In September of this year, US Attorney General William Barr compared the Coronavirus state authorized lockdowns across the nation to American slavery. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn took issue with Barr’s statement: “It is incredible the chief law enforcement officer in this country would equate human bondage to expert advice to save lives. Slavery was not about saving lives. It was about devaluing lives.”
While Barr’s comparison may be taken to denounce racism in that he claims the lockdowns are the “greatest intrusion on civil liberties” since the slavery era in the U.S., slavery devalued lives whereas the Covid lockdowns are intended to save lives, as Clyburn’s rebuttal makes clear. In addition to what Clyburn claimed regarding Barr’s comparison, consider that African Americans are generally more susceptible to COVID infection because of structural problems surrounding health care in society. So, without medically recommended and government enforced lockdowns, they will be even more vulnerable. Still, regardless of one’s take on Barr’s claim and Clyburn’s rebuttal, Barr’s comparison highlights a dynamic on full display in many parts of our country—most Americans decry racism. The present article highlights this point and takes it one step further: no one wants to be accused of racism, not even the racists.
No matter where we stand on the political spectrum, Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana’s statement at the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett illustrates the point that no one wants to be called racist: “I know for someone unaccustomed to it, that it hurts to be called a racist…I think it’s the worst thing you can call an American.”
President Trump has gone so far as to claim that he is “the least racist person,” even though his own history of engagement on race is far from stellar. Trump’s sketchy record on racial matters hasn’t kept significant voices and sectors of my own Evangelical Christian movement from proving instrumental in Trump’s rise to presidential power, as well as providing key support during his presidency. The Evangelical demographic also plays a pivotal role in his reelection aspirations.
While there are still very strong signs of support for Trump among Evangelicals, there appear to be growing fractures. How much of the fracturing has to do with Trump’s callousness over race and disregard for vulnerable people groups? It will be interesting to note, after the 2020 US presidential election results are in, how representative of Evangelicals the following adherent’s assessment of Trump from 2016 is:
Tess Clarke of Dallas was a lifelong Republican. She did not vote in 2016, because she couldn’t support Trump, but also didn’t want to vote for Hillary Clinton because of her views on abortion. Clarke says the Bible urges people to care for the foreigner, the stranger, the poor, and that matters just as much as Trump’s stance on abortion.
“You know I kept seeing this over and over again and thinking, ‘man, how could I vote for the current administration when all I see them doing is pushing those specific people and those specific categories further into the margins?'” Clarke said.
I appreciate Clarke’s concerns. Still, what is representative of many contemporary Evangelicals is that while we will often renounce individual acts of racism, we do not share our Evangelical forebears’ passion and sustained actions for confronting systemic racism. Here I call to mind Wilberforce and his fellow Evangelicals in England and Evangelical abolitionists here in the States at the time of Lincoln. White Evangelicals were largely nowhere to be found during the Civil Rights movement, and today we might be better classified as the white moderates MLK challenged from his Birmingham prison cell. For many of us Evangelicals, as long as Trump claims not to be racist, that is sufficient.
Our lack of sustained engagement today results from a variety of factors. Sociologists of Religion Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argued in their landmark book Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America that Evangelicals are individual, relational, and anti-structural in their engagement of such matters as racialization. While there are pockets of Evangelicals as found among the Mosaix Global Network and Evangelicals4Justice who are keen to engage racialized structures, the movement has a long way to go, as this Atlantic article makes clear. No white Evangelical I know wants to be accused of racism, but that does not mean we are anti-racist.
We often leave it at the level of individual and personal relationships and guard against thinking bad thoughts about Black people. But what are we doing to challenge racialized structures like systemic racism in policing, the prison system, education, health care, and housing? Similarly, no Evangelical I encounter wants to go back to the days of slavery or even Jim Crow. But as Emerson and Smith also point out, racialization proceeds not by way of constant, static categories. Rather, racialization is always evolving and recreating itself. It has progressed to the point today where even the racists don’t want to be accused of racism. That is why efforts to combat racialization’s ever-evolving operations must continue unabated, as this video interview with Divided By Faith author Michael Emerson, fellow sociologist of religion Oneya Fennell Okuwobi, and Pastor Mark DeYmaz of the Mosaix Global Network conveys.
In short, it’s not enough for us Evangelicals to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist across the board.
Certainly, we who claim to be Evangelicals must call it out in ourselves when we demonstrate racist tendencies and affirm structures that cater to four hundred years of a system created by white people for white people, including white Christians. Thus, we should challenge President Trump’s suburban dream, which caters to whites like me. We should also caution against quickly moving back to gentrifying inner cities like liberal Portland, Oregon where I work. Portland may just be the whitest city of its size in the nation, and it is only getting whiter, no matter how many Black Lives Matter protests occur here.
Racism is an equal opportunity offender that manifests itself differently across the geographical, political, cultural, and religious spectrum. We may decry the President’s suburban dream vision for segregated housing for whites, including his statements and his administration’s policy that overturned the Obama Administration’s Affirmatively Affirming Fair Housing act, yet live in it just the same if we are liberals. As Princeton University professor Matthew Desmond argues in a New York Times article,
Today white people remain the most segregated racial group in America. Those aren’t just MAGA towns and conservative retirement villages. In the last presidential election, Westchester County and Burlington County (which encompasses Mount Laurel township) — those staunch defenders of racial segregation — went for Hillary Clinton by wide margins.
It must be acknowledged when the president blasphemes the American creed by denying opportunity to those who need and deserve it. Did we expect anything less from a man viewed by the majority of Americans as the least ethical president in recent memory? Trump is who we thought he was. But the more probing question when it comes to dismantling structural racism is: Who are we? Until white liberals strive to expand opportunity for all families and stop hoarding it for themselves — until they let go of the fantasy that inequality can be addressed without sharing — their denouncements of Trump’s race-baiting will ring hollow. A new occupant in the White House is not needed to “affirmatively further fair housing” in the suburbs and beyond. Progressive communities can take action now. Their consistent failure to do so raises the question of whether they really believe in expanding opportunity and promoting racial justice — or whether it’s all just talk and tweets.
We may take issue with President Trump’s suburban dream for whites, his call to arms to white supremacist groups to stand back and stand by, and Attorney General Barr’s comparison of slavery with Covid restrictions.
But what do you and I do when racism manifests itself where we live and work and benefits us? Talk and tweets mean nothing of real substance, just like individual intent to be non-racist, if they are not accompanied by concrete, interpersonal, and systemic change involving us. Whether we support the President or serve as his ardent critics, no one wants to be called racist, not even the white racist conservatives and liberals like us.
So what should we do? My Humanist friend and journalist Tom Krattenmaker who writes a great deal on Evangelical Christianity exhorted white progressives like himself in an article at USA Today to do more than calling out racism at Facebook and go about “attending racially segregated churches, joining volunteer projects in nonwhite parts of town or activist efforts for racial justice, and having conversations and forming friendships with people of different races.” This summer he wrote at USA Today about the importance of “Not Giving into ‘Anti-Racism Attention Deficit Disorder'” and exhorted all white people to take action to reorder their lives and society:
What can white people do? Learn more about racism’s insidious machinations. Pressure your city council, your legislature, your Congress and Senate, and president, to take action for racially equitable approaches to public safety, equal access to high-quality education and health care, and the like. Vote.
For white conservative Evangelicals and white progressive Humanists, it comes down to constructive and sustained action. For those of us who have ears to hear, let us hear–and do.
Paul Louis Metzger is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University and Seminary, Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins, and author of Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of Daily Theology’s Symposium on Racism, White Supremacy, & the Church. Click here for more information or sign up for our email list below to be notified of new posts!