When Helping Hurts Our Race Discourse

By James R. Wood    |    May 20, 2024

Topic:    

I never intended to write much about race. Everything changed with the discourse that emerged after the death of George Floyd. For the first time, my wife and I started sharing with each other our views about these matters. She was confused that I seemed to be coming from a different place in the conversation. She was right.

A little over a decade ago, I read a book that radically altered the way I think about helping others. In When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert provided in-depth analysis of how those with noble intentions can employ strategies that inflict considerable, long-term harm to the people who are the target of their assistance. Fikkert and Corbett landed particularly devastating blows to short-term mission trips, which can make participants feel good about themselves while at the same time, inadvertently, undermining local initiatives. In scenarios of this nature, good Samaritans parachute into communities, assuming that they, as saviors unawares, can fix the problems. Focusing on needs to the neglect of recognizing the assets of those who are suffering predisposes assistance to take the form of short-term relief as opposed to long-term development. The agency of those assisted is often unintentionally denied.

The basic arguments of that book have been running through my mind as I have been thinking about our current discourse on race. This has been confirmed as I have read black authors like Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and John McWhorter, who have argued for decades that many of our attempts to assist black Americans over the past fifty years have often done more harm than good. In White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, Steele argues that most of these efforts appear to be primarily driven to assuage white guilt. What is conveyed to those being helped is a deterministic message about how deep and perpetual their victimization is. Only whites and government agencies can fix their problems; responsibility is redistributed. This savior-complex that often attends a commitment to social justice becomes a way for guilt-ridden whites to regain innocence while the institutions they lead retain legitimacy. McWhorter picks up similar themes in his works, especially Losing The Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. Both of these authors are concerned about how our assistance efforts regularly fail to promote black development, and instead, the dominant discourse peddles a narrative of defeatism and instills a psychology of victimhood.1 One’s conditions are independent of one’s actions. Temporal salvation can only come from the outside: from whites and government.

Even more fundamental than these books, my childhood experiences have shaped how I think about these things. I grew up very poor without a father around, with my mother who never went to college, and with my brother who struggles with a fairly severe physical handicap. We moved frequently, and troubled men came in and out of our lives. I regularly heard the message that the odds were stacked against us, that people cared only about themselves, and that those in authority would always abuse it. But one thing I intentionally internalized, as a form of hopeful resistance, was a refusal of the victim mindset. Yes, things were hard, but we could make choices to improve our lot. I began to see that constantly telling oneself there is nothing you can do and that everyone is against you will destroy hope, dispose you to relate to others cynically, and cripple your ability to persevere.

Even more fundamental than these books, my childhood experiences have shaped how I think about these things.”

—James R. Wood

Things started to really change in my life when I gained some independence in my high school and college years. I would spend time with my friends’ families, who were much healthier and financially secure. But it wasn’t the money that captured my attention. It was the stability in homes characterized by committed relationships.

As the data show us, one of the best predictors of future poverty, crime, drug abuse, health problems, and psychological disorders is whether or not a father is in the home. My father wasn’t. But what could I do? Should I hate these families and my friends in them for their disproportionate privileges? No. Just as I had fought the victim mindset, so too I would fight resentment. I did, and I made friends with healthy people who helped me see a way out of unhealthy patterns and who also provided direct assistance when I faced acute crises. I am now in a much better place than I could have ever predicted.

I care about my black neighbors, and I want them to thrive. Most of my friends in childhood were black, as I worshipped the sport of basketball and devoted all my free time to playing in the public parks in our predominantly black neighborhoods. I have always thought my black neighbors are capable of great things—not only on the court—and I hate the lies being fed to them today.

I also find it fascinating that in our ongoing “conversation” about race and the various “reckonings,” we often avoid what would help minorities the most: promoting and supporting the family. In fact, many of the assistance programs seem to actually undermine the family, as Thomas Sowell has argued for decades. Many don’t know that the black family has fared significantly worse since LBJ’s Great Society welfare programs.2 It often appears that we either want to help, but don’t realize how our helping is hurting; or we don’t really want to help, but just seek to assuage our collective sense of guilt and appear to be on the right side of history.

Becoming a Christian in college was the most significant turning point for me. I came to terms with my own sin as contributing to my problems, but I also embraced the grace of the gospel and hope of resurrection. My compassion, as opposed to resentment, grew toward my parents—especially my dad, who never knew his own father. And the Church itself was profoundly healing. In it, I received a new family, as Jesus had promised (Mark 10:29–30), filled with people who believed these things and were devoted to each other. This “social safety net,” while certainly not the primary reason to come to Christ, is a gift intrinsically related to the gospel. This family is available to all, regardless of race.

Promoting both the natural and supernatural families should be central to our conversation about assisting our black neighbors. If we actually want to help, that is.

  1. For other examples, there are proposals like reparations. We don’t have the space to wade into this complicated topic, and there are new Christian arguments that have recently emerged. But, this still operates under the logic of a crisis, fails to attend to real development, and ignores the resources presently in black communities. And affirmative action programs, though well-intentioned, come too late in the process. Students get into programs for which they are underprepared, feel shame for fear of being a token admission; and if they fail, they blame the system which was trying to help all along.
  2. The “Great Society” welfare programs initiated under LBJ were well-intentioned, but there is mounting evidence that they are destroying community. Many don’t know that the black family has fared significantly worse since these programs were put into place. Pouring in material resources from the outside inadvertently creates perverse disincentives which do harm to the communities that are most important for black development. Remaining in relief mode does harm.
James R. Wood

James R. Wood  is assistant professor of Religion and Theology at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario. He is also a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, co-host of the Civitas podcast, a Commonwealth Fellow at Ad Fontes, and former associate editor at First Things.

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