Having shown in the last post that color-blindness is not in fact a Biblical ethic, we now move on to the concept of “color-blind racism.”
If one is willing and able to believe the research outlining the great racial disparities in American society today—in terms of wealth, home ownership, employment, education, health, criminalization, incarceration, etc.—as well as the persistent de facto neighborhood and church segregation, one is compelled to seek an explanation. In broad terms, Americans are either inclined to interpret this data as the modern manifestation and continuation of 450 years of slavery and oppression leading to racism, discrimination, and attempted dehumanization of the “black race” at the hands of the white, or they are inclined to look for explanations in the very nature and behavior of the victims themselves. Those who find the former explanation persuasive are likely committed to the essential and fundamental equality of the races; any explanation that regards or implies the superiority or inferiority of any racial group is in fact a false, racist, mythology.
On the other hand, those who would adopt the latter explanation, that black Americans are themselves either wholly or largely responsible for their own plight, have proven the majority throughout American history, even in the midst of antebellum slavery and Jim Crow. Americans have told themselves that African Americans were responsible for their own bondage and oppression. Many even of our own churchmen considered themselves philanthropists for condemning Africans to lifelong servitude, supposedly “parenting” them through their brute stupidity, laziness, and extraordinary concupiscence, by whips and chains. During Jim Crow, black Americans were excoriated for not working hard and taking advantage of the many blessings of free America; upon being steered and red-lined into manufactured “ghettos,” white men and women buttressed their presumed racial superiority by displaying the poverty of their victims.
As we stand today—with the median net worth of white families about 10 times that of black families; with the poverty rate among black Americans at 21.8% compared to 8.8% for whites; with only 22.8% of black Americans between 25 and 29 years old being college graduates, compared to 44.5% of whites; with more black men in prison than enrolled in college; with 1 in 9 African American males between the ages of 20 and 34 in prison; with black Americans imprisoned at 600% the rate of whites; with infant mortality rate of black Americans more than double that of whites; and on and on—we are likewise pressed for an explanation. I, quite frankly, find it absurd to assume that an act of Congress in 1964 changed the collective heart and mind of a people toward their intentionally constructed under-class, having marked them out by culturally demonized phenotypical properties, in just one generation (see Part 2). Equally absurd is that we could look at the current disparities, and that of the last 50 years, and not see them as along the same arc of the previous 400.
But many apparently disagree. The racial attitudes of victim blaming have continued from Jim Crow (and Northern de facto Jim Crow) into the modern era, with the Holocaust atrocities and subsequent Civil Rights gains morphing these racist attitudes into a new racist ethos, with new language and fresh justifications, but with much of the same cultural subjugation and racialization. And “color-blindness” has proven the most viral society wide vehicle for maintaining this racial status quo. We have shown in the last post that color-blindness is not in fact a Biblical ethic. Here, I would like to (as briefly as possible) discuss “color-blind racism,” that is, the racism without confessing racists, the racism that “doesn’t see race,” and the racism that eschews all racial explanations for current disparities, detrimental policies, and continued segregation.
Edwardo Bonilla-Silva, in his book Racism Without Racists, identifies four central frames whereby color-blind idealists can interpret data that might otherwise be seen as evidence of racism as completely non-racial. These frames are (1) Abstract Liberalism, (2) Naturalization, (3) Cultural Racism, and (4) Minimization. Together these four frames “form an impregnable yet elastic wall that barricades whites from the United States’ racial reality,” allowing whites to “blame minorities (black Americans in particular) for their own status” (p. 95).
(1) Abstract Liberalism
By “liberalism,” Bonilla-Silva does not mean modern progressive politics (as the term is often used today), but rather that which has been at the heart of most post-Enlightenment emerging “free” governments, as exemplified in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. Liberalism in this traditional sense is a commitment to that loose web of ideas predominated by individualism, freedom of choice, freedom from government coercion, commitment to equality of opportunity, and institutional meliorism. These are indeed noble ideals and are truly worthy of the commitment received from many Western nations and thinkers. But over the last 50 years, these noble political ideals have been abstracted from their political and legal context and have been repurposed to rationalize persistent radical inequities as natural, non-racial, consequences of freedom.
From the very beginning of this nation, the concepts of liberalism were the province of a very few; these legal and cultural standards were not extended to non-white, non-male Americans, nor the inhabitants of the American Colonies around the world, which were merely materials and human resources to create wealth and liberty for the few. This tiered system of liberty continued through slavery and on into Jim Crow, North and South, but was changed dramatically post WW II and into the Civil Rights era. Under international pressure and the work of many brave men and women, legislation was passed intended to break down the legal and de facto systems of discrimination and segregation, heralding a new iteration of social control and racial discrimination—color-blind, or laissez faire, racism; or, as Bonilla-Silva calls it, a racism without racists.
The centuries long color line, including its structural racialization and racist ideas, did not disappear overnight, but rather took on a new form. With overt racial discrimination legally delegitimized, structural, non-verbal, and institutional racism was free to thrive under the cover of “liberal” principles. Any suggestion to redress wrongs through reparations or affirmative action were then (and now) treated as violations the principles of freedom and equality. It is now considered illiberal and totalitarian to acknowledge the centuries of wealth depravation, ghettoization, and unequal opportunity by granting special opportunities for a people who had been abused for centuries. In fact, those who had worked tirelessly creating the social construct of race, as a means for continued human exploitation, now “don’t even see race”—specifically when ideas are proposed to actually level the playing field.
Further, any attempt to bring about real-world integration in communities, schools, or churches is thought to violate the highest of liberal principles: freedom of choice. One ought not violate the freedom of men and women to hire whom they please, worship with whom they please, or form relationships with whom they please. American society by in large sees nothing lost by living in continued racial isolation, as though minority history and identity is not needed, nor particularly advantageous, nor can ultimately enrich the white dominant culture. When whites colonize and minorities stay in their predetermined lanes, American society celebrates the fact that these associations were freely chosen. Nothing to see here, move on.
Individualism is also a very important part of this frame, especially for evangelicals. Evangelicalism rightly sees salvation as an individual affair (though this is often illegitimately emphasized to the exclusion of the Biblical idea of a People). God saves sinners from sin; sin is the ultimate problem; only individuals can sin or be saved from sin; racism is wrong because it is sin; therefore, racism is also only an individual affair. Evangelicals—really, Americans in general—can only seem to process racism as an individual attitude or as individual actions. Americans, and evangelicals in particular, have no interpretive category for institutionalized, systemic, or structural racism. The racialized cycle of historical of wealth disparity (due to centuries of disenfranchisement), lack of home ownership (due to centuries of race steering, white flight, and discrimination), high levels of incarceration (due to post Jim Crow systems of social control), lack of quality education (often due to poverty, low home values, and rampant incarceration), unemployment and low wages (due to discriminatory perceptions and lack of enfranchised networks), all working as a mutually fortifying set of gears, is easily dismissed by a wave of the hand as simply the collective failures of individual sinners who lack drive, moral fortitude, family values, or are addicted to government handouts.
Thus, the principles of classical liberalism are abstracted from their legal/political context and are employed as the central frame for interpreting most potentially damaging data as not really racially motivated at all—in fact, not even racial, but simply the product of individuals living out their free choices in an equal opportunity society. Color-blind racists are thereby able to explain the disparities as quite normal, even inevitable, features of a free society. This, of course, ignores the long history of racial divide and continued evidence of widespread discrimination.
The second frame Bonilla-Silva suggests is Naturalization. Like the others to follow, this frame is largely dependent on Abstract Liberalism. Through this frame, otherwise racially motivated disparities can be explained as natural occurrences, even biological. Why do whites live in mostly exclusive white neighborhoods, and black Americans in black neighborhoods? According to this frame, it is simply a matter of like preferring to be with like. It is completely normal that neighborhoods and churches are nearly as segregated as they have ever been, because everyone prefers being around others “like” themselves. But what is really natural about this? Again, is it assumed that there is literally nothing to gain, morally or otherwise, by intercommunal life between races and ethnicities? And has this always been the case? Would it have been considered natural for the first century church, composed of “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11) to have lived and worshipped separately? Did God write it in our genetic code to desire to be separated, even in His worship, according to our skin color? Or is it not simply the case that we continue to reap the foul fruit of centuries of purposeful and intentional divide?
Another sense in which such racialization, discrimination, and segregation are naturalized is by flattening. Christians rightly believe in the doctrine of original sin and many evangelicals in the doctrine of total depravity. As above, racism is seen almost exclusively as individual sin. But all are sinners, therefore all can be presumed to be racist to some degree. It is argued that whites are racist against blacks, blacks against whites, Asians against other Asians, blacks and whites against Latinos, and every other possible combination one can imagine. Racism is naturalized, but to fallen humanity rather than simple biology. This truly is a color-blind view; but it is also blind to the specific history of exploitation and racism in our specific society. Whites, on the whole, have done quite well in this country and continue to do; but, for hundreds of years, white Americans have done well in part by ensuring that black Americans were not afforded the same—even exploited for their own wealth accumulation. And this division of master and slave, both literally and metaphorically, was intentionally manufactured to condemn black Americans and elevate whites (see again Part 2). This form of the Naturalization frame literally ignores this entire history and shows not even a marginal understanding of the history and development of racist ideas. But nevertheless, this frame is employed to maintain the status quo by both equally distributing blame and accepting as natural the stark and historically predictable inequalities.
(3) Cultural Racism
Cultural Racism has been very well studied and there is ample literature on the subject. I will be brief.
The sickening fact is, those of African descent were considered to be biologically inferior to whites for the vast majority of American history. (We have covered much of this in Part 2.) Whether it was God that made them inferior, or climate, or separate evolution, or whatever, black Americans were believed to be proper subjects of subjugation by nature. They were considered lazy, shiftless, unintelligent, hyper-sexual, erratic, and always potentially dangerous. They were variously analogized along the lines of beasts or, at best, children in need of masters. Few today hold these biological views. They are rightly considered unscientific, racist, and sinful.
But buttressed by Abstract Liberalism and Naturalization, “culture” has become the new frame for the old racism. In lieu of the new color-blind regimen, the post-Civil Rights biological racism has simply shifted to cultural racism. Those who do not “see color” are relieved of the moral burden of holding overtly racist ideals by distinguishing inferior-because-of-blackness from inferior-because-of-black-culture. These racists do not see any racism in claiming that inequities exist largely because black people are lazy, hyper-sexual, and dangerous, because they believe they are just talking about the culture of blackness, not the biology of blackness. But the results are indistinguishable. Again, this frame allows color-blind Americans to plead “not racist” while blaming black Americans for the consequences of white Americans’ own historical and current discrimination.
This frame can be found in the churches as well. The fact that the history, culture, practices, heroes, and even theologies of our churches are thoroughgoing expressions of Eurocentrism, can be completely ignored. White culture is normal culture. Black history, culture, practices, heroes, and even theologies are considered inferior culture. In sum, our churches, according to this frame, are not only segregated because humans naturally gather with their own kind (Naturalization), but because black Christians prefer bad theology, enjoy lower forms of religious expression, and are probably not as intellectually inclined as our white evangelical churches. This also is color-blind racism.
(4) Minimization of Racism
This final frame is both the simplest of the four, yet the most widely employed. Given that overtly verbalized racism and self-reporting of racist ideas is largely taboo in the post-Civil Rights era, white Americans can simply comfort themselves by the myth that racism is really just the individual prejudices of a few evil people. The Neo-Nazies, the Alt-Right, the David Dukes of the world, those are the real racists. According to this frame, racism was somehow largely eradicated by legislative action about one generation ago. (This to me would be a profound mystery!) In this post-Civil Rights climate, if I don’t hear anyone around me call people the “N” word, or say they hate black people, or report that they didn’t hire someone because of their color, then I can claim that racism couldn’t possibly be the cause of America’s striking disparities. The frame is simple: employ the frames of Abstract Liberalism, Naturalization, and Cultural Racism, and the only real race problem one can see is a few bad guys over there. Color-blind racists don’t even know any racists—just ask them. Of course, they ignore everything they could see if they were able to “see color”; viz., the racial division and its vast consequences, hardened over centuries of justifying human exploitation.
And again, the churches have been no safe-haven from this minimization. Every church considers itself welcome to all people of every race and ethnicity. They do not know a single racist in their church, therefore there is no reason their ethnic make-up does not match the community the church finds itself in. The only available explanation is that minorities just aren’t interested in their gospel-centered enterprise. The white privilege openly displayed in our predominantly white evangelical churches is deeply obscured by our color-blind frames. Persistent ecclesial segregation does not even qualify as a racial phenomenon. What was said in Part 3 concerning racial privilege in our churches is pertinent here as well:
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 last, any effort to acknowledge or seek to remedy these facts will be viewed as itself racial, violating the color-blind principles contained in frames 1-3.
To conclude, the post-Civil Rights era of color-blind racism has many of the same consequences as the old Jim Crow racism—but without the “racists.” Though it is casted as pro-racial reconciliation, accepting of all people, and a true attempt to judge men by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin, it operates in reality to maintain the status quo and reject any racially targeted attempts to right the wicked wrongs of this nation. Racists and non-racists alike are able, within this system, to perpetuate the racialization that has hampered the progress of this nation toward the realization of its stated ideals.
Color-blindness has the same effect in our churches. Once hampered by overtly racist ideas and intentional exclusion of oppressed minorities, our churches are now hampered by an unbiblical notion of race neutrality that effectively keeps us segregated along the same color line that was forged over the last four and half centuries. For all its good intentions, color-blindness is the real “racial gnosticism”: an attempt to realize Revelation 7:9 by treating people as disembodied, ahistorical, un-encultured souls, thus blinding us to the pre-existing centuries long divide and blocking our discussion of the race conscious measures needed for reconciliation. But arguably worst of all—again, whether intentional or unintentional—color-blindness inevitably blames victims for their own victimization.