I was asked recently by a friend if it was correct to say that every American—whether white, Latinx, black, etc.—is a participant in systemic racism, and therefore racist. Given that social structures and institutions have been historically formed in America to benefit white people at the expense of others, then isn’t everyone who participates in such systems also participating in white supremacy? I think this is a very important question. As the wider culture finds itself engaged in deciding who is racist, who isn’t, and why I am not and you are, the binary assumed, viz., “racist” or “not racist,” not only de-emphasizes the distinction between racism as individual and systemic, but also bifurcates what is obviously a much more complicated spectrum. It is easy to say that a Neo-Nazi is a racist, but what about an African American who ascribes the vast current social and economic disparities to black laziness or immorality? Or ascribes segregated churches to blacks’ disinterest in sound theology? And what about white and black Americans who simply give little thought to the disparity or segregation at all, but continue to travel the same worn paths?
Here is where Ibram X. Kendi’s categories “segregationist,” “assimilationist,” and “antiracist” can be so helpful.
Three Categories: Segregationists, Assimilationists, and Antiracists
A group we can call segregationists has blamed Black people themselves for the racial disparities. A group we can call antiracists has pointed to racial discrimination. A group we can call assimilationists has tried to argue for both, saying that Black people and racial discrimination were to blame for racial disparities. (Stamped From the Beginning, p. 2)
“Segregationists” are those who believe that African Americans are biologically inferior to whites, or are otherwise in a fixed relation of inferior to superior. This group includes the polygenesists of the past who believed that each race had its own separate origin and therefore do not share a common ancestry, nor common humanity. This group may also include those who have appealed to the so-called “Curse of Ham” to justify oppressive social relations, arguing that Africans are perpetually bound by the curse of God to serve Caucasians. For segregationists, the relation of superior to inferior among the races is natural, ordained, perpetual, and insurmountable. Thus, historic and current disparities in society, economics, and Church are also natural and fully explained by biological disparity and/or divine ordination.
“Assimilationists,” on the other hand, believe in biological equality and are historically monogenesist, i.e., believe that all humans share a common ancestry. As Kendi explains, “[i]n embracing biological racial equality, assimilationists point to environment—hot climates, discrimination, culture, and poverty—as the creators of inferior Black behaviors”; that is, disparities between blacks and whites are due to some form of degeneration or unequal historical development, whether “natural” or due to systematic mistreatment. Assimilationists oppose overt racism, ethnic hatred, and prejudice, but believe that African Americans need to be saved or lifted up from their current degeneration. Assimilationists,
[…]maintain that the ugly Black stamp can be erased—that inferior Black behaviors can be developed, given the proper environment. As such, assimilationists constantly encourage Black adoption of White cultural traits and/or physical ideals. In his landmark 1944 study of race relations, a study widely regarded as one of the instigators of the civil rights movement, Swedish economist and Nobel Laureate Gunnar Myrdal wrote, “It is to the advantage of American Negroes as individuals and as a group to become assimilated into American culture, to acquire the traits held in esteem by the dominant white Americans.” He had also claimed, in An American Dilemma, that “in practically all its divergences, American Negro culture is… a distorted development, or a pathological condition, of the general American culture.” (p. 3)
We should also include in this category the many evangelicals who insinuate that vast social disparities along the “color-line” are due to welfare, greater sinfulness, distaste for proper European theology, or the the like.
In contrast to both of these, a third group, called “antiracists” by Kendi, believe that “no racial group has ever had a monopoly on any type of human trait or gene—not now, not ever,” and explain disparities accordingly.
[T]here is nothing wrong with Black people as a group, or with any other racial group. That is what it truly means to think as an antiracist: to think there is nothing wrong with Black people, to think that racial groups are equal. There are lazy and unwise and harmful individuals of African ancestry. There are lazy and unwise and harmful individuals of European ancestry. There are industrious and wise and harmless individuals of European ancestry. There are industrious and wise and harmless individuals of African ancestry. But no racial group has ever had a monopoly on any type of human trait or gene—not now, not ever. Under our different-looking hair and skin, doctors cannot tell the difference between our bodies, our brains, or the blood that runs in our veins. All cultures, in all their behavioral differences, are on the same level. Black Americans’ history of oppression has made Black opportunities—not Black people—inferior. (p. 11)
In Biblical terms, we might say,
[…] God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:26-27)
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth […]. (Acts 17:26)
And of racial and ethic “degeneration,” we might say,
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless, no one does good, not even one. (Rom. 3:11-12)
[W]e all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph. 2:3)
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus […]. (Rom. 3:23)
To be authentically Christian is to be antiracist; neither segregationist nor assimilationist explanations for society-wide disparities along the “color-line” are open to Christians.
A Biblical Analogy
An analogy might be helpful. As I’ve argued ELSEWHERE, though there is no one-to-one correspondence between the New Testament Jew/Gentile relation and the modern Black/White relation, there is nevertheless much to be learned from the Biblical account of historically divided people groups communing together as one in the Church, with all its attendant difficulties. In segregationist/assimilationist/antiracist terms, we might suggest commonalities with the following three groups discussed in the New Testament: Jews who rejected Messiah, Judaizers, and Apostolic Christians.
Multiple times in the book of Acts we see the unbelieving Jews listening intently to the message of Paul, right up until he suggests the gospel of Messiah belongs to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. In chapter 22, Paul made his defense to the people of Jerusalem wherein he described both his own conversion and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Near the end of the discourse, we read,
“And he [Jesus] said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” (vv. 21-22)
These may be analogized as “segregationists.” To these men, Gentiles were “dogs” with whom the Jews “had no dealings” (Jn. 4:9).
The Judaizers, on the other hand, believed that Jesus was the Messiah and believed that Gentiles could be received into the Church—but not as Gentiles. For Gentiles to become subjects of the promises of the Covenant, they must first be assimilated into Judaism, that is, be circumcised and keep the laws and customs of Moses. Accordingly, these may be analogized as “assimilationists.”
Last, we have the Apostolic message. In the Book of Romans alone, we see that the gospel is the power of God to save both Jews and Gentiles (1:16), that God will judge both impartially on the last day (2:7-11), that both are likewise condemned as sinners without any special rights (3:9), that both are to be saved by faith (4:16-17), that true Israel includes both Jew and Gentile (9:24), and that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (Rom. 10:12-13). In short, Gentiles are to be saved as Gentiles; because the Old Covenant was preparatory for the New, requiring Gentiles to become Jews was a repudiation of the meaning and purpose of Israel itself; there is no more distinction in the eschatological age of Christ and His Spirit; the middle wall of partition was broken down at the Cross (Eph. 2:14).
The Apostles, therefore, may be analogized as “antiracists.” (See also Acts 15.)
So, how should we answer my friend? Simply put, everyone who does not actively push back against the institutions and systems of racism in America are in fact perpetuating these systems and lending to the continued currency and propagation of the racist ideas that fuel them. The stream continues to flow; the antiracist resists the current. On the other hand, whether one is a “racist” or not is just too simplistic and not nearly as important as whether one is advancing or resisting the systems which perpetuate harm anyhow. Surely one who holds personal prejudice, race hatred, or believes and confesses that one race is inferior to another might easily be called a racist (and is in fact a heretic). But it is just silly and simplistic to capture, e.g., Booker T. Washington or W.E.B Du Bois under the same term and concept, though they as well at times had suggested that Black Americans themselves have a problem that they must work to overcome in order to become fully acceptable in American society and enjoy its benefits. This assimilationism, implied by “Uplift Suasion” and the like, undoubtedly implies the inferiority of a people group, but it is in their case unquestionably not motivated by racial hatred or overt belief and confession of the inferiority of their own race.
I suggest, therefore, as we navigate the thorns and thistles of our fallen society, we adopt something like Kendi’s three categories of segregationist, assimilationist, and antiracist, rather than collapsing everything into the simplistic bifurcation of “racist,” “not-racist.” Surely such narrow dualisms are of little benefit to addressing systemic racism in the American church and society—which is much more damaging than individual prejudice—and are especially unhelpful in addressing racist ideas advanced by African Americans themselves.