Racism has been pretty easy to spot for most people. It felt like the sting of a lash on an enslaved person’s back and smelled like the charred flesh of a public lynching. Since those forms of racial oppression have become frowned upon, so the thinking goes, then we must have moved past racism.
Unfortunately, some Christians seem to believe racism is merely a relic of a bygone era.
In an admirable effort to reckon with its racial past, leaders at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary formed a commission to examine the school’s racist founding and present their findings. The history, dating back to the mid-19th century, was as honest as it was tragic. For instance, all four original founders of the seminary held slaves, and one donor who saved the seminary from financial ruin earned his wealth through convict leasing. Yet the report stopped too soon. It ended in the mid-1960s, giving the impression that racism had, for the most part, ended with the civil rights movement.
Christians who see racism as mainly a problem of the past often fail to see that they or other people of faith still hold negative views about people of certain races and ethnicities.
In a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 54 percent of white evangelicals indicated that the country becoming majority nonwhite by 2045 would have negative effects on the nation. But 79 percent of black Protestant respondents and 80 percent of Hispanic Protestants thought this demographic change would be good for the country.
It’s easier to believe racism is a problem of the past if you think of racism strictly in interpersonal terms, truncating the definition of racism. Hurling the “n-word” at someone is, for most people, an identifiable form of racism. But racism is not simply one person harboring personal animus toward another because of his or her race or ethnicity.
Christians believe that an individual’s sins make it necessary for salvation through Jesus. That theological emphasis on individual sin, however, can lead some Christians to miss the way sins such as racism work out through systems.
In his book “The Next Evangelicalism,” Soong-Chan Rah writes, “Evangelicalism’s captivity to excessive individualism means that outrage for the corporate sin of racism is rarely present. … We are so busy trying to justify and deny the reality of the personal, individual prejudice that we ignore the larger issue of a corporate shame that arises from a structural, systemic evil.”
Sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith found in their book “Divided by Faith” that white evangelical religious beliefs can reinforce an individualistic view of racism.
“If race problems — poor relationships — result from sin, then race problems must largely be individually based. … Absent from [white evangelical] accounts is the idea that poor relationships might be shaped by social structures, such as laws, the ways institutions operate, or forms of segregation.”
An individualistic understanding denies the racism lurking in the normal functions of systems, institutions and policies. Overt examples of individual racism still exist, and FBI data even reveals that hate crimes are on the rise. But Christians need to attune themselves to more modern manifestations of racial marginalization.
A report published in January by the Institute for Policy Studies found the median black family owns $3,600, which represents 2 percent of the median white family’s wealth. Similarly, the median Latino family owns $6,600, which is 4 percent of the median white family. According to a 2013 report by the Sentencing Project, black males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males. At that rate, 1 in 3 black males will go to prison, compared with 1 in 17 white males. Although the president has frequently touted record low unemployment rates for black people, they still have the highest rates of unemployment. And black women die in maternity-related deaths at three times that of white women.
The failure to acknowledge the collective aspects of racism leads many white Christians to artificially bifurcate social justice and the gospel. A group of theologically conservative Christians recently published “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” out of a concern that “values borrowed from secular culture are currently undermining Scripture in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality.” They expressed their objection that some Christians operated under “the broad and somewhat nebulous rubric of concern for ‘social justice.’ ”
Hints of this separation between the gospel and social justice leak out when Christians say phrases like “Just preach the gospel.” Or “You’re being too political.” Their reluctance to address endemic racial inequality leads them to label others as “social justice warriors,” “Marxists” or “Communists.” More recently, “critical race theorist” has been used as an epithet to label Christians who acknowledge and work to combat the collective aspects of racism.
Many forms of racism do not require anyone to use a racial slur or don a white robe and hood. Racism today merely requires a person to support ostensibly non-racist attitudes that still alienate and oppress people of color.
Christians, especially white evangelicals, are more likely to blame the continued disparities in wealth, incarceration rates, maternal mortality and unemployment on an individual’s failings rather than systemic and institutional racism. For instance, white evangelicals attribute a person’s poverty to his or her own lack of effort at a rate of 53 percent, vs. 32 percent of black Christians who said the same. The majority of black Christians, 64 percent, said a person’s circumstances are more of a factor than individual effort.
And at some point, white evangelicals will have to reckon with the ramifications of their support for President Trump. Although every Christian should feel free to vote his or her conscience, following that principle does not automatically alleviate the consequences of such decisions. White evangelicals remain Trump’s most supportive demographic despite numerous racist statements and actions that inhibit the full flourishing of racial and ethnic minorities.
What happens when Christians relegate racism mainly to the past? Black people and other people of color continue to suffer. Whether it is insensitivity, ignorance and obliviousness demonstrated by fellow church members or the dire prospects many black people face in terms of basic professional, educational and health-related outcomes, a failure to acknowledge racism in its current forms perpetuates inequality. Ultimately, when black people do not feel heard, they leave, even if the exodus is a quiet one.
Many people, including Christians, like to believe that if they were alive during the 1960s, they would have participated in the civil rights movement. If Christians refuse to acknowledge racism and fight against it today, then it is clear where they would have stood half a century ago, too.
Jemar Tisby is president of the Witness: A Black Christian Collective and co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast. He is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Mississippi and author of the new book “The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.”