Editor’s note on Word Study: White Supremacy — part of what makes conversations about race so difficult is that we seem to talk past each other. This series explores ways important words are used and provides biblical categories for the ideas behind them. Our goal is not to police language but to provide greater clarity.
This series has looked at a number of terms which cause confusion in conversations about race. When it comes to controversial terms, White Supremacy probably does not come to mind. White supremacy is opposed by (nearly) everyone. Those who are so deluded as to think white people are more worthy of respect or authority have to code the message to avoid ostracization.
But the term is used by writers today to refer to everything from violent terrorists to everyday interactions between coworkers. How are we to make sense of such varied usage? Context certainly matters, but I want to cover a few types of usages which you may encounter in reading and conversing about race:
1. White Supremacy as racial terrorism.
This is probably what most of us think of when we hear the term white supremacy. We think of hood wearing klansmen terrorizing black families. We can be tempted to think of this as an evil of years gone by, but consider the horrible event at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston just a few years ago. There are still those who consider themselves white supremacists who rely on violence to further their wicked ideology.
2. White Supremacy as right-wing nationalism.
If a person such as Richard Spencer, the leader of a white nationalist think tank, says outright that his “dream is a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans,” (1) then what separates him from Klansmen of days gone by? Not much, in my estimation, even if their tactics are less overtly violent. There are sadly many groups today who embrace, to varying degrees, the idea of racial superiority. Thankfully not all resort to violence. But the rhetoric and underlying ideology is often and fairly, in my estimation, referred to as white supremacy.
3. White Supremacy as racial indifference or insensitivity.
That was quite a jump. We skip to the usage of the term which is the most broad of the group. Some writers use the term white supremacy to refer to casual racism, racial indifference, insensitivity, and the like. What is the explanation for the tension felt in racial conversations? The underlying ideology of white supremacy still latent in many, if not all white citizens, the argument goes.
Is that appropriate? Why use a term previously reserved for the most virulent racists in reference to wide swaths of people?
I do not intend to defend such widespread usage, but I want to explain why I think it happens. America’s shared history of racial subjugation that began in the 1600’s and continued as law at some level for three hundred years required a justifying ideology. One group of people needed a reason to subjugate another. The lie that chattel slavery was a moral course of action required a series of lies to underpin it. It is a fair summary of these cascading lies to call the whole thing white supremacy. White-skinned people of European descent believed it was their right, granted providentially by God, to treat Native Americans as pests to be exterminated and Africans as farm implements. That wicked ideology began centuries ago but outlasted the practices of slavery and expatriation it first supported. For society to overcome the God-given conscience in each of its members, the justifying ideology has to be deeply embedded in the collective consciousness. Once so embedded, it is not easily rooted out.
Because of this history, the idea of white supremacy has great explanatory power to show the reason behind the cracking whip, the klan’s reign of terror, the segregated water fountains, and redlined housing districts. We must not forget what made our country the way it is.
This is not so controversial. What gets very controversial is using the term in reference to normal white culture, even suggesting that white supremecist ideology can be latent in unsuspecting, ordinary white people. White people think of themselves as special, and thus, the argument goes, ordinary, personal relationships are avenues for white people to attempt to exert their superiority over other races.
Christians have a category for indwelling sin. Given what the Scriptures say about us, we know that we are born in sin (Psalm 51:5), that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and that our hearts are evil continually (Genesis 6:5). If that is really how we are told to understand ourselves, can we really object to the charge of white supremacy?
But hang on. Are we sinners? Yes. Guilty of partiality? Yes. But, are you really suggesting normal Christians are guilty of this particular sin? Guilty of the same sin that blew up churches and murdered young men and women? Is that really a fair charge?
Asking these questions is the kind of conversations only Christians can have. If we are really asking to understand, then Christians of varying convictions on these matters are uniquely equipped by the Spirit and Word with the tools to sort out these intricacies. We might want to stop reading or talking when we hear a charge we think is unfair. But by sticking with tough conversations, by exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit when the culture around us would have us yell and scream, Christians show the power of God to overcome misunderstanding and pain.
If someone claims to see racism in our life, attitude, or posture toward others, we need to take that accusation very seriously (2). None of us are above the sin of partiality. Let us hate sin more than we hate being accused of sin. Not every accusation is true, but better to consider the possibility than to deny it at every turn. Let us be like the wise person in Proverbs, loving discipline and knowledge rather than the fool who hates correction.
(1) C. J. Ciaramella, “Some Well-Dressed White Nationalists Gathered in DC Last Weekend,” VICE, October 29, 2013, https://www.vice.com/en/article/kwpadw/some-well-dressed-white-nationalists-gathered-in-dc-last-weekend.
(2) One important confession reminds us, “As repentance is to be continued through the whole course of our lives, upon the account of the body of death, and the motions thereof, so it is every man’s duty to repent of his particular known sins particularly.” 1689 London Baptist Confession, 15:4.
- Pray for clarity in hard conversations, that Christians would labor to understand rather than to retreat to our comfortable corners where we are not challenged.
- Pray for a humble heart that receives correction.
- Pray that God’s people would be unified in their hatred of sin, and that we would be eager to root it out anytime someone shows it to us.