The Heartbeat of Anti-Racism

As our nation mourns the brutal death of George Floyd and other recent acts of egregious racial injustice, I and many other white people I know are embarking on a long-overdue journey of introspection on the nature of systemic racism and what we ought to do about it. One especially memorable resource in my queue, shared by my pal Charlie Romero from my church, is an interview between Brene Brown and Ibram Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist. The whole thing is good, but the segment around the 20:00 mark especially caught my attention:

Brene: This book [How to Be an Anti-Racist] is incredibly vulnerable in terms of you sharing your own experiences. Why was that important to you as were writing this?

Ibram: So I remember when I was thinking about this book, and I was sort of thinking about the pulse of the book, even the heartbeat of the book, I recognized that the heartbeat, historically, of racism has been denial. Has been to deny that one’s ideas are racist, one’s policies are racist, and certainly that oneself and one’s nation is racist. And so then I was like, okay, by contrast, the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession, is admission, is acknowledgement, is the willingness to be vulnerable, is the willingness to identify the times in which we are being racist, is to be willing to diagnose ourselves and our country, and our ideas and our policies. And the reason why that’s the heartbeat is, like anything else, the first step is acknowledging the problem. You know, we can’t even begin the process of changing ourselves, of acting in an anti-racist fashion if we’re not even willing to admit the times in which we’re being racist, and so I realized that essentially to be anti-racist is to admit when we’re being racist. And so I realized that in order to really give voice to that, in order to really model that for people, I had to do that to myself and for myself.

Now, think of what it took for Ibram to write this in his book and speak to it in his interview.

You grow up experiencing firsthand more discrimination, fear, and disdain than most white Americans will ever know. You build an academic career studying the gruesome reality of race-based chattel slavery and oppression in your home country. You read countless stories of rape, flogging, torture, lynching, and mob violence perpetrated against your black ancestors and friends. You endure accusations that you have ulterior political motives—for example, to lambast one political party and bless another, even though (as Ibram states in the interview) your book lays blame on both parties for their role in racial injustice. You arguably have every right to focus your writing energy on unveiling the horrors of white supremacy and figuring out how to dismantle it. And yet you also choose to describe the racism in your own heart, knowing full well it could be interpreted by your readers as evidence that racism in our day and age is mainly an individualistic matter of self-reform, detached from social institutions and power structures.

Ibram is engaging in the practice of confession. Racism, to use a biblical notion, is sin; and the first step to killing it is confessing the wrong things one has thought, said, and done, intentionally or by omission.

(Aside: To my knowledge, the Bible does not use the word racism anywhere in its pages, but that does not mean it is not clearly and repeatedly addressed. In both testaments there are numerous examples of the destructive consequences of ethnic superiority and discrimination, along with severe injunctions against it—-and, conversely, beautiful visions and exhortations celebrating ethnic harmony. For a more in-depth look at these concepts, see this talk by Christian rap artist Shai Linne, also shared by my friend Charlie.)

Kendi’s words struck me because confession is emphasized in another resource I have been going through, The Color of Compromise television study by historian Jemar Tisby. In the first episode of the series, Tisby points out that “[T]he most egregious acts of racism can only occur within a context of compromise. History and scripture teach us there can be no reconciliation without repentance, and there can be repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.”

Confession is telling the truth, and that is why no one likes it. The truth can be ugly—so ugly that we would rather look away, indefinitely.

First there is the ugly truth about ourselves. Who feels comfortable admitting to idiotic racial stereotypes, or to racially-motivated decisions and behaviors?

There is the ugly truth of our admired spiritual ancestors and their hypocrisy. Who likes to recall that the great preacher George Whitfield considered slaves to be “subordinate creatures” and saw no choice for the economy of Georgia but to employ them?

There is the ugly truth of how for years white people oppressed and abused black people in horrific ways long after slavery was abolished. Who wants to hear, to give just one of too many examples, of the corkscrew used on Luther Holbert and an unnamed black woman in a violent lynching in the Mississippi Delta, after their fingers and ears had been sliced off? Who wants to imagine how the device bore into their flesh and pulled out bleeding chunks? Who wants to read that they were then cast onto a fire in front of a black church to be burned alive, while hundreds of white spectators looked on with drinks and hors d’oeuvres?

The truth illuminates human wickedness so vile and nauseating that it can lead to restless gloom, an intrusive inconvenience that we white Christians shudder to contemplate in our safe white neighborhoods. But learning the truth of the past, and telling the truth about ourselves in the present, is what confession involves; otherwise our attitudes won’t be shocked out of complacency with the weight of terrible realism that leads to tangible, lasting change.

Tisby shows too that confession must go far beyond personal proclamations. For centuries the American church—by which Tisby means all denominations which either migrated to or emerged in America, both in the northern and southern states—has been complicit in the sin of racism, if not actively involved in causing and sustaining it. The communal responsibility of racism is what Tisby’s work reveals in gut-wrenching detail, and for that reason alone I cannot recommend it enough for Christians today. I would also suggest this moving personal essay by theologian Kyle Howard on how racism continues to persist in the white evangelical church, often in very subtle and painful ways. For more of a theological exposition on the idea of collective sin, I have also benefited from Tim Keller’s talk, Racism and Corporate Evil: A White Guy’s Perspective, although the following quote by a Dutch theologian, recently posted on Facebook by my former pastor Moses Lee, sums up the idea well:

In our sinning we do not stand isolated from one another: almost every sin we commit happens in community. Numerous sins are inherently of that nature. The sins of adultery and of quarreling and dispute, for example, are communally based. But also those sins that are individually committed still happen in the greater context of society, and society as such has been the provocation behind them. That is the reason why, when a crime is committed, we can hardly make one person totally responsible for the act. Our judicial systems, which as a rule punish an offender in isolation, are always more or less one-sided because they do not take into account the role played by the parents, teachers, or friends of that person. All sin carries with it a degree of communality, as it finds its roots in society. We do not sin as individuals, but as members of our greater social environment.

Johan Bavinck, Between the Beginning and the End: A Radical Kingdom Vision

And, it must be said that while confession is essential, it is not enough. Confession can have a strange soporific effect on our willingness to act, tempting us to console ourselves that we have come out with the truth; thus our catharsis is complete, and our work is done.

It is not even close to being done. Confession needs to lead to repentance; and repentance, holistically understood, is not merely a turning from sin but a turning to righteousness and restoration. Certainly this means pursuing racial reconciliation in our personal lives and locally in our churches and communities; but it also means seeking restoration on a socioeconomic and political level as well. There are many ways this can be done, and there are honest debates to be had over which ways are best. We need to have these debates, and then we need to act. I hope and pray that as white evangelicals do the long, hard work of confession, we also do the long, hard work of repentance that leads to reform, heeding the call of Christ and of our black brothers and sisters who have been demanding it their entire lives.

Images from the aftermath of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, an act of white supremacist terrorism that took place on Sunday, September 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young girls were killed in the blast. Image credit: Alabama Department of Archives and History.