Stop Playing Word Games About Racism

Photo by Surendran MP on Unsplash

Almost everything going on in the evangelical debate about racism on the Internet is a word game that avoids talking about the central disagreement. The disagreement is not about whether or not Black people can be racist or about the racial representation in, say, the NBA. The disagreement is not even about critical race theory. The disagreement is about the question of what, in a basic sense, the problem of racism is and how to address it. Here are the essentials of the position that I hold:

Racism is the product of justifying a history of enslavement, subjugation, and colonialism of people groups by labeling them as “races” that were inferior to the “white race.” This justification of exploitation became itself a structure that created further social and material deprivation for multiple racialized people groups. This is bad because human beings are meant to image God and thus should have roughly equal access to the means to live a flourishing life as God’s images. We should therefore examine and repair the social structures that prevent people from having the means to live a flourishing life, which takes intentional action informed by history and social science.

I don’t think you need to be a critical race theorist to believe any of these things. You can get there by reading good empirical historical and social scientific literature combined with good, orthodox theology. Bradly Mason, summarizing an excellent overview of the mainstream of abolitionist and civil rights thought on racism, put it this way:

Structurally subordinated racial circumstances have always been the central evil of racism, not so much personal “bias,” “prejudice,” or hateful thoughts and feelings — though certainly wicked and soul crushing. Unfortunately, this has proven controversial to far too many Christians.

The controversy comes when people want to fence racism into the boundaries of individual minds and individual behavior, or when people assume that conservative politics necessarily flow from the Christian faith (since, generally, conservative politics is opposed to the kinds of policies it would take to undo racism). I don’t think either of those premises hold up, and, I would wager, neither do a lot of people who oppose the position I outlined above. So we end up playing word games — simultaneously silly and dangerous.

I’m not particularly interested in defending critical race theory in se. It’s not my bag, though it is the domain of other people I respect greatly. I think there are plenty of critiques to be had of popular applications of things like standpoint epistemology (if you read anything about this, please read Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s incredible critique of what he terms “deference epistemology”), and I’m not really a fan of Kendi or DiAngelo’s approaches. I am, however, interested in addressing the massive amount of socially caused suffering that Christians all too often just want to push to the side or pretend does not exist. If you have massive troves of new historical or sociological evidence for why that suffering is fake, I would love to be wrong, but it would truly need to be a miraculous amount of evidence. Until then, though, I’m through with word games about racism.

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Dawson Richard Vosburg

Dawson Richard Vosburg

PhD student in sociology at Ohio State University studying religion, capitalism, and race in the US. Cofounder, Evangelical Labor Institute.