Dear White Christians, It’s Time for Us to Listen
Saying that the last few months in America have been horrific and tragic is an understatement. America is, once again, confronted with the needless deaths of innocent people. The racial tensions in America have been laid bare for all to see again, whether we acknowledge them or not. But where do we go from here? I want to say what so many have already said before, and are still saying today, but is all too often ignored: it’s time for white Christians in America to listen.
Racism is Alive and Well
It’s unfortunate to see that so many firmly believe that racism is, for the most part, a bygone part of American history. “Sure”, you might say, “there are still racists. But systemic racism? That went away with Jim Crow.” Those who adopt this belief then chastise people who bring race into the conversation, claiming that they are just “race baiting,” “racemongerers,” or “playing the race card.” But behind this belief is a misunderstanding of sin and an unloving posture toward non-white Americans.
Sin is Generational
The toxicity of sin is prevalent in the stories of Jacob and his sons (Gen. 27, 37). Jacob, motivated by jealousy and covetousness, slaughtered a goat and used its fur to deceive his father, Isaac, into giving to Jacob what belonged to Jacob’s older brother. Many years later, Jacob’s sons, motivated by jealousy and covetousness, slaughtered a goat and used its blood to deceive Jacob into believing that his favorite son, Joseph, had been murdered. Thus Jacob the deceiver was deceived. The literary irony in these stories demonstrates the degree to which sin is ingrained and perpetuated from generation to generation.
In Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Cornelius Plantinga uses the analogy of pollution to describe sin.1 Sin infects and alters the very fabric of our families, relationships, and societies. Surprisingly, defining sin as “missing the mark” misses the point. Sin does not merely concern an individual failing to live up to a certain standard (although that is a part of it), but it infiltrates communities, rupturing the very love and peace which God intends. My question is this: if sin is a pollutant, a toxin which infects and perpetuates evil, then how can we legitimately claim that racism is no longer an issue in the United States? To use one example, it wasn’t until 1964 that the US outlawed racial discrimination. This means that every category of opportunity—whether financial, educational, or any other—that was available to whites in the 1960s was not available to so many non-white Americans at that time. Believing that government-sanctioned discrimination against certain races 60 years ago has no systemic impact on their descendants today underestimates the toxicity of sin. No, America still has a long way to go before it can claim any semblance of the equality of opportunity.
Here’s another example. The war on drugs has been widely recognized as having an explicitly racist agenda, targeting black communities. The evidence suggests as much.2 Recently, an old interview was published in which one of Nixon’s top advisors explained that the United State’s War on Drugs was initiated in order to disrupt black communities. Here’s a portion of the article about the interview,
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper’s writer Dan Baum for the April cover story published Tuesday.
“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”3
The significance of this cannot be overstated: Nixon’s domestic policy chief stated that, in 1968, the federal government deliberately issued a decree with the specific intention of targeting, disrupting, and destroying black communities. This “war on drugs” was only denounced by the US government in 2011. The systemic racism of the war on drugs is blatant, undeniable, and, unfortunately, still in effect today. The US is attempting to mitigate and alter this dreadful policy, but it’s difficult to unearth and overturn four decades of deliberately racial persecution carried out by one of the most powerful governments in the world. After all, we still have at least one vocal and unashamed white supremacist in congress and a former KKK leader running for Senate.45
As an additional but important point, white Americans take an individualistic approach to race, which misconstrues the entire issue. Racism is not only concerned with the conscious beliefs of individuals, but the systemic prevalence of oppression. As Robert DiAngelo explains, “Social scientists understand racism as a multidimensional and highly adaptive system—a system that ensures an unequal distribution of resources between racial groups. Because whites built and dominate all significant institutions, (often at the expense of and on the uncompensated labor of other groups), their interests are embedded in the foundation of US society.”6 Racial oppression is written into our laws and sewn into our soil.
Don’t take my word for it. Recent studies have shown that Americans display a widespread preference for white people, over and against other races.7 The more empirical data pours in, the more we realize how racism is deeply ingrained in America, whether we acknowledge it or not. This should not be surprising if, after all, sin does not happen in a vacuum. The belief that centuries of deeply embedded and enforced racism can disappear by the addition of an amendment to the Constitution requires one to have a biblically uninformed understanding of sin and a skewed interpretation of systemic racism in US history.
The Denial of Sin
On July 4th, the Christian rapper Lecrae caught some fire for posted this tweet:
Much of the response, while predictable, was disgusting.8 Many equivocate between the acknowledgement of American racism with hate speech. Apparently acknowledging and mourning the horrific injustices faced by African-Americans is unnecessarily divisive. However, the fact that white Americans want to silence African-American voices brings up an interesting point: The denial that racism is still a reality in the US itself constitutes evidence for the fact that racism is alive and well. The fact that Lecrae cannot bring up legitimate, undeniable historical facts because they do not align with a white-washed history shows how calloused white Americans are to the suffering of non-white victims.
The Path of Repentance
The first step toward repentance is acknowledging sin. We cannot turn from sin that we pretend does not exist. Bryan Stevenson brought up the fact that, in Berlin, acknowledgement of the holocaust is everywhere.9 Such an acknowledgement recognizes the severity of the atrocities committed, and serves as a reminder of the commitment to not repeat the sins of the holocaust. Unfortunately, America does not have the same philosophy regarding our past sins. In fact, even reminding Americans of past atrocities is a surefire method of being ostracized and denounced as treasonous. We are ignorant of systemic racism today because we are numb to the racism in our history. The first step is to call out evil for what it is for the sake of healing, love and justice.
After that first step, however, comes a new way of being. Unfortunately, America persistently refuses to engage in the ongoing process of repentance for racism. We have failed to honestly and contritely repent of racism, and, as a result, racism continues to permeate our society. The repentance required for these sins is not an event that transpires in one moment—it is not the emancipation proclamation. It is not a piece of legislation. It is not the end of the war on drugs. Repentance is a continual process. A slow, arduous process of examining the past and understanding the way it shapes our present. That process should never end.
Quick to Listen
So what does this new way of being look like for those of us who are white Christians in America? Perhaps we should take James’s advice to be slow to speak but quick to listen (James. 1:19). We have been on the side of the oppressors, and continue to reap the benefits. Instead of lecturing non-white Americans about how to think and talk about their own suffering, perhaps we should take a more empathetic, caring approach. Have we actually sat down and listened, without interrupting, to a fellow human being describe the racism they experience on a daily basis? Have we sat down to hear a mother who lost her child in a neighborhood shootout describe the opportunities that are closed off to her and her family merely on the basis of their racial profile? I am confident that, were we to do so, we would think twice about throwing “black on black” crime statistics in her face just to silence a voice that’s been smothered for centuries. Perhaps, we may even learn the meaning of what it is to weep with those who weep. Have we wept with someone who has experienced racial degradation? Have we sat in proximity to this pain? Or does this pain merely represent a challenge to our political ideologies?
The refusal, on the part of white Americans, to listen and learn about racism shows the relevance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s keen observation, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”10
This is a plea—to my fellow white American Christians—to stop and truly consider whether our posture is Christ-like. We are called to bear one another’s burdens. We are called to be fellow sufferers. Perhaps we should first seek to bear the burden and pain of fellow image-bearers, and then, afterward, frame our understanding of and approach to race through these shared tears.
Where should we go from here? What’s the best action to take in order to have a more loving and just society? I don’t need to know. As the story of Socrates goes, he was the wisest man in Athens not because he knew the answers, but because he was the only one aware of his own ignorance. Let’s embody that wisdom. Let’s love. And, perhaps for the first time, let’s listen.
(10) King, Martin Luther. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Boston: Beacon, 2010), 10.