In view of Martin Luther King Jr Day, I want to talk about the insidious sin of racism. By racism, I am referring to prejudice or hatred directed against a person on the basis of his race. By sin, I am referring to the affront against God that such hatred of human beings made in his image perpetrates. And by insidious, I am referring to how subtle and deceptive the sin of racism is.
Of course, there is a sense in which all sin is insidious. It is very easy to rationalize away convictions, to invent excuses for doing what we know is against the will of God. Even more pernicious is the tendency toward self-righteousness, the eager impulse to condemn others while ignoring our own glaring sins. The sin of racism is particularly prone to this sort of superficial sanctimony.
For instance, racism is not just a white problem. To be sure, it is indeed the case that many white people have hated or discriminated against others merely because their skin color was different. And since caucasians are the broad majority of people who have lived in the United States, it would be accurate to say that – in terms of sheer volume – many more white people have been guilty of racism than other races. Further, since white people have historically dominated the political and financial institutions of our nation, it is also true to say that whites have been far more guilty of manipulating the levers of power to impose racist policies.
But this is a different matter altogether from saying that racism itself is just a white problem. Human depravity is colorblind, and it is possible for anyone of any race to hate someone else for any number of superficial reasons, including skin color. A few years ago when I lived in Nashville, I was walking through the parking lot of the local Walmart to to head inside the store when I was met by three young black ladies on their way out of the store. I could tell that one of them was ticked off about something. As we passed each other, she looked directly at me, and then shouted out loud, “I hate white people!” I almost instinctively responded, “Hey, what did I ever do to you?!?” But I didn’t do anything – it was a pretty disorienting experience! I really regret now that I didn’t stop and try to share the gospel with her and her friends. My guess is that something happened in the store that made her angry, and that the person who made her angry was white. It may even be the case that someone treated her poorly simply because she was black. I don’t really know. All I do know is that – at least for that moment – she was gripped with hatred. Make no mistake – many more African-Americans have stories like this (and much worse) than I ever will. The point is that the sin of racism is not limited to race.
Indeed, as a white person, the form of racism that perplexes me the most is the racism that occurs among people of color that is directed toward people of color. There are “light-skinned” people of color who discriminate against “dark-skinned” people of color, for instance. This phenomenon – call shadism – most likely has its roots in the practice of chattel slavery, in which lighter-skinned African slaves were given the “house slave” tasks and those who were darker were made “field slaves.” It’s also the case that some people of color look down on others for not being “black enough.” This is so foreign to my experience as a white person, I would love to hear more from those of you who have experienced this particularly insidious form of racism.
But the point is that racism is a bigger issue than just a sin of white people. Let me stress – this is in no way an effort to mitigate or minimize the awful sin of racism among whites. If anything, the point I am making is that racism is a much bigger problem than we all like to admit.
Racism is not just a white problem, nor is it just a southern problem. It is inarguable that the American south has been the location of some of the worst instances of racism. The South’s history of slavery, segregation, and suppression of civil rights is well documented. But my contention is that because the South’s record is on such clear display, it is easy to reduce racism to a regional issue and to ignore just how systemic a sin it actually is. Let me illustrate what I mean.
Last year I read an op-ed in a southern newspaper about the contemporary use of symbols associated with the Confederacy, like the battle flag. Apparently a school in east Tennessee used the flag in connection with their cheers as “Rebels”.
The president of the student council – a white girl – was scheduled to testify in support of the flag, but first, we would hear from the president of the senior class – a black boy. As the young man described what it felt like to attend a school where he was surrounded by a flag flown by those who had beaten, sold, enslaved and torn black families asunder, the students in the audience were visibly moved.
I don’t question that young man’s sincerity in the least. But here is the problem – if the disqualifying criteria for a symbol is whether it was used “by those who had beaten, sold, enslaved and torn black families asunder,” then the flag of the United States would be disqualified as well. At the time of the War Between the States, slavery still existed in many states that remained in the Union and were represented by that flag, including Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. This remained the case throughout the entire war, since the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the states that seceded and specifically exempted the states (and portions of states) that remained in the Union. As Jim Webb has written:
The consequence of this reality was that in virtually every major battle of the Civil War, Confederate soldiers who did not own slaves were fighting against a proportion of Union Army soldiers who had not been asked to give up theirs. (Born Fighting, p. 223).
It was not until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment after the war that slavery was abolished in all states. So just like the Confederate flag, the Union flag was flown “by those who had beaten, sold, enslaved and torn black families asunder.” But it is all too easy to treat the issue as a purely regional matter and ignore this simple fact of history.
Moving from the narrow issue of slavery to the broader issue of racism, the notion that we are dealing with a southern problem is truly absurd. Anyone with a working knowledge of the prevailing racial attitudes among people in the North during the war understands that theories of racial superiority were commonplace. Outright hostility was often directed against African-Americans, such as when the federal government attempted to enforce the draft in 1863. Riots broke out in New York, during which African Americans were target and murdered (the movie Gangs of New York is roughly based on this event).
The simple fact is that it is impossible to find a region of American that is innocent of the sin of racism. Chicago politics has a notorious history of race-baiting tactics (a fascinating book on Chicago political history is Rogues, Rebels, and Rubber Stamps). Indiana was the KKK’s biggest stronghold in the 1920s. Boston has the reputation of America’s most racist sports town (full disclosure: I say this as a fan of the Lakers during the 1980s who despised the Celtics!). Detroit was the scene of violent riots in the aftermath of racially-motivated police brutality in the 60s (portrayed recently in the movie Detroit). Similar riots happened in Los Angeles in 1965 and 1992. Portland has a long history of entrenched racism despite its reputation as a progressive city.
From the South to the Northeast to the Midwest to the West to the Northwest, the sin of racism has proven itself to be ubiquitous. And yet, I can’t help but notice that it is often the South that is singled out. I’ve heard people say things like, “We shouldn’t sing songs about the ‘good ole days’ in the South since so many black people were treated unjustly in the old South.” It is undeniable that African-Americans were treated horribly in the South. But show me any region of the country where black people have always been treated wonderfully. It doesn’t exist. And since that is the case, when the South gets singled out, it is hard for me not to conclude that racial prejudice has simply been traded in for regional prejudice. And that is why racism is so insidious.
And things are bound to get worse. As we become a more secular nation, we are losing the sense of the transcendent, and without that there is nothing to hold us together. Dr. King could storm the will of the American conscience because of the widely shared conviction that we are all God’s children. As that common ground erodes beneath our feet, all that will be left are the “jangling discords” of identity politics. The far Left and the far Right are each in their own way in the grip of this fixation on racial identity. And the partisans of both extremes share one central conviction – it is impossible for those of different races to understand each other, to empathize with one another, and thus to care for each other.
My only hope is the gospel. This is not a wishful fantasy. It is a hope rooted in the power of Christ to bring people together into a new identity, a new family, a new citizenship, a new race. A race in which the only color that counts is the red blood of his atoning death. And I’ve seen the reconciling power of the gospel firsthand – I’ve known former militant black nationalists and KKK klansmen who now worship together in the embrace of God’s grace. That is amazing! That is the gospel. Do Christians always get it right? Of course not – remember, racism is truly insidious. But through the gospel we have the one certain answer to all sin, and by it we can work toward this day:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)