When words are not all they seem: White evangelical Christianity and racism

When words are not all they seem: White evangelical Christianity and racism August 3, 2020

Robert P. Jones is the CEO and founder of PRRI (the Public Religion Research Institute). Jones has recently published a book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.

I grew up in a white evangelical community that preached colorblindness and purported not to be racist. As a child, I believed this rhetoric—and I’m glad I did. I grew up believing Jim Crow was evil and that Martin Luther King Jr. was a good man who created positive change. But over the past few years, I’ve had to come to terms with the lie embedded in this community’s claim to not be racist—a lie I did not recognize, as a child. The past five or so years—as well as the years stretching back into Obama’s term—have put this lie in stark relief.

Since the 1960s, we have become a country that is more worried about being called racist than about being racist. And that is too often where things break down. White evangelicals will share videos suggesting that George Floyd’s death was not a tragedy because he had a criminal record—but will then cry foul if someone rightly calls the action of sharing that video racist. They’ll say that all races are equal in Jesus—and will then carefully choose a home that is safely away from those people. They’ll claim that all races are one in Jesus, and then do things like this:

In mid-June, as the pandemic surged across the country, hundreds of students were living on Liberty University’s campus. Tayvion “Tank” Land was one of them, taking a summer math class with about 10 other students—half of them his football teammates.

One Thursday morning, class was partway through when the instructor told one of Land’s teammates that he needed a tutor. Sensing some reticence, Land said, the instructor followed up with an attempt at a joke. “Don’t be scared,” he allegedly told the player. “I’m not going to pull out my whip and hit you with it.”

Land and his teammate are Black, the instructor is white, and the joke came during a period of intense scrutiny of the way Black people are treated in this country, and of the unwelcoming atmosphere Black students face at Liberty in particular. In fact, Asia Todd, a top freshman on Liberty’s women’s basketball team, had announced earlier that month that she was transferring “due to the racial insensitivities shown within the leadership and culture” at the school.

Land had finally had enough, too. When I talked to him recently, he told me it was that moment in class that convinced him he had no choice but to transfer. He was done with the slights and general discomfort of being a young Black man on a campus where the student body, not to mention the population of professors and senior leadership, is overwhelmingly white.

“We just walked out of class,” Land said of him and a few of his teammates. “It was over with.” He made his announcement on Twitter the following Monday, saying he wanted to transfer somewhere “that respects my culture and provides a comfortable environment.”

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

I did not know, as a child, that white evangelicals were the primary force opposing Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. I did not know that it was white evangelicals who were screaming at children trying to integrate schools in states like Arkansas. That I did not know this, despite growing up in an white evangelical church community, is part of the problem. White evangelicals have never grappled with their racism. If they want to leave it behind, they can’t just deny it or pretend it away. They have to grapple with its legacy and its reality in their midst.

If the white evangelicals I grew up among had been serious about undoing their legacy of racism, they would have been honest with me and others growing up in their congregations about the interplay between white evangelicalism and racism in America—you cannot undo something you don’t admit to in the first place.

Jones introduced some of what he covers in his book on the legacy of white supremacy in white evangelical churches in an article on NBC:

For more than two decades, I’ve studied the attitudes of religiously affiliated Americans across the country. And year over year, in question after question in public opinion polls, a clear pattern has emerged: White Christians are consistently more likely than whites who are religiously unaffiliated to deny the existence of structural racism.

Here’s the problem: if you deny the existence of structural racism, the ongoing struggles and disproportionate poverty and imprisonment of Black Americans become their own fault. If there’s nothing holding them down—holding them back—they must be holding themselves down—and holding themselves back.

If there is no structural racism, George Floyd must somehow have been asking for it—must be in some way responsible for his own death.

To return to Jones:

For example, surveys conducted by PRRI in 2018 found that white Christians — including evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics — are nearly twice as likely as religiously unaffiliated whites to say the killings of Black men by police are isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans.

And white Christians are about 30 percentage points more likely to say monuments to Confederate soldiers are symbols of Southern pride rather than symbols of racism. White Christians are also about 20 percentage points more likely to disagree with this statement: “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class.” And these trends generally persist even in the wake of the recent protests for racial justice.

Jones, to be clear, is a white Christian himself. He writes these things of his fellow white Christians because they are true—and because he wants to see them change—not as some sort of “gotcha.”

For white people, racism is the default. I wish it were not so, but it simply is. We live in a white supremacist society—a society where those with white sounding names are more likely to be called back for an interview than those with identical interviews but black sounding names; a society where Black men are given higher sentences than white men for the same crimes; a society where white teachers teach Black students, where Black students are shunted into special education programs while white students are sent to gifted and talented programs; a society with housing segregation so high that schools are more segregated now than they have been at any time since the 1950s.

Let me emphasize two things before I close.

First, your average white evangelical congregation is still full of older people who remember Jim Crow, who remember the 1950s and 1960s, who protested against school integration. These individuals would likely react in astonishment if you suggested that they were racist—and then they’d go back to sharing Facebook videos about how George Floyd really was asking for what he got, what with having a criminal record and all.

Second, white evangelicals preach a gospel of individualism and personal responsibility. This is a big topic and not something I can fully address right now, but it’s the reason white evangelicals tend to be conservative Republicans and oppose “the welfare state.” This emphasis leaves them wholly unprepared to recognize or or understand the existence of structural forces that disadvantage some and advantage others, such as structural racism.

Of course, these two things are intertwined—white evangelicals cleave to a gospel of personal responsibility and individualism in part because doing so allows them to claim that everything they’ve accomplished they’ve done on their own (which is a bit odd, considering that evangelicalism ostensibly teaches that “all our rightensooness is as filthy rags”). Believing that we are all on an even playing field (we’re not) lets them feel better about themselves.

I’m glad I was naive and idealistic as a child. I’m glad I believed my community’s claim that racism was anti-Christian and against Jesus, and never looked beneath it, never noticed where the threads frayed. Taking these claims at face value left me ill prepared to understand how everyone I knew growing up could support a racist who praises police brutality and calls for keeping Black people out of white suburbs, it is true! But it also left me open to learning about discrimination, stereotypes, and structural racism—open to recognizing the humanity of people like George Floyd.

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