Updated: Aug 20, 2020
We are in the midst of a defining moment in the life of America. The historical injustices that have been levied against communities of color in this country, particularly Black communities, have created a powder keg of discontent. The protests we are witnessing right now speak to the need for a massive overhaul of the structures that undergird the fabric of American society. From our criminal justice system to our education system to our banking system, the chips are heavily stacked against minorities having access to the necessary resources that create the levers for upward mobility.
There are many scholars and policy advocates who have proposed solutions that will help to tear down these systemic barriers. The truth is that we need to begin implementing these solutions now because it will take several generations to repair the damage and create a level playing field. My goal through this series of articles is to offer a solution that Christians can implement as individuals and as congregations to expedite this process.
It is a three-pronged approach that involves a recognition of past sins (how Christians have contributed to the problem of systemic racism in the United States), changes in behavior (how Christians need to adjust their beliefs and perspective to halt the promotion of racism within the Christian faith), and a reallocation of resources (how we contribute to the upward mobility of minorities in this country). This post will deal with the first of these three prongs—how American Christianity has contributed to systemic racism.
The Generational Gap
I have noticed from my time as a pastor that there is a big difference in the way that the younger and older generations discuss the issue of racism. The older White generations tend to think about racism in terms of individualism. From their perspective, a person chooses whether or not they are going to maintain views that one race is superior to another.
In this way, racism is very compartmentalized. This is largely due to the fact that racism for the older generations was equated with subscribing to white supremacy. Among the White community, the line between racist and non-racist was pretty well defined—you sympathize with the KKK or you don’t. One is clearly racist, the other is not.
Thus, racism is viewed in terms of person-to-person interactions. When a person of color experiences racism, this is because they came into contact with someone holding racist views. Sometimes that racism is expressed in the form of a look. Other times, it is verbalized in the form of hate speech. Every so often, it manifests in the form of violent actions. These events are unfortunate and regrettable, but as long as I, personally, have not done any of these things, I cannot be categorized as racist.
Whereas the younger generations see racism not only in terms of individual experience, but also in terms of complex societal systems. A young white person might not hold any racist views, but, at the same time, acknowledge that they are part of a system that contributes to the oppression of people of color. In other words, when you view racism as a larger systemic issue, then the very fact that you were born white means you are contributing to racism in our society whether you harbor racist sentiments or not.
The Fish Tank
In order to explain how systemic racism works, you have to consider the history of how Black people came to be part of our country. Almost every person of African descent who arrived on North American soil from 1619 until 1865, did so against their will. They were not coming to the New World to live the American dream. They were coming here in shackles and chains as free labor for White Europeans, who had taken the land from the Native Americans who originally inhabited it.
Many White people like to imagine that when Lincoln emancipated the slaves on June 19, 1865, their lives were instantly improved. Certainly being free is better than being enslaved, but they were still living in a highly toxic environment. We have to remember that the majority of White citizens in America did not regard Black people as human beings worthy of dignity and respect. To give you a sense of what it was like for freed slaves directly following the Civil War, I have developed a helpful analogy.
I want you to imagine a fish tank with two kinds of fish, white fish and black fish. The tank was originally designed for the white fish. The water in the tank is regulated in such a way that the gills of the white fish can absorb the oxygen in the water more efficiently than the black fish. As a result, the white fish can more easily move through the water. They can get to the food faster. They control more space in the fish tank. On top of this, the white fish outnumber the black fish 8 to 1. Everything about the tank tells you that the black fish are going to have a lot of trouble surviving in that environment.
If you were the owner of that fish tank, you would likely make some drastic changes to the environment so that the black fish could thrive. You'd remove some of the white fish, change the composition of the water, or make sure there was enough food for everyone. The problem with this analogy is there is no owner of the fish tank. The fish have to regulate themselves and the white fish don’t understand how lopsided it is for the black fish.
Because the tank is designed for the white fish to thrive, it’s hard for them to comprehend why the black fish are struggling so much. The white fish say to the black fish, “We seem to be doing fine. Clearly, you're doing something wrong.” The black fish attempt to make their case, but the white fish seem somewhat oblivious to their plight. As time goes by, the black fish keep doing their best to survive in the tank, but the white fish keep making changes that cause the environment to become even more toxic.
The white fish segregate the black fish out. They do not give them access to the same resources of education, jobs, and property. When the black fish unite and, against all odds, change the rules of the tank by enacting civil rights legislation, the white fish respond by incarcerating the black fish.
Beginning in the 1970s, after Jim Crow laws were made illegal, the rate of incarceration among African Americans skyrocketed. This is not a coincidence. Due to excessively punitive drug laws that were disproportionately applied to Black communities, African American males make up 6.5% of the American population, but they represent 40% of the prison populace. To put this another way, if you are a white male, you have a 5% chance of ending up behind bars. Whereas if you are a black male, you have a 33% chance of ending up in prison. We will discuss the history behind statistics more thoroughly in part 3.
This is what the tank looks like today and this is what is meant by systemic racism. The odds have been, and continue to be, stacked against minority citizens in this country because of an environment that restricts their ability to thrive. The only way things will improve is if we make some serious changes to the tank. In order to level the playing field, we need to change the culture, the criminal justice system and the allocation of resources.
A few years ago, I created this short film that traces the struggle for equality from slavery all the way through the Civil Rights Movement to the current struggle we are facing today. Beware, the images are quite disturbing.
The Mark of Cain
In order to understand the role of Christianity in perpetuating systemic racism in America, we need to understand what was being preached in Southern churches prior to the Civil War. As I stated above, during the 1800s, the majority of White citizens in America (from the south and the north) did not regard Black people as human beings worthy of dignity and respect.
The cause of this belief is directly related to the insidious nature of slavery. In order for one human to enslave another, you cannot see the slave as being equal to yourself. You have to believe that the person you are enslaving is intrinsically less human than you are. Otherwise, you cannot justify your actions. You can’t say that you believe all human beings deserve equal dignity, while at the same time claiming the right to restrict another human being’s freedom because he or she is your property. These are dissonant beliefs.
This conflict created quite a conundrum for churches in the south because the Christian faith is built upon the premise that all humans are of equal value. It doesn't matter your race, ethnicity or class, in God’s eyes, no one person is better than another. This is the idea we read in Paul's letter to the Galatians when he says:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Ga. 3:28)
In order to justify slavery, Christian pastors would pull scriptures out of context that undercut this idea. One of the most inventive is from Genesis chapter 4. After Cain kills his brother Abel, God places a curse on Cain, where he is driven from the land. Cain is worried that he might be killed by the people who meet him. The scripture tells us:
And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. (Gn. 4:15)
Pastors during this time would make the claim that when God formed Adam from the clay of the earth and Eve from Adam's rib, their skin was white. Furthermore, they would claim that the mark of Cain was black skin, which means anyone with black skin was a descendant of Cain, and therefore, cursed by God. They were able to make this leap because the text never specifies exactly what the mark of Cain actually looks like.
The notion that people with dark skin are the descendants of Cain allowed Christians to make the argument that Africans have been rejected by God because of Cain’s curse. Thus, the descendants of Cain are a form a subhuman and are allowed to be subjugated or destroyed. They come to this conclusion because, in the Old Testament, this is how God deals with any people groups who do not worship the God of Israel. For instance, God commands the Israelites to murder and enslave the people who occupy the Holy Land because they worship false gods:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy…and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy….But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. (Dt. 7:1-2, 5)
Ironically, this is very similar to the argument that was used by Christians to rationalize the genocide of the Jews. Because the gospels portray the Jews as being culpable for the crucifixion of Jesus, Christians have superseded the Jews as God’s chosen people. This means the Jews are an accursed people, a form of subhuman, who deserve to be destroyed.
Whether we are talking about African slaves or Jews, the argument is the same: God may have created all humans as equals, but some groups of humans have reneged their privileged status with God because of the actions of their forbearers. Thus, it is appropriate for God’s chosen people to enslave and subjugate those whom God has rejected.
Light and Dark
Of course, all of these arguments were made assuming the Bible is a historical document that accurately describes how the world and human beings came into existence. Once evolutionary theory became mainstream science, helping us to understand that humans evolved from lower primates, the story of Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel was reduced to the status of myth.
The problem is that the damage had already been done. The association of dark skin with evil or nefariousness had been thoroughly integrated into American consciousness. On top of this, the Bible reinforced the notion that light (or white) is good and darkness (or black) is bad. For most of America’s history, Christians (who represent the dominant religion in the United States) would go to church on Sunday morning and hear passages like this one from the gospel of John:
“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (Jn. 3:19-21)
Today the link between white being good and black being bad is so ingrained in our culture that everyone (people of color included) makes the association. If you don’t think this is true, all you need to do is take an implicit bias test. It will let you know the degree to which the association of black (or darkness) with negativity has permeated your perception of the world.
The Next Step
With this history, you can better understand how American Christianity has been a major contributor to systemic racism in our country. In order to undo and repair the damage caused by American Christianity, we need to take corrective action. We need to create room for some major changes in our beliefs, perspectives and behavior. In Part 2, we are going to discuss the tectonic shifts that need to take place within predominately White churches and how all Christians can help reform the systems of injustice that have oppressed Black lives for hundreds of years.