Beyond Color Blind: Why Race Still Matters

Guest writer, Trillia Newbell on her experience seeking to help her white friends understand the plight of African Americans and the need for Christian empathy.

One click on the send button can be so revealing and sometimes painful. My young, 20-something friend didn’t mean to hurt me as he shared over and over again that as a white male he really didn’t care about the plight of African Americans.  But he did.

Our recent correspondence often left him in shock. He didn’t know that African Americans had been marginalized. He was unaware that Affirmative Action had been used by many to accuse any black person who achieved something of merely getting a handout.  And at one point it seemed to surprise him that one could desire to marry another regardless of ethnicity.

I was thankful for the interactions because the man is a humble learner. He didn’t know much about other ethnicities, but was willing to gain understanding. It takes a level of humility to admit you don’t know (and at one point didn’t care) and desire to learn.

What has been difficult and perhaps even grievous to me is the fact that before he met me, the experience of blacks in America wasn’t even on his radar. In his defense, why would it be? He lives in a white community, white church, white family, and has mostly white friends.

This lack of context could be contributed to our segregated neighborhoods and churches. A 2012 article in U.S. News reported on a study conducted by researchers at Dartmouth, the University of Georgia, and the University of Washington which revealed that not much had changed from the segregated times brought on by the Jim Crow laws. Unsurprisingly, they found that African-Americans remain concentrated in segregated neighborhoods and diverse neighborhoods are rare. They also discovered that immigrants tend to populate among themselves as well. Such statistics reveal how seldom people interact with those outside their specific ethnic group.

There remain stories of racial profiling such as NYPD’s Stop and Frisk program whose targets were 54 percent black, 31 percent Latino and only 12 percent white. We’ve seen the stories of couples not allowed to marry because they are interracial. And we must not forget the Trayvon Martin case. The jury will determine the final word on the case but our nation at one point was outraged by the possibility that the young man died merely because he was a black kid in the wrong place. There are plenty of stories about race today that should cause each of us to pause and ask hard questions.

Part of my friend’s struggle to care would seem to be apathy. It’s simply easier to coast through life not worrying about others (other than those immediately associated with you). It takes effort to know those not like us, to study history and ask hard questions. This apathy could be masked by the thought, “Haven’t we all moved past racism now?” The stories above prove otherwise. We get used to “our own” and can soon fall into the temptation to be partial.

James speaks strongly about the temptation to be partial towards others reminding us that the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves.   He writes: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:1, 8-9 ESV). Once we’ve sown seeds of partiality we will reap separation and lack of understanding.

I do wonder if this apathy and partiality has deeper roots than merely not caring.  I wonder if, though no one would say it out loud, there remains a feeling of superiority rooted in our nation’s history. There was a time when leaders, even church leaders, worked hard to indoctrinate people with the belief that white is superior and black is inferior. It would be naive to assume those such notions have evaporated completely.

History

Eighteen century slavery shines a dark and devastating light on the treatment of Africans as inferior and enslaved in our country.  Slaves were desperate for the gospel but were instead told their only real duty was to submit to their masters.

In his autobiography[i], Peter Randolph, a slave until emancipated in 1847, recounts worship times for slaves: “There was another church, about fourteen miles from the one just mentioned. It was called “Brandon’s church,” and there the white Baptists worshiped. Edloe’s slaves sometimes went there. The colored people had a very small place allotted them to sit in, so they used to get as near the window as they could to hear the preacher talk to his congregation. But sometimes, while the preacher was exhorting to obedience, some of those outside would be selling refreshments, cake, candy and rum, and other would be horse-racing. This was the way, my readers; the Word of God was delivered and received in Prince George County. The Gospel was so mixed with slavery, that the people could see no beauty in it, and feel no reverence for it,” (pg. 64).

Theology

In the antebellum South, pastors and church leaders would use Genesis 9: 18-27 to justify slavery and as proof text that blacks were not only inferior but destined for slavery. The text describes Noah pronouncing a curse on his youngest son Ham who had shamed him by looking at his father as he slept naked and getting his brothers to join him. The curse wasn’t actually on Ham it was on Canaan, the son of Ham, and stated that Canaan would be “a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (Genesis 9:25).  The curse of Canaan was misinterpreted and applied to all of Ham’s descendants for centuries.  Why is this important? Ham’s decedents were most likely black African therefore; the curse of Canaan has been used to justify enslaving black Africans.

In his book, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, J. Daniel Hays explains that these beliefs put African Americans in the inevitable position of inferiority.  Slave owners, clergy and the like claimed slavery as a prophecy from God:

After the American Civil War, the ‘curse of Ham’ was used by white clergymen to fight the notion of racial equality and the rights that would accompany such equality (voting, education, etc. . . . . Keep in mind that this position was popularized in the United Statesprimarily to justify slavery . . . . This view implies very clearly the theological view that the imposition of slavery on Black Africans by White Europeans and Americans was in fulfillment of a prophecy by God and was, therefore, justified” (pg. 53-54)[ii].

Then there were the Jim Crow laws, Civil Rights Movement, now Affirmative Action. We are a country that has been plagued by division and racism specifically among blacks and whites. My generation (those in our 30’s) is still fighting the effects of the sin from our past. And I imagine the erroneous and harmful teaching in the past still affects men and women in their 60’s and above. Though parents may not teach the inferiority of blacks now we can see subtle (and not so subtle) evidence of its remains.

I am not suggesting that every man or woman who doesn’t care about issues of race and ethnicity automatically is cursed by the sins of the past and therefore must think they are superior. What I am saying is that the church ought to be willing to step back and consider these issues given the deep history of segregation and racism in our country. It is also worth evaluating when we consider that such poor theology was recently preached in our pulpits.

I believe there are compelling reasons why we should all care about the struggles of various ethnic groups in the U.S. The greatest of these has already been mentioned—love.  We should love our neighbor sacrificially through learning, listening, hospitality and sharing gospel truths. God loves so much that He deemed it necessary to give His only Son as a sacrifice for us. The very least we could do is ask God to give us a heart that cares for those He created in His image.

But beyond loving our neighbor sacrificially, I have two reasons why I believe white men specifically ought to care and no longer be apathetic (if that’s you) towards these issues.

1. Leadership

We know that Sunday remains the most segregated day of the week. In many ways it’s one of the most obvious evidences that the sting of segregation remains. Segregated churches are not a one-sided issue that only white men need to be concerned with. And some might argue that it isn’t a concern at all. But when I look at the Word of God and see the last day reflecting all tongues and tribes and nations, I can’t help but want that for today. But men, if you don’t care, therein lies the problem.

The leadership in many of our evangelical churches remains white. Schools like the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi are working hard to recruit African Americans to equip them for leadership namely in the PCA , but there remains a gap. Why do you think it was such big news that in 2012 the Southern Baptist Convention elected an African-American President, Rev. Fred Luter, Jr.? Because, almost four decades after the Civil Rights Movement, the largest Protestant denomination born out of racism finally elected a black leader. This was truly breathtaking news. We have come so far, but clearly we have not arrived. Chances are we will not see a significant difference in the ethnicity of our leadership in our age.

2. Changing Demographics

It has been widely reported that the United States that we once knew with majority Anglo and minority-majority African American will no longer be. In May 2012 the Washington Post reported that minorities now account for more than half the babies born in the U.S. This change, they suggest, is due to immigration. But this change isn’t only affecting the landscape of our country; it may very slowly change the face of our congregations.

Ed Stetzer, President of Lifeway Research, wrote that denominations are seeing greater diversity within their congregations. His report does not suggest that these congregations are multi-ethnic rather that the percentage of all white congregations within a certain denomination is decreasing. But as the landscape of theUnited States changes, I imagine we will see more ethnically diverse churches. If the leadership of many of these churches remains white, these leaders need to take note of such changes.

My dear friend who admitted not caring about the issue of race inAmericahas since changed. He now cares deeply. But it didn’t come from remaining apathetic. He dug in, read, asked good questions and began to take notice of his neighbor. God began to change his heart so that what was once an unknowing, uncaring, apathy became a desire to understand, love, and serve others—those different from him.

We all need to reflect on our own apathy and ask the question: Do we really care? And then, like my friend, die to ourselves, break free of our self-absorption and learn about others. This will not only impact our own hearts and souls but also the Church. Your congregations are going to change; you will want to be ready.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.



[i] Sernett, Milton C. African American Religious History, Duke University Press, 1999. “Plantation Churches: Visible and Invisible” by Peter Randolph. P. 63-75.

[ii] Hays, J. Daniel. From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race. Inter Varsity Press,Downers Grove,Illinois. 2003.

___________________________________

Trillia Newbell  is a freelance journalist and writer. She writes on faith and family for The Knoxville News-Sentinel, and serves as the managing editor for Women of God Magazine. Her love and primary role is that of a wife and mother. She lives in Tennessee with her husband Thern and their two children. Follow her on twitter at @TrilliaNewbell.

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  • Katrina

    This was enlightening and helpful. You have a gentle and gracious spirit as you remind and instruct about the realities of our history, our present and, yes, what I hope will be a multi-ethnic, God-glorifying future church.

  • Katrina

    This was enlightening and helpful. You have a gentle and gracious spirit as you remind and instruct about the realities of our history, our present and, yes, what I hope will be a multi-ethnic, God-glorifying future church.

  • Trillia

    Karina: I’m so glad! That in an answer to prayer. I want to communicate in such a way that builds up so thank you for sharing that with me. And thank you so much for reading!

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  • S. L. Whitesell

    Trillia – I agree with Katrina that you have a graceful way of discussing these sensitive issues. I can share with you that there is a bit of second-order misunderstanding that goes on as well, I think. As an unexceptional white male, I often fear coming across racist or at least ignorant if I express a view that runs counter to a certain narrative. For example, I generally believe that what is good for all citizens if also good for black people – strong families in a robust community, a robust economy, Jesus and the way He teaches. In my circles, though, even meekly opposing diversity initiatives and preferential public policy carries the risk of marking you out as a bigot. There’s rarely any kind of honesty inquiry about the strength of the argument or the sincerity of its speaker.

    So I have to confess that when I got to your paragraph beginning with stop and frisk, my defenses went up. I was just teaching about the program to West Philadelphia high school students. It’s remarkable that the rates of so-called Terry stops align almost perfectly with the commission rates of serious crimes. I have to be VERY delicate in trying to get the students to think about whether there may be some more fundamental problems that lead to certain communities being more criminally active (the numbers are unsettling: http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/downloads/pdf/analysis_and_planning/yearend2011enforcementreport.pdf).

    Trayvon Martin was another example. Whatever that neighborhood watch clown’s problem was, it isn’t at all clear that he was the aggressor. But for weeks – months – I felt as though I had to retreat in to a shell and remain silent or else look like I was on the “nonblack hispanic who senselessly murdering unarmed black teenager” side of things. I didn’t even want to say that the shooter wasn’t responsible for the encounter – clearly, patrolling a neighborhood with a gun at night in the rain is a questionable decision. But I sure was eager to hear some more of the story before we brought in a hotshot prosecutor from another jurisdiction to file murder charges.

    Although it may seem like I am only disagreeing with you, that’s definitely not my intent. I agree with you that we can be callous about the experiences of other communities. Events like the SBC election of Rev. Luter mark incredible progress in treating everyone with the same respect.

    Your writing prompted a few questions that I would love to hear (read?) your thoughts on in another post:

    1) To what extent and how can we disagree about the proper reaction to the very real inequities in our society? This is more relevant in public policy discussions, but I also wonder for Christians how we should react when we wake up to something like you describe.

    2) Can you give some examples or a framework of the kinds of things your friend didn’t understand that required humility on his part, and patient love on yours? If someone is going through life treating everyone with love (or at least mistreating everyone equally), and these people assume that racism is mostly banished, what should that person start to do differently? Is it recognizing the simple existence of racism around him so that he can better love his black friends and neighbors?

    I hope I come across as a good faith questioner, like your friend.

  • http://www.bridgepub.com Byron Young

    Trillia, thanks for writing this. I hold that people should keep in mind that while bodies come in many ‘makes and models’, they are not the spirit. The spirit is what is important and what should be embraced in a person. It is the life-force and personality of the person which is the important factor. Slavery can’t be justified and yet it still happens today around the world. We must all work together to make this world better in the here and now. I believe that your reflections help in this.

  • http://www.bridgepub.com Byron Young

    Trillia, thanks for writing this. I hold that people should keep in mind that while bodies come in many ‘makes and models’, they are not the spirit. The spirit is what is important and what should be embraced in a person. It is the life-force and personality of the person which is the important factor. Slavery can’t be justified and yet it still happens today around the world. We must all work together to make this world better in the here and now. I believe that your viewpoint and reflections help in this. Thank you.

  • Trillia

    Hi S.I. Whitesell!

    I appreciate your kind entrance into the conversation, even expressing that you are asking the questions, “as a friend.” Honestly, I’m not easily offended when it comes to race issues–I’m probably easily saddened. Your questions are good and valid ones. So thank you for stepping out and asking…I really believe this is how we truly get to know our neighbor. And this is why I am so thankful for my friend who asked really good questions.

    OK- first, adding political issues to this article was difficult because I knew it could distract from the point. So I would say that you are right–there are many ways to look at the nypd situation and Martin case though I do believe that both seem racially motivated. My main point in adding that paragraph wasn’t to make a political statement about those events or even to take a stand but to merely point out the fact that there are issues today pertaining to race–some people seem to ignore this fact. Does that make sense?

    1. I’m not sure I understand the question. Are you asking wake up to the political issues or wake up to the fact that there is still racism? Either way my thoughts would most likely be the same. I’d pray. Pray for understanding, pray that God would give you a heart for others, pray that if you have that heart that He would guide you into proper action. The next I’d say would be to preach the gospel. I think that’s what we need more than anything. We need to know Jesus (we, meaning everyone). So I’d ask the Lord to give you opportunities to reframe arguments and bring it back towards gospel truths. That’s the only thing that will truly unite us and bring complete reconciliation (first to Him then to us).

    2. YES! I assume my friend will be a better friend to his black friends and neighbors because he has gained a little understanding. At the very least his prayers can be informed. And how much easier it is to be hospitable (in the home or simply reaching out) when you at least have some deeper love and understanding for another person. My friend is/way far from racist. He simply didn’t know and was apathetic.

    Thank you so much for these great questions! Hope that helps.

    Trillia

  • Trillia

    Thank you, Byron! Good thoughts!

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  • john m tolliver

    where was jesus between age 12 and 18? where are the records for the most famous man in history? why were the so-called lost books left out of the bible by emperor constantine and the bishops of rome at the council of nicea in 432ad? what did jesus really look like? could the bible be amended one day similar to the u.s. constitution??

  • Theodore Seeber

    I know that racism is still a problem in my metro area. All I need to do is look at which high schools have Planned Parenthood outreach programs trying to convince teenagers to become sterile (temporarily or permanently) and compare that to the race ratios of the student bodies. It becomes painfully clear that the worst thing in the world to Planned Parenthood is a pregnant teenager with a permanent tan.

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