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Racism: What is the problem? The Bible, injustice, and race#2; Justice#27.

Racism: What is the problem? The Bible, injustice, and race#2; Justice#27. July 12, 2021

“Racism does not exist because I am not a racist.” We have all heard it. Some of us may have even said it. There are, of course, serious problems with this sort of thinking.

Let me begin by noting that racism is a sin problem and until we see it as such we will not make much headway into resolving the injustices that racism causes.[1]  

I find it surprising, and yet not surprising, that many object to the assertion that racism is a problem.

It is not surprising because I myself have only recently come to learn how ignorant I was when it comes to racism in our society. Thus, I am not surprised that others may be ignorant.

At the same time, I am surprised that so many Christians reject the problem of racism. After all, we supposedly have a doctrinal basis for expecting the presence of racism in culture. Let me explain.

We are all sinners

There are several fundamental doctrines of Christianity that all Christians agree upon.[2] For instance, all Christians affirm that God eternally exists as a triune God[3] and as the creator of all things.[4]

Another doctrine is the sinfulness of humankind, which affirms that all persons are sinners (This does not mean that all persons only sin—until they come to faith in Christ. Such a notion leads to the distorted conviction that non-Christians are evil).

Racism is real. And as Christians who affirm the sinfulness of humankind, we should not be surprised.

NB: I find it incredible—and I will write on this in an upcoming post—that some churches who affirm their belief in the sinfulness of humankind have power structures in place that allow their senior leaders to have complete control with no accountability.

What is race?

First, we must begin our journey into the issues of race and racism by asking: how does one define “race?”

The homepage of the National Institute of Health (NIH) website states,

“Race is also used to group people that share a set of visible characteristics, such as skin color and facial features. Though these visible traits are influenced by genes, the vast majority of genetic variation exists within racial groups and not between them. Race is an ideology and for this reason, many scientists believe that race should be more accurately described as a social construct and not a biological one.”[5]

It is true that biology has been unable to justify racial classifications. In fact, one of the results of the Genome Project has been to demonstrate that genetically speaking humans are 99.9% identical to one another.[6]

Some have used this conviction to reject the notion that there is such a thing as racial injustice.

I would note in response that though it is true that “race” is a fabricated concept, which has no scientific or biblical[7] justification, the fact is that the idea of race as a social construct is valid and that it has been used to discriminate.

Thus, even though there are no established means of delineating racial boundaries, this does not mean that we cannot speak of racism.

Commercial interruption: The Determinetruth podcast is back with new episodes! Rob and Vinnie are discussing how to understand and apply the Scriptures. Plus, we have interviews with leading scholars, thinkers, and practitioners from across a wide spectrum! See our latest episode in which we interview Mimi Haddad the Director of Christians for Biblical Equality here.

Race in modern western society

It is worth noting that the modern classifications of “race” typically asserted some form of racism. After all, one of the primary objectives for distinguishing among the “races” was to justify a social hierarchy in which some were deemed superior.

Of course, the superior race was the one with power and the one who was doing the classifying.

Thus, the concept of race played a significant role in the evolutionary biology of the 19th and 20th centuries. Linnaeus’ classification of humans, in fact, provided the foundation for the system of biological racism.[8]

The classifying of one group as inferior was taken to the fullest measure by the 19th-century scientist Samuel Morton. Morton collected skulls from around the world so that he might measure them to determine which people groups were more intelligent and which were inferior.[9] National Geographic reports that “when Morton died, in 1851, the Charleston Medical Journal in South Carolina praised him for ‘giving to the negro his true position as an inferior race.’”[10]

One reason why this is important is that once a people group has been classified as inferior, and inferior often meant “subhuman,” a basis for discrimination has also been established.

The modern concept of “race” was fashioned to justify racism.

The classification of “races” was motivated by the desire to maintain a social construct in which some were in power and others were subjects. This social construct operated so that those in power profited, often in the form of labor, from the subjects.

We must recognize that the slave trade did not begin with a philosophical or theological construct of race from which it concluded that racism and/or slavery were acceptable, or even justified. The slave trade developed first. It was only after slavery was instituted that the need arose to defend and justify its racist practices.

(It is true that modern American slavery was not initially racist. It, however, quickly became so!)

This is when science rushed in to find a biological basis for classifying some as less than human.

Religion also quickly came to the rescue! Preachers and theologians, some of whom themselves benefitted from the institution of slavery, also began to argue in defense of racially motivated slavery.[11]

 

Various forms of racism

One of the problems in discussing racism is that there are different levels of racism. For our purposes, I will briefly only mention two.

First, there is racism on a personal level. This is where we individually have implicit and explicit biases that lead us to discriminate—even if we are not always aware of such biases.[13]

In other words, racism on a personal level acknowledges that everyone has personal prejudices towards others and at any point in time an individual may invoke their prejudice over others on a personal level.

second form of racism is structural, or institutional, racism. The most common definition of “structural racism” is “racial prejudice plus power.” The idea is that even though everyone has prejudices (first level), not everyone has the power (second level) to subject others to it. Racism on this level is concerned with institutional discrimination.

Racism on the level of structures and institutions recognizes that some have the power to make laws and establish systems that benefit some over and against others. That is, institutional racism refers to the power systems that create laws in such a way that some persons benefit from the system while others suffer from it. The end result is structural racism. (this, of course, applies to more than just racial discrimination).

Perhaps an illustration might clarify the distinctions between these two levels of racism. Suppose a black person killed a white person in 1890 in the US. One might contend that the murder was racially motivated. The black person may well have hated the person because he/she was white and sought an opportunity to commit such a crime. This would be an example of racism on a personal level.

This would not be an example of structural racism, however, because if the black person were captured, then he/she would absolutely have been held accountable for the crime. The system of power did not allow persons of color to get away with murder.

If, however, in the same era, a white person, or, as was often the case, a group of white men, lynched a black person, it would have been very unlikely that the white person(s) would have been held accountable by the law.

Many black persons, in fact, were lynched on the mere suspicion, or even as a result of baseless accusations, that they had done something wrong. Often the baseless accusations were not even for crimes worthy of death.

Extra-judicial killings were a fact of life hanging over all persons of color at the time. White persons had only to fear when they actually committed a crime—unless that crime were against a person of color for which they were often acquitted for a plethora of unjust reasons.[14]

This, and there are many more examples I could have used, is an example of institutional racism.

Lynchings were not the same as Roman crucifixions

As a NT scholar, I am well aware of the barbarity of the ancient Roman empire and its use of crucifixions as a means of maintaining power and control over a people. I can easily affirm that some of the accounts of the lynching of black persons parallel the brutality the Roman Empire imposed on its subjects. However, these are not the same.

The most obvious difference is that extra-judicial lynchings were carried out against persons solely in accord with their race.

In addition, whereas, extra-judicial lynchings were carried out by rogue individuals who seldom faced repercussions, Roman brutality was carried out by representatives of the state.

Structural racism is when judicial means are not applied equally across races.[15]

When we are discussing racism in our contemporary society, it is at the structural, or societal, level that our conversation on race and racism must take place.

One of the problems with the notion then that, “racism does not exist, because I am not a racist,” is that it fails to distinguish between personal and structural racism.

Another problem with this notion is that it displays tremendous ignorance when it comes to the history of racism in the US and the presence of systemic racism that remains. This will be the subject of future posts.

 

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[1] I recognize that some may not agree with this assertion. I intend, over this series of posts, to defend this assertion.

[2] This is not to say that we even agree on what all the doctrines are that we all agree on! Some will have more items on the list than others.

[3] Though all Christians essentially believe in God as triune, it is intriguing how little Christians know about God as triune, or even what it means to say that He is triune. I recommend Jim Sawyer’s book: Resurrecting the Trinity.

[4] This does not mean that we all agree on how God went about creating: only that He is the creator.

[5]  https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Race

[6] https://www.genome.gov/about-genomics/fact-sheets/Genetics-vs-Genomics#:~:text=All%20human%20beings%20are%2099.9,about%20the%20causes%20of%20diseases.

[7] Though I did not delve into the Scriptures on this here, I see no reason to do so. The Bible indicates—regardless of your view of Genesis—that all humankind is interrelated.

[8] Systema Naturae (1735).

[9] His collection of skulls is housed today at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-samuel-george-morton-cranial-collection/.

[10] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/race-genetics-science-africa/#close.

[11] Some of the most popular colonial preachers, pastors, and theologians were slave owners: including Jonathan Edwards; even George Whitefield, who previously argued against slavery, came to own slaves.

[12] Beverly Tatum, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

[13] Just this morning as I was reviewing this chapter I had an HVAC technician come to the home to repair our broken AC unit. I caught myself doing a double-take when I opened the door and the technician was a woman. As I pondered my reaction, I realized that she probably endures some ill-treatment by those who do not believe a woman should be doing such work. I prayed for her.

[14] E.g., the 1705 Virginia slave codes declared that if a master is correcting his slave and the slave is killed as a result of the punishment, the master shall be acquitted of all punishment and accusation: meaning that slave owners could torture their slaves with impunity. The slaves, however, were held accountable for every action and, sometimes, even for actions they did not do. This is institutional racism.

[15] Race, of course, is not the only means of discrimination. In previous posts, I addressed gender discrimination. There, however, can be many more categories of societal discrimination that are on the structural level as well: e.g., the elderly and the handicapped are two notable examples.


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