All of a sudden everyone is talking and writing about racism in this country. Mission agencies, churches, denominational leaders, some business leaders (including Walmart), local government leaders, etc., are coming out with statements deploring the disparities and inequities between races and ethnic groups in this country, and calling for racial healing and unity. The trigger, of course, for these many statements, blogs, podcasts, and other information platforms is the death of George Floyd, and the massive and sustained protests that followed. Is this a bandwagon, or a fad, that people are jumping on and which will soon pass, or could this be a transformative and grace-filled season in which our nation does fortify itself with compassion and understanding about race and the inequities that have long given certain advantages and privilege to some people while disadvantaging others? I hope and pray it’s the latter.
Few white people consider themselves to be racist; they don’t personally hate or engage in acts of bigotry towards people of color. And they are horrified by groups such as the KKK and other white supremacist groups. These same people may be genuinely kind and loving to everyone, regardless of race. For these white folks, our defenses may therefore go up quickly when we hear words like “racial prejudice,” “white privilege,” and “white supremacy”—as though we are being indicted when we’re pretty sure we have never done anything bad to persons of color, and none of our ancestors owned slaves!
What we white people have often failed to see and understand, however, is that racism is not only about individual acts of hatred; it’s about long and entrenched structures and systems in our society that systematically give advantages to certain people (white people) while disadvantaging people of color. It’s not a level playing field out there; people of color often do not have access to the same opportunities that white people do. And yes, it’s true that in our efforts to correct these disparities, we may create reverse discrimination—cases where white people feel that people of color are hired for jobs more because of their ethnic minority status than because they are better qualified. (It’s complicated, isn’t it?!)
In any case, the problem of racism is so much bigger than individual prejudice. America has always been a highly racialized society dominated and controlled by a white majority—not only in government, but on school boards, college boards, in news rooms, as owners of professional sports teams, in the judicial system, on church boards, etc., etc. We white people are so accustomed to these social structures that we often don’t even see them—or at least it doesn’t occur to us how white dominance might do more to protect and preserve our own perspectives than to hear the experience and perspectives of—say—black people. For example, when white people react to a “Black Lives Matter” poster/sign by saying, “All Lives Matter,” they fail to understand what “Black Lives Matter” means. People (whites and blacks alike) carrying “Black Lives Matter” signs are not at all disagreeing with the message that “All Lives Matter;” they’re saying that black lives haven’t always mattered, and have for far too long been disadvantaged and oppressed by societal structures that have discriminated against them. “Black Lives Matter” means that black lives matter as much as white lives.
We are reminded that, regardless of color, humans are created in the image of God. Racism is a denial of that fact. The prophet Micah gave this counsel for the people of his time: This is what Yahweh asks of you—to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). We cannot be faithful if we do not act justly; we cannot achieve holiness if we do not love tenderly; and we cannot walk humbly with God if we aren’t acting justly and loving tenderly. I suggest a place to begin is by remembering that all people are created in the image of God, and are therefore of equal worth and dignity to him.
Phil Kanagy, pastor
June 10, 2020