(RNS) — As a white Baptist pastor, I thoroughly denounce the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last weekend. Racist hatred is evil. It has no place in society and no place in church.
I find it horrifying to have to say such things, as if there is any question on the matter. In fact, I worry that saying too much in response to such extremism only emboldens its practitioners all the more. White supremacists are currently receiving an incredible amount of attention in news media and in Christian pulpits. It is important to recognize that when so many words are written and spoken about a fringe movement, the movement becomes the center of the conversation.
This dynamic serves to reinforce the “KKK model of racism.” According to sociologist Michael Emerson, many white Christians operate under this “KKK model,” meaning they understand racism as deliberate and hostile prejudice against people of color perpetrated by a few radical individuals, such as members of the Ku Klux Klan. The problem with this understanding of racism is that it omits everyday forms of systemic racism that permeate society.
Present manifestations of this systematic racism include, but by no means are limited to, vast racial inequalities in the areas of housing, employment, criminal justice, education, health care and political representation. If white Christians turn our focus fully toward resisting white nationalists, we risk further disregarding a multitude of subtler racist realities that persons of color face on a daily basis.
The late legal scholar and activist Derrick Bell observed that in response to cries for racial justice, white leaders generally advocate symbolic advances for racial minorities rather than substantive advances. For example, removing Confederate flags and statues of Confederate generals from statehouse grounds would fall into the category of a symbolic advance for persons of color. A more substantive advance might involve the establishment of multimillion-dollar racial reparation trust funds to support the education of African-Americans whose ancestors were robbed of untold billions throughout 246 years of unpaid slave labor.
It is important for white Christians of conservative, moderate and progressive varieties to repudiate white supremacist rallies with vehemence. But I would propose that while we offer a few clear words against egregiously racist demonstrations, we also offer many, many words over many, many Sundays to help recognize and rectify everyday forms of racism that privilege us and disadvantage people of color. The reality is that elevating persons of color from a subordinate status requires a corresponding lowering of white persons from our privileged status. When specific suggestions emerge along these lines, subtler expressions of white ascendancy begin to surface.
Decrying white nationalists is an ethical lay-up for which no white person should feel the slightest hint of self-congratulatory pride. To concretely repair racial injustices and facilitate socio-economic advances for persons of color is the more difficult work to which we can commit ourselves.
(Noel Schoonmaker serves as pastor of First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, Tenn. He holds a doctorate in homiletics and liturgics from Vanderbilt University, for which he wrote his dissertation: “Preaching About Race: A Homiletic for Racial Reconciliation.” A version of this piece originally appeared in Baptist News Global. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service. )