Here in the early twenty-first century Western culture continues to grapple with its legacy of white supremacy. For generations people of European ancestry assumed and presumed superiority over the rest of the world: they believed their civilization and manner of life should become normative and considered any other lifestyle to be barbaric and savage, and they reckoned themselves as a “race,” be it “white,” “Aryan,” “Nordic,” “Anglo-Saxon,” etc., which proved biologically superior to the “races” of people found in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Such a view of racial and social superiority justified and rationalized dehumanizing, unjust attitudes toward and treatment of those deemed to be racially and socially inferior.
Over the past seventy-five years such prejudicial attitudes on the basis of race have transformed greatly: whereas a good number of people proved very willing to explicitly manifest racism and white supremacy, most today consider such views abhorrent. At least in pretense, most Westerners have returned to what God had already made known in Jesus: everyone is equal in the sight of God, and no specific group of people is intrinsically superior to any other (cf. Romans 2:11, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).
Unfortunately, not a few people have therefore concluded that the challenges of white supremacy have been eliminated, as if racism has been “solved.” We wish it were so; however, just because blatant and obvious racism and white supremacy have been routed does not mean that the legacy of white supremacy no longer effects modern Westerners.
To this end the time has come to re-assess “prejudice,” “racism,” and “white supremacy.” Many people associate prejudice, racism, and white supremacy to a narrow and specifically defined group of “bad people”; to be called prejudiced, racist, or a white supremacist is reckoned as a terrible slur. Part of the challenge involves terminology and the need for alterations in our understanding of the terms; another part of the challenge confronts people of European ancestry with the long-term effects of the white supremacist system their ancestors developed and how the legacy of white supremacy affects people today as individuals and in society.
When white supremacy remained ascendant it made sense to those perpetuating the idea to define “racism” and “white supremacy” purely in individual terms: that which a person consciously, actively does and believes. A racist thus is one who would actively, consciously discriminate against others based upon perceived racial identity; a white supremacist would actively, consciously affirm that those deemed to be white people should be in charge of everything and people who do not fit the standard of whiteness ought to be left at some level of disadvantage.
Almost everyone will condemn such blatant racism and demonstrations of white supremacy. But are the only forms of racism and white supremacy that exist thus active, conscious, blatant, and individualist?
If we would listen to the testimony and witness of our brethren and friends of color, we would understand how racism and white supremacy are more deeply embedded in Western culture and society than we might want to believe. Racism and white supremacy are not merely personal matters; they are embedded in the makeup and policies of our cultural and societal institutions and organizations. Racism and white supremacy represent systemic challenges in the modern Western world.
The legacy of racism in the systems of the Western world can be difficult for those of European ancestry to perceive since those systems were built for their advantage. For them it is as a fish understanding they live in water: it is everywhere around them, and it is difficult to imagine life any differently. But to those for whom the system was built to hinder if not disadvantage the difficulties are very real. Unemployment rates are higher for Black people than for white people; studies have demonstrated that even when the resume is exactly the same, a name that might “sound Black” will be less likely to get a call for an interview than names which would seem more “white.” Black income and wealth also remains far lower than white income and wealth in the aggregate, and the wealth gap has only accelerated since the 1960s. Black people are more likely to have home loan applications rejected, and the rate of home ownership among Black people is lower than any other group in the nation. While many more Black people now participate in higher education than before, the rate is still lower than that of white people, and Black children tend to have fewer opportunities for educational enrichment than white children. Black people are extremely overrepresented in the prison population: a third of America’s prisoners are Black, but Black people only represent 12% of America’s population. On average a Black man is five times more likely than a white man to be incarcerated and more than twelve times more likely in their late teenage years. It is well known that Black people have a more difficult time obtaining access to quality healthcare; even when they find it, they often receive substandard care and endure worse outcomes than white people.
These disparities cannot be easily explained by appeals to personal animus on the part of a few “bad apples” that remain racist. Many see such things and shift the blame toward Black people on account of cultural or family factors. Even if we grant some level of personal responsibility in these matters the fact remains that a good number of Black people suffer great disadvantage because of the legacy of white supremacy, past and present. They suffer from the effects the racism built into the system under which we live and operate.
The New Testament warns us regarding the powers and principalities over this present darkness in Ephesians 6:12; therefore, as Christians, we have no basis upon which to deny the existence of evil and sin beyond the thoughts, feelings, and actions of individual humans as moral agents. In Western culture the powers that be built a racist system designed to provide advantages to at least some white people at the expense of many others. As Christians we do well to expose the works of darkness and evil and no longer participate in them (cf. Ephesians 5:11-14). We must recognize the prejudice in people and racism in systems and work diligently to uphold the value and integrity of each and every person in the sight of God.
Yet we must also humbly confess our difficulties and temptations (1 John 1:7-9). On account of the significant social stigma concerning prejudice and racism, many are tempted to treat them differently than many other sins. Almost everyone will admit to being tempted to lust, lie, gossip, and other such sins; yet many strongly deny they participate in any form of prejudice or racism because they do not want to see themselves, or have others see them, as such “backward, bad, bigoted” people. We understand and perhaps even identify with that temptation, but we must be careful lest it blind us to where we fall short. In truth everyone displays prejudice: by our very nature we categorize people into types and presume a given person fits a given stereotype until that paradigm is challenged. In terms of prejudice the goal is to become aware of our tendency to manifest such prejudice so that we learn to lightly hold what we assume and presume about people until we can get to know them (cf. Matthew 7:1-6). All of us were raised in and shaped by a culture and society featuring pervasive systemic racism: we have all participated in such a system, and various aspects of this racism and its legacy of white supremacy have informed our understanding of ourselves and others, regardless of our ancestry. The very fact that so many of us think that people “like us” are those who share the same skin color as we do is a testament to the power of systemic racism and the legacy of white supremacy, defining oneself primarily in terms of skin color over other forms of identity. And so we do well to admit that we have shared in this system and confess and lament how it works to the advantage of some to the harm of others. We should also be willing to advocate for those against whom the system works; as we have opportunity we should work to eliminate those hindrances and disadvantages so that all people can be benefited by the systems under which we live.
As Christians in Western society we will have prejudices; we have been influenced and shaped by a racist system to some degree or another. We should not pretend prejudice and racism are just other people’s problems; we should be actively considering how we display prejudice and work within a racist system and seek to find ways to overcome prejudice and resist the racism in the system. May we all work to glorify God in Christ in how we treat one another, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry
26 Charts That Show How Systemic Racism Works in America, (accessed 11/01/2020).