Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Zero-Sum Game

Sometimes whites think about race relations as if it's a zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game there are a certain number of points to be had and every point my opponent scores takes a point away from me. For example, in Scrabble, if I get the Q or the X or the Z and use them well, or if I use a triple word space, not only do I gain points, but those points are lost to the other players. Or in Monopoly, if I buy Boardwalk and Park Place they add to my game and take away from my opponents' chances to win not only because they will land on my hotel and owe me lots of money, but because they've lost the opportunity of ownership that will help them win.

Here's how this thinking works with race: if a person of color gets a scholarship, that's less money available for me as a white person.  If a person of color gets a job or some other opportunity, there's one less job or opportunity available to me as a white person. On the surface this seems to make sense, and zero-sum game thinking fuels arguments against affirmative action and in favor of a "colorblind" approach to race.

In a way, people who respond to "Black Lives Matter" by saying "All Lives Matter" are playing the zero-sum game. They respond as if saying that black lives matter means that white lives don't matter quite as much any more.

Recently, I heard another interesting example of zero-sum game thinking.  A friend was at a meeting with people involved in a specific, white dominated Christian organization. Someone at the meeting pointed out the lack of racial diversity within their ranks and suggested they think of ways to be more racially inclusive in the future. Since some of the fastest growing Evangelical churches in the U.S. are multiethnic/multiracial, this would seem to make sense. However, an older white guy who has been part of this organization for a long time expressed his dissatisfaction. Does that mean, he said (and I'm paraphrasing but this is pretty close, I think), that white people like me should take their gifts and callings and go elsewhere?

Hmm.  I wasn't there. I didn't hear the tone, I didn't see the body language. But I couldn't help but notice the immediately defensive and indignant posture of this person's response. No one at the meeting suggested he step down from his position.  On the contrary, I believe that this person is well respected within the ranks of the organization. No one suggested that white applicants be turned away or discouraged from participation in this particular ministry; they simply suggested that more people of color be recruited, as well. Yet in this white person's eyes, someone else's gain could only be viewed as his loss. Apparently there's only so much room in ministry and he needed to protect his spot. Of course, this is the opposite of the Christian doctrine I'm sure this person teaches, wherein there is "room at the cross" for everyone.  I wonder if he thinks that heaven will be populated based on the zero-sum game.

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