There is much talk of “White Privilege”, “Male Privilege”, “Heterosexual Privilege” or Racial Inequality these days. And the response I usually hear is one of outright denial before the idea is even considered. If you are one of these people I have a few questions before getting into the bulk of this blog. What if it was real? What if there really was a “privilege” granted to someone purely based on their skin color or sex? What if opportunities weren’t being fairly given based on race? And more importantly, why are you so quick to reject the idea? Furthermore, if you are a Christian, I think you have an added responsibility to investigate such claims since there is a clear warrant in Scripture for the righteous to stand up for social justice.
Full disclosure, I am a White, heterosexual male. So when I first heard of the idea that White people, specifically White males, receive a systemic privilege, I bristled. I searched my memory trying to find an example or even a counter example of White privilege in my life. I couldn’t. Everything I’ve achieved in my life I think I’ve earned at great expense to my time, effort and energy. I grew up in a lower middle class family. Both my parents worked. I’m educated, have a career, approved by a bank to buy a home, I do pro bono work in my community to give back; and all of these things I’ve worked incredibly hard at. What I’ve achieved is what I’ve earned. So where is the privilege that somehow gifted me these things?
At this point, I was ready to jettison the idea that I somehow received, unknowingly, an advantage because I was a White male, but something kept me thinking and searching. What was that thing? I am a Christian; a follower of Jesus. And as a follower of Jesus, I believe I am obligated to be aware of and to stand against social injustices. And if Black members of my community speak of the existence racial inequality, what reason do I have for dismissing them? Even more, what reason do I have for dismissing my Black brothers and sisters in Christ? I, at the very least, owe them my attention by virtue that we are one in the family of God.
So, if you’re willing, entertain the notion that it could be real before you put your blinders on. First things first, before jumping into the evidence for or against White Privilege and Racial Inequality, lets define our terms and figure out what is meant by White Privilege and Racial Inequality.
What is White Privilege and Racial Inequality?
Robert W. Terry, a social scientist, once summarized white privilege as follows: “To be white in America is not to have to think about it. Except for hard-core racial supremacists, the meaning of being white is having the choice of attending to or ignoring one’s own whiteness” (Impacts of Racism on White Americans, 1981, p. 120). In other words, White people are afforded the privilege to ignore the impact of one’s race on their daily lives. Whereas, those from other racial groups, at least in America, race is a daily reality. Put in another way “For people of color in the United States, it is not an exaggeration to say that race and ethnicity is a daily fact of their existence. Yet whites do not generally have to think about being white. As all of us go about our daily lives, this basic difference is one of the most important manifestations of racial and ethnic inequality in the United States” (https://new.edu/resources/ftn.fwk-barkan-fn10_080).
Some examples of White privilege from Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack are:
- “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”
- “When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.”
- “If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.”
- “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”
Racial Inequality is defined as a disparity in opportunity and treatment that occurs as a result of someone’s race (http://www.yourdictionary.com/racial-inequality). This can be on a personal level or extend to hidden biases within systems and organizations.
Is It Real?
Making the case for white privilege and racial inequality is a challenging because the cause itself is rather invisible. You can only see the effects of it. Its like looking at the sun. If you look directly at the sun you eventually go blind, yet because of the sun everything else is illuminated. The case for white privilege and racial inequality is an invisible one. We can only see what surrounds it.
So let’s look at some areas of difference such as: Family Income, College Education, Poverty Levels, and Infant Mortality.
Selected Indicators of Racial and Ethnic Inequality in the United States
|White||African American||Latino||Asian||Native American|
|Median family income, 2009 ($)||67,341||38,409||39,730||75,027||39,740 (2007)|
|Persons who are college educated, 2008 (%)||32.6||19.6||13.3||52.6||12.9 (2007)|
|Persons in poverty, 2009 (%)||9.4||25.8||25.3||12.5||24.2 (2008)|
|Infant mortality (number of infant deaths per 1,000 births), 2005||5.8||13.6||5.6||4.9||8.1|
For more information on the racial gap between incomes, checkout http://inequality.org/racial-inequality/. This is information from the Federal Reserve Board’s triennial Survey of Consumer Finances. The survey looks at: median income, median net worth, median value-primary residence, % of home owners, median value- financial assets over the last twenty years. I would really recommend looking over this in detail.
USA TODAY, in an article titled “No Simple Answers to Racial Inequality” reported this data (some of this is redundant to the graph displayed above, yet there is some additional information in each bullet point which I think is noteworthy):
- Education: Educational achievement is important not only unto itself but also because it directly relates to levels of health, employment, income and civic engagement. Average public high school graduation rates for whites are 83%; for blacks 66.1% and Hispanics 71.4%. Low-income, Hispanic and African-American students are more likely to need remediation than their wealthier, white peers (41% of Hispanic students and 42% of African-American students require remediation, compared to 31% of white students). The percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds who have a bachelor’s degree is 39% for whites, 20% for blacks, and 13% for Hispanics.
- Financial status: Median household income for whites is $55,412; for blacks it is $32,229 and for Hispanics $38,624. The unemployment rate for whites is 7%, for blacks it is 13.8%, and for Hispanics 9.7%. Poverty rates for whites are 9.8%, for blacks 27.6% and for Hispanics 25.3%.
- Overall equality: The NAACP puts out an annual equality index that measures the relative status of whites, blacks and Hispanics based on economic, health, education, social justice and civic engagement data. Blacks are 71.5% and Hispanics are 76% as well off as whites.
- Long-term trends: What makes these data even more troubling is that there is little progress or even worsening trends over the least several decades. National Assessment of Student Progress score gaps between blacks and whites in mathematics and reading have not changed in 20 years. Schools are becoming more segregated: Approximately 4% of black and Hispanic students attend schools that are more than 90% minority, up from less than a third in 1988. And poverty rates are at the same level as they were 30 years ago. (http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2013/02/13/racial-inequality-black-history-column/1899719/)
And lest we not forget, the vast majority of our prison population is represented by young Black men. The “Stop and Frisk” Police practice in New York for example seemed to overwhelmingly target young Black men. So, what do you make of the discrepancies outlined above? What do you think it means?
What Does it Mean?
Many explanations have been proposed ranging from genetic inferiority, cultural deficiencies to, what is now en vogue, systemic or institutional biases. I think most people reject the genetic inferiority theory outright. This was a popular view of previous generations. However, most people today would find the idea that the shortcomings of a race due to poor genes to be abhorrent view and scientifically wrong. The second view is a rather sticky one; explaining the plight of another race by pointing out deficiencies in their culture. It is true that someone from a certain race or culture has a different set of values. Those differing sets of values could either set them up for success or failure. It could also be true that a system makes it more difficult for someone to succeed based on racial factors. Therefore, I think this idea gets over used as a way to ignore or dismiss legitimate complaints or problems in the system.
My personal explanation for Racial Inequality is a combination of two ideas. The first idea is Institutional Bias. Given the history our country has with slavery and racial discrimination, its not beyond my imagination that unconscious bias exists within various institutions. Like I said in the “Is it Real?” section, I don’t think there is any direct evidence for this assumption, or ancillary evidence. For example, I like to take my dog on walks. The other day I was walking down a hill near a school. There was a patch of dried grass in the shape of a heart. The heart was evident because the dried grass was in contrast to the green grass. Looking at the grass I made the inference that someone intentionally left an object in the shape of a heart on the grass. Over time, this object blocked the grass from receiving rain and sunlight, eventually killing the grass. I couldn’t prove it directly, but I could make a convincing case for it by the result of its previous presence.
I think if you walked up to anyone and asked if they had unconscious racial biases, especially those in power with the public on eye on them, they would outright deny it. Do this a hundred times over and you’ll get the same result, flat out denial, yet the disparities between opportunity continue. Why? Because unconscious biases are exactly that, unconscious. I can’t speak with any expertise on how unconscious bias plays out in the field of education, economics or employment, but I can speak to what I know, which is the field of counseling.
Several years ago, I and two other students wanted to do research paper in Graduate school. The research goal was to demonstrate unconscious bias among counselors when making mental health diagnosis. At first I was skeptical. But, when I did a review of the literature (which means I read nearly a hundred academic peer reviewed journal articles on the subject) I changed my mind. The paper I wrote demonstrated that an unconscious bias does exist among counselors, among psychological evaluation makers, and among mental health agencies including state and private psychiatric hospitals. And the bias ran further than just incorrect or more severe diagnosis given to African American clients. There was also evidence for less outreach from community, state and private organizations to African Americans. Also, less follow up, less engagement and higher dropout of African Americans in therapy. If you want evidence for this, send me an email and I can send you my paper. In my paper, I have over 55 citations from other journal articles, so the mass of data I have is too much to share here.
My second explanation for racial inequality is due to what has been termed a Culture of Poverty. Apart from physical barriers in place, which prevent someone from an oppressed racial group having an equal playing field when it comes to employment or education, there are also psychological barriers. Self-imposed psychological limits based on a history of injustice. Again, I appeal to our nation’s history, specifically the infamous Jim Crow Laws:
- Marriage – “All marriages between a white person and a negro, or between a white person and a person of negro descent to the fourth generation inclusive, are hereby forever prohibited.” (Florida law)
- Marriage – “All marriages of white persons with Negroes, Mulattos, Mongolians, or Malaya hereafter contracted in the State of Wyoming are and shall be illegal and void.” (Wyoming law)
- Hospitalization – “The Board of Control shall see that proper and distinct apartments are arranged for said patients [in a mental hospital], so that in no cases shall Negroes and white persons be together.” (Georgia law)
- Nursing – “No person or corporation shall require any white female nurse to nurse in wards or rooms or hospitals, either public or private, where negro men are placed.” (Alabama law)
- Barbering – “No colored person shall serve as a barber [to] white women or girls.” (Georgia law)
- Toilets – “Every employer of white or negro males shall provide for such white or negro males reasonably accessible and separate toilet facilities.” (Alabama law)
- Buses – “All passenger stations in this state operated by any motor transportation company shall have separate waiting rooms or space and separate ticket windows for the white and colored races.” (Alabama law)
- Restaurants – “It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment.” (Alabama law)
- Beer and Wine – “All persons licensed to conduct the business of selling beer or wine…shall serve either white people exclusively or colored people exclusively and shall not sell to two races within the same room at any time.” (Georgia law)
- Amateur Baseball – “It shall be unlawful for any amateur white baseball team to play baseball on any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of a playground devoted to the Negro race, and it shall be unlawful for any amateur colored baseball team to play baseball in any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of any playground devoted to the white race.” (Georgia law)
- Burial – “The officer in charge shall not bury, or allow to be buried, any colored persons upon ground set apart or used for the burial of white persons.” (Georgia law)
- Libraries – “The state librarian is directed to fit up and maintain a separate place for the use of the colored people who may come to the library for the purpose of reading books or periodicals.” (North Carolina law)
- Teaching – “Any instructor who shall teach in any school, college or institution where members of the white and colored races are received and enrolled as pupils for instruction shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof, shall be fined…” (Oklahoma law)
- Schools – “Separate rooms [shall] be provided for the teaching of pupils of African descent, and [when] said rooms are provided, such pupils may not be admitted to the school rooms occupied and used by pupils of Caucasian or other descent.” (New Mexico law)
- Schools – “[The County Board of Education] shall provide schools of two kinds; those for white children and those for colored children.” (Texas law)
- Prison – “The warden shall see that the white convicts shall have separate apartments for both eating and sleeping from the negro convicts.” (Mississippi law) (http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-jim-crow-laws.html)
I don’t mention these laws for the purposes of giving members of the Black community a free pass for bad behavior because Whites owe them. But let me ask you a question, what if you were the target of such laws? What if roles were reversed? Would you, overtime resent the lawmakers, the citizens who voted for such laws, or anyone really who didn’t share your sense of outrage? Wouldn’t you, overtime, begin to distrust the “system”? And go so far as to pass along that distrust to future generations?
And what if you are one of the few who despite such obstacles “make it” in the system. And after overcoming so many obstacles are passed up for a position for no reason at all? Or discovered you were being paid differently? Or your success was because of Affirmative Action and not your own merit?
I ask all these rhetorical questions to prove a point. Over time, inequality takes its toll on a persona and on a community. It would on anyone. Approaching this issue with empathy, I think someone can begin to understand. It demotivates its victims. And that demotivation is then passed on to subsequent generations. And reinforced when institutional bias is more evident than hidden. It’s a negative cycle that reinforces itself.
How Should White Christians Respond?
I think Christians, especially White Christians, ought to take the issues of White Privilege and Racial Inequality seriously for four reasons:
1. WE ARE ALL MADE IN THE IMAGE OF GOD. Not “some” of us are made in the image of God, but ALL. This means that each and every man, woman and child, of any racial group, regardless of age, era or geographic location has dignity (Genesis 1:27). What our constitution terms as “inalienable rights” because we are made in the image of our Creator. That means, if you have prejudicial attitudes against a person of another race because they are of another race, you are sinning against God. You are spitting at His Image. And you do violence to yourself, for, by lowering the value of another human because of their race you also lower the value of yourself.
2. CHRIST DIED SO THAT ALL OF HUMANITY MAY BE REDEEMED. Not, Christ died so that “some” may be redeemed. Christ died, so that all who repent from their sins and ask forgiveness may receive the grace of God on the basis of the cross of Christ (I Peter 3:18, Romans 6:10, Hebrews 9:28). This offer is extended to anyone regardless of race, background, era, geographic location, or sex. By denying the value of a person of another race you mock the sacrifice of Christ given on the Cross. Just think, the person you are devaluing because of their race, Christ became a man, bore their sins and died on the cross for that person. Christ values them, why don’t you?
3. DIVISIONS THAT SEPARATE US BREAK DOWN IN LIGHT OF THE GOSPEL. Not, divisions are “strengthened” in light of the Gospel. The Apostle Paul said to the Church in Galatia “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” (Galatians 3:28). The Gospel shows us our common problem, that we are all sinners before God. And gives us all the same solution, salvation through faith in Christ. From then on, as Paul said, “you are all one in Christ Jesus.” What reason then, do you have for replacing the barriers Christ tore down? And if you do place barriers between yourself and others based on race, upon whose authority do you do so? Surely not Christ’s. Then on your own? So you would place yourself above God?
4. THE VISION OF HEAVEN GIVEN TO US IN REVELATION IS OF A DIVERSE, REDEEMED HUMANITY. Not, a White humanity, not a Black humanity, or Asian, or Russian. In the book of Revelation, people of “every tribe, tongue and nation” (Revelation 5:9, 7:9) are before the throne and Lamb of God. That is a diverse picture of what the Lamb called His “Kingdom” and “Priests of God” who would reign upon the New Earth (5:10). That is a glorified and diverse picture of humanity. To deny equality between a person of another race and yourself is to deny the eschatological reality of redeemed humanity in heaven. What is true of our future ought to be true of our present, or in the process of becoming.
The last sentences of that last point ought to cause you some discomfort. As Christians we are to live in light of our Eschatological future. Meaning, the future ought to inform our present. So, if our future is one of equality between every tongue, tribe and nation through the Gospel, why aren’t we living that way now? Or working towards it? We know that people from every tribe, tongue and nation will be worshiping God. Jesus called that diverse group of people His “Kingdom” and His “Royal Priesthood”. So why are not worshiping like this now? Why do we have mono racial churches? Why would we put up barriers and divisions between people when Christ died to tear them down? Why would we deny the Image of God in another person by ignoring their claims of racial inequality?
If there is such a thing as White Privilege, I want to know about it. And I want to eradicate it in obedience to Jesus. And not just on a personal level, but I want to identify racial bias that has infiltrated various institutions so that it may be corrected.
I want my life, actions and relationships to reflect the view that God has of humanity: equal in value (Image of God), equal in opportunity of receiving God’s grace (Cross of Christ), equally guilty and in need of a Savior (The Gospel), and equally responsible to make the future Kingdom of God actualized now (Living in Light of our Eschatology).
I want to do this regardless of how uncomfortable it is. That means airing some of my hidden thoughts which may be erroneous. And that goes for those on either side of the debate. Each side ought to take responsibility for their own contribution to the problem, because racism is a human problem. We are all guilty, and we all need to change. The Apostle Paul said in a letter to the Church in Rome “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This is not just a White problem or a Black problem. And I think the only way we can come to the table and seek equality, genuine equality, is through the humility of the Gospel, the Grace of God, and obedience to the Biblical mandate for social justice. I think that ought to be White Christians response to this issue.