I learned about racism when I started seminary. For the first time in my life I was ethnically outnumbered and suddenly aware of my “white” skin, something that doesn’t happen when you grow up in Maine.
As my Euro American professor detailed his own past as a racist, explaining how the “white race” was invented in order to codify the economic oppression of African Americans, the bubble of unknowing privilege that I had been living in burst. Of course, looking back, I can see how even my discovery of racism was racialized and privileged—take, for example, the fact that I was oblivious to it for most of my life and that I chose to learn about it from another white person instead of any of the students of color around me.
While Paul Alexander was the first teacher to explain to me the existence of racism, Eleazar Fernandez was the one who explained to me its nature. in his 2004 book, Reimagining the Human: Theological Anthropology in Response to Systemic Evil, Fernandez not only tackles four of the biggest systemic evils of our age—classism, sexism, racism, and naturism—but also the ways in which those “isms” reinforce each other. I was never taught the ways that all white people benefit from racism, even if we do not personally carry out racist acts. As a member of the dominant “race,” I was always taught that racism was a matter of individual, unconnected acts by horrible, uncivilized, extreme people. But, according to Fernandez, that is a dangerous interpretation that is meant to blind us to the structural nature of racism. In his words, “simply put, prejudice plus [collective and structural] power equals racism.” African Americans or other US “minorities” cannot be racist, because only white people have the power to codify and enforce our own bigotry. Regardless of our own personal opinions, white people all benefit socially and economically from racism. (To better understand this, read Peggy McIntosh’s now-classic essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.”)
The contrast between the white “personal prejudice” definition of racism and the actual structural view of it struck me with particular force last summer during the George Zimmerman trial. From the commentary surrounding the trial itself, it is clear that those who defend George Zimmerman and those who label him as a racist are working from these two separate playbooks. For many members of the “white” community, George Zimmerman cannot be labeled a racist because he did not target Trayvon Martin on overtly racial terms. And this is the standard of racism that is enshrined in federal law. As the Justice Department decides whether or not to pursue hate crime charges, the outcome of its case will depend on the conscious motivations of the defendant. “The government has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant acted willfully with a seriously culpable state of mind” to violate Mr. Martin’s civil rights.
We need to rediscover a God who is “immersed in the various colors of the universe.”
The problem with this, of course, is that racism and privilege are often not conscious choices. If racism in the US involves, as Fernandez writes, “the elevation of whiteness to the status of normativity, and the relegation of other colors to deviancy,” then doesn’t that affect not just our conscious but also our subconscious? Doesn’t that affect the way that white women, put on our guard by a sexist and often violent society, view African American males like Trayvon Martin? Couldn’t it at least partially explain why George Zimmerman thought this unarmed African American teenager dangerous enough to pursue for several blocks, confront, and ultimately kill?
Not only the murder itself, but also the trial reflected the reality of structural racism. This took the form of what Eleazar Fernandez, quoting Louis Kushnik, calls “state racism”—“racially discriminatory policies and practices involving such matters as immigration, police, the criminal justice system, health, education, and housing.” While Stand Your Ground, the law used to justify Zimmerman’s actions, may not be overtly racist, the way it is interpreted and applied is. In 2010, Marissa Alexander, an African American woman from Jacksonville, Fla., attempted to use that very same law to defend herself from charges of aggravated assault after having fired shots to ward off her abusive husband. Although no one was hurt, let alone killed, her jury ruled that she could not claim self-defense under Stand Your Ground. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The New York Times notes that her case has “emerged as Exhibit A for people who say Zimmerman’s acquittal illustrates how the US justice system places less value on the lives of black people.” This is true not just in Florida but also across the nation. According to Amnesty International, 77 percent of victims of all death row inmates executed since 1976 were white. This is startling, considering that “African Americans make up about half of all homicide victims.” Individually, white people are fond of saying that we don’t “see” or “notice” color, but clearly, as a society, we do.
Fernandez writes that, instead of the color-blind God that white Christians advocate, we need to rediscover a God who loves diversity, who is “colorful, color-loving, and immersed in the various colors of the universe.” He quotes James Cone, who famously claims that “God is black”—in other words, that “God has accepted the black’s condition as God’s very own.” So what does that say about white Christians, comfortably secure in our privilege and “color-blindness?” How can we claim to follow God when we ignore the effects of racism?
In his book Night, Elie Wiesel recounted a story of a boy who was hung to death in Auschwitz in a slow, painful death that lasted more than half an hour. When a man next to him cried out to know where God was, the answer that came to Wiesel was that God was present—God was “hanging here on this gallows.” God was the little boy suffering. Over a year ago, when a teenage boy in Sanford, Fla., was shot, God was that boy, too. God was Trayvon Martin. And God is present in every single person who suffers from racism and white privilege. So for how long will we white Christians continue to search for God within the walls of our white-centered churches and continue to ignore where God is most present?
Rebecca Hall just graduated from Palmer Theological Seminary and is spending the summer working at a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Tijuana, Mex.