Call it Racism, Not 'White Supremacy'

How the Christian antiracism movement burns out

All variables equal, I think it’s a mistake for Christian social justice advocates to adopt the mainstream practice of talking about “white supremacy” and “whiteness” instead of sticking with “racism.” One reason is pragmatic. Most white people do not know what whiteness is unless it means them, and most people who use whiteness to describe what certainly sounds like racism get frustrated by this. “Whiteness is a system, not white skin” is a perfectly plausible reality, but it has the laws of ordinary language working against it, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. My sense is that you can have the language of whiteness or you can have an audience that understands what you’re saying, but you can’t have both.

Secondly, I think this language is a mistake because makes the user appear indifferent to a very massive topic: nonwhite racism. If we’re talking globally, then it is indisputable that nonwhite racism, directed likewise at nonwhites, is the vast majority of racism in the world today. Language like “centering whiteness” makes absolutely zero sense in the ethnic conflicts of the Middle East or Central Asia, which are far older, far bigger, and far more violent than those in the United States. The existence of nonwhite racism doesn’t mean that white supremacy isn’t a thing—it certainly is—but using white supremacy when what you mean is racism is misleading at best, and at worst it’s the very kind of self-centered cultural imperialism that it purports to deconstruct.

Of course, these concerns will only be taken seriously in proportion to how serious someone is about being understood. If being understood is irrelevant, then opaque, totalizing language is an invaluable resource for controlling conversations. And here is where the antiracist movement deserves rigorous interrogation. Much of the antiracist movement seems inherently designed to provoke in the uninitiated the kind of anger, despair, and cynicism that its advocates say is the surest evidence of its truthfulness.

The idea is that the reason people like Kevin DeYoung don’t support broad reparations for racial injustice is because they (Kevin) cannot stop themselves from centering whiteness, propping up white supremacy, and propagating racism. This doesn’t mean, apparently, that DeYoung or those who agree with him are white supremacists, it just means they 1) enjoy white supremacist structures because they benefit by them, and 2) are not willing to admit racial injustice committed by white supremacy when they see it because, again, silence benefits them.

What exactly is a person like DeYoung supposed to do with that argument? The table has been set so that any response he or someone else gives is evidence of their guilt. If someone objects that reparations are less just than alternatives, well, of course they only say this because they want white supremacy to keep benefiting them. If someone says that the case for reparations has not been made satisfactorily yet, well, they only think this because they are unwilling to ever admit otherwise. White supremacy has been defined in this exchange so as to mean, functionally, “Whatever you think instead of agreeing with me.”

It’s not necessary for a person to be personally racist in order to support policies or systems that are. That’s self-evident and has been from our nation’s founding; John and Abigail Adams abhorred slavery, but as David McCullough’s biography notes, they valued passage of the Constitution above the abolition of slavery. In this they passively supported a racist institution while being significantly more righteous in their personal views and practices than many other Founders. Only an utterly unreasonable person would not see this.

But distinctions matter. Funding a police department is not funding a plantation. Asking people to sign a confession of faith is not prohibiting them from voting. The difficulties and awkwardness that result when blacks and whites get together may be the results of injustice…or something else. Critiques about “centering whiteness” turn racism into an ambience that cannot be escaped by moral will, but only by reeducation, a reeducation whose curriculum appears to be growing every day.

This is difficult to see in the fervor of the moment. If you believe that 2021 is 1968 Part II, then building a coalition of people who can effect theological and political transformation in your generation doesn’t matter nearly as much as making sure history sees you the right way. Alienating people who don’t use the language of “white spaces” is fine because those poor souls are condemned to the wrong side of history anyway. You must continue apace.

Christianity possesses every theological and ethical resources needed to condemn racism. Racism is a sin for which the Son of God died. It is from hell and will spend eternity there. The reality of racism should be and can be urgent in front of every born again believer’s eyes. But if the moral urgency of racism is swapped out for the intersectional ambience of “white supremacy,” and if the moral agency of people to reject racism is discarded in favor of an inescapable structure in which they are forever culpable and must forever lament, then a large number of people will decide that those right-wing bloggers and podcasters seem to have a firmer grip on reality than some in the Body of Christ.