Why do we have to keep talking about race?

While controversy roiled this nation in the wake of last year’s events in Ferguson, Missouri, this question popped up on my Twitter feed. “Why do we have to keep talking about race? We are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Here’s why we have to keep talking about race: because well-intentioned white folks like myself simply don’t get it.

I grew up believing we should all be colorblind. There is virtue in that position, but I am afraid the virtue of colorblindness has gotten in the way of positive substantive change. I grew up believing that the good guys had won the struggle for civil rights—that racism, Jim Crow, segregation, and the oppression of people of color were things my generation would only study in history books. I wanted to be on the right side. As a Christian I believed in equality and civil rights. I hated racism. I also accepted the idea from talk radio that talking about race only perpetuated racism.

It wasn’t until I reached my thirties that I finally saw the light. It happened when I started listening to new black Christian friends, but that’s a story for another post.

I write this post (and others to follow) in hopes that my fellow white Christians will come to see what I was unable to see for so long. Racial oppression still exists. You may not be racist, and you may not even know any overtly racist people. But the truth is that non-whites in America are still marginalized and effectively oppressed on account of systemic inequities.

There is such a thing as white privilege. But it’s almost impossible to see it if you are a beneficiary. You have to step outside your own point of view and see things through the eyes of a person of color. A key source that helped me do that is Peggy McIntosh’s seminal lecture “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” There are alternate versions online. See one here, and another one here. It’s very much worth reading.

Caveat: I am aware that the term “white privilege” is perhaps more accurately a descriptor of social class rather than race. Not all whites carry the privilege. But no non-whites do, so I still consider the term apt.

The Bible calls God’s people to identify with the poor and oppressed. I believe this calling requires that white American Christians learn to see their privilege and join the struggle of how to best respond to this unfortunate reality.

In “The Invisible Knapsack,” McIntyre (a white professor) identifies a series of privileges she enjoys as a Caucasian adult. Among them:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

Because people of color do not enjoy these privileges, they effectively have less freedom in American society. Having less freedom is tantamount to oppression. Therefore, people who enjoy the privilege are at the very least perceived by people of color as oppressors. This is a big problem for Christians because the Bible consistently takes the side of the oppressed and depicts God as opposing the oppressors.

It is difficult for good, kind Christian people to conceive of themselves as oppressors. But, to the extent that we benefit from white privilege, we participate in the perpetual legacy of racial inequality in America. We are the oppressors, wittingly or not. It is my moral duty to wrestle with that truth. I also suggest the following moral truth:

It is the duty of every minister in a white church to educate his people about white privilege.

What is my biblical basis for this assertion? The foundation of my personal theological ethics is Jesus’s self-professed mission statement in Luke 4:18-19. Here, in his hometown synagogue, Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah 61, which says:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair. (NIV)

In front of his own people, Jesus identifies this as his calling and anointing. If freeing the oppressed and proclaiming good news to the poor is Christ’s calling, then as his disciple it is my calling also. To the extent that people of color are oppressed in relation to whites, I must work to free them. To the extent that people of color are poorer than whites, my life and my words must be good news for them.

One last point. As a spiritual-theological thinker, I believe that systemic racism in America is the fruit of a demonic spirit. This land has long been overrun by the evil spirit of racism. It’s important for all Christians to understand that the ultimate source of racial inequality is not white people. It’s the Devil. Racism and white privilege are spiritual infections. As a nation we are afflicted (and perhaps at times possessed) by this evil spirit from hell. The ultimate eradication of this evil from society requires that we effectively exorcise this unclean spirit from our midst.

White people aren’t the enemy, black people aren’t the enemy. Satan is the enemy in the struggle for equality. It is his lies that perpetuate racial discord in America.

What is the point? In the name of Jesus, I entreat my fellow white Christians to take the following steps:

1. Educate yourself about systemic racism and white privilege. I was long oblivious to these realities. I thought they were just political wedge issues. But, especially as a lawyer in the criminal justice system, I see that they are all too real. Listen to Christians of color. I follow several on Twitter and Facebook. I have trained myself (to my own discomfort) not to dismiss anything my black brothers and sisters say about race in America, but to try to see where they’re coming from even when their views make little sense to me at first.

2. Think deeply about what can be done to eliminate the inequality. Is there an effective way to elevate people of color? Or is the only solution for white people to voluntarily lower themselves? Ask God for clarity. I believe the thing for me to do now is simply to open other white people’s eyes so they can see this spiritual problem around them. Knowing is half the battle, right? Good people are letting evil run rampant because they simply don’t see the evil.

3. If you are a minister, teacher, or other leader in church, consider how you can get your people thinking constructively about the sin of oppression and what can be done about it.

4. Just as Jesus expelled the Legion from the body of the Gerasine Demoniac, pray to our Triune God to expel the evil spirit of racism from our land.

I am sure these steps are only the beginning. But they are the only firm steps that I can clearly see at this point. I pray that this humble post has resonated and incited you to join this holy struggle against the unclean (but often invisible) spirit of white privilege. May God bless the reader and these words.

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