“I get that slavery was bad, but it’s in the past. Why can’t people just get over it? And why do I have to do something about it? I never owned any slaves.”
Those comments shocked and unsettled me then and have remained with me ever since. Implicit in her dismissal of historical offenses was a denial of slavery’s insidious root of racism. Her latter comment revealed a dispassionate disavowal of any connection or responsibility.
Perhaps, being a product of an individualistic culture makes her thoughts somewhat relatable, but a prayer I recently read in Daniel 9 of the Bible stands in stark contrast and stretched my own perspective. Instead of looking self-righteously at others, Daniel emotionally connected with the people of his nation and repented on their behalf. The sins for which he repented were not personally his own but those even of his ancestors. He felt an inseparable connection with the brokenness and pain of his nation and passionately cried out for them. Moreover, Daniel’s prayer was not only about outer manifestations of root ills but also for redemption of the root attitudes themselves. While our government-sanctioned institution of slavery no longer exists in the U.S., we still need to consider the deep-seated attitudes that have yet to be rooted out, along with their various current-day structural manifestations.
What is racism? Is there indeed something to grieve, something to be rooted out? The perception of race in the first place is generally tied to physical attributes as opposed to culture and ethnicity. Many of what we often perceive to be racial attributes, like skin color, really have no biological significance but determine social value only because of the stereotypes that we have assigned to them. Historically and still today, most of the “problems we face are conceived along racial lines understood as color lines.”1 Instead of ignoring the reality of our physical differences and the history of oppression and racism caused by these differences, my hope is that awareness of our common misperceptions about race can be the first step in recognizing and understanding what racism itself is and how we can combat it.
To answer this question, we will use this working definition: racism is explicit or implicit beliefs and behavior that distinguish or value one race over others. These beliefs influence societal structures and social expectations that determine how people relate personally and professionally.1
Racism is certainly not merely a black versus white issue, but for the purposes of this article and because my own understanding has recently grown in this area, I will draw mainly from this sphere.
We know that the American justice system is marked by poignant racial disparity at every stage, from arrest rates to court processing. For example, although African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, African Americans are 6 times more likely than whites to be imprisoned on drug charges.2 Studies have also found that the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by the police is around 3.5 times that of whites under similar circumstances.3 The Center for Policing Equity has also found that police will more readily use force when dealing with blacks than whites, regardless of the person’s criminal history.4 A different study examined whether there was any correlation between an unarmed person being shot and other factors such as age of the victim, presence of mental illness, threat of violence to the officer, and crime rate where the shooting occurred. The only factor that seemed to demonstrate a clear correlation was whether the unarmed person was black.2
Unfortunately, the problem with statistics is that we often automatically and unintentionally fill in the blanks, interpreting them according to our own experiences and perspectives. For example, we may use statistics as “evidence” supporting the stereotype that blacks are prone to criminality and violence, ignoring the fact that many disparities between blacks and whites can be traced back to either implicitly or explicitly discriminative policies.5 The actual stories of the people whom those statistics represent often go unheard and so remain unknown, the issues they reveal unaddressed. Ignorance too often has a crippling effect, even for those who are well-intentioned.
In City of God, City of Satan, Robert Linthicum shares from his experience as a ministry student working in the inner-city.6 He met a black girl named Eva and watched her transform after joining a Bible study and believing in Christ’s love for her. She went from being withdrawn and downcast to a joyful and engaged young woman. When it came time for Linthicum to go away on break, Eva expressed concern over increasing pressure to become a prostitute. Linthicum encouraged her to be strong and to not give in. Upon his return, he discovered Eva missing from Bible studies and found her on the streets as a prostitute. He immediately rebuked her, asking her why she gave in. The story was much more complicated than he could have imagined. One by one, family members had been threatened and assaulted until she was forced to give in. Certainly, Linthicum pointed out, Eva should have just gone to the police. It was at that point she responded, “Who did you think was pushing me to become a prostitute?”
For Eva, who lived in a community saturated with corruption and abuse, the perpetrators’ identities should have gone without saying. For Linthicum, discovering the police were responsible was an abhorrent surprise. Depending on your experience and background, Eva’s story can sound either familiar or shocking. Many are insulated from and untouched by such corruption and assume all people are privileged to have equal justice and treatment. We assume similar contexts and life situations and so easily misjudge others as we misunderstand their situation. Instead of empathy, compassion, and intervention, we perceive ourselves as morally superior and perhaps even unconsciously as racially superior.
A few weeks ago, I attended a “unity in diversity” forum at my church, an event with the goal of starting dialogue for deeper understanding, wisdom, and healing. One of the speakers was a white Christian woman who works as an elementary school principal. She explained that, being a Christian, she had always tried to foster and promote an environment of love and learning for all children, regardless of race. However, adopting a black child has given her a depth of understanding she’d never imagined and engendered a love and concern for blacks that she’d never experienced. She found herself at black cultural events, wondering why it wasn’t until she adopted a black child that she felt compelled to care about and celebrate black culture.
Another speaker was a white pastor who shared from his experience raising a black son. A black friend of his warned him that he would need to have a conversation with his black son that he would never need to have with his white son, a conversation that is virtually instinctive for black parents: “driving while black.” When stopped by a policeman, roll down your window, lay your hands out where they can be seen at all times. Assume the worst will be assumed about you. At all times and with no exception, respond only with “Yes, Sir” or “No, Sir.” And remember, just come home. Just come home. The other two black speakers nodded knowingly. The black pastor shared how he wouldn’t allow his boys to play with toy guns because what for many white boys was harmless play was a life-threatening danger for his boys, simply because of the color of their skin.
All these stories have in common a new and deeper understanding from entering into another’s world. Their stories point to a greater truth revealed in the Bible, one that I believe is the key to uprooting both the interpersonal and structural racism of our time.
The Gospel Solution
In his letter to the Philippian church, Paul writes:
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 4:6-8, NIV).
Paul refers to the utter humility of Christ, pointing out that Jesus in His divinity and actual incomparable supremacy chose to relinquish His rights and assume our humanity, becoming intimately acquainted with our brokenness and suffering. His ultimate goal was to pay the price for healing and unity, restoration and reconciliation, between God and humanity and among all peoples.
Paul calls the church to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” to humble themselves and sacrifice their comfort for the sake of reconciliation. For all who follow Christ, we are called to the same.
How might we do this?
1. Know the problem.
Perhaps the greatest barrier to defeating racism is ignorance. When personally unthreatened and comfortable, it is easy to remain complacent in our ignorance. For most of my life, I had never even heard of structural racism and how destructive it is to blacks in particular. When, for example, I came across statistics regarding racial inequality in the workplace or justice system, I instinctively responded with skepticism, having been taught that America is the “land of opportunity” where anyone can make it. If people “didn’t make it,” I assumed it must be because of their work ethic or character. It wasn’t until I began actively reading and listening that I began to discover a different reality.
For example, whenever I encountered #blacklivesmatter, I remained for some time emotionally uninvolved. I finally realized I had developed an opinion, uniformed and shaped mostly by media’s depiction of the movement as radical, anti-police, and anti-white. Hearing from black people themselves and reading actual policy proposals, I realized how reasonable, thoughtful, and constructive the platform is.7 Being able to recognize the need for such policies required me first to familiarize myself with a life experience that was entirely foreign to me.
I know I will likely never be able to fully understand the experience of another, but the life and death of Christ compels me to move outside myself. Jesus knew us as His creation but still chose to walk with us in our experience, even at the greatest cost to Himself. Instead of living out of fear for ourselves and clinging to our own rights, we must be unafraid to face our responsibility to others.
2. Actively acknowledge your identity.
For Christians, freedom to confront these issues comes from recognizing that we are all created with equal value and that our ultimate identity is found in Christ. Jesus’ death and resurrection earns His children all equal and irrevocable merit. As James the brother of Jesus writes, “Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation…” (James 1:9-10). In other words, underprivileged Christians should take pride in their high position as sons and daughters of the King, and privileged Christians should remember their low position as sinners before Christ. The gospel prevents the privileged majority from finding their identity in their race or status in society, and it prevents the underprivileged minority from taking their identity from the place that’s been assigned to them by society. In doing so, it helps destroy the power of the system.8
Recognizing our identity in Christ does not erase the physical realities but helps us rightly perceive them. Author and educator Frances Kendall makes an interesting point in her book, Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race. As a white woman addressing other people with privilege, one of her many suggestions is to practice increased awareness of one’s own racial identity. I realized that as a minority member, I’ve never had to be told to be aware of my racial identity; I’ve always been conscious of how I’m different. Kendall’s point is that being a member of the white majority is not a neutral position or experience; it comes with privileges. She cautions the white majority to actively analyze their experiences, to work against this privilege and not employ it in a way that may benefit themselves at the expense of the underprivileged.9
3. Become an ally (not a savior).
Not only are we to be careful not to harm minorities, but we must take the initiative to stand with them. As a Christian, I look to Jesus as the ultimate example. Though Jesus had everything in heaven, He chose to leave it all to save us. We must remember, however, that we are not all-knowing and all-powerful as Jesus is. We cannot take the place of Christ, but we must have the spirit of Christ: humble, compassionate, and serving.
Becoming an ally involves more than simply offering words of support; it requires sacrifice. As Kendall explains, “For some, it means building a relationship of love and trust with another; for others, it means intentionally putting one’s self in harm’s way so that another person remains safe.” For those with privilege, it requires the “willingness to go against the people who share [the] privilege and with whom [they] are expected to group [themselves].”9 For example, minorities oftentimes are accused of being dramatic or radical when bringing up or discussing racism. Being an ally may involve challenging these accusations and supporting minorities when this kind of confrontation arises. In both the private and public domains, we must be willing to align ourselves with others.
Furthermore, we should not wait for times of crises to come alongside people. Our focus should not be just on helping others but on building authentic relationships, particularly with those who are ethnically different from us. As we build such relationships, we should be comfortable communicating openly about unique life experiences and power and privilege differences. Though there is always the possibility that we might be seen as a threat to the status quo or even as betraying our race, we can always take comfort in the fact that we are nevertheless establishing and maintaining new standards.
Considering the mindset of Jesus is helpful also to minorities. Though Jesus was falsely accused, humiliated, and abused, He chose to respond with grace and forgiveness, even for His persecutors. His humility and hope for them enabled Him to persevere in love and sacrifice. For those who are hurting, this might be one of the hardest things to hear, but the solution requires grace and forgiveness. If bitterness, anger, and resentment remain, there can be no healing or reconciliation. Focusing on our own rights and what we feel is owed us can prevent us from moving towards others as Christ moved toward us: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Christ’s vision was never for Himself alone but for a kingdom filled with persons “of every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 5:9). As He lives through His people, this is the work He is accomplishing, and our calling as followers of Christ is to respond with willing hearts and walk in step with Him.
I mentioned that my church recently hosted a “unity in diversity” forum, but this is something relatively new for us. Within the last decade, we used to consider our ministry to the local inner city as “missions,” namely, working with people of a “foreign culture.” It’s no wonder our congregation was almost entirely white. The perspective was that when and if our demographic changed, we would re-categorize the ministry as “outreach” instead of “missions.” However, the demographic didn’t change. Not until the leadership began to discern the difference between tradition and God’s actual calling in the Bible did things begin to shift. They began realizing that our church did not accurately represent the kingdom of God as described in His word: race and ethnicity do not define and separate but instead together glorify the fullness of God. As our leadership has shared this vision with the church, both in word and action, the demographic has changed dramatically.
We must be vigilant against our natural self-centered tendencies and fight for the Lord’s vision: a kingdom filled with people “of every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 5:9). I have certain hope because this vision is not just an intangible ideal but a promised future, one that is being revealed as we follow Him.
1. Piper, John. (2011). Bloodlines: Race, cross, and the Christian. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
2. Criminal justice fact sheet. (2018). NAACP. Retrieved from https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/.
3. Lowery, Wesley. (2016, April 7). “Study finds police fatally shoot unarmed black men at disproportionate rates.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/study-finds-police-fatally-shoot-unarmed-black-men-at-disproportionate-rates/2016/04/06/e494563e-fa74-11e5-80e4-c381214de1a3_story.html?utm_term=.bf458c617cac.
4. Goff, P.A., Lloyd, T., Geller, A., Raphael, S., & Glaser, J.. (2016, July). “The science of justice: Race, arrests, and police use of force.” Center for Policing Equity. Retrieved from http://policingequity.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/CPE_SoJ_Race-Arrests-UoF_2016-07-08-1130.pdf.
5. Hanks, A., Solomon, D., & Weller, C. E.. (2018, February 21). “Systematic inequality: How America’s structural racism helped create the black-white wealth gap.” Center for American Progress. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2018/02/21/447051/systematic-inequality/.
6. Linthicum, Robert C. (1991) City of God, city of Satan: A biblical theology of the urban church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
7. “Solutions.” (2018). Campaign Zero. Retrieved fromhttps://www.joincampaignzero.org/solutions/#solutionsoverview.
8. Keller, Tim. (2012, March 28). “Racism and corporate evil: A white guy’s perspective.” desiringGod. Retrieved from https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/racism-and-corporate-evil.
9. Kendall, Frances. (2012). Understanding white privilege: Creating pathways to authentic relationships across race. New York, NY: Routledge.