White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity
I am made in such a way that when events happen in our world that trouble me, I read to better understand them. I have read a lot on race and racial justice in the past few years, and my reading has been accelerated after the killing of George Floyd last summer. Of course there is much, much more to do about racial justice in our country than reading, but reading is a place to start.
Perhaps no book has been both more troubling and simultaneously helpful than Robert P. Jones’s White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, which gives him a unique entry point into our ongoing conversations about race. Jones doesn’t just share his opinions, he back them up with data.
The data is not kind to white Christians. I’ve been deeply unsettled since looking at one graph in the middle of the book. Jones has created a “racism index” which tallies people’s answers (in the midst of a larger survey) on a number of race-related questions. The questions range from opinions on the removal of Confederate monuments to the treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement to statements like “if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites” and “I am fearful of people of other races.” As I imagined, white evangelical Protestants (who numerically dominate the Southern states) scored the worse on the racism index. I expected that–it’s been very easy to scapegoat white evangelicals after they gave their affection to Donald Trump in 2016. But what’s truly scary is that there isn’t much difference between white evangelical Protestants and white mainline Protestants or white Catholics. The differences, as Jones puts it, “are largely differences of degree rather than kind.” Only white people without religious affiliation scored low on the racism index.
Jones makes three conclusions:
- There is a robust relationship between holding racist views and identifying as a white Christian.
- There is no evidence that higher church exposure has any mitigating effect on racist attitudes; if anything, the opposite is true.
- White supremacy is deeply integrated into the DNA of white Christianity.
Gulp. To quote the famous line from Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Jones’s premise, stated early in the book, is that “White Christian churches have not just been complacent; they have not only been complicit; rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story.”
Blending a unique combination of history, memoir (Jones weaves in his own story of growing up Southern Baptist in Jackson, Mississippi), and public opinion survey data, the book exposes what white Christians actually believe and what constitutes their identity.
It is significant that Jones is white. White supremacy is a white problem that only white people can fix. Too often, white people look to people of color to suggest solutions, to be racial experts, or to offer absolution. While it is extremely important that white people listen well to the stories and witness of people of color, it is not incumbent on people of color to fix white supremacy. That’s the work of the people who have the problem.
And lest Reformed people excuse ourselves because we aren’t Southern Baptist, I remind you that the Netherlands was a major player in the slave trade and transported approximately half a million Africans across the Atlantic between 1596 and 1829. If you are Dutch, you may well have a slave trader or two in your genealogy. And I remind you that the great abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York in 1797 and learned Dutch as her first language. Her enslaver was not just a Dutch immigrant but also a member of the Reformed Church in America. Yes, it is true that she was later purchased and set free by another RCA member. Which story should we tell? White comfort insists we focus on the second, but we know if we are going to tell the whole truth, we can’t do just that.
Jones finishes the book with a chapter entitled “Reckoning,” and illuminates both meanings of “reckon.” On the one hand, it means giving a full account of something. But it also has an economic meaning, as in settling accounts. The way forward for white Christians includes both meanings; involving both confession and repair. “Racial reconciliation,” which has become a buzzword in many white Christian circles, is inadequate. Reconciliation suggests a transaction where whites confess and people of color offer forgiveness. Whites are then off the hook and nothing substantive changes. Racial justice requires more than that. This is hard work, work that will not be finished anytime soon. But it is work that must be done for the sake not only of people of color, but much more so for the sake of white Christians, whose faith has been warped by the evil of racial prejudice. Since before the founding of the United States, every time racial progress seems to be made, a counter movement happens shortly afterwards that undoes that progress. Many feel like this present moment might be the one where that cycle of two steps forward followed by two steps back is undone. One way to start is by reading Jones’s insightful and powerful book.