Over the past few posts, I have attempted to cover some 340 years of history, surveying the racialized landscape of the United States. We began by looking at the institution of slavery beginning back in 1619, and ending only in 1865. We continued by examining the post-emancipation Jim Crow era from the late 1870s to the mid-to-late 1960s.
Now, in one sense, these are the most difficult sections to cover, because of the explicit dehumanization of non-white peoples, the brutality of enslavement, and the abject and crystal clear injustice of discrimination and segregation. It is impossible to deny that, prior to the structural and legal changes of the 1950s-60s, American society established, promoted and preserved a racial caste, whereby white people were at the top, and non-whites were settled in various levels below.
At the same time, this part of our history is the easiest to cover because of its explicit nature. Racism was so clearly out in front, so concrete and so obvious. The big question we need to answer today is “what about now?”
In the roughly five decades since Brown v. Board and the various Civil Rights legislation went into effect; since housing discrimination was outlawed; since schools were forcibly integrated – what can we say about American racism? Has it gone the way of the laws and policies? That is, has it disappeared as a relic of the past? Or does it still exist?
I wouldn’t be writing if I didn’t think it did still exist, of course. But here’s the rub: many white Americans tend to think that racism, if it exists, looks like the concrete and explicit versions of the 1820s or 1950s. That is, it looks like policies that explicitly discriminate; like individual hostility toward non-white peoples; or even violence (by the KKK and the like). However, aside from the occasional neo-nazi outburst (such as at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017), we don’t see policies and persons manifesting explicitly racist behaviors like those we’ve surveyed.
To be sure, things are structurally better than they were 50 years ago. But we haven’t solved the “race problem” yet. In this post, I want to dip into the controversial present to discuss some of the more complex issues being discussed in our culture right now.
1. The Insidious, Flexible, Adaptable Sin Called Racism
First things first. We need to draw a line of logic from the 1960s to the present. Keep in mind that racism is an adaptable, flexible dynamic.
Let’s consider what occurred in our country during and after the Revolution. In promoting the great American ideals of liberty and independence, we simultaneously justified a system of enslavement that systematically worked to deny those same liberties to an entire group of people, on the basis of the color of their skin and ancestors’ point of origin. Liberty was redefined and reconstituted as liberty for white people.
Let’s consider the adaptation in theological convictions which occurred among slaveholders and other Christians throughout pre-Civil War America. When baptism guaranteed equality, enslaved peoples were refused baptism. After theological systems were adapted to accommodate enslaved Christians, and Christianity was promoted as a way to make slaves submissive, it was pursued as a form of social control.
Let’s consider the societal and legal transformations which occurred after the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. The South quickly rebounded after Reconstruction to enact legislation which would perpetuate their racist ideals in ways that weren’t technically slavery – but which sure created familiar (and sometimes worse) conditions.
The racism woven through the fabric of our nation – our country’s original sin – is flexible and adaptable to the social contexts in which it lives.
Now, we need to pause and identify the problem using proper theological categories – because I don’t believe we’re going to be able to maintain a productive dialogue without it. Our theological anthropology helps us to understand that racism is a sin problem. It is nothing less than a devaluation or stereotypical evaluation of the image of God in another person on the basis of their skin color.
Now, sometimes, we hear this – that it is a sin problem – and hear this purely in individualistic categories. That is, “racism is a sin, and those who promote racist ideas are sinning.” After all – it’s true.
But let us not overlook the insidious power of sin to corrupt all things human. Sin corrupts our individual thought life; it corrupts our individual interactions with other human beings; it corrupts us as groups of human beings – and because it corrupts the creators of systems, does it not follow that the very structures, laws, systems that we put in place can be corrupted by our sin?
But let’s be more direct. If racism is sin, then we must not be blind to the fact that the devil – who himself seeks to undo the creative work of God in this world – will happily entice men to enact structures which oppress the vulnerable and attack the imago dei in God’s creation. Paul makes the stakes clear when he declares that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12, ESV) The works of the devil are not manifested purely in individual cases; they are also manifested in groups and structures.
In short, we must not imagine that racism is a sin limited to individual thoughts and actions. The evil of racism was structurally encoded into the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow – institutions which people grow up believing must be right, therefore reinforcing racist ideas. Racist institutions are a reality.
I say this because I do not want us to lose sight of the theological dynamic of this whole conversation – nor the pervasiveness of sin throughout all levels of culture. We are not simply talking about people behaving badly; we are talking about the corrupting power of sin in our society. And so we need a realistic assessment of society at large, and of human hearts – especially our own hearts – in this discussion.
2. The Imprints of the Past
That said, how do we make sense of the present moment? How do we parse the fact that we have moved on from Jim Crow? What about now, when we have legislation which has dismantled many of these racist structures?
It’s important that we recognize the imprints of the past; that we acknowledge the damage which has been done. That is, we need to acknowledge that the structural racism of the past has enduring long term effects.
We briefly discussed the tragedy of housing discrimination in places like Chicago. After the Great Migration northward, African American families (though others would have been included as well) were excluded the opportunity to participate in affordable housing through various means. For example, as Rothstein outlines in The Color of Law, the FHA explicitly refused to approve loans to African American borrowers – or to developers seeking to build integrated subdivisions. Even if individual lenders desired to issue a loan, the FHA’s regulatory power prohibited it. As such, you had a high-level racialized system forcibly perpetuating segregation even despite individual motives.
Not only this, but speculators would often use scare tactics to get white homeowners to sell their homes at a discount, in the face of diminishing home values. Housing association covenants and buyer-seller contracts often included language restricting home purchases to white buyers – and when all else failed, white violence sought to keep black buyers away. Add to this the fact that zoning boards often authorized industrial construction near African American communities and you end up with a dreadfully segregated city. By the time housing discrimination was explicitly outlawed, and civil rights litigation guaranteed equal opportunity in purchasing (in the 1970s), businesses and corporations had largely moved out to the suburbs, where stable, white communities were thriving. The compounding effect of poverty created ghettos wherein it became increasingly difficult for people stuck in non-white neighborhoods to leave.
This has huge present-day implications. Not only does this affect the way cities experience concentrated poverty, and the crime which tends to go along with it, but also has created something researchers refer to as a racial wealth gap. In Divided by Faith, Emerson and Smith make a startling claim. They write,
Using unique data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation [researchers] measure household wealth in two ways: (1) as net worth, which is all assets minus all debts, and (2) net financial assets, which is net worth minus equality accrued in a home or vehicle. What did they find? The median net worth of blacks is just 8 percent of that of whites – 3,700 dollars compared to 43,800 dollars – and the median net financial assets, shockingly, is 0 percent of that of whites – zero dollars compared to 7,000 dollars.
Similar findings were discovered across the socioeconomic spectrum between black and white. Keep in mind that they wrote in 2000. And yet, the picture has not improved all that much. A recent New York Times article explained that for every $100 the average white family earns, the average black family earns only $57.30; and for every $100 in white family wealth, the average black family owns only $5.04.
If we try to see this in a vacuum, without considering the past, then we’ll automatically resort to culture as the problem. We’ll assume that there is a problem with the individuals and their inability to work hard, etc. And while we believe that all people – because we’re made in the image of God – have a responsibility and calling and opportunity to redeem work, etc., we cannot overlook the fact that this intentional discrimination has lasting effects even to today.
I look with humility on my own experience with generational wealth. I am not rich, nor have my parents ever been rich – in fact, we have been downright poor at times. But we have always had enough. On the one hand, I have a solid work ethic, have applied myself in my education, and have striven to grow and advance in my field so that I can adequately provide for my family.
But I am wealthy in other ways. My father went to college and was able to get good employment, which enabled my parents to purchase a house. My social capital connected me to a scholarship which helped pay for the room and board at a college which was tuition free. I was given my first car for super cheap by relatives. I have received modest, but generous gifts from relatives who died and passed on their accumulated wealth. I have had other family members assist in large purchases.
The point is this: I am where I am in terms of net worth and financial security not simply because I worked hard. I was born into a solid middle-class with relative stability forged by the generations before me. In short, it’s easy for me to see how the moderate financial stability I have is partly because I have benefited from the cumulative wealth of my ancestors.
So what do we say of entire groups of people who were systematically denied opportunity to accumulate wealth by building equity, being able to build and own businesses in integrated neighborhoods, through acquiring the same education, etc.? While the structural advances of the 1950s and 60s were certainly necessary and good, we should understand that, if the United States is a monopoly board, most of the properties were already purchased by that point. There’s a lot of ground to make up.
Think too, of the implications of what this means for education, when school districts were explicitly segregated and only reluctantly integrated. And further of the implications of compounding poverty in segregated neighborhoods, when schools are funded largely through local taxes. The long-term effects on school districts throughout the country are still evident today.
I say all of this because we need to understand the landscape of our racialized society is suffering from the sins of the past. And until we reckon with those structural sins – we cannot move forward productively.
3. The Act of Racial Bias, or Racism Goes Underground
But let’s consider another implication of racism. Keep in mind that the roots of racism run deep within not only the social fabric of our American history, but also because we are sinners who are quick to judge. Just because we have experienced great structural changes doesn’t mean that we’ve transformed at a heart level – or that our “racial reflexes” have been transformed.
Now, I think it’s fair to say that all of us have learned biases; all of us learn to categorize the world around us. There are Cubs fans, and then there are Sox fans. There are omnivores and then there are vegans. We make categorical judgments because labels help us navigate the complex world around us. And this is not bad. However, such categorizing can be damaging when we allow our judgement mechanism to be tainted by sin; when we allow those tainted judgments affect our thinking about entire groups of people.
A few weeks ago, we read about an incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. To summarize: two black men walked into a Starbucks to meet a friend, with the goal of discussing a real estate deal. One of them asked to use the restroom and was informed that it was for paying customers. So he went and sat down. A worker walked over and asked them if they wanted anything and they declined. Two minutes later, the police were called. The police arrived and spent 10 minutes requesting that these men leave. They refused, as they were only meeting a friend there.
Now, a few things. First, this store apparently had a policy to ask nonpaying customers to leave, and to escalate to a police call if an individual refused. And yet, Starbucks also has an explicitly stated goal to be “a neighborhood gathering place, a part of the daily routine…we are so much more than what we brew.” Apparently unaware of this policy, the police officers ended up cuffing and arresting these two men.
They were never charged with a crime. The CEO of Starbucks has apologized. Even the police department has apologized.
Now. We could argue that policy is policy, and they should have cooperated with the rules. But let’s ask another question. Why were the police called after two minutes? If I walked into a Starbucks – even a busy one with strict rules about purchasing – I cannot imagine getting the police called on me. I can’t even imagine getting asked to leave. I might the side-eye. But the likelihood of me getting confronted for just sitting there is so small.
My point in this is not to litigate the case, but to get us to see that racial bias exists today. And it is no anomaly. Good friends of mine have shared their own experiences of misunderstanding and prejudgment with me. I have come to realize that, if I listen carefully to the stories and experiences of my non-white friends, I’ll hear what happens to people of color in our world. Will we listen to one another well?
4. There’s More…
There’s so much more to be said – and to be said better than I’ve managed. But I close with a final consideration for the white evangelical listener (I am one of them). There’s a lot of buzz these days about “white privilege.” It’s a hot-button word that often generates a visceral response. And while the pragmatic case can be made for not using the phrase in order to keep the peace – it works well when it’s used to describe the reality I’ve outlined above. For you see, it is simply an acknowledgment that I, as a white person, benefit from my history in ways that people of color don’t. And that ability to benefit is what has kept many white folk (like myself) from having to think hard about these issues – which further keeps us from empathizing with our brothers or sisters of color who run against the grain of society.
It’s precisely here that we would do well to consider what it looks like to robustly apply Phil. 2:1-11. It is precisely in considering the interests of others that we will gain the lenses necessary to begin seeing and hearing the disparities and difficulties in our culture. The church must listen well. For in listening, we are equipped to move toward the kind of unity, reconciliation and self-sacrificing love Jesus calls us to.
1. Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, First edition (New York ; London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), 59–75. He notes that “In 1973, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that the ‘housing industry, aided and abetted by Government, must bear the primary responsibility for the legacy of segregated housing…. Government and private industry came together to create a system of residential segregation.’”
2. See the interesting piece at https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2018/03/chicago-segregation-poverty/556649/.
3. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 13.
4. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/18/upshot/black-white-wealth-gap-perceptions.html, Accessed April 20, 2018. Also see http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/assets/2015/11/emergencysavingsreportnov2015.pdf
5. See the important discussion in Wilson, William J, More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, New York; London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010.
6. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2018/04/19/they-cant-be-here-for-us-black-men-arrested-at-starbucks-tell-their-story-for-the-first-time/?utm_term=.7239bf899163; accessed April 19, 2018.
7. https://www.starbucks.com/about-us/company-information, accessed April 19, 2018.