As there has been much discussion over the topic of Racial Reconciliation in recent months, I thought I might do my best to clarify what is and isn’t being said by RR advocates such as myself. Of course, I cannot speak on behalf of everyone pressing the case, but I hope to at least clarify some of the terms, phrases, and assumptions being debated. This might constitute a lengthy series, but if it proves to be beneficial to any interested in this discussion, I will indeed continue. Topics will include “race,” “white privilege,” “color-blind,” “institutional racism,” and more. Feedback is welcome.
[Please see the previous post, “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 2. ‘Race’ and the Racialized Society,” for the necessary historical context.]
“Privilege” can be generally defined as,
A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.
This is a common-sense concept that we all understand and use. For instance, the majority of us get that there are great privileges to being born into a royal family, to be the child of a billionaire, or to be born in the First World as opposed to the Third. And it’s not a far reach to acknowledge that there are broadly ethnic privileges, given the long regional histories of people groups divided by religion, culture, family-ties, accumulated wealth, etc. Of course, these are never fixed and unchangeable, but are simply social realities hardened over generations.
We see something like ethnic privilege confronted in the very opening scenes of the New Testament. When calling the Jews to repentance, John the Baptist immediately counters their perceived privilege: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Lk. 3:8). It is true that the Jews did have many God given privileges. As the Apostle Paul notes, they “were entrusted with the oracles of God” and “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever” (Rom. 3:1-2; Rom. 9:4-5). Paul even listed his own personal privileges, sufficient grounds for boasting if he so wished, including “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil. 3:4). He, of course, utterly rejected this privilege in order to gain Christ: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:7), and to gain his neighbor:
I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:19-23)
The sad fact is that the 1st Century Jews had warped a religion intended to be a blessing to every nation and tribe into an ethnically exclusive source of privilege and boasting: “we have Abraham as our father” (Jn. 8:39). As such, Gentiles were considered dogs, with whom the Jews had no dealings (Jn. 4:9). The Jewish leaders had not only fenced the Law of God, adding requirements and traditions not contained therein, but they even fenced their ethnic heritage, making it a basis for acceptance before God and a rejection of the “other.”
Jesus confronts this ethnic privilege throughout the Gospels. He reveals Himself as the Messiah first to a Samaritan woman, who is herself surprised by the event: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jn. 4:9). He heals the child of a Roman soldier, commending the soldier’s faith over that of all Israel, including its privileged sons:
“Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.” (Mt. 8:10-12)
After upbraiding the Jews for elevating the traditions of men over the religion of God, telling them that their own heart is the source of pollution, not the world around them, He again commends the genuine faith of an ethnic outsider, a Canaanite woman—a “Syrophoenician by genos”—a “dog” according to the Jews: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” (Matt. 15:28). And there is a reason Jesus chooses a Samaritan man to put to shame the priest and the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. If anyone in Israel was a socially accepted answer to “who is my neighbor,” would it not have been a priest or a Levite?
Even the Apostle Peter fell into this easy chair of social privilege, fearing conflict with Judaizers:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. (Gal. 2:11-13)
But this is all understandable. There were thousands of years of distinction that had morphed into a manmade tradition of superiority, exclusivity, and particular to our purposes, ethnic and religious privilege. This is the nature of societal development. And when it veers off course from God’s word, or was never on course in the first place, the majority culture enjoys much of the benefits of these social relations, while minorities within either fall between the cracks or are actively disadvantaged. And by minority, I don’t necessarily mean race or color. Where the culture divides is peculiar to each region and society. And the majority participants are often completely unaware of their unearned advantage.
Even the newborn New Testament church in Jerusalem was not immune to the consequences of centuries of ethnic separation and regional Jewish privilege. We read in Acts 6: “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (v. 1). First, I doubt that the Apostles were racists, and I doubt that this neglect was even intentional. But what is so telling is that even in this holy communion of saints, disparities in treatment were discovered along ethnic lines, consistent with the previous centuries of divide. To be sure, no ill will may have even been present (they were of “one heart and soul”). As Calvin suggests, it may have just been established familiarity among fellow Jews—family, work, and synagogue networks formed over generations. But the effect was in some ways no different than if there had been explicit racism: the vulnerable among one ethnicity were disadvantaged within the majority culture. The Hellenists did not share in the Jewish privilege that had been forged over centuries in the region. Last, it is important to note that the Apostles’ response was not to tell them, “there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ,” but to make actual structural changes to eliminate the inequity. The office of Deacon was formed to care for the poor, the widow, the fatherless, the oppressed, and the alien.
Other examples could be given from the Scripture, including Gentile privilege confronted by Jews in majority Gentile cultures. Paul called both Jews and Gentiles alike to put the other’s interest before his own, to not wound the cultural conscience of his brother, and “to become all things to all men” that they might win them to Christ.
But what about white privilege?
Obviously, the privilege encountered in the New Testament was not keyed to color, but more particularly to genealogy and religious history. Difference in color may have in some ways distinguished “unclean dogs” from privileged natives, but we aren’t told much about this in the Scripture. Here is where the regional history of a people, culture, and society is so important (and hence the need for our last post, “’Race’ and the Racialized Society”). Without the historical context, there is nothing interesting about Jesus revealing Himself to a woman of Samaria and commending the faith of a Syrophoenician, or a Roman soldier. Without the historical context, there is no glaring contrast between a priest, a Levite, and a good Samaritan. Without the historical context, Peter was committing no greater crime than just preferring to hang out with those he was more comfortable with. And without this centuries old context, the neglect of Hellenist widows could be viewed as just a statistical anomaly. If we attempt to interpret and understand these events without the socio-historical context, we start from illicit neutral ground which inevitably obscures the import of their presence in the Biblical canon.
As demonstrated in our last post, the most pervasive and long-lasting line of division in America has been what W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as the “color line.” In the latter decades of the 19th Century, Du Bois lamented that nothing divided the American people as rigidly as this color line. Neither wealth, nor profession, skill, nor political office divided men as concretely as the distinction between black and white. The richest black man could be reminded he was a “N****r” in the presence of the poorest white man. This line was constructed in American society over the course of 400 years, continues with us until today. Beginning from the 17th century, only the African or those of African descent were subject to life long servitude. Men constructed justifications for this exclusive racial subjugation from supposed “Biblical” arguments, from phenotypical features (supposedly showing their God given fitness for servile labor), from pseudoscientific racism, and from overall belief—in both the North and the South—that the “Black Race” was of inferior nature, intellect, and morals.
This race exclusive slavery continued for 250 years, only to be replaced by another 100 years of legal and de facto segregation, discrimination, Jim Crow, race steering, red-lining, ghettoizing, barriers to education, and rampant white on black violence. Much of this continues to the present, though more so by general indifference, legal paternalism, and long lasting institutional disparities, chief among which are the American justice system, systemic poverty, and continued red-lining and ethnic steering. As we concluded the last post,
In every area one can cull statistics, the color line proves to reflect 400 years of legal and de facto subjugation, segregation, and discrimination. And this should come as no surprise. How could a society construct a caste system around heredity and skin color for over 350 years and expect it to dissipate in just over one generation—simply because some legal restrictions have been imposed?
And this is the context of current privilege in America.
It is easy to see that whites were privileged during the 350 years of race slavery, Southern Jim Crow, and Northern de facto Jim Crow. White privilege in this period was literally guaranteed by law. But we must be clear: even a white person born today has already the benefit of generations of full opportunity to employment, education, wealth accumulation, and geographical and inter-neighborhood mobility, regardless of whether his ancestors owned slaves or not. It is a matter of fact that a white child born today is significantly more likely than a black child to be born into a family with more than ten times the accumulated wealth of a black peer (see HERE). The white child is even statistically more likely to live through infancy (see HERE). The white child is much more likely to go to a well-funded, academically superior school. He is even more likely to be put into advanced course work, with his black peers more likely to be placed in remedial or special needs coursework, regardless of ability (see HERE). The white child will learn the history of his own race extensively and will learn the whole of history as a direct line from Greece, to Rome, to Europe, to America. The black child will learn this history as well, but will be taught very little of his own race and ethnicity (see HERE). Discussions on the causes of Southern secession will likely be abysmal, especially if attending a Christian school or learning from Christian homeschool curriculum. There is likely to be no history of American racialization discussed at all, nor any awareness of the racist words and writings of many of our founding fathers.
The white child is much more likely to make it to college without being incarcerated, even if he commits the same or similar crimes (see HERE and HERE). And he is more likely to graduate from college (see HERE). The white child is much less likely to be shot and killed by a police officer in young adulthood and beyond (see HERE). His chances of securing a job are greater, even with precisely the same resume as his black peer (see HERE and HERE). He is likely to be paid more for the same work (see HERE). Home ownership will be easier for him (see HERE). He is likely to live in a neighborhood with all whites and have long lasting, even generational, social ties and networks that he did not create but nevertheless benefits from. Even worse, he is not likely to see anything wrong with having no minority friends or black neighbors; this will be seen as natural and no as significant loss to him.
He will not have to worry that he is being seated at a bad table, pulled over by a police officer, mistaken for a rapist, etc., simply because of the color of his skin. He is even more likely to live longer than his black peers (see HERE). To be sure, when a white face is seen, most assume middle to upper class, grew up with both parents, likely not a felon, and has a job. This, unfortunately, is simply not assumed of his black peers. And we haven’t even mentioned the thousands of overtly racist people who will not harm him, nor disparage him, nor overtly discriminate against him simply because of the color of his skin. He need not even let such thoughts occupy his mind. And this is really all just scratching the surface!
In short, the color line—the problem of the 20th Century, according to Du Bois—is likewise the problem of the 21st Century.
And let us not be fooled that the church is all that different when it comes to privilege. When a white person enters an average evangelical church for the first time, he will more than likely be welcomed by a majority white attendance, with networks similar to, if not identical to, his own neighborhood and place of work. If he came from another evangelical church, he will probably not be viewed as in need of conversion or significant reeducation, though anyone coming from a predominantly black church is assumed to be derelict in his understanding of the gospel. The white visitor is also much more likely to sing songs and hymns born of predominantly white European history and culture. The order of worship in the church will likely be considered to be directly from God, but is usually also just another expression of European liturgical roots. The white visitor is not likely to hear quotes from past “giants of the faith” who advocated enslaving his race, supported segregation, and who intentionally marginalized his ancestors, using the Bible itself as a weapon against them. In fact, he is likely to hear only the voices of his own European forebears; there will be no acknowledgement of other great American fathers of the faith, e.g., Richard Allen. In fact, he will likely find the common and persistent effort to de-Africanize North African church fathers such as Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, or even the Apostle Mark.
The white visitor will confront a culture wealthy enough to declare Christian private school and homeschooling to be the only alternative to giving children to Molech (viz., public school). He will likely find broad agreement on political matters—fear of the intrusive state, feelings of persecution as a conservative, over taxation, and a general bewilderment about why African Americans keep talking about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. The Antebellum South will likely be considered a model of Christian civilization, or at least not nearly as bad as the “liberals” try to say it was. Talk of current racial injustices may even be considered Marxist or a false “social gospel.” Talk of church action during the Civil Rights movement will often be considered improper to the mission of the Church. Expectations of “manhood and womanhood” will largely fit with the white visitor’s inherited white American cultural ideals and will be considered uniquely “biblical.” The white visitor won’t have elderly women feeling his children’s hair. He won’t have to worry that he is either being ignored or overly doted on due to his skin color. And on and on and on.
And once again, this is not even taking into account the thousands of overt racists in our country! These are just run of the mill, best of intentions, type examples.
Conclusion: What “White Privilege” Is and Is Not
In short, “white privilege” is the entire set of unearned social advantages possessed by individuals and groups in virtue of being considered white.
I hope it is clear by now that white privilege is not “white guilt.” The point is not that white people are individually guilty of past wrongs simply because they share a similar skin tone to those who actually perpetrated those evils. White privilege is about right now—today. To acknowledge white privilege is to acknowledge that, at this very moment, I as a white male in America have benefited from centuries of enfranchisement, free mobility, political representation, with almost no fear of discrimination, all unearned advantages afforded by the majority culture; a set of benefits not afforded to black and brown minorities in this country. Guilt only comes or goes based on what one does with this knowledge. (We will discuss the idea of corporate repentance in a future post.)
White privilege is also not a sort of white weltanschauung. It is something that white people can come to see and begin to understand; it is possible to begin see our society and church through the eyes of the “other”—for both black and white. Of course, this requires a great deal of listening, learning, and most of all, empathy, and is never complete in this life. Nevertheless, the Scripture requires it and shows us that it is possible. It calls us to be of “one mind” (Phil. 2:2) and we read of the early church (composed of multiple genos, ethnos, and phule) that they “were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32).
I realize that many will continue to simply find the phrase itself divisive, unhelpful, or laden with unwanted baggage. This is understandable; so use whatever words you like. Just make sure the concepts get across. It is not an idea we can simply do without. Denying the existence of “white privilege” is a major cause of division and misunderstanding across the color line, both in the local church and in society at large. To be sure, this is not a matter of introducing a new divide, but of bridging a very old one. It’s a matter of learning to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15), of seeking the interest of our neighbor first, of becoming all things to all men, following the example of the Apostle Paul.
(Oh, and I forgot to note that white privilege does not mean that all white people are rich. That is just silly.)
In the next two posts, I hope to make more explicit the dangers of denying this privilege, beginning with a parable from Smith & Emerson’s book, Divided by Faith.