Racism and White Supremacy in America
Racism and white supremacy are a cancer in America. A common misconception is that just having a discussion about them is agitating for trouble and attempting to revive issues from our country’s dark past. To the contrary, these issues are not confined to our past, and acknowledging them is not agitating for trouble. Rather, it moves us toward healing. Much like a disease, one must acknowledge its presence and seek treatment in order to be made whole. Avoidance and denial will only serve to further the illness.
The United States of America was built on the foundation of racism and white supremacy. Two hundred and fifty years of slavery, followed by one hundred years of legislated segregation, followed by decades of clearly documented racist housing policies, followed by mass incarceration, have decimated our land. In addition to the disgraceful treatment of African Americans, racism and white supremacy have also severely impacted the Native American population, the Latino population, and all people of color. To make matters worse, instead of dealing with this moral calamity, we as a whole have chosen to deny that any problem exists.
The majority in our country do not like to admit that those commonly recognized as the “founding fathers” of this country were white supremacists — those who believe that white people are inherently superior to all other people. Understandably, this fact is difficult for some of us to process, but it’s true. Even this term “founding father” is problematic in that it does not recognize the critical contributions of women and people of color.
The “founding fathers” believed that white people were innately better than people of color; they believed that people of color were somehow subhuman. And this can be seen in the fact that they themselves owned human beings. Not only did Thomas Jefferson own slaves, he slept with his slaves, raped his slaves, fathered children with his slaves, and then bewilderingly, had the indifference to allow his own sons and daughters to remain as slaves for decades. Jefferson was not an outlier; this was common practice in the 19th century.
Yes, the “founding fathers” were white supremacists — that was the norm in that day and age. And yes, our country was built by the labor of enslaved black people and for the privilege of white people. Just because the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, does not mean that our structures, which were built up over the past four hundred years, have miraculously changed overnight. Four hundred years of intentionally creating a system which pushes people of color down is going to take time, effort, and courage to undo; it is going to take the same, if not more, intentionality to undo.
The underpinning of the American Dream is white supremacy and racism. As such, white supremacy and racism are the normal way our society is currently organized. And in order to not be racist, we have to be anti-racist — actively and intentionally working to dismantle the current corrupt conditions we find ourselves in. We who are white can no longer say that we are not racist because we have a black friend or because we watched Black Panther or because we did not march with the KKK in Charlottesville.
No, if we truly do not want to be racist, we need to put in the work to reverse what the last four hundred years of racism and white supremacy have created. Putting in the work means that those of us who are white need to educate ourselves about the privileges that we experience on a daily basis. These are privileges that are so common to us that we take them for granted. They do not register in our brain as privilege, they feel like normal life. Take for instance the privilege of not being followed in a store, or the privilege of seeing images of people that look like you portrayed as heroic in books, on TV, in movies, in the classroom, etc. There is also the privilege of never considering that we did not get a job or a loan because of our skin color.
Then there is the privilege of not having to worry about being killed when we are pulled over by the police for not signaling a lane change, or being killed for selling cigarettes, or being killed for buying candy at the market and walking home, or being killed at the park by the police when we were 12 years old.
Putting in the work means advocating for those who do not have the same privilege we do. Putting in the work means educating ourselves to the reality we are in: reading articles, stories, and books on the subject. Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving is a good place to start. And most importantly, putting in the work means believing the lived experience of our black brothers and sisters when they say something doesn’t feel right, when they share stories of how they have been hurt.
Racism and white supremacy are baked into our American pie. They are a cancer in America, and to play them down, even slightly, is to add to their narrative, and to fuel their existence.
Racism and White Supremacy in Adventism
Much like America, racism and white supremacy are a cancer in Adventism. What a juxtaposition! On one side of that statement are people who believe in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ who gave up His divine privilege. On the other side of that statement are people desperately trying to preserve privilege. On one side of that statement are those who believe in a God that died to save every nation, tribe, people, and tongue. On the other side of that statement are those who are only concerned with one nation, one tribe, one people, and one tongue.
Being that I was not raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I was unaware of the history of racism in our organization. North American Division President, Dan Jackson, lamented at a recent “Is This Thing On?” live stream event in Berkeley, CA, that racism is “the soft underbelly of our church!”
I learned that our church was segregated shortly after baptism. I discovered that we have “white” conferences and “black” conferences. All of a sudden it made sense why some of my new friends went to one camp meeting while others went to another.
Due to the Holy Spirit working in my heart, despite my being saddened at our racial segregation, a few years after baptism I felt called to go to the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary to learn more about this God who abandoned His divine privilege. I enjoyed so much of my experience in the Master of Divinity program, but there were some disheartening moments as well.
One day I read, Light Bearers by Richard W. Schwarz and Floyd Greenleaf for class. In that 650-page tome I nearly skipped over the name of Lucy Byard. In such a voluminous work, the authors spared only a few sentences to mention “the unfortunate Byard affair.” Ten years later I would learn more about the story in the Visitor Magazine. This time, with the context provided, I learned that the medical director of the Washington Sanitarium in Takoma Park, Maryland, lied to the General Conference president about the reason that Sister Byard was denied access to the sanitarium. The medical director’s real motives came out several months later in a letter to the General Conference treasurer:
“I cannot feel that the Sanitarium should be called upon to carry a mixed clientele. We have persons of high degree and low degree of the white race and no question exists with regard to their presence here, but were colored patients seen in our buildings there will immediately rise numerous complicating questions and certain groups of our patients such as those coming from Virginia and the Carolinas would be expected to take a degree of offense at their presence. I would just as willingly minister to the needs of a colored patient as anyone else, but mentally, emotionally, and in certain physiological respects they differ from the white, and I do not favor mixing them.”
Why didn’t I read about this history at Seminary? Why isn’t there a required class that sheds light on our racist past? Why didn’t I learn that at the General Conference black people could not eat with white people? Why didn’t I learn that at one point, the very chapel that I was worshiping in had a cord sectioning off where black students could sit? Why did I have to hear about this through whispers? Being a new student, I tried to comfort myself with the thought that these incidents were far in the past, but that in my current experience, I would find no such racism, no such white supremacy. Sadly, I did.
As part of the MDiv program, each student is required to work with a local church. One day, the leader of the church I was working with, an older white man, had students over to his house for fellowship. When a black student arrived late, the professor called the student over, pointed to his black skin and said, “If you’re late because you were taking a shower, it didn’t work.” The pastor started to laugh, several white students joined in, and the black student smiled, probably because of the embarrassment. I could see in his eyes that he was hurting. I felt numb. I was completely paralyzed. I was caught off guard. I did nothing. I was ashamed. I never dreamed that such a scenario would unfold before me at Seminary. Today, I feel better prepared to handle similar situations, but that does not change the fact that this happened and I did nothing.
This pastor would not classify himself as a racist. He would most likely say that it was a joke, and that he didn’t mean any harm. I believe that he did not have malicious intent, but that in no way clears him from the disastrous impact of his words. That in no way releases him of his responsibility to seek forgiveness from this student, to learn why his speech is racist, and to never behave like that again.
Our intent is one thing, but the impact of our actions is another. And the barometer of whether or not we are racist and have white supremacy coursing through our veins, is not based on our intent. The metric of whether or not we are a racist is the impact our words and actions have on others. Racism and white supremacy are much broader that we think, they are broader than just the KKK. Racism and white supremacy are knit into the fabric of American society so much so that we white people don’t even think about it.
There is one final story I will share about my time in Seminary. I was part of a group of student leaders that met with a high-ranking administrator at Andrews University. We met with this administrator to discuss ideas for ministry on campus. Over the course of our meeting, this administrator — a white man — turned to us and explained that during homecoming several white alumni usually share with him their disapproval at how diverse Andrews University has become. He told us that he shrugged his shoulders and said to the alumni, “The mission of the church was to go out to all people. What can I say, the mission worked.” To be clear, the way this administrator was talking, you could tell that he was not appalled at the alumni’s displeasure. Rather it was more like, “I know what you mean, but what can I do about it.”
Even after my eyes were opened and the naiveté washed away, I was still not prepared for what I experienced in the field as a pastor. For instance, there was a time at workers’ meeting where I was sitting at breakfast with several seasoned pastors, who happened to be white. We were discussing the next day’s schedule when one of the pastors sarcastically said, “Oh great, three black guys will be speaking. I should get a lot out of this.” The implication being that this middle-aged white man could learn nothing from the three black presenters — all of whom were well-accomplished and well-known speakers in our church, some even internationally recognized.
It was this same pastor who, when told that we were going to eat at a restaurant called Afghan Kabob, asked if we would receive bullet proof vests upon entering the establishment. I pushed back on both instances but was told to lighten up. If this pastor felt as comfortable as he did to say these things out loud in the presence of fellow ministers, I cringe at the thought of what he says and thinks in private. I wonder how he interacts with the black people and other people of color in his congregation, in his community?
I have heard more Adventists say un-Christlike things and act in un-Christlike ways than I care to admit, but the worst of them all is what happened in the summer of 2017. The KKK, neo-Nazis, and other racists from around our country descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, just a few miles from where I lived and pastored. These white supremacists killed a young woman and injured 28 others when a white 20-year-old man, plowed his car into a group of peaceful counter-protesters.
In the weeks that followed, I was speaking at another church sharing my firsthand experience of the evil and animosity I witnessed. I started my talk by saying, “I’m not ok because white supremacists, white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, KKK members, and other domestic terrorist groups thought they could come into my town and cause my friends to fear.” As soon as I finished that first sentence, several people in the congregation stood up and walked out of the sanctuary. Let that sink in. I said I was not ok with the KKK, and church members walked out of the sanctuary.
At the conclusion of my talk, which was about the unity we have in Christ, several of that church’s leaders approached me asking why I was calling people KKK and Nazis. Had they not seen the photos I displayed of men in hoods and bearing swastikas at the rally? These church members were more concerned for the people that I was labeling as Nazis than they were for a dead woman who was marching for love and equality.
The backlash against my message did not stop there. One of the elders of that church took it upon himself to come over to my house and tell me that no one in his church was in the KKK, but almost everyone knew someone who was, and that I couldn’t talk about the KKK anymore. I was beyond incensed! Since when was it off limits to denounce the murder of an innocent young woman? Since when do we condone terror groups in our theology? Since when did the church who “has the truth” have to repress its message of love and its condemnation of hate? How is it that this could be happening in a Seventh-day Adventist Church — the Remnant?
This could happen, this is happening, because there is a cancer in our church and in our country. There is racism amidst the Remnant. A common misconception is that just having a discussion about them is agitating for trouble and attempting to revive issues from our dark past. To the contrary, these issues are not confined to our past, and acknowledging them is not agitating for trouble. Rather it moves us toward healing. We must wake up! If we remain in our current state of denial, this disease will be the end of us!
We would do well to hear the Word of the Lord that came to Solomon upon completing the construction of the Sanctuary, “If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land,” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
We white people in America and in Adventism, desperately need to humble ourselves. We need to pray for strength to release our grip on the privilege that is quietly killing us. We need to seek the Lord’s face and have our characters reflect Christ’s character. He gave His life for all people, white, black, male, female, rich, poor, gay, straight. Christ died for everyone!
We need to turn from our wicked ways. But in order to turn from our wickedness, we first need to be aware of it. We need to stop pretending that the problems of racism and white supremacy do not exist in our church. They are ever-present, from the local church to the General Conference. Keeping our racist past to ourselves is not helping anyone.
Our church is flawed, we have issues, but every church in the world is flawed and has issues. Every non-religious institution, every organization, every corporation, every company, every society in the world who has people is flawed. Every church in America that has white people has racism and white supremacy baked in. Adventism is not unique in this matter, but we can be unique in how we respond — radically and with Christ’s love. Will we deny the problem exists or will we acknowledge our flaws, seek forgiveness, and be made whole?
I share my heart and my experiences with you not to bring shame and reproach upon our beloved institutions. I share my heart and my experience with you hoping to usher in the presence of the Holy Spirit to set us free from the shame and reproach that already exists. “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
Daniel Xisto is an ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister who serves as pastor for community engagement at the Takoma Park Seventh-day Adventist Church, in Takoma Park, Maryland. He is a community organizer who seeks to unite God’s people for action. He and his wife Andrea enjoy raising their 3-year-old son Max.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9683