Waking Up: Racism, Privilege, and the Celebration of Ignorance

According to a 2016 Barna research study, only 56% of white evangelicals believe that people of color are put at a social disadvantage as a result of their race.

While white evangelicals are the least likely demographic to believe racism is a problem in modern society, they are simultaneously the most likely demographic to believe the Church has an important role to play in racial reconciliation.

Which is a bit ironic, right?

In a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), more than half of white evangelicals (52%) believe that America becoming a majority non-white nation “will be a negative development” for the United States.

According to the PRRI researchers, among all other demographics, white evangelicals were “unique in the extent” of their negative feelings toward demographic change.

To this day, the Ku Klux Klan considers itself an exclusively Christian organization (according to their website, cross burnings are a picture of “the cleansing fire of Christ that cleanses evil from our land.”)

As a Christian myself, I don’t believe the Christian religion is the root cause of racism and slavery. But, I have to ask, why is it that white evangelicals are the least likely demographic to confront and acknowledge racism in America today?

I understand that issues of history, race, and privilege are incredibly complex and nuanced. But for too long, we’ve allowed complexity to obfuscate the lived-in experiences of people of color in the United States.

In What Does It Mean to Be White?, Robin DiAngelo writes,

“There is a difference between agreement and understanding: When discussing complex social and institutional dynamics such as racism, consider whether “I don’t agree” may actually mean “I don’t understand.

If you’re often dismissive of racial issues, it is my hope that through this article, you be able to shift from, “I don’t agree” to, “I understand.”

And then, from “I understand” to “What can I do?”

Note: From exploitation to value signaling, I’m aware of some – but not all – of potential pitfalls involved when someone like me – a white male – starts talking about race. I’m not infallible, and neither is my work. This is a collection of the statistics, data, stories, and history that shifted my perspective on racial injustice in America. Hopefully, it will help other people like me do the same.


Explaining Water To A Fish

Issues of race and privilege are notoriously difficult to talk about, and some of our dysfunction lies in a misinterpretation of a couple of key concepts.

In white communities, racism is often treated as a horizontal issue – meaning it’s a relational issue that needs to be resolved between two people. And because most people don’t think they’re racist, racism – if it exists at all – is perceived as an issue that exists outside of one’s own community.

However, what a lot of white people fail to see is that most people of color view racism as a vertical issue – meaning racial bias is deeply embedded in the social hierarchy of the political, cultural, and economic systems that run the country.

And these two distinct viewpoints on racism affect how (or whether) we perceive white privilege.

White privilege means that when most factors are held equal, it’s generally more advantageous to be white in the U.S. than it is to be any other race.

White privilege doesn’t mean that white people don’t work hard to obtain personal or professional success. Nor does it invalidate hardships experienced by someone who is white – they’re just different conversations with different root causes.

White privilege simply means people of color often have to work harder to obtain an equivalent level of success or respect in society.

In research published by the Psychological Science journal, public school teachers disproportionately punished students with black names than students with white names.

A study from the Department of Education revealed that young black students are expelled three times as often as white students, and often face harsher punishments for similar rule infractions.

Another research study revealed that requests for information from public services – like libraries, school districts, and sheriff’s offices – were less likely to receive a response back if the requests placed by an individual with a “black-sounding name.”

When people of color ask for a pay raise, they are less likely than white people to receive the pay bump they requested (specifically, black women were 19% less likely to receive a raise than a white man, and black men were 25% less likely).

In a famous study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, job applicants with “white-sounding names” (like Emily and Greg) were 50% more likely to receive a callback than applicants with “black-sounding names” (like Jamal and Lakisha) – even though their resumes were identical.

In a similar study, researchers at Harvard monitored white, latino and black applicants with similar resumes to interview for low-wage jobs in New York City. When the researchers took into account criminal records, the white applicants who had recently served prison time were still more likely to be called back than the nonwhite applicants with no criminal history.

A study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that black children were viewed as “significantly less innocent” than their white counterparts. People also routinely consider black men to be “larger, more threatening” than same-sized white men.

Researchers refer to this type of subliminal racism as “implicit bias,” or attitudes and stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.

Even though it may be difficult to detect, implicit racial bias can have a massive “trickle up” effect on various aspects of society – from wage gaps to healthcare.

For example, the infant mortality rate among black infants is twice as high as it is among white infants, a racial disparity that is wider than it was in 1850.

And, in some parts of the country, school segregation is just as bad now as it was in the 1960s.


A [Censored] History

Ever since the first slave ship made landfall in Virginia in 1619, an entirely separate – yet linked – narrative has unspooled from what some refer to as “America’s original sin.

The purpose of the next couple of sections isn’t to generate pity for black Americans. It’s to inspire deep lament for the generational sins that continue to haunt America to this day.

Our country tore itself apart and fought a war over a person’s right to own other people, but we’ve gently massaged the Civil War into a conflict over “states’ rights.”

In the infamous “Cornerstone Address,” Alexander Stephens – the Vice President of the Confederate government – said:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

And here’s another gem from William Thompson, the designer of the Confederate Battle Flag that some people seem so eager to display from their trucks, storefronts, or flagpoles:

“As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heavenly ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.

And, unfortunately, the South’s adherence to the institution of slavery was driven by a particular reading of the Bible.

In Believe Me, theologian John Fea writes,

“Evangelicals thought the South’s social order, and its identity as a Christian culture worthy of God’s blessing, was grounded in a proper reading of the Bible. In other words, the people of the South – and eventually the Confederate States of America – believed that they were living in a Christian society precisely because they upheld the institution of slavery.”

Our history also scrubs any incidents of “white rage” – violent and often deadly reactions to any form of black progress – from our textbooks.

In one of the vilest episodes of white rage in America’s history, the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War triggered what can only be described as a “slow-motion genocide.”

Thousands of recently freed slaves were brutally murdered, raped, disfigured, and assaulted during the era known as Reconstruction.

For example, we don’t hear about the Louisianan Colfax Massacre of 1873, in which 150 black men were shot and executed while trying to defend their right to vote at the county courthouse. It happened on an Easter Sunday.

Lynchings were viewed as public spectacles, attracted small crowds and picnics, and were even featured on postcards.leo-frank-postcard

Confederate veterans serving as Southern politicians enacted “Black Codes,” or laws specifically designed to target and restrict the freedom of black Americans. In some states, Black Codes forced recently freed slaves back into “unpaid contract labor” on plantations.

One of the most shameful episodes of American history, the “convict leasing” program effectively re-legalized slavery in the South until the program’s dissolution in 1928.

And, because black convicts weren’t considered the property of the plantation owner, they were often worked harder and treated with more brutality than slaves prior to the Civil War. Recently, a mass grave of black prisoners from the convict leasing program was discovered outside of Houston, Texas.

Black Codes eventually gave rise to “Pig Laws” and “Jim Crow Laws,” or legislation that enforced so-called “separate-but-equal” policies between whites and nonwhites.

For nearly 100 years, these racist policies were the law of the land in several states – even while the U.S. fought in two world wars.

And while we like to depict the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s as a “joyful march toward progress,” it was actually a violent era of history packed with bombings, riots, assassinations, public beatings, murders, and state-sanctioned torture and abuse.

In I’m Still Here, Austin Channing Brown writes,

“We would rather focus on the beautiful words of Martin Luther King, Jr. than on the terror he and protesters endured at marches, boycotts, and from jail doors. We don’t want to acknowledge that for decades, whiteness fought against every civil right Black Americans sought – from sitting at lunch counters and in integrated classrooms to the right to vote and have a say in how our country was run.”

It’s not good enough to teach students sanitized facts about slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights Movement. Only by transferring a holistic history to the next generation do we have any hope of tackling the issues that plague modern society.

It’s not a coincidence that the same people who turn a blind eye to the injustices of America’s past are usually the same people who don’t think there’s a problem now.


The System Is Rigged

In our public imagination, we like to assume segregation and racism ended the moment Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

But that’s not true.
The past affects the present, and systematic racism is very much a part of our modern history.

In Tears We Cannot Stop, minister Michael Eric Dyson writes,

Institutional racism is a system of ingrained social practices that perpetuate and preserve racial hierarchy. Institutional racism requires neither conscious effort nor individual intent.”

In other words, institutional racism is implicit (or, in some cases, explicit) racial bias weaponized by the power of law. You don’t have to be consciously racist to participate in or benefit from systems and institutions established by white supremacy.

As a result of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934. The purpose of the FHA was to ensure private mortgages to help people affected by the Great Depression buy homes.

However, the FHA color-coded and rated neighborhoods to determine who was “worthy” of receiving a home loan. Majority-white neighborhoods scored an “A” rating and were colored green; black-majority neighborhoods scored a “D” rating and were colored red.

This process was called “Redlining.

In the (must read) article “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Neshi Coates writes,

Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.”

The net result? From 1934 to 1968, 98% of home loans were exclusively given to white families. In other words, in the single greatest redistribution of wealth in America’s history, the black community was almost completely excluded.RedliningDurham

And this advantage (like interest) compounded over time.

As wealth accrued in white neighborhoods, it attracted and supported the development of public infrastructure and businesses. As a result, property values and economic opportunity increased in white neighborhoods.

While all this economic and city planning jargon appears boring, it had a profound effect on the trajectory of the white and black communities.

As property values increased in white neighborhoods, white families could enjoy safer communities, higher quality public services (like healthcare, educations, and parks), and healthier and more innovative private goods and experiences.

And that’s not to mention the financial windfall that results from owning property or a house that steadily increases in value since the time you bought it.

Generally speaking, members of the white community were more likely to have the opportunity to sell their house, make a profit, purchase a better house in a nicer neighborhood, send their kids to college, and pass on generational wealth after they died as a result of redlining policies.

While most of these unfair and racist housing practices were struck down decades ago, their impact continues to reverberate throughout subsequent generations. Most city planning maps still reflect the legalized segregation districts established by redlining.

It’s like trying to stop a cruise ship. You may have turned off the engine, but 400 years of racist forward momentum is going to take a hell of a long time to come to a complete stop.


Punishing Blackness

Even though black people only amount to 13% of the U.S. population, they make up 37% of the prison population.

The U.S. locks a larger percentage of its black population behind bars than South Africa did during apartheid.

One in three black males is expected to spend time in prison, compared to one in 17 white males. This means black males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males.

On average, black males who commit the same crime as white males receive a prison sentence that is nearly 20% longer.

Black and Hispanic drivers are 20% and 30% (respectively) more likely to be ticketed after a traffic stop than white drivers. Non-white drivers are also twice as likely to be searched than white drivers.

Black males are seven times more likely to be falsely convicted of murder that innocent white males.

In the heat of the moment, unarmed black people are more likely to be gunned down by police officers than unarmed white people.

Drug use among white and black populations in the U.S. are nearly identical, but members of the black community are punished more severely and frequently for drug offenses than white users.

According to The Marshall Project, killings of black men by whites were eight times more likely to be considered “justifiable” by the court of law than other killings.

And, according to data collected about death row inmates, black defendants are far more likely to be sentenced to death for crimes involving white victims than white defendants charged with crimes involving black victims.

We could talk about Jesse Washington, the mentally disabled black teenager accused of raping and murdering a white woman in Waco, Texas in 1916. Amongst 15,000 onlookers, Washington was beaten, castrated, strung up, and burned alive over a period of several hours. Parts of his charred corpse were hacked off and sold as souvenirs.

Or about Emmitt Till, the 14-year old black boy falsely accused of “offending a white woman” who was beaten, shot in the head, wrapped in barbed wire and thrown in a river for his “crime” in Mississippi in 1955.

Or James Byrd, Jr., the 49-year-old black man killed by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas in 1998. Byrd, while conscious, was dragged for three miles behind the back of a pickup truck until his body fell apart.

There’s a history of violence here that I – as a white male – will never be able to relate to or fully understand. And, because it’s not taught as my history, it’s far easier for me to ignore it.

And that selective ignorance – by and large – is one of the benefits of privilege.


Justice Over Peace

Christians, like Jesus, should be marked for their radical empathy.
Jesus irritated religious people not because he drew harsher lines in the sand, but because he repeatedly stepped over the lines already established.

Clean or unclean, Jesus knew that “All Lives” wouldn’t matter until the lives of women, the crippled, the poor, and the afflicted also mattered.

It is ignorant, disrespectful, and a benefit of privilege to dismiss cries of “Black Lives Matter” by firing back “All Lives Matter” without acknowledging that, in some sections of our society and throughout most of our history, black lives have not mattered.

If you claim to follow Christ and believe discussions about race have no place in the Church, then it is probably you that has been co-opted by forces attempting to stifle minority voices from gaining a foothold where it matters the most.

Caring about racial equality and reconciliation isn’t a political issue: It’s a Gospel issue.

But becoming “woke” isn’t good enough.

In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Olou writes,

“When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change.”

If you really want to make a difference, it’s going to take humility, effort, and sacrifice.

Educate yourself.
Call out racist comments, attitudes, and jokes of friends and family members.
Don’t vote for political candidates endorsed by the Neo-Nazis or members of the Ku Klux Klan (this one should be easy, but…well, you know…).
Read literature, poetry, and nonfiction works by nonwhite authors.
Ask tough questions about your church’s racial demographics.
Find ways to respectfully expand the diversity of your social circle.
If you have kids, make sure they’re not being raised in a white bubble of your own making.
Seek out opportunities to leverage your privilege for the benefit of the less privileged, but don’t overstep your boundaries.

In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote,

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.

That letter was written to white evangelicals during the Civil Rights Movement.
And it was asking a brutally (and regrettably) relevant question:
Where are you?


Addendum: White Fragility

If you’re white and are still struggling with ideas about white privilege and implicit racial bias, look no further than the article your reading right now.

Here’s the uncomfortable and ironic truth: You shouldn’t need a blog written by a white male to convince you that racism and intolerance are still very much a problem in modern society.

In Trouble I’ve Seen, theologian Drew Hart writes,

“There is a long history, going all the way back to slavery, of white Americans not trusting black perspectives as truthful. Therefore white verification is required to confirm every black thought and testimony, because on their own they hold no weight in court or public opinion. White perception is assumed to be more accurate and objective than black perception.”

Unfortunately, white people often rely on other white people to confirm the experiences and perspectives of the black community – especially when it comes to issues of race. We’re often dismissive of black voices and experiences that threaten our controlled and fair view of the world.

And our blindness doesn’t end there.

In her research paper “White Fragility,” Robin DiAngelo, Ph.D., writes

“White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. White fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”

People suffering from white fragility are triggered anytime they encounter people of color being given preferential treatment in such a way that has been historically afforded only to white people.

White fragility is the gateway drug to white rage. Anytime black progress or racial equality is perceived as a “threat” to the status quo, it should immediately be called out for what it truly is: White Supremacy.

In The Myth of Equality, pastor Ken Wytsma writes,

Losing preferential treatment or letting go of privilege is not the same as experiencing oppression when institutionalized systems and structures harm someone on the basis of the color of their skin.”

Being a Christian is about taking on the flesh and bone of Jesus Christ,
the God-man who poured out his life for the sake of the hurting, marginalized, and the sick.

A life that is marked by radical – often scandalous – empathy.

So, before we dismiss or launch into another online tirade against Black Lives Matter, or kneeling NFL players, or Civil War Statues, we need to ask ourselves:

What would it be like to be black and be taught history as a succession of “things white people accomplished”?
To know that when Thomas Jefferson penned “All men are created equal” in our Declaration of Independence, he was only referring to white males with property?
What would it be like to “fight for your country” and come back to segregated water fountains?
What would it feel like to walk past statues honoring people who fought and died to keep your ancestors enslaved?
What would it be like to grow up knowing your grandparents – or even your parents – lived in fear of being beaten or lynched for violating vague social decorum?
To see no one held accountable – again – for another black man gunned down when the police bodycam clearly shows he’s unarmed?

Just a little bit of empathy and historical context can go a long way.
Imagine what can be accomplished with a whole lot of education and radical empathy.


Addendum II: Supplies

It is impossible to capture all of the nuances and complexities of race in America is a single blog post. I apologize for where I’ve gotten it wrong. For an expanded take on the topic, here are the books and films that informed my writing and perspective.

Books

Between the World and Me
I’m Still Here
So You Want to Talk About Race
Tears We Cannot Stop
Just Mercy
The Hate U Give
When They Call You a Terrorist
Trouble I’ve Seen
White Rage
White Fragility
The Color of Law
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
The New Jim Crow
The Blood of Emmitt Till
America’s Original Sin
Ghettoside

Film

12 Years a Slave
Selma
I Am Not Your Negro
BlacKkKlansman
Get Out
13th
Dope
Straight Outta Compton
Fruitvale Station
Moonlight

 

 

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