Theology Christian Living Relationships/Family Identity

The Cruelty of the Color-Blind Theory of Race in Evangelical Churches

Jarvis Williams

Many agree Americans live in a racialized society (a society that attributes certain characteristics to groups of people for the purpose of racial hierarchy and racism), that we live in a country whose national origins cannot be separated from the evil ideology of white superiority and black inferiority, and that the U.S. still (in many respects) privileges whiteness over non-whiteness. But other Americans believe and embrace the color-blind theory of race.

The color-blind theory refers to racial neutrality. According to this view, the color of one’s skin does not matter because we live in a post-racial society—that is, a society that has moved beyond race. Further, the theory urges that humans need to look beyond skin color, because treating people equally and ignoring their race will lead to a more equal society.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, legal scholar and critical race theorist, explained in a recent lecture at Brown University that the color-blind theory is an ideological frame that basically asserts that a person should treat all persons equally.

Critical race theory (CRT) challenges the color-blind theory of race. CRT is a complex theory that basically says racism is normal, not an abnormality, whiteness is privileged over non-whiteness, and race is a social construct (not biological) created by the majority group to wield power and privilege in favor of the white majority.[1]

My Perspective

As a black Christian scholar with some social privileges because of my educational background (4 degrees—B.S., two master degrees, and a Ph.D.) and because of my teaching position at a prominent evangelical seminary, I am tempted to say this theory on the surface seems to be biblical. After all, Gal. 3:28 states “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, and neither male nor female, but we are all one in Christ.” Therefore, we should conclude, “There is no such thing as a black Christian or a white Christian. We’re just Christians.” And Christians should not see color and should stop talking about race; talking about race will make race an issue.

However, regardless of how pious the color-blind theory sounds to Christians, it is actually cruel and damaging to many black, brown, and white people who experience marginalized or privileged racialized experiences simply because of their skin color. And the color-blind theory of race perpetuates the very racism that it seeks to avoid by allowing the majority cultural group to maintain their status as the privileged, racialized group.

The Color-Blind Theory of Race Denies the Racialized Experiences of Marginalized Black and Brown People

The color-blind theory of race denies the racialized experiences of those marginalized. The theory communicates to the marginalized races that their racialized narratives are false, because they don’t fit the counter-narratives of the majority group. However, the racist ideology of white superiority that created the historical impetus for slavery placed non-white people (particularly blacks) in a negative light from this country’s inception.

Black people were ripped apart from their families, enslaved, lynched, sprayed with water hoses, beaten with clubs, given separate bathrooms and water fountains, and were forced to live in a society where everything in their experience reminded them of their so-called inferiority to whites. Blacks also had to endure dehumanizing names like coon, nigger, or boy simply because their black bodies were not white, names that reinforced their racialized status of inferiority.

Elijah Anderson (an African-American sociologist at Yale University) recently affirmed the above point at a recent Veritas Forum at Yale University. Professor Anderson asserted that slavery and the iconic plantation established the black body at the very bottom of the American racial order, stating that even justices in the 1800s suggested that black people had no rights that white people were bound to respect.

With emancipation, Anderson continued, black people migrated to the north and south. But their racialized reputations as inferior to whites followed them. He declared the black body has historically moved to and fro in white spaces with a deficit of credibility, not because of any scientifically verifiable biological inferiority, but simply because the black person is not white.

Christian congregations that affirm the color-blind theory grossly fail those black and brown people who are marginalized in their communities and in their churches because of their racialized status. Black and brown (and white!) evangelicals suffer when they experience racialized forms of racism, even in evangelical spaces. Evangelical churches deepen racialized wounds when they suggest from their pulpits, in their classes, in their institutions, or in personal conversations that the suffering of black and brown people because of their race is not real, or the loving Jesus means we should be racially neutral and avoid discussions about race.

The Color-Blind Theory Allows the Majority Group to reinforce Racialized Stereotypes

Contrary to certain evangelical Christians, critical race theorists and social scientists argue that racism is systemic, and is deeply ingrained in the structural fabric of the U.S. Ideas of racial hierarchy and white superiority and black inferiority have shaped the identity of this country. To clarify, this does not mean that every problem experienced by blacks results from racism, but the above does suggest that (like it or not) blacks, whites, and everyone else in this country live in a racialized society. Sometimes one’s racialized perception of others can serve as an advantage or disadvantage for the racialized group in social interactions and achievements. Take, for example, the way black and brown people are disproportionately incarcerated for certain crimes in comparison to white offenders.

In my experience, certain evangelicals will vehemently deny the above premise. Instead, they contend that to affirm systemic racism is to make race an issue, and when people affirm systemic racism this affirmation feeds into the grievance industry. With these assertions, however, there is a subtle interplay of meaning some white evangelicals attach to race. Some white (and a few black) evangelicals do not understand themselves to be a race or to be racialized, but as simply being normal people. They genuinely believe their viewpoint on race is “the truth,” as opposed to having a viewpoint shaped by one’s culture or race. This perspective allows some within the majority group to reinforce racialized stereotypes of non-white people, because they genuinely believe they interpret the world from the posture of objective truth, whereas non-whites interpret the world through a suspicious, ethnic posture.

Conclusion

Christians should stop insisting the color-blind theory is true. The very racist social construct of race in 18-19th century Europe and America based on illusory biological traits and rooted in racial hierarchy and biological fiction proves that the color-blind theory is a myth.

When Christians deny they see black, brown, or white skin, they ignore the fact that many people have suffered much because of the color of their skin at the hands of some white people who identified with the Christian movement. And when Christians deny that skin color currently plays a role in determining one’s position and influence in the evangelical movement, they perpetuate the cruelty of racism in their churches, because they show their unwillingness to admit that racial identity often determines who has privilege and what privilege one has in the current evangelical movement and that one’s race often serves as a means of social marginalization.

Great progress has been made in evangelical churches. However, even greater racial progress in evangelical churches will be difficult if we continue to deny the obvious. Black, brown, white, and everyone else in between in the evangelical movement must acknowledge our differences, as well as the fictive racial construct that we’ve inherited, and we must pursue love, unity, and reconciliation in Christ through the Gospel in spite of what we think we see when we look at another person created in the image of God.

[1]Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 7-8.

Photo credit: TheGiantVermin via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

15 thoughts on “The Cruelty of the Color-Blind Theory of Race in Evangelical Churches

  1. Anton

    Vincent, I Agree 100% with you.
    Scripture does not support mix races in terms of families.
    None of the scriptures implies that the family structure should be color blind.

    I agree that all are equal before God.
    But to deny biological differences because the genes are simalar is foolish.

    God diversed the human race at the Tower Of Babel. Ancient languages are bounded to definite races. God has never changed that. He cherishes all nations and measures them by there own faith and doings.

    I agree that no one should look down on any other Nation/Race. That is Un-Godly

    But to deny the right to tresure/uphold your own tribe/race and label it as un-christian is ludicrous.

    All Nations and tribes will bow before our all mighty God.

    When the new heavens come all will be new and what we see today will be no more.

    Untill then God cherish all tribes and races as the are.

  2. Roger Vincent

    I agree that Christians should not be color blind, but not for the reasons in this article. God created color for a reason, and it is something to be acknowledged, accepted and celebrated, in order so that we can give God the glory..

  3. Ann

    I see it more nuanced. There are situations when it is important to free ourselves from labels, and see other people as humans, and not as “that black guy”. And there are situations when it is helpful to be aware that our experiences in life differ. In my understanding rejecting CBT doesn’t mean not seeing folks as equal anymore or re-establishing segregation, but to grow our capacities for holding empathic awareness of where other’s experience might be different from our own. I don’t think black people necessarily want to be seen as “black” or “different”, but it helps to remember their race in the empathic part of our hearts in case it ever comes up (I remember how I once rode on a bus with a friend, and a man asked her to get up. She could barely hold back her tears and later told me that this was already the 4th time that month that on a bus with several young women of a similar age she as the only person of color had been the one being asked to get up, which she attributed to an unconscious racial bias). And I don’t think having a general focus on all humans being equal is a problem. For me, it really is on the level of empathy skills. If I walk up to a black person telling them how color-blind I am, this can be problematic, especially if I don’t own that in this moment my focus is on celebrating myself, even though I speak about the other person. They may not be interested in hearing (especially if I am the third person that week making that comment and expecting a pat on the back), and it might be hurtful because they likely experience discrimination quite regularly, meaning that they don’t have the privilege to switch off their awareness of being black. But of course in an ideal world with no historic trauma, everybody could be color-blind. That’s how I would teach about it. Differentiating, empathy skills/perspective taking, acknowledging the experience of discrimination.

    As a pastor, you minister to people with all kinds of backgrounds. Imagine someone moving in from another city after experiencing a devastating loss. By all means, don’t single them out. Help them blend in and be part of the community. But it might be helpful to remember their background to be able to better serve them. In our culture, many of us struggle to imagine how being black might impact someone’s experience in life, or may not be aware that there indeed are differences (Reminds me of the friend who was a straight A student and got a paper on her favorite topic back graded as F. When she asked the professor what he hadn’t liked about it. he told her that it was obviously plagiarized, because “no black person can write like that”. She was in shock. And it did have an impact on her life). Until we have learned to hold space for those kinds of experiences as a society, some CRT might be helpful.

  4. Marc

    Words, words, words…

  5. Arlin Edmondson

    Dead on. And this is why Critical Race Theory is an enemy of the Gospel which demands a destruction of any ‘racial’ or ‘ethnic’ preference.

  6. William F. Leonhart III

    Amen!

  7. Arlin Edmondson

    Dr. JARVIS WILLIAMS,

    Critical Race Theory is an intentional application of a Marxist ideology to the sociological field of interracial relations.

    Marxist as an ideology imbibes discontent, discord, controversy, and societal deconstruction.

    All Marxist Theories have as a goal and driving motive the ‘discovery’ of any and all possible inequalities or disparities, whether real or imagined, and using these to fuel discord and resentment, as well as jealousy of the ‘privileged’ classes.

    As a Theory, CRT is simply unable to offer any productive road forward in inter-racial dialogue or inter-racial reconciliation, as discord and division are at its heart.

    In fact, in every way, Critical Race Theory is a step backwards for harmony and the pursuance of conciliatory relations between different people.

    Colour-Blindness is not a theory, it is an ideology.

    The ideology of colour-blindness was the ideology behind abolishing slavery, abolishing segregation, abolition of Jim Crow, destroying the KKK, and every other progress that has been made to better the black american.

    Critical Race Theory, if taken to its logical conclusion regarding demands for safe spaces and safe conversations and the like would have us return segregation, would have segregated bathrooms for black men and black women to feel ‘safe’ away from the pondering eye of privileged white people.

    Critical Race Theory would have different Universities and institutions set up to divide black and white Americans apart and remove the black american from those monolithic towers of white privilege.

    Critical Race Theory has accomplished absolutely nothing of value for any black man or black woman, and it will only lead to further discord within the Church when employed by Christians.

    It should not be being popularized or continued among Christians, let alone a Reformed Christian cooperative such as this one.

  8. Mark A. Gring

    Dr. Williams,
    I very much appreciate the main argument of your essay. We need to be able to find both plurality and unity as God-given and good (see Vern S. Poythress and In the Beginning was the Word and Symphonic Theology). This is especially true when we want “unity” defined along our own racial and experiential lines rather than Biblical lines.
    I am very saddened, though, to see good brothers arguing for these things based on Critical Race Theory rather than “imago dei.” While I agree with your deconstruction of Color Blind Theory as harmful, would it not be better to do so based on biblical principles of pluralism and God-ordained difference rather than CRT? My concern about this is that my colleagues in the state universities use the very idea of CRT to also condemn Christianity, any form of free market, any idea of salvation by grace (or need for salvation), or any idea of differences between males and females. As such, as brothers in Christ, do we really want to promote CRT? I am not saying that CRT’s rejection of CBT is wrong but it just brings so much other baggage that I am not sure it is as helpful as this column seems to imply.
    Thank you!

  9. Matthew Werner

    Dear Dr. Williams,

    You write that CBT “basically asserts that a person treat all persons equally.” Then you say that this is “cruel and damaging” for a number of reasons. Then later you lament “the way black and brown people are disproportionately incarcerated for certain crimes in comparison to white offenders.” But isn’t the solution to that particular injustice for the courts to be color blind and treat all persons equally?

    What’s wrong with saying: In all your dealings with me, treat me as a fellow human being, made in the image of God without regard for my race, and at the same time, respect my historic and present sufferings as a black person in America?

    Isn’t that the point behind Martin Luther King’s dream–that his children would be known by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin? King was not saying the black American experience should be ignored–how else is character formed but by suffering! Yet he was affirming that a just society requires colorblind dealings (such as the courts).

  10. Boyd Murrah

    Question for Dr. Williams: What part does the “Tocqueville Effect” have in this situation, if any?

    That is, a closer “equality” means more friction because of the (real) inequalities that are left. And, if this effect is real, how should it be dealt with?

    Thank you.

  11. Kara

    Thank you for a very thorough article to help people like me, raised with the moral goal of color-blindness, understand and explain to others the shortcomings of this oft-repeated ideal.

    I would love to read a similar article addressing how the image of God is reflected in different ethnicities and skin colors. I have my own ‘answers’ for those who believe that the idea of Image Bearers is limited to moral qualities and does not include physical or cultural/ethnic characteristics. But I’m sure there are better explanations out there. Can anyone recommend a foundational article to help those who respect the bible but have never been exposed to this idea?

  12. TexasPresbyterianPastor

    Thoughtful piece.
    Question–When athletes like RGII have said things in the past like: “I don’t see myself as a black quarterback. You all might. But I just see myself as a quarterback!” (paraphrase), is this an example of the CBT narrative that is not helpful?

    Full disclosure: I think CRT (as you describe here) makes a lot of sense and helps in very constructive ways. But I can also see why CBT-ers (white and black) latch onto quotes like RGIII and run with it. In my middle-class suburban area, we’ve seen a sharp increase in black families moving in. At the church where I pastor, we have 4 families that are inter-racial (white/black), lovely families. That would have been unheard of 20-30 years ago in this community. But my sense is that the black spouses live their lives as CBT-ers. And this is what whites see modeled. CBT is already wired into their system because of their race, but then when they see this it’s just confirmation bias.

    I guess my question is this: how as a minister in this situation do I get other white folks to give CRT credence when they are meeting blacks who live according to a CBT narrative? Not sure I’m even asking the question right, but I think the CRT vs. CBT at least brings the discussion into sharper focus. Curious to hear your thoughts. Thanks again for posting on this.

  13. bbnks

    Is color-blindness a theory? Wikipedia defines color-blindness as sociological term for an ideology, which is different from a theory. From Wikipedia:

    “Color blindness (sometimes spelled colour-blindness; also called race blindness) is a sociological term for the disregard of racial characteristics when selecting which individuals will participate in some activity or receive some service. In practice, color-blind operations use no racial data or profiling and make no classifications, categorizations, or distinctions based upon race. An example of this would be a college processing admissions without regard to or knowledge of the racial characteristics of applicants.”

    So rather than being a theory or a statement of how society is already functioning is a process or processes that can be used.

    I don’t see the thoughts that color-blindness “denies the racialized experiences of those marginalized” or “allows the Majority Group to reinforce Racialized Stereotypes” as being necessary outcomes of pursuing color-blindness. However, if one accepts Critical Race Theory, then it would seem that those outcomes are necessary.

    What concerns me is that it seems that Critical Race Theory offers no way forward for reconciliation. From Wikipedia:

    “Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals writes that critical race theorists have constructed a philosophy which makes a valid exchange of ideas between the various disciplines unattainable.

    —- The radical multiculturalists’ views raise insuperable barriers to mutual understanding. Consider the Space Traders story. How does one have a meaningful dialogue with Derrick Bell? Because his thesis is utterly untestable, one quickly reaches a dead end after either accepting or rejecting his assertion that white Americans would cheerfully sell all blacks to the aliens. The story is also a poke in the eye of American Jews, particularly those who risked life and limb by actively participating in the civil rights protests of the 1960s. Bell clearly implies that this was done out of tawdry self-interest. Perhaps most galling is Bell’s insensitivity in making the symbol of Jewish hypocrisy the little girl who perished in the Holocaust—as close to a saint as Jews have. A Jewish professor who invoked the name of Rosa Parks so derisively would be bitterly condemned—and rightly so.”

    In the example on Wikipedia about color-blind college processing admissions it seems that Critical Race Theory would lead to the thought that such admissions will always be unequal; that the systemic racism that the applicants or their ancestors faced is always part of the process, even if they were selected for admission. Christians know that sin will always be in the world, but I don’t see Critical Race Theory as offering productive tools going forward.

  14. William F. Leonhart III

    Great question, Jared. From what I’ve gathered reading articles on RAAN and interacting with people in the comment section and on Facebook, the CRT does not merely teach that color-blindness is harmful, because of what it (supposedly) denies. They also teach that colorblindness is harmful as a goal. It’s not enough for me to admit that racism is a very real problem and we don’t live in a colorblind culture. I am wrong simply for the fact that I see colorblindness as a God-honoring, gospel-centered goal toward which we should work. From what I’ve gathered, racial preference in whites = racism (I agree with this), but racial preference in minorities = a voice. Thus, setting color-blindness as a goal is evil, because it is a barrier to racial preference for all, including minorities.

  15. Jared

    Thanks for the post! I agree 100% and am hopeful and prayerful that our churches and society will see the harm of promoting this theory!
    I did have a question though that I’d like help understanding if someone has time…
    So we say that race is not a biological, but rather a social construct. Specifically a social construct that was and is used to promote the idea of white superiority and non-white inferiority. The color-blind race theory is flawed and harmful because it denies the fact that this social construct is alive and well. This all seems plain and clear to me. My question is whether the color-blind theory is wrong ONLY because it denies sin that has (and is) taken place or is it wrong to its core. In other words, if we hadn’t created this social construct would the color-blind race theory actually be the ideal? My gut says no, and maybe this is a pointless question because we don’t and won’t ever live in a world like that, but I want to helpfully engage my friends, my family, and the Church and it’s helpful for me to understand exactly where someone’s thinking is flawed and unhelpful (and where it isn’t).

    Thanks again for the post!
    Jared

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