The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As a black person, I’m done helping white Christians feel better about race

I tried consulting with white churches, and it failed.

Pastor Brian Herron of Zion Baptist Church speaks June 2 in Minneapolis. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

I yelled in my truck the day I saw the video of Alton Sterling’s lifeless body on the ground, lest I be perceived as the angry black dude by yelling in public. In him, I saw myself. My brother. My cousins. My friends.

I was on my way to church that day. At the time, I was immersed in white evangelical church life and had been the one selected to lead a group through a book on race because the church wanted to be more “diverse.” Ironically, it was popular white evangelical pastor John Piper’s book “Bloodlines,” a book on race that was safe for the congregation. I was probably the first black person to preach there. That usually came with a badge of honor — the “first” usually means you’re breaking barriers (or so I thought).

I entered the building to a sea of white faces who seemed not to know or care what had happened. When I told one of the members about it, I could tell they heard me, but they didn’t feel the rage I was feeling. They didn’t feel the helplessness, the sadness.

Needless to say, I wasn’t having it. I started to ask questions about this country, the Christianity baptized in whiteness I was surrounded by, the rhetoric of responsibility devoid of justice, the apathy, the “Jesus didn’t come to change society.” As the names kept coming, I was enraged. But my white sisters and brothers around me wanted forgiveness. Black forgiveness.

I’m a black doctor. I wear my scrubs everywhere now.

I’m not giving it to them anymore.

As America grapples with its history of anti-black racism, white churches are looking to black people such as me. There are many white evangelical Christians, churches and institutions that attempt to make things work and believe the best about our brothers. But far too often, black “consultants” are met with hostility, minimal action and a lack of serious love for black people — a mix that so often snatches so much from us. A lot of white churches are more concerned about the responses of black rage than they are about a system that justifies and rewards black death.

I know because I was that black consultant, and the project failed. Not because I failed, but because the white evangelical church failed us. It seemed that after each high-profile event of violent racial terror, the church wanted to make statements and public affirmations of their progress. Each book I recommended, each local black church in town to visit, each legitimate action for change in racial justice was met with apathy on one hand and hostility on the other — they wanted change but not the type of change that meant being reeducated out of their racial ignorance.

Whenever I spoke to white churches, either in the one that I attended for the time or other local churches in my city, congregants wanted some way to feel better about this country. “Haven’t we made so much progress in this country?” they asked. “We gave you a black president.” “I have black friends.” “Black men need to stop killing black men.” “It’s a sin problem, not a skin problem.” They wanted assurance that everything about themselves and our country — assurance that white supremacy hadn’t fundamentally shaped themselves or their religion — was okay. They wanted to find a reason for some sort of optimism amid tragedy. These conversations would lead to minimal action — someone would say we would be okay, then segue into saying something that would move our churches and society into “racial reconciliation.”

These “conversations” in white evangelical churches have been happening since at least the death of Trayvon Martin. But they dehumanize and disrespect black dignity by criminalizing our dead, disregarding the long tradition of black reflection on race and justice, as well as setting boundaries of discussion that never allow for questioning white privilege or white power. We are still called on and accept the call for “diversity” in spaces that failed to love us, our communities, our bodies in the streets, etc., in real and legitimate ways.

When I asked a white pastor to tell me about his journey with race in his life and the lives of others, he responded by saying, “I don’t think I have a journey.” This was the same pastor who said that he wanted to move his predominantly white church to be “diverse” and “multiethnic.” He agreed that racism is a problem, but he hadn’t read anything on race nor done any self-reflection. His understanding of race and racism was limited to condemnation of public acts of bigotry and discrimination — racism was a relic of the past, fixed with laws and a black president. He didn’t believe that racism was anywhere to be found in his church or his community.

What was ironic is that this pastor admitted this while simultaneously speaking definitively on race and racism. I soon realized that white people don’t have a problem talking about racism but they do have a problem talking about white supremacy and anti-blackness. As surveys show, most white Christians continue to deny systemic and structural racism or that America is fundamentally a nation shaped by white supremacy — a reality that is so visceral to people who look like me. To talk about both requires them to move beyond “relationship” thinking and to deeper analysis in which power is configured, identity is lived and oppression is experienced.

When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs

These conversations often go nowhere because many see race and racism as an accident and not a fundamentally defining, dehumanizing, destructive, even deadly reality in the structure of our society — in its policies, practices, values and outcomes. Thus, they often center on white comfort rather than complicity. In their mind, the conversations needed to somehow become more palatable to white Christians.

So often my white brothers and sisters talk about racism, but they don't want to overturn white supremacy. Many of them talk about injustice, but they don't want to deal with anti-blackness. Many talk about unity, but they don't want to deal with the system.

Many people are starting their anti-racist journey at home by confronting racist white family members. But it’s not exactly an easy discussion to have. (Video: The Washington Post)

But a failure to talk about white supremacy and anti-blackness fails to center the black freedom struggle and its long resistance and resilience in the face of brutality. It fails to take seriously black dignity, power and agency in American public life. It forces us into a continual cycle of violent oppression, white acknowledgment of “racism,” minimal change and conversations. But it does nothing to make this world more loving and just.

This unwillingness to change is why I stopped centering white comfort and progress and started talking about white supremacy and anti-blackness in white spaces and beyond. That is the real struggle in America (and in churches), and until we deal with both seriously, there will be no change. It is impossible for churches to want black people to experience liberation and believe the old ways of talking, thinking and doing will work. Recruiting us means unlearning the ideologies and dismantling the systems against black people, something they aren’t interested in doing.

Will white Christian America finally be better? I don’t know. There seems to be meaningful change in this moment, but we have been here before, again and again. As a professor friend told me, “It’s hard for someone to get it and change when their whole livelihood and identity is built and dependent on them NOT getting it.”

What I do know is that public proclamations without public and policy change is public performance. And we don’t need performance. We want change.

Take the statues down. Replace them with any of these people.