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A Critical Look at the White Evangelical View of Systemic Racism

black man and white woman face to face
black man and white woman

On at least three occasions, I've had evangelical friends say something like, "Systemic racism doesn't exist." In all three instances, this claim was made by a good and decent person who would say they despised and opposed racism. This claim, despite all kinds of evidence to the contrary, has been enough of a head-scratcher to send me on a journey of trying to understand why this seems to be the party line among white evangelicals, or at least a good many of them.

It's not as simple as just saying they are all a bunch of racists. It's true that white evangelicals as a group often hold more racist attitudes. That finding has turned up multiple times in research studies, often those conducted by social scientists who are themselves white evangelicals. There is more nuance to the issue of their rejection of systemic racism, though. To gain a better understanding of this position, I'll delve into the intersections of faith, culture, and political beliefs that shape this perspective.

Understanding Systemic Racism

Systemic racism refers to the way societies, including our own in the United States, are structured to benefit certain racial groups at the expense of others. It's less about individual actions and more about policies, institutions, and practices that perpetuate racial disparities in areas such as wealth, education, housing, and criminal justice.

However, the concept of systemic racism may seem abstract compared to immediate, visible forms of prejudice. Because systemic racism operates on a societal level, it's possible for racial disparities to persist even if individual attitudes change. Yet, this perspective may seem at odds with an evangelical emphasis on personal moral behavior and attitudes.

Evangelical Beliefs and Individual Responsibility

The foundational beliefs of evangelical Christianity emphasize individual moral responsibility and personal salvation. For them, sin is located in individual human hearts. That is how sin and wrong-doing is understood. Saying racism--which most would acknowledge as a sin--is located in institutions or social structures is a foreign idea. These beliefs extend into their social and political worldview, leading to an emphasis on individual actions and choices over systemic factors. Thus, they view racism as necessarily a matter of personal prejudice rather than a systemic issue.

The Role of Political Polarization

Political beliefs and affiliations play a significant role in shaping views on systemic racism. White evangelicals in the United States are far more likely to lean conservative, align with Republican politics, and get their information and analysis from conservative social media, traditional media, and politicians who often downplay or deny the existence of systemic racism, framing it as merely a divisive or unfounded concept. This political lens further reinforces skepticism of systemic racism among white evangelicals. They are told over and over again by their influencers that this concept is just a power play, designed to demonize them and diminish their role and influence in society

Theological Interpretations

In many evangelical circles, there's a theological interpretation that views all humans as the same in God's eyes, often expressed as "we are all one in Christ." While this sentiment carries a powerful message of spiritual unity, it can sometimes lead to a colorblind approach to race, which overlooks systemic racial disparities and dismisses them as non-spiritual or irrelevant to faith.

The Need for Continued Dialogue

While these factors might explain why many white evangelicals deny systemic racism, there remains some diversity of thought within this group. Not all white evangelicals hold this view, and many are actively working to acknowledge and combat racial disparities.

There are growing voices within the evangelical community promoting racial reconciliation and justice, urging a broader recognition of systemic racism's reality. These voices remind us that dialogue on this issue within the evangelical community is not monolithic and is, in fact, evolving.

Understanding the reasons behind white evangelicals' skepticism towards systemic racism allows for more constructive conversations around this issue. Through continued dialogue and education, there's potential for more nuanced understanding and action towards racial justice within and beyond the evangelical community.

In my book, "How White Evangelicals Think," I devote two full chapters to the issues of both personal racism and systemic racism. I also include a detailed Appendix giving solid evidence for the ongoing presence of systemic racism in our culture.

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