Dialogue on Race

[Last week, I had planned to participate in a dialogue on race with Dr. Willie Jennings, a Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School. Below is an abridged version of my prepared manuscript.]

Opening Statement:

Good evening. I’m grateful that a scholar as eminent as Prof. Jennings agreed to dialogue with me. 

Every single Christian ought to agree that racism is a grievous sin. But tonight, we’re asking a different question: “How ought Christianity respond to racism? How should we fight racism?” To answer those questions, we need to have an accurate understanding of racism. Without one, we’ll fail to fight racism effectively -at best- and -at worse- we’ll make it worse. In the same way, we might all agree that cancer is a terrible disease. But if Prof. Jennings wants to fight cancer using chemotherapy and I want to fight cancer using leeches, bloodletting, and by drilling holes in peoples’ skulls, then I’m wrong and my approach needs to be rejected. Let me quickly sketch two bad approaches to fighting racism (colorblindness on the one hand and antiracism on the other) and one better one (mutual accountability).

“Colorblindness” is the more conservative approach to fighting racism. In one sense, colorblindness is good. For example, God is an impartial judge and commands Christians to show no favoritism. God’s laws apply equally to all people regardless of race, or class, or gender. In that sense, we should all definitely be colorblind. But if we take colorblindness to mean “ignoring race and racism” or “not talking about race and racism,” then colorblindness is inadequate because racism is a sin and sin needs to be identified, acknowledged, and repented of. Furthermore, our country’s sordid racial history from chattel slavery, to the Black Codes, to Jim Crow laws, to redlining, to contemporary racial discrimination has had an impact on racial disparities that Christians should work to heal. So, as a model for fighting racism, Prof. Jennings and I probably agree that colorblindness is deficient.

But a second deficient approach is what I’ll call “antiracism,” although people sometimes refer to it using terms like “critical race theory,” or “critical social justice.” The “antiracist” approach to racism has several components. First, antiracism asserts that whiteness is not just a skin color, but an ideology. It roughly defines “whiteness” as the white norms, white values, and white culture which act as the standard against which all other people and cultures are measured. Second, antiracism insists that racism is pervasive and ubiquitous in our culture, but that it is hidden beneath ideas like “meritocracy,” “objectivity,”  “neutrality,” and “colorblindness.” Third, antiracism affirms that the lived experience of people of color is crucial to understanding racism. Consequently, everyone should defer to the lived experience of people of color. And finally, antiracism argues that racism is part of interlocking systems of oppression that include sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, and transphobia. Antiracists believe that we must dismantle and deconstruct all of these systems of oppression simultaneously.

The antiracism model is a problem for numerous reasons. First, antiracists often put all kinds of harmless and even good attributes under the heading of “whiteness.” For example, last summer the Smithsonian Institute posted an infographic listing “objective rational, linear thinking” and “cause-and-effect relationships” as elements of “whiteness.” That’s crazy and deeply insulting. Rational thought is not an expression of “whiteness,” but is common to all human beings made in God’s image. Second, if you think that “racism” is pervasive and subtle, you’ll tend to read racism into every situation, with disastrous consequences for the unity of the church. You simply cannot view all your white brothers and sisters in Christ as covert racists. That’s awful. Third, lived experience is not infallible; Scripture is. Our lived experience can mislead us, which is why we must always submit it to the Bible and to objective evidence. Fourth, it’s false to claim that heterosexism and cisgenderism are forms of oppression on par with racism. Viewing the Bible’s teaching on gender roles or sexual ethics as oppressive will have disastrous consequences for our theology. Fifth, many antiracists like Robin DiAngelo believe that any resistance to antiracism is racism. Even if a person of color rejects antiracism, they’ll be dismissed as being “assimilated to whiteness” and having “internalized oppression.” This approach is dangerous because it makes antiracism unchallengeable. Finally, there is empirical evidence that “diversity training,” which is often based on an antiracist model, not only fails to improve racial attitudes, but makes them worse. 

So let me suggest a third model, the “mutual accountability model” proposed by Prof. George Yancey, a Black evangelical sociologist at Baylor. The mutual accountability model emphasizes that any discussion of racism and racial reconciliation needs to begin with a recognition of our shared sinfulness and our need for genuine dialogue. All of us are sinners, all of us need a Savior, and genuine reconciliation can only take place when we recognize those facts. Within this model progress is made when all Christians of all races recognize our sin, repent, seek forgiveness, and find solutions that benefit everyone. 

We need to talk to each other rather than yelling at each other. We need to call each other “brother and sister” rather than calling each other “racist” and “Marxist.” So let’s reject unbiblical approaches to fighting racism and embrace a better one.


“How do you define whiteness and why?”

I define whiteness to mean: “the state of belonging to a population group that has light pigmentation of the skin” which is the verbatim definition you’ll find in the dictionary. Now, you can redefine common words like dog or table or woman in unusual ways, but that can be confusing and even immoral. For example, if I redefine “moron” to mean “a French hockey player” I shouldn’t be surprised if a roomful of French hockey players gets offended when I repeatedly call them “morons.” That’s not their fault; it’s my fault for using misleading language.

Let me quote here from Dr. Jeremy Pierce, a philosopher who specializes in the philosophy of race. He agrees that there is a real phenomenon involving “systems of power and influence [that] advantage and privilege white people.” However, he strongly disagrees with using the word “whiteness” to describe this phenomenon. He writes: “this way of talking is both false and dangerous.” According to Dr. Pierce, using the word “whiteness” to refer to an ideology is “inaccurate” a “gross misuse of language” and “morally wrong.” 

Here’s a helpful illustration: imagine I redefined the word “blackness” to mean “an ideology of racial inferiority.” That’s historically true; that’s what “blackness” often did imply. But then imagine I said things like “Blackness is unbiblical” or “we need to deconstruct blackness” or “people need to unlearn their blackness” or “we need to save people from being Black.” That kind of language would be horrifically misleading and divisive and therefore immoral. The same is true of redefining “whiteness.” If we want to talk about how our culture has adopted certain arbitrary or unbiblical values, that’s fine. But let’s not call that “whiteness” because those values are not tied to the color of our skin.

“How do you define racism and why?”

Again, I would appeal to the dictionary to define “racism” as “racial discrimination or prejudice.” One important reason to retain this traditional definition of racism is that it implies that racism is a sin: the sin of partiality. Racism can motivate individual acts of overt racial hatred or it can be more subtle, as when we treat people poorly based on racial stereotypes, or it can be codified into laws, and policies, and systems, as it was under chattel slavery or Jim Crow. But, at its root, racism is an expression of partiality towards one group of people over another, which the Bible condemns as sin. 

The fact that racism is primarily a sin is an important reason to reject the popular antiracist redefinition of racism as “prejudice plus power,” which implies that people of color cannot be racist because their group lacks institutional power (see, for instance, Beverly Tatum, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria?, p. 10). If racism is a sin, then anyone can commit it, regardless of whether their group has power or not. Redefining racism obscures that fact. In the same way, imagine that we redefined “adultery” to mean “marital unfaithfulness plus power” such that women could not commit adultery by definition. That would be misleading and even dangerous because it might lead women to minimize or even ignore their own temptations towards the sin of adultery.

“What are some common manifestations of racism in the church today?”

Tragically, I think racism as it has been traditionally understood is still very much present in the church today. That may be hard for many people to believe, but it’s borne out by numerous surveys. For example, opposition to interracial marriage among whites is around 15% and it’s significantly higher among evangelicals [See Bradley Wright’s Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies I’ve Been Told or Whitehead and Perry’s Taking America Back for God]. That’s not just one poll. That’s the consistent result of numerous surveys. 

However, racism can be more subtle; it doesn’t have to be expressed as overt hatred. It can be expressed as the embrace of demeaning stereotypes or subtle mistreatment on the basis of racial partiality. Consider James 2:3-4: “If you lavish attention on the man in fine clothes and say, “ Here is a seat of honor,” but say to the poor man, “You must stand” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Think about that. Is it a sin to give someone a nice seat? No. But it is a sin if you’re doing it out of partiality. All of us need to search our hearts and put to death any partiality we find there, whether it’s on the basis of race or class or gender. Just because we’re not burning crosses doesn’t mean we’re innocent.

But here’s where I’ll say something very unpopular: there is anti-white racism in our culture and in the church. I‘m not saying it’s as prevalent as anti-black racism or that it’s as harmful. Moreover, the U.S. has a 350 year history of de jure anti-black racism with no comparable history of anti-white racism. However, I’m simply saying that anti-white racism does exist and it also needs to be rejected. I can’t walk around demeaning whites or saying “all white people are racist” and then claim that I’m guiltless simply because I’m a person of color. That’s not how God’s law works. All of us fall short, all of us need to repent, and all of us need to be forgiven and healed by Jesus.

“What are some pervasive narratives regarding race in America today? What do they get right and what do they get wrong, from a Christian perspective?”

The two main false narratives today are “We live in a post-racial society” and “We live in a white supremacist society.” 

The “post-racial” narrative says that race no longer matters and that people who talk about race are being divisive. We obviously see this narrative more from conservatives. 

The “white supremacist” narrative says that racism is normal and pervasive and has merely adapted since the 1950s. As sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes “Today ‘new racism’ practices have emerged that are more sophisticated and subtle than those typical of the Jim Crow era [but are] as effective as the old ones in maintaining the racial status quo” (Racism without Racists, p. 25).

These two narratives both make mistakes when it comes to racial disparities. The post-racial narrative says that the immense racial disparities we see today in wealth, income, education, and incarceration, can all be explained by something other than race, like class or culture or individual choice. The antiracist narrative says that these disparities are all entirely explained by racial discrimination. For example, Ibram X. Kendi writes “racial discrimination is the sole cause of racial disparities in this country and in the world at large” (Stamped from the Beginning, p. 11).

I think both views are not just wrong from a Christian perspective, but from any realistic perspective. It’s highly implausible to think that no racial disparities are the result of racial discrimination and it’s highly implausible to think that all racial disparities are the result of racial discrimination.

These two narratives will also affect how we treat particular cases of purported racism. On the one hand, the “post-racial” narrative will demand far too high a burden of proof when it comes to establishing that racism was a factor in a particular situation. On the other hand, the “white supremacist” narrative assumes that racism is at work in every situation. As Robin DiAngelo says: “the question is not ‘Did racism take place?’ but rather, ‘In which ways did racism manifest in this specific context?'” (in “Addressing Whiteness in Nursing Education,” Advances in Nursing Science; see also DiAngelo’s What Does it Mean to Be White?, p. 330). We should avoid both extremes. Racism can be at work, even in subtle ways. But we always need to assume the best of others and to require evidence before inferring conclusions about racist motivations. 

“How can students fight for justice and pursue racial reconciliation?”

The first thing that students can do to fight for justice is to recognize that you are unjust. Let me say that again: the way to fight for righteousness in society is to recognize that you are unrighteous. I don’t want to rush past this point. One of the real dangers of the social justice movement today is that it functions as a surrogate for religion. It gives you a sense of meaning and purpose. You are on the right side of history. You are one of the good people. You are not one of those bad people: robbers, evildoers, tax collectors, sinners.

But that’s the wrong path. Jesus didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Do you truly want to be an agent for justice in the world? Confess that you are wicked. Confess that you need forgiveness. 

Second, work through your church. I’ve been a member of three different evangelical churches since I became a Christian and every one of them was deeply invested in their community, caring for the homeless, adopting and fostering children, tutoring students. Do you really want to change the world? Love your neighbor. Bring them food. Go volunteer in a soup kitchen. Go help a prisoner earn his GED. Does that sound weird to you? Why? Do you understand that for thousands of years, the vast majority of Christians had virtually no voice in the government? When you help a poor friend keep from being taken advantage of by their landlord, or when you support the persecuted church, or when you volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center, you are “doing justice.” 

But finally, there is a place for Christians to work for just laws. We see that immediately when it comes to abortion. Christians work to change individual hearts, but we also work to change unjust laws. My only caution here is that we need to be careful when we wade into the area of public policy, because good intentions are not enough. It’s possible to be motivated by a genuine desire to help, and to still promote policies that are ultimately harmful. Two excellent books on this issue are Fikkert and Corbett’s When Helping Hurts and Thaddeus Williams’ Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth. Both take God’s commands to care for the vulnerable very seriously but also explain why it’s important to have an accurate view of reality when we fulfill those commands, especially through legislation.

Questions for Prof. Jennings:

Thanks again for this dialogue, Prof. Jennings. My questions will mainly be about statements you’ve made in your books and clarification about what you believe and its theological implications.

1. In your essay “Can White People Be Saved?” you write: “No one is born white. There is not white biology, but whiteness is real” (p. 34)  and “I want to save us from becoming or being White people” (p. 43). So to clarify, do you think Black people or Hispanic people can exhibit “whiteness” and can become “White people”?

2. In After Whiteness, you talk about students of color at a Christian college “in the aftermath of a few racial incidents.” You say that the “friendships [of these students] with white students and some assimilated students of color [carried] a labor totally unfair and cruelly taxing” (p. 121).  What makes a student of color an “assimilated” student of color?

3. In After Whiteness  you write “strong men (even if they are women) must lead. They must become masters” (p. 95). So here, you seem to be suggesting that “masculinity” and even “man” is more about an ideology of power and mastery than about biological sex. Is that right? If so, wouldn’t that idea perpetuate traditional sex stereotypes?

4. In After Whiteness, you refer several times to “white self-sufficient masculinity” as a major problem. Do you think that whiteness is responsible for evangelicals’ adoption of gender roles?  

5. Do you think that the Bible teaches that men have a unique leadership role in either the home or in the church?

6. If no, is it possible for someone to accept your understanding of whiteness but to disagree with your understanding of gender roles? So, for example, could someone say “yes, I agree that the church has been corrupted by white self-sufficient masculinity, but I still think that the role of pastor is limited to men”? 

7. In your commentary on Acts, you write that “gay marriage must be celebrated just as strongly, as loudly, and as intensely as any marriage of disciples because what begins in civil toleration when touched by the Spirit of the living God becomes joyous and extravagant celebration” (Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, p. 60). Do you think that whiteness is responsible for the church’s rejection of homosexuality and same-sex marriage?

8. In The Christian Imagination, you write that “Crudely put, in supersessionist thinking the church replaces Israel in the mind and heart of God” (p. 32). You later write that “in the age of discovery and conquest supersessionist thinking burrowed deeply inside the logic of evangelicalism and emerged joined to whiteness in a new, more sophisticated, concealed form” (p. 36). Could you clarify whether you think historic confessions like the Westminster Confession of Faith or the London Baptist Confession are supersessionist? If so, do you reject “supersessionism,” as it’s articulated in these documents?

9. In several of your books, you talk about the tension between evangelism and colonialism. Are you comfortable or uncomfortable with white doctors telling indigenous people groups that their medical beliefs are false? What about white scientists and indigenous scientific beliefs? And finally, what about white missionaries and indigenous religious beliefs? What are the similarities and differences in these situations?

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