Why white denialism of systemic racism dishonors Christ
BY BRIAN GRASSO
Nearly all of my close friends in high school were white, and at times, it was possible to count the total number of black students at my school on two hands. My high school had about 2,500 students. The conspicuous absence of black students was not innocuous but rather was rooted in a history of overt and violent racism. In 1987, Oprah Winfrey visited my home county, Forsyth County, Georgia, and called it the most racist county in America.
Before I came to Duke, I believed that racism was a problem that was solved with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I thought that residual explicit racism – if there even was any – played itself out in petty ways and that “microaggressions” were relatively small annoyances that were upsetting but not worth protesting over. Some of the go-to examples of “modern-day racism,” like moving to the other side of the street when a black man is walking towards you, seemed trivial to me.
I have an adopted African-American little brother, and some of my dearest friends and mentors today have melanin-rich skin. When I started thinking about the issue of racism in America in the context of specific black neighbors that Jesus called me to love, my perspective changed. I now see that the persistence of racial prejudice and bias has real, felt effects on the lives of black and brown Americans. Systemic racism roots itself in American classrooms, hospitals, corporate offices, and legislative halls.
In college, I was exposed to evidence that proved my previous perspective wrong. I am still the Bible-believing Christian that I was when I came to college. To both my conservative and my liberal readers, be careful about conflating a Biblical worldview with Republican politics. They are not the same. I believe that it’s important for Christians to be more influenced by Scripture and reason than political talk shows (on the right or on the left). Though Republicans who attend church are significantly less likely to be overtly racist than Republicans who don’t, denial of systemic racism is still present in many churches today, and this denial does not align with the values of the God who intends to bring “justice to victory” (Matthew 12:20).
What is the evidence?
One of the ideas that persuaded me regarding the pernicious reality of modern-day racism is something called “implicit bias,” which can be defined as “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” In her excellent TED talk, Dr. Vernā Myers defines “biases” as “the stories we make up about people before we know who they actually are.” Insofar as implicit bias leads us to possess negative associations with blackness, it leads to patterned racism within every institution in American life: educational, medical, religious, legal, political, corporate, and penal.
The research has been done, and studies on implicit bias from Harvard have shown that people often have implicit preferences for white people over racial minorities. Implicit biases against blackness are found to hold for both white and black participants. My heart breaks when I consider how the reality of internalized racism affects the world my 9-year-old little brother is growing up in.
More often than we might want to think, our unconscious biases unfairly influence cultural, economic, educational, corporate, and political systems to favor white people over black people. The resulting injustices are pervasive.
Black infants are twice as likely to die as white infants and black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy than white women (these inequities in infant and maternal mortality hold even after controlling for education and income). Stereotype threat, which is defined as “being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group,” negatively and unfairly impacts black students’ academic performance. Studies of résumés with white names and black names have shown that employers exhibit racial bias to equally qualified applicants, making white applicants more likely to get the job. And eighteen and 19-year-old black males are nearly 12 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males of the same age.
How did our implicit biases get into our heads? Are they willfully present, or are they the result of classical conditioning that perpetuates cycles of oppression and has roots in centuries of overt racism? Either way, what I want my white brothers and sisters in the faith to know and see is that these biases are real, and we have to face them.
Racism and Human Depravity
Like anyone, I don’t like to think that I am a bad person. The Bible does not take my preference into account. As a Christian, I allow the Bible to define who I am. A core tenet of Biblical Christianity is that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; James 4:17), and in many ways, this levels the playing field by implying that I must first address the sin in my own heart before I point the finger at others.
In an article about implicit bias, Forscher et al, some of the leading academics behind Project Implicit at Harvard, wrote:
What we intend to do often conflicts with what we actually do. We may plan to diet but find ourselves reaching for a chocolate bar over an apple. We might try to quit smoking but find the temptation of cigarettes too difficult to resist. We may value racial equality but choose to hire a White job candidate over a similarly qualified Black job candidate.
To me, this sounds strikingly similar to what Paul writes in Romans 7:18-19 (ESV). “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Bible-believing Christians believe that humans are not inherently good.
Sometimes we hear people – oftentimes on the political right – object to being called out as “racists.” However, for those of us who are believers in Jesus, we must first recognize and acknowledge that, as theologian John Owen stated, “the seed of every sin is in every heart.” Should Christians be surprised to find deep-rooted, hidden evils in our hearts? Absolutely not. The prophet Jeremiah tells us that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV). Implicit bias is consistent with the Christian diagnosis of the human heart.
How Christians Should Respond
What can we do about our racist, sinful hearts? If sin runs so deep and if racism is sin, what can we possibly do about it? First, we must recognize that believing in Jesus grants us forgiveness for our sin and power through the Holy Spirit to overcome sin. We must confess and repent and turn to Christ. However, we must not stop there. Second, we must learn to value what Jesus values – a process that takes a lifetime – and one of the things that Jesus values is justice (Matthew 12:20). I’ll present some ideas from two sources to provide three ways for Christians to practically start to address modern-day racism. The sources are the aforementioned TED talk by Dr. Vernā Myers and the sociological work of Dr. George Yancey, author of Beyond Racial Gridlock.
- Educate yourself on the experiences of people of color in America.
Dr. Myers puts it best when she implores: “Stare at awesome black people.” In other words, when you see media about black history month, read it, watch it, download it, and learn. Don’t assume that the content is not for you. It’s for you. If some voices of people who are different from you make you feel attacked, don’t tune them out; lean in. We all still have much to learn, and times of conflict are often when we learn the most. Christians who feel attacked in conversations about race have an excellent opportunity to seek to obey James 1:19: “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (ESV).
2. Pursue authentic relationships with people who are different from you…
…not to look good in the eyes of your Duke peers, or ease a sense of guilt, but again, to learn and grow. Dr. Myers describes the need to “build the kinds of relationships, the kinds of friendships that actually cause you to see the holistic person and to really go against the stereotypes.” Dr. Yancey, a professor of sociology at the University of North Texas and believer in Jesus, argues that Jesus’s love ethic – to love our neighbor as ourselves – provides a framework to build relationships across cultural and racial divides. Yancey argues that a “mutual obligations” approach is required that encourages all of us, both majority and minority groups, to pursue authentic relationships with people who look different from us. In other words, he encourages black people to not assume that white people who approach them just want to have a “token black friend,” and he encourages white people to not be thoughtlessly complicit to systemic racism while secluded in racial-majority-only communities. Note that these first two recommendations are about addressing the sin of racism in our own hearts.
3. Humbly speak out in response to overt racism.
Dr. Myers says, “When we see something, we have to have the courage to say something, even to the people we love.” And if I could add: especially to those within the Church. The American Church has a history of racism that dishonors Christ, goes against His Word, and continues to create false associations connecting Christianity to whiteness. Our Creator made us all in His image, and racial prejudice is a heinous distortion of this truth. As we confess and repent of our racial sins, may God’s people be known for their vocal and active pursuit of justice.