An excerpt from Latina/o Social Ethics Moving Beyond Eccentric Moral Thinking by Miguel A. De La Torre
A major problem facing marginalized communities, and in our case the Hispanic community, is that since childhood we have been taught to see and interpret reality through the eyes of the dominant culture. For those within the community who pursue scholastic endeavors, the success that is to be rewarded with a doctorate is determined by mastery of the predominant Eurocentric academic canon. Hispanic contributions to the discourse are usually dismissed as nonessential in demonstrating academic excellence. This is evidenced by the numerous scholars in the U.S. who have little or no knowledge of the scholarship taking place among Latino/as.
The triumph of the colonizing process is best demonstrated when scholars of color define themselves and their disenfranchised communities through academic paradigms that contribute to their marginalization. Latina/o ethicists are forced to exhibit academic rigor through the use of ethical models that more often than not are incapable of liberating oppressed communities. These scholars are forced, in a sense, to pour liberative wine into the old Eurocentric ethics skins.
To do so, as Jesus points out, causes the skins to burst and the liberative message to be lost. We Hispanics must pour our own liberative wine into our own ethical paradigms so that both can be preserved together and used by our community, which thirsts to drink this Good News. As José Martí, who needs no introduction among Latina/os, reminds us: “Nuestro vino de plátano, y si es agrio, es nuestro vino.”
The view of the ethical landscape from the pedestal of privilege is radically different than the view from the depths of disenfranchisement. This book challenges the prevailing assumption within the discipline of Christian ethics that the present scholarly landscape, rooted in Eurocentric thought, is the pinnacle of academic excellence.
According to that assumption, held by Eurocentric ethicists, the particularity of scholarship emanating from non-Eurocentric communities, as in the case of Latina/o-rooted ethical paradigms, threatens to weaken the prevailing so-called academic rigor. Voices from the Hispanic community may be needed to show diversity and political correctness, but they must be kept at bay lest they actually influence the discourse. The old wineskins of Eurocentric ethics are based on the presupposition that religion as a discipline is rooted in a nineteenth-century European definition of what education of religion should be. Even though our postmodern conversations may have persuaded the academy to reject such metanarratives, they are still enforced, determining who is “in” (academically rigorous) and who is “out” (has an interesting perspective but lacks academic excellence).
Excellence, that is, continues to mean Eurocentrism. Eurocentric thought, unconscious of how the discipline of religion has been racialized, claims to exemplify a color-blind excellence in scholarship for all of humanity. By its very nature, Eurocentric ethical theory maintains that universal moral norms can be achieved independent of place, time, or people group. Such ethical norms created by Euroamerican ethicists are accepted as both universal and objective, and thus applicable to the Latino/a milieu.
To speak from any Eurocentric perspective is to speak about and for all of humanity, including Hispanics. For this reason, Euroamerican scholars can become experts in the particularity of the cultures of Other, that is, those communities that are deemed “less than white.” Ironically, scholars of color have the particularity of their analysis reduced to subjectivity—to interesting perspectives that fall short of rigor, regardless of how meticulous their scholarship may actually be.
Because whiteness is understood and defined as universal, the insights of scholars of color are often institutionally relegated to a realm lacking any universal gravitas. Nevertheless, marginalized communities of color have long recognized that no ethical perspective is value free. The subjectivity of Eurocentric ethical thought can be lifted by the academy to universal objectivity because the academy retains the power to define a reality that secures and protects their scholastic privilege. Reduced to a phenotype-based expertise, scholars of color are expected to dwell exclusively in the areas of study bordered by their race or ethnicity. Experts in the particular, they are neither expected nor encouraged to speak with authority about Eurocentric thought.
Reduced to and trapped within their race or ethnicity, scholars of color are geared to the particular, where they are continually forced to speak to the center, always attempting to justify their right to exist and the importance of contributions they can make to the overall discourse. And if a Hispanic ethicist were to become an authority on Euroamerican ethicists like Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, or Stanley Hauerwas, she or he would be viewed as an oddity if not aping, for after all, shouldn’t all Latina/os just study Hispanic religiosity?
Hispanic scholars who dare to assess critically the works of formative Euroamerican ethicists face having their critique dismissed. The Latina/o scholar will either be accused of conducting a “thin” reading of the primary texts or be caricatured as angry. As tempting as it may be to level such a critique against Hispanic scholars who challenge the Eurocentric canon, it is important to refrain. Even though the Hispanic ethicist may be portrayed as lacking intelligence or simply hostile, he or she does provide a “double-consciousness” that is capable of revealing what those blinded by their privileged status miss.
As a corrective measure, this book will attempt to create new skins for our liberative wine by using the tools and materials indigenous to our “Latinoness.” But before we are able to use our own Hispanic ethic skins, we must explain why the Eurocentric ethic skins are inadequate—why they will burst. To that end, we will read Euroamerican ethicists “with Hispanic eyes,” seeing, maybe for the first time, how dominant groups have historically constructed ethics to suit their needs and protect their privilege.
The first half of the book will attempt to deconstruct Eurocentric ethical paradigms to demonstrate why they are both detrimental to and irreconcilable with the Hispanic social location. When such paradigms bring suffering, oppression, and death (literally and figuratively) to the Hispanic community, they must be rejected. Nevertheless, the best of mestizaje, our cultural mixture, recognizes the European part of our identity and the ambiguity and irony this creates when we deal with Eurocentric ethical paradigms. Hispanics recognize that even what we should reject in our identity is part of who we are as a people. The challenge is how to delineate and reject those parts of Eurocentric ethics with which there can be no compromise or reconciliation (e.g., complicity with the U.S. Empire) and move beyond those segments of Eurocentric analysis with which we can converse.
The second half of this book will attempt to construct a new Hispanic-centered ethical paradigm rooted in our community way of being. The hope is not only to articulate aspects of how we historically have conducted ethics, but also to examine possible future directions. We search for a dynamic ethics that is not only living, but also lived. This is a Latina/o ethics based on praxis that pursues social justice, here understood as creating harmony within social structures by countering and correcting the undue power and privilege held by the few at the expense of the many.
Miguel A. De La Torre is Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. His academic focus is on social ethics within contemporary U.S. thought, specifically how religion affects race, class, and gender oppression. He served as the 2012 President of the Society of Christian Ethics and earned the 2020 AAR Excellence in Teaching Award and the 2021 Martin E. Marty Public Understanding of Religion Award. Recently, he wrote the screenplay to a documentary on immigration (http://www.trailsofhopeandterrorthemovie.com/) and has written an autofiction magical realism novel. His website is: http://drmigueldelatorre.com/.