately undermines democratic potential.” (p. 120)

“Sexism, heterosexism, and transgender oppression are distinct yet overlapping manifestations of oppression” (p. 167)

“Sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression all interact in nonbinary ways that both inform and ‘trouble’ the categories upon which sexism, heterosexism, and transgender oppression depend” (p. 169)

“Heterosexism addresses the oppression of people who are (or are perceived to be) lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Sexism addresses the oppression of biological females, intersex people, and transgender women… Heterosexism, sexism, and transgender oppression are systems of advantage of privilege afforded to heterosexuals (heterosexism), men (sexism), and gender-congruent people (transgender oppression) in institutional practices and policies and cultural norms” (p. 171)

“We define sexism as a system of advantages that serves to privilege men, suborindate women, denigrate women-identified values and practices, enforce male dominance and control, and reinforce norms of masculinity that are dehumanizing and damaging to men” (p. 174)

“Our first assumption is that we need to be conscious of the limitations of a binary conceptual framework… The idea that there are only two very distinctly defined genders is the basis for our sexist system that privileges and provides power to one gender (men) over the other (women).” (p. 175)

“[Our curriculum design] integrates an understanding of sexism with parallel understandings of heterosexism and transgender oppression with the assumption that these other forms of oppression are inextricably connected and do not stand alone.” (p. 175-176)

“To address the limitations of the term homophobia, many educators and activists use heterosexism to describe the system of advantage or privilege afforded to heterosexuals in institutional practices and policies and cultural norms that assume heterosexuality as the only natural sexual identity or expression… Some theorists use the term heteronormativity to describe the assumption that heterosexuality is the only normal or natural sexual identity or expression” (p. 196)

“Despite our different identities and backgrounds, we agree that gender is a socially constructed rather than essential… Our work and perspective are informed by queer theorists such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Judith Halberstam.” (p. 220)

“Ableism, or disability oppression, is a pervasive system of discrimination and exclusion of people with disabilities. Like racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, ableism operates on individual, institutional, and cultural levels to privilege temporarily able-bodied people and disadvantage people with disabilities.” (p. 335)

“The common thread that unites the experiences of people with diverse disabilities is having to contend with a culture that sees disability through fear, pity, or shame and teaches us to regard disability as a tragedy” (p. 336).

“Institutional policies, beliefs, norms, and practices perpetuate ableism. For example, institutionalized religious beliefs that disability is a punishment for sin or that disability can be ‘healed’ through faith affect how some religious people respond to disability.” (p. 339)

“People with disabilities who are part of [the disability rights movement] reject the notion that being disabled is an inherently negative experience or in any way descriptive of something broken or abnormal. They see disability as a positive term” (p. 339)

Adultism… refers to ‘behaviors and attitudes based on the assumption that adults are better than young people, and entitled to act upon young people without their agreement. This mistreatment is reinforced by social institutions, laws, customs, and attitudes’ (Bell, 2000, P2).” (p. 360)

“we acknowledge and treat social identity groups not as fixed, biologically or genetically-based social categories, but rather as social constructions. This means that we assume that the social identity group status of elders and young people is rooted in social practice rather than in specific biological, genetic, or even anthropological phenomena.” (p. 361)

“People are born as babies needing total care, and proceed along an age continuum until death. It is not always easy to distinguish behaviors, policies, and procedures toward young people and elders that are oppressive from those that are respectful, protective, or developmentally appropriate.” (p. 362)