Racism is the idea that racial dissimilarities correspond with intellectual dissimilarities or behavioral dissimilarities. When you see the color of a person’s skin, racism whispers into your subconscious mind that you have thereby learned something about his or her intelligence or character. Almost always, racism whispers the same conclusion: “You are superior to that person.”
Even if the basic message of racism is universal, the outworking of racism is not. People come in a bewildering array of dispositions and aptitudes, and different personalities will exhibit racism in vastly different patterns of behavior. Considered behaviorally, there are many different kinds of racism.
Consider, for example, two figures from Southern Baptist History.
Benjamin Bogard and James P. Eagle found themselves on the opposite sides of many debates during their lives. They differed over politics: Eagle was more of a sophisticated Bourbon Democrat, while Bogard was more comfortable with Agrarian Democrat demagoguery of the muckraking variety. They differed over religion: Bogard led a large number of churches out of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention in 1902, while Eagle desperately and unsuccessfully tried to keep the coalition of Arkansas Baptist churches together and within the Southern Baptist Convention.
They differed over race, too. Bogard’s beliefs about race led him in the 1920s to join the Ku Klux Klan. Bogard was the most virulent and dangerous kind of racist. Eagle—and the contrast here is stark—was a war hero, a gentrified planter, a statesman, and something of a fledgling Progressive (due in no small part to the influence of his wife, Mary Kavanaugh Eagle). Riding around terrorizing the population and fomenting lynch mobs while wearing a bed sheet would have been entirely out of character for him.
And yet, all their dissimilarities and quarrels notwithstanding, they were both racists.
James P. Eagle was not a harsh, violent racist simply because James P. Eagle was not a harsh, violent person. Nevertheless, Governor Eagle signed the “Separate Coach Law” that inaugurated the era of Jim Crow in Arkansas. Eagle was a deliberative, politically savvy person, and therefore his kind of racism was more subtle and legislative than Bogard’s, but Eagle’s more benign paternalism was, in the end, no less damaging than was Bogard’s more militant sabre rattling. After all, laws like Eagle’s provided the legal context that enabled the violence of men like Bull Connor in the decades to follow.
Eagle was also, by the way, thrice elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The danger of defining racism merely as one particular set of behaviors is that it always permits a James P. Eagle to contrast his behavior with a Benjamin Bogard and to exonerate himself. It provides that most prized possession among humans: A fig-leaf suit to obfuscate our own sinfulness in order that we might pretend that nothing is amiss.
Bystanders tell themselves that they are not racists. But maybe they are racists. Maybe they are just racists with a more passive disposition than that held by the most vocal bullies. The oppressed tell themselves that they are not racists, and the Liberation Theologians encourage them in this belief. But maybe they are racists. Maybe they are just racists who momentarily lack sufficient opportunity to act upon it. The Hebrew children like to remember what Pharaoh did to Moses; they like to forget what Abraham and Sarah did to Hagar when the shoe was on the other foot. So long as we can exonerate ourselves easily, racism has room to survive.
Racism is a sinful idea that prompts sinful people to act in sinful ways that are as variegated as are the sinful personalities involved. Because the idea lies at the root of all of those different forms of behavior, the solution to racism is both singular and simple: Refute the sinful idea and replace it with the truth. “[God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth…‘For we also are His children.’” (Acts 17:26a, 28b) We are all related. We are all the same. The genetic variation within each race is as profound as the genetic variation between the races. Every nucleus of every cell in all of our bodies announces in symphony with the word of God that we are one family.
The most promising developments in the eradication of racism, then, are not the efforts to rehabilitate behavior, although restraint of sinful behavior is an important aspect of this effort. No, the trends that encourage me the most regarding the future of racial reconciliation are the informal, non-judicial, non-legislative changes that are making untenable the major premise of racism.
Last Sunday night the First Baptist Church of Farmersville (historically white) and the Mount Calvary Baptist Church of Farmersville (historically black) met for an evening of fellowship. As I approached one table, one of my middle-aged white ladies (may God grant that she doesn’t read my having called her “middle-aged”!) was locked in an embrace of one of the middle-aged black ladies from Mount Calvary. “We’re both grandmothers of the same grandson,” she explained to me. Two tables away, a white church member updated Mount Calvary’s pastor about the three black grandchildren that his son and daughter-in-law had adopted. When you are part of the same family, somehow it is easy to remember that you are part of the same family. When the family connections become real to us, white people and black people encounter one another while thinking, “There goes someone like me.”
Some important and eloquent work is being done these days to demonstrate how the unfettered growth of the gospel will give rise to the fall of racism. I think we also ought to consider how the fall of racism can give rise to the unfettered growth of the gospel. The words “someone like me” are an important part of what motivates us to carry the gospel to the lost. Jonah could not bring himself to comprehend them, and so he made a poor evangelist. Paul embraced them in the most radical way, and so he excelled. Southern Baptists are engaged at present in a coordinated effort to pray for spiritual renewal and spiritual awakening. If we will open our hearts to the brotherhood of all men, if we will build family ties across racial boundaries, and if we will silence the sinister voice of racism by confronting it with the truth, we may find in that private act of repentance the answer to our public prayers.
Bart Barber is the pastor First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas.