Last week I went to the playground with my family. We were there for my oldest son’s occupational therapy session. The therapist is a woman about my age and she recently moved out of the neighborhood to live in another part of the city. It was a beautiful day and we basically had the playground to ourselves. Micah ran around on the playground equipment and swung on the swings. During our time there a couple of kids came in and also ran around the playground for a few minutes before leaving again. Because we had the place to ourselves when we came in we kind of had our belongings scattered throughout the entrance of the place. My youngest son Ezra was sitting quietly in his stroller in one area and the therapist’s bag and purse were about 20 feet away from the stroller. After awhile another kid came to play at the playground. He looked to be about eight or so. He was having a hard time opening the gate to the playground. (In his defense, it was a bit tricky. I had a hard time myself.) When the the therapist noticed the boy trying to open the gate she leaned over to me and said, “I’m going to go grab my bag.” I thought as she was over there she would help the boy open the gate. But she just grabbed her bag, and put it over with the stroller, closer to where we were. Then she just kind of stood there, watching the boy struggle to open the gate. Eventually she said told him how to get the lock to open so he could swing open the gate.
I was kind of shocked by her actions. She hadn’t reacted this way to the two other children that came in earlier. She didn’t feel the need to go move her bag when they came in. It was only when this boy was attempting to come in, and then she seemed reluctant to even help him.
The difference was that the boy was black, while the two other kids were white.
I’m sure the therapist wouldn’t perceive herself as being racist. But her actions told a different story.
I was once challenged by a peer who said that we all participate in racism in one way or another. Sometimes it’s active, and sometimes it’s passive. Sometimes it’s individual, and sometimes its systemic. Sometimes its intentional, and sometimes it’s just ignorance. Sometimes it’s blatant bigotry, and other times it’s nuanced micro-aggressions.
Since that challenge I have tried to become aware of the actions, statements, jokes, body language, facial expressions, thoughts, and other blind spots which could be considered racist or prejudiced. And boy…there’s a lot. It’s quite sobering.
Saying you’re not a racist falls in the same category as asking a woman if she’s pregnant — just don’t do it. Ever. It’s just not a good idea.
Our country has a very complex racialized society. Even though much has been done in our country to eliminate the obvious areas of racism and inequality, systemic and institutional racism still remains strong and is often unchallenged by those with the power to change it. But the unchecked racism doesn’t stop there. While many would deem in very inappropriate to use racist language or to use racial stereotypes, in our world of colorblindness racism is allowed to flourish under the radar.
Many white people assume that colorblindness, the desire not to make any assumptions based upon the color of someone else’s skin, is a good thing. But blindness is generally not a good thing, and neither is colorblindness. Yes, we shouldn’t judge people based upon their skin color, but that doesn’t mean that our skin doesn’t say something significant about who we are. Plus, to say that we don’t make assumptions based upon skin color is just not true. We all make assumptions based upon people’s appearances, including skin their skin color – right or wrong, willingly or not.
The goal is not to try and ignore the assumptions we make or to try to be blind to the skin color of those around us. Instead, let’s become better aware of the assumptions that we make about others. Let’s be better at listening to the stories of those who do not look like us, and learn how their skin color does affect their daily lives and how it shapes their identities. The better we understand people not like ourselves, the less likely we will be to make assumptions based upon appearance.
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 Christ’s return. This is because we are dealing with a problem whose root is sin, and who finds its strength through political systems and social structures built under the supervision and management of the devil himself. Exclusion, prejudice, and racism are demonic. 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 Emerson and 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 acknowledge racism as an issue in today’s society. Many look to themselves to justify their understandings for racism. Many will say that they themselves have no problems. 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. 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 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 allows for 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 whites and blacks need to own up to their own sins and pride. This does require the Holy Spirit to be at work and thus also necessitates prayer. Honesty about how racism is at work both at the individual and systemic level is needed – to ignore it only allows for 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 blacks and whites come together in Christ 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, (and I believe through the Spirit is can be) blacks and whites 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.