Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Defining Racism

It's more than you think.

by Ben Hein
128 views 8 minute read

Race and racism are subjects that many White Christians would rather avoid. Today, discussions of race and racism are often met with accusations of Marxism, liberalism, or twisted definitions of “Critical Race Theory.” Often, any attempt at conversation is also met with fatigue, anger, or outright dismissal.

Furthermore, White Evangelicals often fail to see the issues of race and racism that play out in our society. As the research of Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith shows, few White Evangelicals can even name examples of racism with any specificity.[1] In fact, among White Evangelicals – who typically identify as Republican – there is a greater tendency to perceive higher levels of discrimination against Whites and Christians than other ethnic or religious groups.[2] It is no wonder, then, that many White Evangelicals simply want to move on from dealing with race and racism.

To be a people known by truth and reconciliation, however, requires more of us. It is impossible for the Church to take up the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20) unless we are willing to tell the full truth about our history and reckon with its effects today. In a 1968 interview in Esquire magazine, James Baldwin powerfully captured necessity of dealing with our history in the present moment:

I’m not trying to accuse you, you know. That’s not the point. But you have a lot to face … All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history … which is not your past, but your present. Nobody cares what happened in the past. One can’t afford to care what happened in the past. But your history had led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself and save yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history.[3]

In other words, it is impossible to have an honest account of the present without dealing with our history and how we arrived at the present state of things in our country, our communities, and our churches.

Defining Racism

One of the many reasons why addressing racism in our communities and churches is difficult is because we rarely even agree on the definition of racism. In one view, typically held by White Conservatives and Evangelicals, racism is merely a matter of personal actions and prejudices. Another view, perhaps more common in marginalized and ethnic minority communities, sees racism as having taken root in power structures, institutional forces, the laws governing our communities, and so on. What are we to make of these vast differences in how we view racism, and is it possible to reconcile these two views?

Emerson and Smith have charted a helpful path forward as they root racism in the misuse and abuse of power. One challenge to our misunderstanding of racism is that our definitions remain stuck in the past. We assume that racism is a constant, and thus if we compare our present to past forms of racism – such as chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the Ku Klux Klan – we might conclude that “racism is on the wane, and racial division and the racial hierarchy are but historical artifacts.”[4]

The problem with this view is that racism is not a constant, because racism deals with the use and misuse of power. Racism adapts to the way power is used within any given context. Thus, we need a definition of racism that can deal honestly with power dynamics. Two aspects of the definition given by Emerson and Smith are of importance here. First, it emphasizes that racism “(1) [is] increasingly covert, (2) [is] embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) avoid[s] direct racial terminology, and (4) [is] invisible to most Whites.” Second, by rooting racism in power dynamics, we can see racism is not merely “individual, overt prejudice or the free-floating irrational driver of race problems, but the collective misuse of power that results in diminished life opportunities for some racial groups.”[5] In summary, Emerson and Smith define racism as an increasingly adaptive and pernicious power dynamic that results in unjust racial inequalities. As Jemar Tisby has likewise summarized, “Whether society is stratified according to class, gender, religion, or tribe, communities tend to put power in the hands of a few to the detriment of many. In the United States, power runs along color lines, and white people have the most influence.”[6]

Drs. Robert Chao Romero and Jeff Liou provide additional insight into our understanding of racism by applying the insights of Critical Race Theory (CRT) [7] with Christian theology. The Christian account of mankind’s fall into sin informs our understanding of racism. If sin is narrowly defined by individual actions and attitudes, we will likewise tend toward seeing racism as merely a matter of individual culpability. However, if our understanding of sin is that it affects everyone and everything, then “the scope widens, [and] racism is understood to be as ordinary, innovative, cunning, and wily as sin because of the fall.”[8] These theological observations are in line with numerous academic fields today, including those of CRT, which maintains the ordinariness of racism; that it is “the usual way society does business, the common, every-day experience of most people of color in this country.”[9] With a full account of the effects of sin and the fall, we understand that racism might be seen in “personal hatred toward an individual of another race.” It also may be seen in “outcomes, systems, and structures” with unjust and unequal outcomes for different racial groups.[10]

Indeed, when we limit racism to matters of personal prejudice, we lose the very tools and resources which are necessary to diagnose the injustices all around us. It is necessary that we see how racism “is an entire culture – a comprehensive way of being and doing that is embedded in our structures of meaning, morality, language, and memory and expressed in our patterns of individual, social, and institutional behavior.”[11] Such racist structures and patterns always lead to unjust and unequal disparities between racial groups.

For example, law professor Michelle Alexander has observed how our modern system of mass incarceration is an adapted form of segregation and racial discrimination. She writes, “Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and the engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”[12]Racist outcomes are evident in our incarceration system when we discover that the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are White, yet three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been Black or Latino.[13] Similarly, Black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate thirteen times higher than White men. 1 in 14 Black men were in prison in 2006; it was 1 in 106 for White men.

Pulling all of this together, I define racism as an adaptive, pernicious, and sinful power dynamic which affects individual relationships while creating unjust social systems and unequal outcomes for different racial groups. Thus individuals, as well as institutions, communities, governing bodies, churches, and denominations, are all culpable for the sin of racism and its present effects.

And, therefore, it is necessary for churches to address the racism in our midst – our communities, our local church, our denomination, and yes, even in our own hearts.


[1] Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), 87.

[2] “Republicans More Likely to Say White Americans—Rather Than Black Americans—Face Discrimination | PRRI,” PRRI | At the Intersection of Religion, Values, and Public Life. (blog), August 2, 2017, https://www.prri.org/spotlight/republicans-white-black-reverse-discrimination/.

[3] James Baldwin, quoted in Eddie S. Glaude, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, First edition (New York: Crown, 2020), 68.

[4] Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith, 9

[5] Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith, 9.

[6] Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, Epub edition. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2020), 17.

[7] “Critical Race Theory” has become something of a bogeyman in the modern discourse, especially for Christians. If Christian readers are nervous by my use of this field, I would invite you to consider how the observation of pervasive, systemic sin is nothing new to the Reformed tradition. For example, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) argued that on account of the solidarity of the human race, there are “particular individual sins, but there are also general social sins. And thus too there is individual guilt, but also social guilt.” And again, “If we could penetrate through to the essence of appearances, and trace out the root of the sins in the hearts of people, we should probably come to the conclusion that in sin, too, there is oneness, idea, plan, pattern – in a word, that in sin too there is system.” The Reformed Christian should expect the systemic nature of sinfulness, and should not be surprised when various academic fields then communicate the same observation in their own language. One need not agree with every proponent of Critical Race Theory to agree with its findings. See Herman Bavinck and Charles Williams, The Wonderful Works of God: Instruction in the Christian Religion According to the Reformed Confession, trans. Henry Zylstra (Glenside, Pennsylvania: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 225-231.

[8] Robert Chao Romero and Jeff M. Liou, Christianity and Critical Race Theory: A Faithful and Constructive Conversation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2023), 23.

[9] Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Third edition. (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 8.

[10] Romero and Liou, Christianity and Critical Race Theory, 67.

[11] Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2021), 42.

[12] Michelle Alexander and Cornel West, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Revised edition. (New York: New Press, 2012), 2.

[13] Alexander and West, The New Jim Crow, 98-100.

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