To understand racism, racial prejudice, and discrimination in America one must embark on a long journey. This is a journey in which there perhaps is no definite end until the end of time itself. This is because we are dealing with a problem that finds its strength through political systems and social structures and its root in the heart of humanity. Exclusion, prejudice, and racism are powerful and complex, and there is more that is going on in our world than first meets the eye.
Racism is alive and well in our culture and society. But it usually is not as obvious as the chains of slavery or the Jim Crow laws of the past. Most of the time racism acts incognito. The roots of racism are vast and deep in the soil of the American society. It finds its strength in some of the most fertile soil: the hearts of people and the political and social systems which manage and dictate the way we live in this country. As many face the horrors of the realities of racism today, many people run away in denial. Sometimes, people act as if it simply does not exist. But in doing this, the roots of racism only grow stronger and more seeds of division are sewn.
THE EXTENT OF RACISM’S REACH
According to the authors Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, racism, for the majority of white Americans (and especially white conservative protestants), is seen as an individual issue (Emerson and Smith, 74-75). This is assuming people are already acknowledging racism as an issue in today’s society. Many look to themselves to justify their understandings for racism. Many white people will say that they themselves have no problems with racism, that they are okay with black people as a whole. Emerson and Smith showed that generally people said they only judge others, no matter what their race, individually. They personally are not being racist, and so to them it really is not that big of an issue. They would say that some people may still be racist, like perhaps a family member who still will use the “n” word, but overall racism is not a deeply rooted issue anymore. But as Emerson and Smith point out, these responses come from a tradition of “accountable freewill-individualism,” “relationalism,” and “antistructuralism” (Emerson and Smith, 76). For many white evangelicals, there isn’t a racism problem, there is a sin problem. In viewing racism in this way, most ignore how the political system and social structures impact racism. If structures or programs geared towards helping fight racism are mentioned by white evangelicals, they are mentioned as only bringing up the race issues and therefore prolonging it. Many white evangelicals like to believe that racism is a thing of the past, and if we just leave the issue alone things will work themselves out. They think by simply dealing with racism one person at a time, and “loving our neighbors as ourselves” racism will eventually dissipate. This view, called the “miracle motif” by Emerson and Smith, seems to be quite a prevalent opinion held among Christians, and it enables racism to continue (Emerson and Smith, 117).
Through questionnaires and studies, Emerson and Smith show that many people are ignorant of the prevalence of racism that still exists in our society because of their “cultural toolkit.” They fail to see racism’s presence in the various political and social structures. This is because it is generally viewed that anything that is not interpersonal is “superficial.” The general ignorance that leads to these beliefs only helps sustain the structures that allow discrimination. This ignorance, or perhaps stubbornness, due to their cultural toolkit leads to the contribution of the racialization that exists in America, and especially in the American evangelical church. In their ignorance, they may not be actively racist, but they remain passively racist.
William Julius Wilson agrees that the general populace sees racism and discrimination at the individual level, while rarely seeing racism at the systemic level. However, while this is true for the general populace, especially for white individuals, social scientists rarely look to the individual level or the cultural realm. They generally will look at the political and social systems which cause racial discrimination. It is almost taboo for social scientists to blame cultural aspects because it would be “blaming the victims” (Wilson, 3). Wilson argues that both social structures and culture need to be looked at together, working in concert with one another, to begin to understand the problems of racism. He shows that racism is deeply engulfed in both culture and the social structures, but in ways which are not always intended to be discriminatory. Through many examples, Wilson shows that racial inequality exists through political policies or decisions that seem nonracial, but end up impacting inner-city neighborhoods and poor black residents dramatically. He shows that racism so permeates our social structures that even policies intended for the betterment of all people ultimately negatively impact poor black residents (Wilson, 144).
Miroslav Volf, speaking from a different perspective than Emerson and Smith or Wilson, discusses racism on the individual level. He showed racism’s influence on the heart. Volf showed that racism is not only an issue between the whites and blacks of America, but it is an evil which is seen worldwide. Speaking from a Christian point of view, he shows that racism needs to be addressed not merely at the systemic level, but at the heart of the individual. He shows that racism is a spiritual issue, and a poor theology by an individual can allow for racism to go unchecked, or perhaps even be encouraged to exist. These various authors show that racism is found in nearly every realm of life, from the individual heart to the national political and social structures. As Emerson and Smith put it, we simply live in a racialized society. A society in which racism and prejudice has extended to all areas of life.
THE INFLUENCE OF RACISM ON THE CHRISTIAN AND THE CHURCH
Perhaps the best example of how racism has affected the church is through Emerson and Smith’s research. Through their surveys they showed that if the white population generally believed that racism was a personal issue, then a white evangelical would be more likely to strongly believe it. If the black population generally saw racism as a structural issue, then the black evangelical would be more likely to strongly believe it. This means that white and black evangelicals are more strongly divided over the race issue than even the general American population. With ninety percent of populations attending a church of nearly all the same race in America, Christians have been influenced by their own history of racism and discrimination in American and still continue to contribute to it.
Emerson and Smith showed that with most white evangelicals asserting that racism is mostly an issue needing to be dealt with at the individual relational level, many assume that racism could be defeated if everyone would just become a Christian. This allows the Christians and churches to ignore the systemic problems of racism in America. And if they rarely even come in contact with anyone of another race, then they do not curb racism at all.
Although Wilson rarely spoke about Christians and racism, he showed that the more conservative a person is, the more likely he is to view racism as a cultural issue. White conservative Christians would like to blame the problem of poverty in the black community on their “black culture,” and do so frequently. This fact only feeds into a feeling of a superiority of whites over blacks, of course then leading to discrimination.
Volf shows that without an understanding of mercy and a “theology of embrace” the Christian will have issues of racism in his own heart and worldview. He explains sin as exclusion and shows that at the heart of racism is exclusion.
Christians have been deeply impacted by racism. We may say we are willing to worship together, yet very few churches have congregations that do. America’s history of racism has had much impact on today’s Christians, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not. Racism has affected the church’s reputation and impact and only continues to do so today. In many ways it seems as if racism has made many people blind to its own permutation in the American church.
Christians mean well. There may be populations which still deal with active, unashamed racism, but overall the church means well and wants to see racism and discrimination come to an end. But oftentimes Christians simply fail to see just how deeply rooted racism is in America, and even in the church. This leads to passive racism, in which no one is actively attempting to fight racism’s impact in the church. Many times it is not seen as a major issue which needs to be addressed because they do not view themselves having problems with racism. This only allows for ignorance to remain and racism to go unchecked in the hearts of people as well as in the social and political structures of our nation.
THE CHURCH AS A PROPHETIC WITNESS
If the church is ever going to overcome racism in America, it is going to require intentional awareness, honesty, and communication (it will require much more than this, but this is where it must start). Perhaps Emerson and Smith said it best when they said “Evangelicals believe their faith ought to be a powerful impetus for bringing people together across race. Ironically, their faiths seem to drive them further apart” (Emerson and Smith, 125). It would do the church well if it would admit that. Unfortunately many, if not most, are not aware of racism’s influence. Therefore, for the church to ever overcome racism, the first step is to become aware of its presence. It may seem obvious, but awareness does not just happen. There has to be intentional efforts made by seminaries, parachurch organizations, respected Christian leaders, pastors, Sunday School teachers, worship teams, etc. Awareness is the first key to overcoming racism.
But racism is not simply going to be overcome through awareness, as all three of the books clearly demonstrated. Awareness needs to change the thoughts and theology of the individual. It is not that we will overcome racism one person at a time per se, but if the general church attender has no understanding of racism or discrimination, then he has no chance of making strides toward positive change. This requires honesty. Both white and black people need to own up to their own sins and pride, but white people in particular need to understand their place of privilege and power. Honesty about how racism is at work both at the individual and systemic level is needed, and to ignore it only enables it to exist.
Therefore, there needs to be more discussion, more conversation, between blacks and whites in America. Pastors need to show their churches what that looks like through their preaching, illustrations, and applications. How do we approach dealing with racism at the systemic level? How can black and white people come together to be inclusive rather than exclusive? It takes sacrifice. This may mean spending money, time, and energy for people that they have never met. But if racism is going to be overcome, black and white people must come together relationally, physically, and even politically. It is a fight. It is a fight that I believe in which God expects the church to take part.
Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford University Press, USA, 2001.
Gundry-Volf, Judith M., and Miroslav Volf. A Spacious Heart. Gracewing, 1997.
Wilson, William Julius. More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City. 1st ed. W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.