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I believe Satan has done a superb job of deceiving many well-meaning Christians, even Christian leaders.

How? By playing on our human desire for simplicity and comfort.

A simple understanding of racism helps many of us live comfortably in our world. It helps make invisible what clearly exists. It can even blind us to the truth.

But what if a simple, “street level” understanding of racism leads us to do the evil we do not want to do (Rom. 7:15-19)? What if it prevents us from engaging in racial justice? What if it blinds us to the very things that create segregation among all God’s children? Worse, what if an uninformed, simplistic understanding of racism leads Christians to reinforce racism, unfairness, and injustice?

Before we can answer these questions, we need to examine what this “street level” concept of racism is.

A Common Understanding

Based on conversations with the many North Americans I’ve met while leading diversity and race-related workshops, our society’s predominant understanding of racism is that of negative acts and attitudes toward another person or group based on perceived race. It often has the component of intent attached—that is, many people believe an attitude or act must be intentional to be called racist.

I’ve also noticed that while many people will include the concept of “group” when asked to come up with a formal definition of racism, the very same people generally talk about racism as the disconnected acts of individuals, of which they are not a part.

Racism then becomes associated only with cross burnings, lynchings, demeaning jokes, and other easily identifiable hate that is racial and intentional in nature. As a result, because they rarely encounter these forms of racism, nice, well-meaning Christians generally do not see racism as a significant issue.

Such a definition prevents us from seeing ourselves as accountable, responsible, or complicit when it comes to racism. Worse, this understanding of racism tends to blame people of color for current predicaments that have, at their root, many factors over which they have no control.

The Uncomfortable Truth

The truth is that on a large scale the most devastating form of racism is not what some call “personally mediated racism” (person-

to-person), but what social scientists call “institutionalized

racism.” It is racial prejudice or bias that is reinforced and backed by formal law (pre-1964 and the Civil Rights acts) and/or a prevailing cultural system (namely, white and middle-class).

Here is where white people start to feel uncomfortable, for these root factors have often been under the control and management of the dominant, majority power structure—a structure that creates laws, policies, and systems that have historically benefited those attached to the structure by virtue of their perceived “race.”

It is this “system” of practices about which we who do anti-racism work are most concerned, not necessarily the practices of individuals (unless the individuals wield enough power to affect a system).

To better understand the distinction between person-to-person racism and institutional racism, think of the church’s concern about “secularism”—a doctrine of thoughts and actions reinforced by law and/or cultural values.

I hope by now you’re beginning to see the concept of racism a little differently. Racism goes far beyond individual prejudice in action. When we use individual action as the litmus test for racism, we leave out an extraordinarily large chunk of racism, the chunk that often causes the most angst and misunderstanding.

Test Yourself

Though I do not have enough space in this article to go into further detail, I hope my words have caused you to be less certain and more curious about racism. I leave you with some of the many comments that signal to me an inadequate understanding of the issue:

  •  “I don’t see color; I just see individuals. Can’t we just live in a color-blind society?”
  • “People just need to work hard and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”
  • “It’s 2006, why do we have to continue to talk about racism? That happened long ago, and I wasn’t a part of it.”
  • “I just live by the Golden Rule. I treat others as I would want to be treated.”
  • “My best friend is a person of color.”
  • “I don’t have a prejudiced bone in my body. I judge people by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.”
  • “We don’t have a problem because we don’t have any people of color here.”

If you hear yourself in some of these comments, I challenge you to learn more about racism. Read some books, attend a workshop, and engage in true dialogue and relationship with people who aren’t like you.

If you’re a pastor or church leader, take a look at your congregation. Does it represent the “every tribe, every tongue, every nation” vision given us in Revelation? If it doesn’t, can it? What are you doing to make that vision more of a reality before Christ’s return?

While the misunderstanding and misuse of some words do not cause much, if any, damage, such is not the case when it comes to the word racism. Historically and presently, the enormity of racism can cause great pain to large groups of people when a dominant-power group defines it in a simplistic, comfort-producing manner.

Just as Christianity cannot be defined as a matter of subjective personal preference, we cannot define racism in a way that personally suits us.

In this life we’ll continue to find ourselves doing things we don’t want to do, but equipped with more truths than lies, more knowledge than ignorance, and more empathy than blame, we’ll be more able and more likely to do the things we want to do. That’s what Jesus wants. Racial justice is an imperative!

Systemic Racism in Everyday Life

Here are a few examples that show how systemic racism hurts people:

Educational Disparities

“ ‘They’ don’t value education,” we conclude when presented with glaring disparities in school achievement between non-Caucasian and Caucasian students. We are unaware of or gloss over the detrimental consequences of court cases such as Plessy v. Ferguson, which sanctioned the idea of “separate but equal,” or of government-inspired and authorized loaning practices like redlining, which greatly helped produce and maintain what we now call our inner cities, ghettos, and barrios—areas that tend to be under-resourced when it comes to education.

Driving Black

For two years I met Bruce over breakfast monthly. Bruce (not his real name) is a Christian young man of African descent, and a special education teacher. He spoke freely of his passion for his students, his dreams for his own small children, and his aspirations as an emerging leader. One morning as we were discussing a recent movie, I mentioned in passing the particular theater my wife and I attended. His casual comment was, “I never go there anymore; it seems I can’t drive through that area of town without being stopped for ‘driving black.’”

A white colleague and father of adopted African American children echoed this story. He said he did not believe the pervasiveness of racism until his own children reached driving age. Again and again, his African American sons were stopped by police for no other visible infraction than “driving black.”

Lost Opportunities

“From the earliest days, the [Christian Reformed] white missionaries recruited and trained Navajo and Zuni people to assist in the work—especially with language interpretation and translation. Nevertheless, the transition to native leaders has been painfully slow. One story comes from the early 1960s. A Navajo young man studied for a few years at CRC colleges and became an assistant to a longtime, highly esteemed white missionary. The young leader was surprised by the missionary’s critical spirit toward the people (‘You tell them to dig a hole, and if you don’t tell them to stop they’ll dig all the way to China’). Yet when this young worker authorized a women’s Bible study group to invite others, he was reprimanded for acting without permission. Eventually he left the work in frustration, obtained educational degrees, and distinguished himself in another profession. He still is a loyal lay leader in the CRC, but was lost to the profession of his first love” (Learning to Count to One; Faith Alive, 2006; page 77, edited by Alfred E. Mulder).

—Steve Robbins and Rev. Al Mulder

For Discussion
  1. How do you understand systemic racism?
  2. How does racism hurt everyone, not just those oppressed?
  3. How does it affect the way you treat people, where you shop, who you say hello to?
  4. What can you do to stop racism in your community?
  5. Look at your church. Does it truly reflect “every tribe and every tongue” (Rev. 7:9)? How can it? Are there any ways you can help?

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