There is widespread belief that racism and racist ideas as we know them today have been a feature of mankind since the fall of Adam. Many uncritically assume that if anything has significantly changed over the last several centuries, it has been from originally bad to increasingly good. But this is far from the truth. Accurate history reveals, rather, that racist ideas—as we know them in America—have largely been developed as justifications for pre-existing racial exploitation. The Atlantic slave trade was well under way before there even was such a thing as the “Black Race” or the “White Race,” both previously being a host of various nationalities, ethnicities, religions, cultures, languages, and phenotypical features. In fact, before the appearance of the most powerful justifications for exploitation, those of African descent had already become the only people group subject to lifelong servitude, viz., property; they and their children.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col. 3:11)
I’ve become more and more baffled how passages like Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 have been used to oppose advocates of racial justice and reconciliation in the Church. The idea seems to be that since all believers are one in Christ and our identity and unity is to be found in Him alone, then even bringing up race in the Church is itself a source of division, such distinctions having been wiped away by the death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord. For example, we read the following popular expression of the claim:
[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.]
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:
- Well documented and vast social and economic disparities between black and white Americans, as well as continued neighborhood and church segregation.
- 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.”
- 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.
The following is from Francis Fedric’s Slave Life in Virginia and Kentucky (1863), wherein he describes his own conversion to Christianity. It is just more confirmation of Peter Randolph’s conclusion quoted at length in an earlier post: “[a]fter such preaching, let no one say that the slaves have the Gospel of Jesus preached to them.”
[The monument imaged above is a perfect example of the “Lost Cause” propaganda prevalent in the South and common among conservatives.]
On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech to the gathered Republican Party:
A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new—North as well as South.
Just a few months following, future president of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis offered his own perspective on this brewing divide within the United States, laying the fault solely in the lap of Northern abolitionist agitation:
In his autobiography, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit, Rev. Peter Randolph (1825 – 1897) answers the claim that slavery was good for the African, freeing him from the bonds of paganism, bringing him to Gospel salvation. To be sure, there was a “gospel” preached to them; but was it the true Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, or a truncated facsimile, bastardized for the sake of exploitation?
Ibram X Kendi writes in Stamped From the Beginning,
The Puritans believed, too, in civilizing and Christianizing the world, but their approach to the project was slightly different from that of most explorers and expedition sponsors. For the others, it was about economic returns or political power. For Puritan preachers, it was about bringing social order to the world. Cambridge professor William Perkins rested at the cornerstone of British Puritanism in the late sixteenth century. “Though the servant in regard of faith and the inner man be equal to his master, in regard of the outward man… the master is above the servant,” he explained in Ordering a Familie, published in 1590. In paraphrasing St. Paul, Perkins became one of the first major English theorists—or assimilationist theologians, to be more precise—to mask the exploitative master/servant or master/slave relationship as a loving family relationship. […] It was Perkins’s family ordering that Puritan leaders like John Cotton and Richard Mather used to sanction slavery in Massachusetts a generation later. And it was Perkins’s claim of equal souls and unequal bodies that led Puritan preachers like Cotton and Mather to minister to African souls and not challenge the enslavement of their bodies. (Kindle location 581)
This is 100% true and a powerful point necessary for understanding the genesis, development, and justification of American chattel slavery. But, like a good little student of Kendi, I went back to the primary source, Perkins’ A SHORT SURVEY OF THE RIGHT MANNER OF ERECTING and ordering a Familie, according to the Scriptures.
George Whitfield believed that “Africans” were human but subordinate creatures and as such could rightfully be enslaved. He saw this as an act of beneficence on behalf of the white Christian slave holder. In like manner, Robert Lewis Dabney, while discussing “natural equality” states the following:
[…]if the low grade of intelligence, virtue and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare (taking the “general run” of cases) and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly, that the African here has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. Hence, his natural liberty is only that which remains after that privilege is retrenched.
While hideous, the metaphysic of such a position was simple: those unequal in nature, being, dignity, and attributes are also unequal in relations, including authority and submission, right to command and duty to obey. “Equality” only extends to the individuals as a requirement for equal duty before God—one to care for his subordinate and the other to obey his superior. Equity was simply the Golden Rule practiced according to one’s natural lot.