White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity — Book Review

The summer of 2020 began with extensive and intensive protests following the horrific May 25th death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. Demonstrations have continued far longer than one might have expected, including the controversial, summer-long protest in Portland. Recognition of deep systemic inequality has awakened the American conscience. Perhaps with even more potential for lasting effect than in the 1960s Civil Rights era.

This racial tension has, as backdrop, a deep polarization in the U.S. electorate. And within right-wing America — the group most antagonistic to the protesting — one finds a large percentage of white, conservative, evangelical Christians. To an outside observer this would, at least superficially, seem hard to reconcile. The idea of Black citizens seeking equality under the law is surely consistent with the New Testament gospel. So why are many professing white Christians, and high-profile leaders like Franklin Graham and Paula White, supporting politicians and political positions that align with racism?

A partial answer comes via a new book by Robert P. Jones, entitled: White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Jones is CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and a contributor to various publications and media (e.g. The Atlantic, New York Times, and NPR). He also grew up in the South as a white evangelical Christian, schooled in the tradition he now writes about.

The book title is extracted from a phrase found in a 1968 New York Times article by Black author James Baldwin:

“I will flatly say that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long.”

What Baldwin alludes to here is the unconsciousness of white privilege. With the accompanying expectation that the world — as white Americans perceive it — is as it should be. Absent from that naïve and self-satisfied perspective is both recognition of, and empathy for, those who are not so advantaged. What Jones pursues in this book is a case — one both damning and irrefutable — that this white privilege is intimately intertwined with the Christian Church. A twisted “faith” that is deeply complicit in the maintenance of white advantage in America and the corresponding oppression of those falling outside that sphere.

The book’s 236 pages (not counting appendices, notes, index, etc.) are broken into seven chapters, somewhat cryptically titled: Seeing, Remembering, Believing, Marking, Mapping, Telling, and Reckoning. While each has an important fit, for me there are three that stand out most in persuasively making the argument. Remembering traces the history of involvement between white supremacy and the church, Believing reviews how the Bible has been distorted to produce a theology of racism, and Mapping turns to statistically-sound surveying and results analysis to show how racism remains deeply embedded into significant parts of today’s white Christian subculture. The final chapter, Reckoning, is the summation and a “what do we do now?” concluding challenge.

Remembering: The role that white Christianity has played in perpetuating American racism is almost wholly absent from the history books our children are educated from. These sanitized and bowdlerized accounts perpetuate a myth we Americans want to believe about ourselves: that we are inclusive, hold high principles, have the best government, etc. In short, we’re a terrific country — the envy of the world. But past oppression of non-white citizens undercuts that narrative and is consequently unwelcome reading. And worse is the untold story of how parts of American Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, enthusiastically participated in this maltreatment.

To show the depths of its ugliness, I’ll here provide an extensive quote from this chapter (redacted from pp. 29-32), of a ghastly incident in 1899 Georgia: the murder of Samuel Wilkes. He was accused of killing a white planter, which was true, but the reasons provided by the white version differed starkly from Wilkes’ story. Unsurprisingly, in the white narrative Wilkes did shocking things: axe murder of the planter, smashing an infant on the floor, raping his wife in a puddle of her husband’s blood. Fodder for a vengeful mob.

“The word that Wilkes had been captured and was to be lynched in the nearby town of Newnan reached Atlanta on a Sunday morning. The scene was surreal. When the city’s white churches emptied from morning services, many worshipers streamed straight from church to the train station, hoping to participate in the much-anticipated lynching. To meet demand, the Atlanta and West Point Railroad put together a special run with six coaches… Meanwhile, church was letting out in Newnan. [Wilkes was then taken out of town to the place where he would be killed.] At the site he was stripped naked, and a chain was wrapped around his body from neck to foot… and attached to a tree. Tree limbs and railroad ties were laid at his feet… Before the fire was lit, Wilkes was tortured for a half hour. His ears were cut off, his fingers removed one by one, and his genitals severed — with each held up for the approval of the cheering crowd. With Wilkes in agony but alive, he was doused with kerosene, and the pyre was lit.… While the intensity of the violence and suffering caused some in the crowd to look away, it also inspired expressions of religious ecstasy reminiscent of revival meetings. “Glory!” an old man in the crowd was recorded as saying. “Glory be to God!” …This event became pivotal in W.E.B. DuBois’s understanding of how embedded white supremacy was in the psyches of many white Christians, who saw no conflict with attending a lynching on the way home from church.”

That was a long time ago. So it’s sorely tempting for white Christians today to say, in effect: “Not us, and not now.” Obviously such extreme incidents aren’t happening presently. But the disproportionate violence by police toward Black people, the continuing economic disparity, and racism found in the views of so many contemporary white Americans, just scratch the surface of our problem. It should be evident that we are far from the fine nation we imagine ourselves to be in. But we’re invested in the myth.

Believing: This chapter deals with attempts by part of white Christendom to undergird racism with theology. In the Antebellum South, for example, Reverend Basil Manly Sr. used biblical argumentation to assert the legitimacy of a patriarchal family. This was supposedly the divine order and it included slaves as the “beneficiaries” of a benevolent owner, as these people were inferior and needed someone to properly care for them. After the Civil War, theological justification shifted toward the so-called Religion of the Lost Cause. This view was developed to provide a theological answer for why the South lost, then give moral justification to their former status as slaveholders and thus support white supremacy. Later, as the Jim Crow era slid away, the rationale shifted again to downgrade the validity of social justice and center Christian priorities on individual salvation and a personal relationship with Jesus. For example, Jerry Falwell Sr., in 1965, stated:

“I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ and begin doing anything else — including the fighting of Communism, or participating in civil rights reform… Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners.”

Later of course, Falwell founded the Moral Majority, which opposed abortion and homosexuality, but conveniently ignored the issue of racial justice. The adjective “Moral” was thus used to give adherents a sense that they held the “high moral ground” in a godless society. But equality for Blacks (and non-whites in general) was not on the agenda.

Mapping:  Looking at history and theology (plus additional chapter themes I’m omitting) can seem distant from the present. Surely white Christians, as a category, are far less racist today. Well, yes and no. To examine present culture this chapter turns to data analysis of contemporary Christianity. The data, mostly provided by Jones’ polling and data analytics organization PRRI, is used to develop a Racism Index (167-168). Jones separates white Christianity into four categories: 1) white evangelical Protestant, 2) white Catholic, 3) white mainline Protestant and 4) white religiously unaffiliated. The Racism Index median is also in this 1-4 order, evangelicals being most racist. The statistical technique called Multivariate Regression Analysis is used to determine this, as well as to make sure the results are independent of other potential influences, like political party, gender, age, etc.  This chapter is the heart of the book, as it homes in — using survey data and analysis — to indict white Christian culture for having far more racism than it understands of itself, or likely would ever admit. The details of his full technique and results exceed what a review like this can or should cover. But here are just some of the conclusions:

• “White Christians think of themselves as people who hold warm feelings toward African Americans while simultaneously embracing a host of racist and racially resentful attitudes inconsistent with those warm feelings” (183).

• “Attending church more frequently does not make white Christians less racist” (184).

• Cultural beliefs are remarkably persistent over time. Social pressure is cumulative (relatives, communal norms, institutions) and thus entrenches attitudes (185).

• A key conduit for ongoing cultural transmission of racist attitudes is the white Christian church (186).

Reckoning: There are multiple ways in which white Christians react to material like this. One is to note, accurately of course, that they personally did not participate in the racism of their sub-culture’s past. True, but beside the point of how we ought to reckon with all this. Another response is to assert that old attitudes are lodged in old people, and such ideas presumably will die with them. Yes, old people will die sooner and take their prejudices with them to the grave. But the book demonstrates how much is passed on to younger generations. Still another reaction is stating the belief that the “arc of justice” is inexorably bending toward equality. Thus, actions like the Civil Rights Movement and recent election of a Black president presumably demonstrate this. Yes, we may be less racist than earlier in our history, but believing justice moves inexorably toward the better can provide convenient cover for passivity. Jones writes (235):

“Perhaps the most important first step toward health is to recover from our white-supremacy-induced amnesia.… white Christian Americans… believe too easily that racial reconciliation is the goal and that it may be achieved through a straightforward transaction: white confession in exchange for black forgiveness. But mostly this transactional concept is a strategy for making peace with the status quo — which is a very good deal indeed if you are white. I am not trying to be cynical here, but merely honest about how little even well-meaning whites have believed they have at stake in racial reconciliation efforts. Whites, and especially white Christians, have seen this project as an altruistic one rather than a desperate life-and-death struggle for their own future.”

And why is that? Because white Christians actually have greater moral hazard. The expression of Christianity that has been adopted by too many is deeply distorted. Twisted into an ethical knot that Christ and biblical authors would find unrecognizable. And beliefs translate into life choices. The people who subvert themselves in this way have become blind to their need, “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5 NIV).

 

White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity is available on Amazon in hardcoverKindle, and audiobook.

 

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon

Book cover image courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10760
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I think the NFL and NBA have read this book some time ago

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The truth is that the “white supremacy” term is not really true. Some people are simply not respectful. This is true of any person regardless of skin color or ethnicity. The term is used as a political weapon only. All people have equal opportunities in our USA and some do not take advantage of them and find themselves in poor situations. When that happens many will play the “covet” game.
In my honest opinion, we all need to stop the racial focus. We are all God’s creation with varieties. We are all humans, and that is enough. The more we focus on race, the more racist we become.

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You don’t think there’s a difference in opportunities awaiting a child of a poor person, and a child of a wealthy one?

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right now being anti white is in vogue in the media and Spectrum-maybe calling out prejudice and treating people poorly could be done without bringing one’s skin color into the equation. My Mexican housekeeper who moonlights as a waitress claims people of color “always” tip very poorly or not at all-just wonder if this is a racist opinion or she just happens to be serving penurious people who can’t afford to tip

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And, if there is a difference,…then it is what it is. Go to school, dig in and work, always budget your money. I would guess every individual in every corner of the earth has different opportunities every day, every week, every month, and every year. Anyone who begins pointing a finger at someone who has greener grass on their side of the fence needs to water and fertilize their own grass. Coveting gets you nowhere and develops the cancerous growth of envy.

As a person of color, I can say that the longer we climb, the more it becomes apparent that we are on a slanted treadmill. Police brutality robs us of our young people, etc. but you know that.

There is talk of reparations but that does not answer the issue of recent African immigrants or white people whose ancestors fought to end slavery. But one thing that we faced across the board was disenfranchisement at the ballot box.

I would propose that in the spirit of Dred Scott, African Americans, as verified by 20% or greater genetic ancestry from African American genes have their voting power weighted at 1.33 the weight of members of white or other privileged racial entities for a period of 20 years to properly rebalance the electorate and seek advantages for our communities.

Racism knows no color, the root cause factors are fear of a generalized groups of persons whose differences are superficial whether it be skin color, language, or social behaviour. This plays out causing a judgement of an individual person based on fear that is irrational and unjustified.

In countries around the world including the US this can be seen in social media on a daily basis. In the US you can see many videos of encounters between people who react negatively based on this fear where all kinds of excuses are used to justify the threat they perceive that, when viewed, are plainly irrational and racist. Whether it be police or regular citizens you see at work a risk assessment that determines the threat based on the root cause factors mentioned above. These factors override actual behavior or attitude of the individual being targeted in what appears to be the most irrational reactions i.e. a “Karen” calling the police for some perceived wrongdoing that contradicts the actual encounter.

Your point about Anti-white is interesting and begs some questions to determine if this is the case.
a) Are there now established or pending legislation that to change status or rights under law of white citizens in the US that would cause them to have diminished constitutional rights?
If Yes could someone please cite examples of these.
If No then one can conclude any concern about this is invalid.

b) Are the removal of statuary, monuments or other public displays recognizing persons being removed because they are white?
If Yes could someone please cite examples of these.
If No are the causes due to any other factors than Racism or that their contribution is outweighed by anti-social beliefs/behaviour, etc.

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You make an excellent point here: we should do what we can to “better” our situation.
I ask from where are you making this statement?
What if they have no grass?

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You make interesting suggestions and I’m trying to make sense of the big picture. For the most part I agree with what you’re saying. But what I wonder is, what about Native Americans? Do you think they have a dog in this reparations fight?

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I wouldn’t be opposed to that, except that I’m not sure how that would be any helpful to the problems that exist in these communities that need contextual solutions, which may not be political in nature?

The problem with political solutions today is that these tend to be dealing with model abstractions that assume causal relationship between complex entities.

It’s sort of like the car companies that keep throwing money at the established pipeline of advertising, thinking that’s what responsible for sales aggregate sales. There’s a gap in data between input and output. It’s the same with statistical models for certain racial disparity. There’s a gap in modeling disparity of total number of police shootings, and deriving rate without any context. All it can give us are trends. It doesn’t tell us why people are shot. It doesn’t tell us why certain rates are decreasing. It’s the assumptions we have to make in order to attribute causal relationships where there may be different ones, or which may be much more complex than singular cause.

Hence, it’s difficult to have solutions to generic problems … like terrorism. There has to be identifiable and very specific causes, that feed into specific problems.

In the past, it was slavery and segregation laws. It was discrimination practices following segregation. It was a wider range of access issues that were specific, like libraries in poor black communities, etc.

The bottom line is that identifiable causes have to be specific, and solutions have to be specific, and which spell out expected and measurable outcomes. I think it would be very important prerequisite for political system in general.

As I am not a Native American I am not sure what would benefit their community the most. I’m sure everyone from Native Americans to Irish to Italian immigrants have faced some hardship in the United States. But the racist approach is to say that all races are “equal” and therefore there should effectively be no action to provide for those who need the aid and assistance.

The vote suggestion based on genetic make-up is just one of many. Perhaps electing officials that “look like America” might be helpful. Right now, most cities are strategically “Democrat” but certainly have not taken on the banner of the democratic socialism that most of us would appreciate.

We need to first and foremost assert the right of women to control their bodies because with that they can control the spread of poverty. Women need to understand that abortion, in cases where it is necessary, not only benefits them but others who can benefit from the commensurate increase in resources that are available to them. Those who oppose abortion, or try to make it seem like an unfortunate decision, are subjugating racial minorities to poverty. It costs money to raise fetuses to adulthood that could go to children who are unquestionably wanted and given the care needed to succeed. We need to make an end to the patriarchal system that benefits the so-called “nuclear” family that many do not have access to. We need to elevate the LGBTQI community as an equally viable model. There is much to be done that will have a tangible positive effect on the community.

It is a big problem, but we need to start somewhere.

I thought this would a good place to share this 8 min clip of Wintley Phipps singing Amazing Grace. But first he tells the audience that “all the negro spirituals are played on the black notes of the piano.” I didn’t know that!! Then he does something even better - he brings up the hymn Amazing Grace, written by (as you all know) someone who ran a slave ship. Guess which notes are used… I’ll let those who are interested watch it for themselves. He says a lot more that what I wrote above.

There’s a reason this video has had over 9.5 million views over the years.

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It is called the pentatonic scale. Apparently several folk melodies use it. Not just negro spirituals.

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The Brookings institute has shown that if you do these in this order, it does not matter if you are poor and black, or any otters color, you will move out of poverty. Almost guaranteed.

  1. Finish high school, college.
  2. Get a job
  3. Get married
  4. Have children.

This is the key to success. You mention that we should favor abortion, because if costs money to raise a fetus to adulthood. Why not promote protection instead? Or teach girls and boys the damage that occurs if you have children out of wedlock? Or take responsibility for your actions?

You are sidestepping the real solution. Take control of your life, be responsible, and don’t be stupid. I don’t hear you or anyone else championing the above steps. 75% of girls who have children out of wedlock spend their lives in poverty. You also do not the into account that this mothers do not want to kill their babies. Sort of natural human instinct. But you want us to convince them that killing is the answer. That is a hardening of the heart.

The four steps are a place to begin. A real place that has proved itself. No some and mirrors.

Sorry, it does nothing of the sort.

I have wondered why blacks really have very few examples of “martyrs”. that had no defects or problems that sort of invalidated the cause. Hines said he had 53 over the years. One such martyr was Micheal Brown. Turns out Brown was attacking the officer. An investigation by even Obama’s DOJ exonerated the officer. The witnesses for the defense, contradicted themselves, and those that supported the officer came forward, but feared reprisals. But the officer was not racist. Trevon Martin also proved to be a thug.

Blake had a warrant for sexual abuse, and was resisting arrest. Breonna Taylo’s death was not a racist act either. She had been holding money for a drug organization. Her boyfriend started shooting at the officers, who had knocked etc. They returned fire that was warranted. This was not a racist killing,

So why the uproar over these fairly straightforward cases? What only seems to matter is that a white cop kills a black. That is the only criteria. And to disregard the circumstances surrounding the situation is to promote a lie and to encourage racism.

Blacks are safe. Cops aren’t out killing blacks randomly or willy nilly. This idea that cops are killing blacks at random is disproved by the stats. But the media and BLM etc. refuses to admit this. Just does not support the narrative.

We are headed for a race war if such behavior does not stop. It seems that that is what some want.

You make interesting claims that Blacks are safe from abuse or racist caused encounters.

Was there a time that this was not true?
If so when was this and what caused the decline to occur?

When did we get to the point where Blacks are safe i.e. 0% abuse and racism in the US police force?
If it is not 0% what is it?

What was the seminole event which people missed that caused the decrease to no longer be recognized or celebrated?

Assuming the change occurred during or after the civil rights movement of the 60’s what were the drivers which caused the decline?

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This is almost as good as Giglio’s Laminin illustration. I really like these allegories, as long as there’s a disclaimer or some indication that these are allegories, and not really history. Otherwise, these are running into the same problems these are trying to undo.

Here’s what one of the tunes that Amazing grace sounded like before it was set to its own.

African music, in Subsaharan and West is likely something EGW would classify as “noise” that can’t be of the Holy Spirit… and is of the “satan”, etc, etc. It was rhythem-driven and was atonal, meaning that it didn’t revolve around structure or rules about scales and keys. It was much more intuitive in it’s creation, and reproduction would vary, much like in Jazz or Blues improv, where there’s a central core, like rhythem or some tonal sequence, around which everything else is improvised.

And I think this is one of the pervasive influences of Euro-centric spirituality we find in our churches to this day. It’s the idea that music must be “this”, or else it’s “a tool of satan”. They tend to ignore that music is a “primal language” driven by context. And thus enforcing your own structural preferences a though it is “God” is essentially saying that you are God.

In context of this article… it’s worth noting that people coming from atonal traditions are more likely to be open to broader range of music than those who come from traditions that encase tonal structure in rules that must be followed.

Fundamentalists tend to mistake methodology with ontology. And it can be pervasive in Christian world where people in African villages build heat boxes they congregate in to listen a pastor dressed in western suit and tie speaking from the podium, and singing American and European hymns… as opposed to do the opposite… have local traditions and methods drive Christian narrative, and reform those that don’t fit… which opens Christianity up to everyone.

It is not a claim, but true.

Sure. I think the abuse began to decline after the civil rights movement, but has become much rarer over the last 5 years or so. The cause? In the 50s and 60s the South resisted (interesting term), mostly the Democratic South. But after a generation, the resistance died away more or less. Blacks are even being elected in the Republican South.

Is that your requirement 0%? I am a white living in a white town (92% white, 3.4% black, 2% Asian) , and I have more than a 0% chance. So 0% is no criteria at all. If you require that, no one is safe. Get real.

How about police brutality? Are the police on a brutality spree? Or is it the occasional cop?

I have pointed to the 2018 stats. 10 unarmed blacks out of 1000. 1% or so. Each case was examined, and even among these, only 2 cops charged. In 6, the perpetrator was attacking the cop. only 2 out of 1000 were charged. 0.2%. So, if you want to say that that is not 0% and claim police brutality, you are grabbing at straws. The young are not being brutalized. Blacks are nearly,. but not exactly as safe as whites, but they are safe.

I mentioned the problem of black “martyrs”. There is just nearly none that fits the bill of normal person killed by police. They all were doing something that they should not have been doing. Taylor was with a man who shot at police. What do you expect them to do? Blake was resisting arrest. What are the oops supposed to do? They even had a warrant for him, and they must bring in their man!

Are there cases of abuse? Yes. Lloyd George is an example. But to extrapolate to the whole of the police departments in America is a bridge too far, or rather several bridges too far. And you can’t claim that Blake and George are equivalent.

And besides, when blacks in heighobrhoods that have high crime rates are polled, they do not want less policing, but more. How does that set with your police brutality narrative?

Someone here cited a person stopped to check insurance, and another for some minor infraction. And that is supposed to be a sign of police racism. It may be. But it may also be some routine, or there may be some other reason. Why then do the black communities want more policing?

David, you can choose to believe what you want. But be a bit more discriminating. Most black deaths by police were in circumstances that had nothing to do with race. They were just going after the bad guys.

Your original post mentioned that my posts could incite a race war. So, my thinking is worse than those promoting lies about the police, and destroying property and intimidating people on the street. Hmmm… You have an odd view point to say the least.

I’m a westerner, and love western music. Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, etc. The African Dorcas ladies would sing at some of the village churches for special music. It would be a western hymn. I never heard them try an African rendition. There were some western intervals they could not sign.

I prefer the western style. But that is just me. There are African Christian churches that have broken away from the missionaries that cave there. And some are thriving. But do not get much notice.