How I Learned White Supremacy

Kristopher Norris on Robert. P. Jones

White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Robert P. Jones. Simon & Schuster, July 2020. pp. 320 $28.00 (hardcover)

At its 1995 annual meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) apologized for its racism. The largest Protestant denomination in the US and most powerful cohort of Evangelical Christians, founded in 1845 to support slave-holding missionaries and members, repudiated its role in slavery, acknowledged its opposition to the civil rights movement, and issued an apology to all African Americans for “condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime.” After the Convention passed that resolution, Rev. Gary Frost, the first African American vice president of the SBC, took the podium to say, “On behalf of my black brothers and sisters, we accept your apology and we extend to you our forgiveness.”

In his book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, Robert P. Jones notes that in this episode of staged racial reconciliation, it took fifteen minutes for the entire denomination and its 150 years of white supremacy to be completely absolved. This anecdote sets the stage for the larger argument of the book. Such cheap moments of racial “reconciliation” and the theology that supports them mask the ways white supremacy has become embedded in the DNA of white American Christianity.

He begins the book, following a titular epigraph by James Baldwin lamenting that there is no hope for white Americans because we have been “white too long,” with this jarring autobiographical note: “The Christian denomination in which I grew up was founded on the proposition that chattel slavery could flourish alongside the gospel of Jesus Christ. Its founders believed this arrangement was not just possible but also divinely mandated.”

Weaving personal memoir with historical scholarship, theological analysis with survey data, Jones provides a compelling and critical account of white Christianity’s entanglement with white supremacy. His argument is searing; “White Christian churches have not just been complacent; they have not only been complicit; rather as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality.” Published during an election season in which the President of the United States openly panders to white supremacists from the debate stage, this book reminds the reader of white Christianity’s power: not only the infamous 81% of white evangelicals who voted for him in 2016, but also that a majority of white Catholics and white mainline Christians did too. And, raised Southern Baptist, the book’s claim is personal for Jones, a religion scholar who founded and now runs the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a leading research nonprofit analyzing the ways cultural and religious dynamics shape public policy.

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In episodic personal accounts framing the arguments of the book, Jones recalls growing up in the South as schools there were still in the process of integrating. As a child he witnessed a KKK rally on his way to a ball game, applauded as the Confederate flag was raised when his high school football team—the Rebels—scored a touchdown, and recognized the tension in the sanctuary when a black teen attended his white congregation’s Sunday worship service. “What if Michael became an active member of the youth group and wanted to date one of our white teenage girls?”

In recent years, and in the process of writing this book, Jones discovered in conversations with family members and research in family archives the ways his modest, farming family was enmeshed with white supremacy. Despite living barely above subsistence, Jones learned that his fifth great-grandfather, the first of his family to live in Georgia, owned four slaves—his will indicating that these four humans accounted for 73% of his estate at his death in 1818. Another story passed down in his family revealed the retribution murder of a black man after Jones’s great-grandfather was killed in a mining accident in 1920. These ancestral stories are set against the historical backdrop of the “Christ-haunted South,” as Flannery O’Connor puts it, where southern theology pervades every family and institution.

Jones focuses his historical account primarily on the SBC during the Confederacy and in its resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. He draws connections between the white supremacy of one of the Southern Baptist Seminary’s slave-holding founders, Basil Manly Jr., and, the seminary’s current president, Al Mohler’s dismissal of reparations with his claim, “We must repent of our own sins, we cannot repent for the dead.” Jones reflects on the impact of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in marking territory across the US with monuments to Confederate leaders during the height of Jim Crow in the early 20th Century, and the lingering consequences of slavery resulting in higher rates of prejudice and racial resentment among whites in areas that had higher levels of slavery.

In his deeper analysis, Jones exposes the protectionist ideology at the heart of white American theology. Like so much of the racist motivation that undergirded lynching, redlining, and mass incarceration, white theology is fundamentally a project of protection and purity, constructed in such a way that it “render[s] black claims to justice invisible while protecting white economic and social interests, all the while assuring them of their own purity.” And this project of protection has left its imprint on contemporary white American Christianity; its theological core is structured by this effort to protect white supremacy. These impacts include its focus on individual sin and salvation, a premillennialist eschatology, and a literalist biblical hermeneutic. Such doctrines were developed or morphed in tandem with a white supremacist ideology and continue to support the status quo of racial power in the US. They occlude any radical critique of the collective social order or responsibility for the past, and they focus Christians’ attention on individual spiritual matters, bracketing concerns like racial justice outside the purview of the Gospel.

Like Jones, I also grew up as a white Southern Baptist in the South. And like Jones, I also wrote a book about white supremacy and American Christianity that was published this summer. Jones’s youth, set about a decade before my own, witnessed a few more explicit moments of racism than mine. I never recall race, or really any notion of social justice, preached from the pulpit of my SBC church, and I don’t remember if there were any black members of my congregation. This was mostly because the church operated with a colorblind assumption: the evangelistic impulse was so strong that a person’s color made no difference in their need for God’s salvation. There was no need to investigate racism nor the racist roots of the denomination because God did not see color, and neither should we.

I’ve not done the archival work that Jones has of uncovering my family’s history. To frame this in Jones’s terms, my life has been shielded and protected “within an unjust social status quo” of racial injustice, with little self-critique, like Jones, until graduate school. In fact, the blindness that Jones describes in contemporary SBC-life reflects some of my own while serving as a rural Baptist pastor in North Carolina after finishing seminary. This church was located in a blue-collar neighborhood that had become increasingly diverse in recent years. Simply due to our location, several black families had begun attending regularly before my arrival. The church leadership had made a decision around the time I began serving as pastor to reach out to young professionals in the growing Research Triangle area—one of their primary reasons for hiring a youthful pastor. Our contemporary worship style, nimble leadership team, and tentative relationship to our neighborhood reflected this desire and primed us to become a church of young professionals, they reasoned.

At the same time, we were unintentionally growing into a multi-ethnic congregation, a rare feat for a rural, southern congregation. Yet no one ever brought attention to this fact. No one left the church because of its changing color, but no one seemed to mark it as a gift, either. We saw no particular value in multi-ethnic community and viewed the integration of black families into the church body as no reason to make changes to the structures, practices, or leadership of the congregation. No one mentioned the possibility of singing gospel music, reading scripture commentaries by black authors, or changing the leadership team to more accurately reflect the demographics of the congregation. The gospel is colorblind, the leadership believed, and at the time I possessed no resources to challenge this claim. I never questioned why they were so eager to draw in “young professionals” from the local business park. The unspoken—likely even unperceived—desire was to fill the pews with young, upwardly-mobile white families. This was not an intentionally racist desire, but one based on a theology of colorblindness, one that had its roots firmly planted in the legacy of white supremacy that Jones delineates. And I, as pastor, was blind to that. Reflecting on that experience now, I recognize how my own resonance with Jones’s story and argument highlights the importance of Jones’s personal narrative in revealing the ubiquity of white supremacy in American Christianity, as well as its connection to the deeply troubling empirical work of the book.

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The most significant contribution of the book arrives in chapter five. Here Jones shifts from the historical to the contemporary and from narrative to the empirical. He reflects on new survey data to make a couple of revealing—and damning—claims. In PRRI’s recent polls, despite expressing the “warmest feelings” towards African Americans, white Evangelical Christians “simultaneously embrac[e] a host of racist and racially resentful attitudes that are inconsistent with this assertion.” To defend this claim, Jones explains that he developed a “Racism Index” derived from the responses to questions about systemic racism: opinions on Confederate monuments, the racial wealth gap, inequality in the criminal justice system and police killings, for examples. White Evangelicals scored the highest on this Racism Index, despite a self-perception of warmth toward African Americans.

In many ways, this claim and its supporting data come as no surprise. Evangelicalism often shoulders the blame—justifiably—for perpetuating white supremacy with its theology, preaching, and practice. Jones’s more damning evidence is that white mainline and Catholic Christians fared no better than Evangelicals—scoring only slightly lower on the Racism Index. Jones summarizes it: on a scale of 0-1, white Evangelicals scored 0.78, white Catholics 0.72, and white mainline Protestants 0.69, compared to white religiously unaffiliated Americans at 0.42. This means that white Christians as a whole register as more racist than white non-religious Americans, “and the differences between white Christian subgroups (white evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants, and white Catholics) are largely differences of degree rather than kind.” White supremacy is integrated into the DNA of all of American white Christianity, with non-Evangelicals only slightly less racist than their conservative siblings. The more racist a white person is the more likely they are to identify as a Christian.

White churches have become spaces for the transmission of white supremacy, not sites of resistance. Jones concludes the argument with a hypothetical implication: if you were recruiting for a white supremacist cause on a Sunday morning, you would have more success doing so in a white church parking lot than whites sitting out churches services in the local coffee shop.

For white progressive Christians, often prone to look down on our Evangelical counterparts as the problem, this data should come as a wake up call. Calling out explicit forms of racism are often a tactic of “progressive” white folk to distance ourselves from those groups without having to interrogate our own practices and participation in systems that support the those same attitudes. Yet, as Jones reveals, all of white American Christianity is implicated in white supremacy. White supremacy does not only evoke white nationalist marches or Southern Baptist justifications for slavery, but a larger ideological, political, and religious system in which all white people are implicated, even well-meaning liberals—a system that often operates in subtle and invisible ways to maintain its control. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is just as relevant for white moderates and liberals as it was fifty years ago.

This is not a question of Christianity’s complicity in white supremacy, as a side project with which our faith was incidentally entangled. It is a question of all of white Christianity’s direct contribution to and role in the invention and infection of white supremacy. And, here lies one lost opportunity in White Too Long. While Jones makes the bold claim that white Christianity is not merely complicit in white supremacy but is “responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy,” much of his argument turns to easy historical examples. The majority of his book is spent detailing the history of the racism of white conservatives: Southern Baptists and Lost Cause theology. Yet, Southern Baptists are the easy culprits when it comes to racism—believe me, I used to be one!

He explicitly writes that white churches are not merely complicit, suggesting a causal relationship, but fails to emphasize the ways that white supremacy originated in white Christian theology. Jones’s context as an empirical researcher and his focus on his own SBC background neglect the more difficult threads of white supremacy within Christian theology, both its broader effects—northern mainliners who protected their segregated congregations as strongly as southern conservatives, progressive theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr who ignored black Harlem activists right outside his office window, the unearthed histories of many contemporary congregations whose land or endowments are the products of slavery—and its deeper ones—the ways white people’s theology began constructing white supremacy long before European settlers brought it (and their African cargo) to American shores.

White supremacy is not something “out there” that we let escape into our Evangelical churches or something to which the church simply lent theological justification. It is not a result of the church assimilating to cultural forces or social biases. Rather, it is a result of theologies and practices inherent to the church itself, of malformative beliefs and practices that the church actually gave to the world. White supremacy was not simply justified by Christian theology, but invented by it. But this claim is a difficult one for many scholars to make.

For another example, in his important sociology work, Joe Feagin shows that a “white racial frame”—by which he means the racist narratives, ideologies, imagery, and attitudes that shape our discriminatory actions and systems—began developing during colonialism. Yet he concludes that “after developing an extensive colonial system” Christian colonizers developed the ideology of whiteness to “rationalize, explain, and structure” how they could commit such atrocities. For him, white supremacy was merely “dressed up in religious language” and “religiously sanctioned.” In short, it was used as justification. Jones comes close to giving white Christianity the same escape route.

This may seem like a minor quibble, but my worry is that the white church will never fully confront and contest the depth of the problem if we do not begin to see it as a failure of our theology itself, in all of its varieties—be they conservative or progressive. Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas begins her book, What’s Faith Got To Do With It, with the question: if Christianity has been used for centuries to oppress black people, “Was there not something wrong with Christianity itself?” Is there something endemic to Christianity, theologically constitutive of the tradition that is inclined toward the disregard of certain human bodies? There is no easy escape route for Christianity, but constantly pointing to “Christian” Klan members or slave-holding Southern Baptists gives the well-meaning progressive Christians that Jones also implicates a comfortable way out.

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Yet, in conclusion, and despite these quibbles, it is that episode at the SBC meeting that strikes the most relevant note for our current crisis. After a summer of protesting and marching for racial justice, bleeding into a fall election with high stakes for the racially oppressed all across the US, this book signals the dangers of the cheap grace of quick reconciliation and the impotence of our shallow racial self-reflections. Most of us white Christians, and most of our institutions, may not absolve ourselves of white supremacy in a fifteen-minute ceremony, but this episode should warn even progressive white Christians of our hesitancy to reach for the costly grace of reparations, re-education, interrogating our history and theology, and offering genuine repentance.

Jones’s own experience of growing up in a white Christian environment whose “main goal was protecting and improving white Christians’ lives within an unjust social status quo” of racial injustice ought to awaken white Christians to our blindness. As a youth, he took this feeling of comfort and protection for granted, not recognizing the harm and trauma this sacred canopy of protection caused those outside of it. And this is why he opens his book with a call to “see” our whiteness, a socially structured and camouflaged system that inflicts us and inflects all that we do.

Most importantly, Jones’s personal and historical account signal the role of stories as the first act in his first step of seeing our whiteness in the long process of resisting the white supremacy that lives within and beyond us. Though he chose to tell the easy stories of history—southern Evangelical racism, Lost Cause ideology, the history of the United Daughters of the Confederacy—he also chose to confess the difficult, quotidian story of his own life and family. And that work seems more important than ever.

As I remarked in Witnessing Whiteness, the Christian faith begins in stories. The practices and doctrines of the church are based on foundational narratives like “In the beginning God created . . .” “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree . . .” But racism begins in stories too. The Myth of Ham, stories of black and brown people’s inferiority, their lack of rationality and religion, brought back by European missionaries and explorers and proclaimed by white American preachers. Or, the stories white people tell ourselves—“My family didn’t own slaves”—to absolve ourselves as quickly as an SBC business meeting.

Yet, stories also challenge present reality. As the great black liberation theologian James Cone noted, black spirituals communicated stories about where African American slaves might find freedom, the Blues told stories of lament, and folk tales reminded the enslaved of their dignity. These counter-narratives offered respites of resistance to a world and a church burdened under the regime of white supremacy, and continue to do so. And so do the stories of white Christians, scholars, and churches uncovering our own entanglements in white supremacy, deconstructing our familial and communal myths, and perhaps retelling those stories rightly, in the keys of lament and repentance.

Jones writes, “As I’ve moved through the process of writing this book, of retelling my own story, however, I’ve been astonished at how ubiquitous the claims of white supremacy have been on my life.” He notes that his and his family’s story—much like my own—is unremarkable. But in its unremarkableness lies its significance, the necessity of its telling and retelling and re-remembering rightly, unclouded by the white-washed lenses with which white Americans tell our history.

Kristopher Norris is author of Witnessing Whiteness: Confronting White Supremacy in the American Church. A seminary professor in Washington, D.C., and former Baptist pastor, he holds an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.