Confronting the Legacy of Racism
Let’s Confront Racism Once for All
by Dieumeme Noelliste, PhD
Professor of Theological Ethics
The murder of George Floyd prompted me to post a short reflection on Facebook in which I expressed my concerns as a black man, a father of black children and grand- father of grand-children, and a pastor of a small black immigrant church.
Several Facebook friends responded to the post with sympathetic comments. But, one respondent challenged me to offer a solution to the problem of racism that affected me so deeply. Initially, I referred him to a book Confronting the Legacy of Racism: The Challenge to Christian Faith I edited several years ago. But after clicking the send button, I knew that my response was not satisfactory. While the book contains useful information and valuable insights, the present moment demands calls for something fresh and more pointed. Hence, the decision to write this essay.
Let me say from the outset that my primary audience for this article is the white community-- my white friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. I am addressing them because of my conviction regarding the role of the church in the world. Let me make it clear that in issuing this call, my intent is not to stir feelings of guilt. Rather, what compels and propels me is my genuine belief that the problem of racism, which has beset our nation for so long, cannot be solved unless it is confronted head-on by the majority culture—particularly white Americans who name the Name of Christ. If this premise is not accepted, then there is no point to continue reading.
The frontal attack I am suggesting for the containing of the centuries long virus that has infected our society has four components.
The place to begin, I submit, is an honest acknowledgment by the white community, and Christians in particular, of the reality of racism. It’s sad but true, the whole history of the country has been laced with the ugly thread of the devaluation of black humanity by the white community based on the ideology of white supremacy. It is this belief in white superiority and black inferiority that has provided the ideological justification for such inhumane practices as slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, lynching etc… The cavalier and gratuitous killing of black men at the hands of white individuals that we continue to witness to this day, while shocking, is not surprising. It is part of that long history of devaluation of, and contempt for, black humanity. For centuries white society viewed blackness as a symbol of evil, malignancy and death—an ontological deficiency that needed correction.
Here is how the African American Evangelical scholar William Pannell summarizes the way blacks were viewed by their white counterparts: “White Americans also inherited from their old culture a subliminal distrust of blacks that expressed itself in crude racism. In the English language, blackness… had come to symbolize evil, malignancy, and death. Consequently, the color of the African slaves was a matter of no small fascination to the colonists. Almost instinctively, the Africans were treated as inherently base and, even in their pathetic confinement, as strangely menacing”.
From this long and demeaning history, two inconvenient truths follow. First, the sentiment of the denigration of black humanity continues to be part of the consciousness of much of white society. To many, blackness continues to inspire feelings of contempt and fear. This should not be surprising because one an entrenched mindset can’t be removed with a snap of the fingers. Even in the spiritual domain, the transformation of the mind is a process that takes time (Rom 12: 1-2). Like the Coronavirus, the racist mindset may be in the air is even when we are not aware of it. To use a language that has gained currency in recent times, one can be an asymptomatic carrier of it!
The second truth is this: the ideology of black devaluation continues to lace our social system—our institutions, our laws, our organizations, our attitudes and behaviors. We deceive ourselves if we deny the reality of systemic racism. This, too, should not be surprising; when the country’s social system was put in place, racism was the prevailing ideology of the day. Many of the founding fathers and framers of our foundational documents slave-owners. Racism had to be enmeshed and built into the fabric of the society itself. Racism was not a historical blip but a deeply entrenched legacy!
All of this is uncomfortable truth. But it needs to be said, and heard particularly by white Christians who follow the One who is the Truth. No disease can be cured unless it is first diagnosed. Racism is our nation’s original sin. It won’t be eradicated unless it is called by name, and treated accordingly.
My push for the acknowledgment of the nature of racism is not academic; it is based on experience. I have had firsthand experience of reluctance to come to terms with that reality.
I have taught Black Theology for about three decades now to both non-white and white students. Invariably, I opened the course with a lecture Black Experience whether in the Caribbean or in the New World. I did this to prepare students to engage meaningfully the theology they were about to study. Theology, I told them, is a human undertaking-- humans engaging in thinking God’s thoughts after him. Hence, it cannot avoid being informed by the experience of those who articulate it.
In my career, I have taught many subjects in the field and have delivered lectures on all kinds of topics will relative ease. But, the lecture on the Black Experience in America is always delivered with anxiety. My anxiety has been generated by the clear sense that the material covered in that lecture, though historically true, invariably made many (not all) of my white students uncomfortable. This tells me that acknowledging that unsavory reality will take effort and strength.
Having said that, let me say that there is good news—the situation is not hopeless. The good news is this: because racism is a social construct, it can be deconstructed. Because it is a human-made ideology, it can be unmade by humans. We may not be able to completely erase it, but we can contain it and limit its damages. The “Man“ who needs to lead the charge in this dismantling project is the new humanity which was brought into being by Christ at his first Coming and who is being created to be like God in righteousness and holiness, until it reaches a state of perfection at his second Coming (Eph. 2: 14-18, 4: 23; 1 John 3: 1-3). I believe that the horrific events that continue to shock our collective conscience and offend our sense of decency provide an opportunity to the people of God to take this 400 year pandemic by the horns and force its downward curve. And there seems to be a thirst for this. The massive multi-racial and multi-generational protests we’re witnessing across the country at the moment clearly speak of the society’s deep longing for such a change. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, the urgency of the Now is fierce. We are living a Kairos moment. Let us seize it!
This leads me to the second aspect of the frontal attack on racism I am suggesting—namely, conversations that lead to conversion.
For black parents like me, conversations with our children around the issue of racism are a regular affair. We do so to prepare them to face a racist world—to preserve their sense of self-worth and dignity when their humanity is attacked and, more urgently, to safeguard their survival.
I submit that white parents should have ongoing conversations in their families as well on the subject of race and racism. The purpose, of course, is not preservation of life, but repentance that leads to conversion. The Greek word metanoia that’s translated repentance literally means change of mind. I speak of a conversation that aims at debunking and counteracting the false mindset that harbors the pernicious notion of black inferiority and white superiority that pervades the culture, and that often generates demeaning attitudes and destructive behaviors and actions. These conversations, I submit, can serve as prophylaxis and treatment. Since no child is born racist, parents can protect innocent minds not yet infected by the racist virus from contracting it. And, they can also help cure the minds that have already been penetrated by it. If this is done, future generations will inherit a less racialized society by virtue of the fact that it will be less racist society. What a great that this generation would bequeath to the next!
The third antidote of this modest prescription is engagement. This follows from the previous point since it speaks of the need for ongoing conversation between the two ethnic groups and other minorities in the country who are victims of racism. The purpose of these conversations is understanding and empathy.
If truth be told, blacks and whites live in the same country, but are virtual strangers to each other. Our knowledge of one another is minimal, if not non-existent. There are white Americans who maintain closer relationship with blacks in distant lands than blacks in their own their own back yards. And, I am sure the converse is true. By design, we live separately, worship separately, and socialize with those of our own kind. The social distancing which has characterized our common existence has resulted in social alienation. This estrangement, in turn, solidifies racial stereotypes, misinformed generalizations and mischaracterizations. Years ago, Dr. King put it aptly: ”men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they do not know each other; they do not know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated”. I submit that if we’re to win the fight against, blacks and whites must intentionally engage each other. Engagement is essential for mutual understanding, an appreciation of differing perspectives on reality, and the fostering of empathy for each other’s plight.
The final part of the prescription I’m suggesting is a Christian witness that aims to transform the current social order for the better. I single out Christians because of my firm belief that a part of our role in the world is the health and wellbeing of society. If you think I am off base on this point, you should stop reading. The church does this through a witness that’s designed to arrest moral decay. In this regard, the church is called to be a sanitizing agent in a morally decadent social order (Phil 2: 14-18; Titus 2: 11-14 ). This witness, I submit, should be directed at the church itself and to the society at large. The witness in question consists of four parts—the first three address the church and the fourth, society.
First, the church must begin by denouncing racism for the sin that it is. No euphemism please! It is not enough to acknowledge racism as a reality, but as a sinful reality—a demon that needs to be exorcised.
Second, if racism is recognized as sin, then the church must repent of it. It is a repentance that the church should make on behalf of itself (because there is racism within the church!), and on behalf of the nation. In doing so, the church will stand in the company of godly leaders such as Nehemiah and Daniel. As the references to “we “ and “us” show, although they were not part of the generations that transgressed God’s law, and brought judgment to their land, they owned the sins of their forebears and identified with their guilt (Neh 1: 6-7; Dan 9: 15-16).
Third, the church needs to offer to the society the model of a non-racialized and non-racist community by the way it organizes its own life. And, here I use the term church somewhat loosely by including under that rubric all entities that bear the name Christian. The events of these days should evoke a thirst for a divine soul searching on the part of the church writ large for the purpose of a Spirit generated-renewal ( Ps 139: 23 ).
The fourth part of the church’s witness is directed to society. The church needs to play its prophetic role vis-a-vis the social order. The prophet speaks on behalf of God, upholds God’s values, and commends God’s will to the society. There are two components to this activity. Following the examples of Old Testament prophets, the church needs to call out the sin of racism when it rears its ugly head in the public sphere. The denunciation of social injustice is not an optional add on to the Christian witness; it is an integral part of it. Where evil is not denounced, it will fester, and will be considered normal. I have been encouraged by the Christian leaders who have spoken against racism lately. But many more such voices need to be heard—publically.
The second part of this witness is advocacy for the clearance of the social system of all vestiges of racism that foster social injustice and keep people from enjoying the abundant life that Jesus came to give. A lot of discussion it taking place at this very moment in the wider society regarding systemic change. The church needs to join this conversation and advocate for a biblical perspective on the ordering of community life. If the church were to do that, it would render a great service to the nation, because as Scripture declares: “Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a disgrace to a people” (Proverbs 14: 34).