The Ever Evolving Definition of “Racism”? Part 2: Frederick Douglass

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[W]hen humanity is insulted and the rights of the weak are trampled in the dust by a lawless power; when society is divided into two classes, as oppressed and oppressor, there is no power, and there can be no power, while the instincts of manhood remain as they are, which can provide solid peace. (Frederick Douglass, “There Was a Right Side in the Late War,” 1878, p. 629)

As we concluded in our last post, abolitionist David Walker (1796 – 1830) saw “color prejudice”—the closest phrase to our own post 1930’s “racism”—as not simply, or even primarily, hatred or dislike of others based on race or color. Nor did he consider it in any sense natural. Rather, it was a presumption of the inferiority of black Americans, a presumption displayed more by the actions and institutions of white men than by their verbal professions. Further, contrary to the thought of many modern Americans, this belief in the inferiority of black Americans was born of the institution of slavery itself, not the cause of the institution. White oppressors sought to distinguish, debase, demean, and “other” those whom they exploited for monetary gain. “Avarice” was the true source of race prejudice, including the dehumanizing justifications it produced. Last, the response of African Americans to these exploitative circumstances—including even hatred—was not itself considered “prejudice” by Walker, given the relation that existed between oppressor and oppressed.

Moving on to Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895), we see many of the same ideas, though stated even more explicitly. As before, these posts are mostly just quotations from the abolitionists and civil rights advocates under discussion, as the purpose is to demonstrate their own understandings of “color prejudice” and “racism.” The claim is daily made that these definitions have been changed by modern antiracists, specifically by supposed adherents of Critical Race Theory. Over the course of this series, I hope to test this claim.

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The Ever Evolving Definition of “Racism”? Part 1: David Walker

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Christian enslavers did not believe they were prejudiced, segregationists did not believe they were racists, and our current president has declared that he is “the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.” Denying racism of “any form” is an American tradition, in fact, an institution of American life. As people of color increasingly find footing within traditionally white spaces, this institution of denial has evolved with ever greater creativity and robustness.

In our own day, those intent on protecting the institution simply claim that those of the past were indeed prejudiced and racists, but that was…the past. Modern advocates of racial justice, they argue, are simply working from a new definition and understanding of “racism,” a definition which was changed in order to continue “agitation” beyond its necessity. In particular, Critical Race Theory is targeted for having introduced illicit elements into the concept, viz., any elements that go beyond bare personal hatred and/or overt discrimination based on “race.”

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Did MacArthur Lie? I Don’t Know, But…

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[For context, see “A Civil Rights Leader Is Accusing John MacArthur of ‘Lying’ About Where He Was When MLK Died.”]

As many discuss the accuracy of Pastor John MacArthur’s oft told experience with John Perkins and Charles Evers the night Dr. King was murdered, I’d suggest we need to keep in focus the hypocrisy involved in the very telling of these stories. MacArthur often offers such tales to bolster his Civil Rights bona fides before going on to criticize the so-called “social justice” movement in the Church. He prefaced his very first post in a series attacking modern Racial Reconciliation (RR) advocates with the same. Immediately after claiming, “[w]e were also shown the place where James Earl Ray stood on a toilet to fire the fatal shot,” he declares the following with bolstered accreditation:

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What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 8. Systemic Racism & the “Narrow” Spirituality of the Church

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[To be fair, this is a long post, and it ends with “To be continued….” I do believe this is one of the most important discussions within modern conservative evangelicalism, so if you have the time and inclination, I believe you will be rewarded.]

Introduction

To me, the existence of systemic or institutionalized racism, i.e., “polices, practices, and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities’ access to and quality of goods, services, and opportunities” (Vernellia R. Randal), is a simple deduction from three premises:

  1. Well documented and vast social and economic disparities between black and white Americans, as well as continued neighborhood and church segregation.
  2. All racial groups are equal; in Ibram X Kendi’s words, “no racial group has ever had a monopoly on any type of human trait or gene—not now, not ever.”
  3. The majority of Americans are not overt racists, members of a neo-Nazi party, or intentionally discriminating against black Americans due to conscious prejudice and hatred.

If we are committed to the truth of the above three premises, then we must begin to look for explanations that do not—intentionally or unintentionally—assume the inferiority of any race. And a very short walk back through history gives us all the data we need: four hundred years of legal and de facto marginalization for the sake of exploitation accords perfectly with the circumstances we find ourselves in today; in fact, how could we expect it to be otherwise? Truly, God has been fantastically kind to this Nation, given our history. Much worse circumstances could have justly been predicted.

Example of Systemic Racism: “Narrow” Spirituality of the Church (NSoC)

I had promised in “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 7. Individual vs. Institutional Racism” to give specific examples of systemic racism, both from church and society, to further explicate the concept. But I have decided here, rather, to focus solely on the church—particularly the Reformed and Presbyterian Church, of which I am a member.

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