By Douglas A. Foster
Racial division continues in Christ’s body—despite the shedding of his blood. To state it plainly, there is a deep and abiding divide between white people and people of color, in society and in Christ’s church.
Events in our national and religious history seared racial suspicion deep into our subconscious. Two events serve as illustrations of the evil of racism in its most blatant form.
In 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in Dred Scott v. Sandford) that the slave Dred Scott remained a slave even when taken into a “free” state. The deadliest part of this decision, however, was its explanation of how whites viewed people of color. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney said this:
(Persons of African descent were) considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority . . . altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect . . . looked upon as so far below them in the scale of created beings, that intermarriages between white persons and negroes or mulattoes were regarded as unnatural and immoral, and punished as crimes.
In 1896 the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that a Louisiana law forbidding blacks (anyone with one-eighth or more black blood) access to white train cars was legal. Again, the elaboration of the decision, as written for the Court by Justice Henry Brown, reveals its true evil:
We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it . . . If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.
A century of segregation and subordination followed, including limited access to equal education, exclusion from the political process, restrictions on jobs and housing, and unpunished lynching. This was not confined to African-Americans, but extended to brown- and black-skinned people from Asia and Latin America as well.
The 13th and 14th Amendments abolished slavery and made citizens of former slaves. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education reversed Plessy, declaring that separate is inherently unequal. In the 1960s and 1970s civil rights legislation made all racial discrimination illegal.
Yet are the attitudes embodied in Dred Scott and Plessy gone? There is no question—much has changed for the better. It is against the law to exclude persons from restaurants, hotels, and stores, or to impede their rights as citizens because of race or color. None of our congregations today would overtly exclude anyone because of race. In many places there is increasing diversity among the membership of our churches. The election of an African-American to the U.S. presidency reflects massive change in society.
Yet something is still very wrong.
Why are the members of more than 90 percent of all religious congregations in America still composed almost entirely of one race—even where the general population is racially diverse? (See Michael O. Emerson’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Oxford University Press, 2001). Why is it still very uncomfortable for most whites to embrace interracial dating and marriage? What deeply held, often unconscious, notions about each other underlie our choices of the people with whom we form meaningful relationships? What attitudes about people of another race do we reveal in our most private moments—often in the form of racial jokes?
Satan does not confine his divisive work to any one people or place. We, however, must take responsibility for our specific context. As followers of Christ who want to see God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven—where no racial divisions exist—we cannot avoid this matter.
People’s attitudes are formed largely unconsciously. We are constantly being programmed to think about the world, including matters of race, through radio, TV, news programs, movies, books, and advertising. Christians have often condemned the way anti-Christian values are subtly taught through popular media. We must become aware of how American culture has powerfully shaped our racial attitudes in anti-Christian ways.
In 1986 a disturbing documentary titled Ethnic Notions traced the development of the images that shaped racial consciousness in America over the last four centuries. The film shows hundreds of examples of, as described by the film’s distributor, “Loyal Toms, carefree Sambos, faithful Mammies, grinning Coons, savage Brutes, and wide-eyed Pickaninnies roll[ing] across the screen in cartoons, feature films, popular songs, minstrel shows, advertisements, folklore, household artifacts, even children’s rhymes. These dehumanizing caricatures permeated popular culture from the 1820s to the Civil Rights period” and continue in many ways implanted “deep in the American psyche.”
The 2001 book The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America by Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki (University of Chicago Press), further documented how the media continues to reflect the stereotypes constructed more than two centuries ago.
Perhaps one of the most striking evidences of how all Americans are programmed to think about race can be seen in Harvard University’s “Implicit Association Test” described in the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005). When asked to put words into the “good” or “bad” column in a fast-moving computer test, 80 percent of test takers had a significantly harder time placing a word like “glorious” or “wonderful” into the “good” category when the category was associated with a picture of a black person. This is true for blacks as well as whites.
The disturbing thing about the test is that it shows that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values. We don’t deliberately choose our unconscious attitudes . . . we may not even be aware of them. The giant computer that is our unconscious silently crunches all the data it can from the experiences we’ve had, the people we’ve met, the lessons we’ve learned, the books we’ve read, the movies we’ve seen, and so on, and it forms an opinion. (Blink, p. 85)
This is not about trying to make white people feel guilty for being white. It is about Christians realizing what the spirit of this world is doing to us and resisting it! It is about Christians helping each other overcome the world and become more like Christ. It is about allowing the Spirit of God to shape us so that the fruit of the Spirit is seen in our lives, and not the works of the flesh. It is about being “reprogrammed” to see other people as God sees them.
The continued separation of the races in the church, regardless of all the reasons offered to maintain it, is rooted in sin. If there is any place on earth where people with radically different cultures and experiences can be truly reconciled, it is the church. Admittedly this is a complex problem, and the solutions are not quick or easy. But as Christians, we cannot be complacent.
Doing something is not optional—it is the point of the gospel.
Study, Discuss, Decide About Racial Reconciliation
• An annotated bibliography of resources and ideas for action is available–just CLICK HERE for a pdf.
• Gary Holloway and John York, eds., Unfinished Reconciliation: Justice, Racism and Churches of Christ (Abilene: ACU Press, 2006).
• Curtiss Paul DeYoung , United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
• Tim J. Wise, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2007).
• https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/research/ is a Web site for the Implicit Association Test. Click on “Race Test.”
Douglas A. Foster is director of the Center for Restoration Studies and professor of church history at Abilene (Texas) Christian University.