Confessing Racism

The following long-read is a more plainspoken adaptation of an exercise for a seminar in Divinity School. You can find the full and footnoted version at the end of this post.

I. Nobody’s Racist, Apparently

Nobody likes to say they’re racist.

Well, I suppose that’s not necessarily true. White supremacists (sometimes called the supposedly more benign “alt-right” or “white nationalists”) will sometimes openly call themselves racists and be proud of it.

But, for most folks, they don’t want to be called racist.

We’ve effectively attached such a shame to racism that no one is willing to admit their complicity or affinity for any sort of racial prejudice. On the one hand, it’s great we think racism is so bad, right? On the other, though, we are so unwilling to recognize any sort of bad in ourselves that we try to invisiblize and hide our own tendencies toward any sort of prejudice, especially racial prejudice.

We need a way of talking about racial prejudice that’s a good deal more honest than that.

We need a way of naming our own biases and prejudices the leads us to change. As long as we continue to ignore the problems racism has created in ourselves, we will continue to perpetuate everything from racialized income inequality to police brutality to white supremacist terrorism. The stakes are high, and we need to be willing to uncomfortably name those parts of ourselves we pretend don’t exist.

II. A Few Qualifications

By now, I hope you’ve realized who the “we” is here. I’m a white guy talking to other white people. It’s worth being clear about that, because we tend to bend over backwards to make it seem like words and problems aren’t about us. To be abundantly clear, I’m a white guy talking to all my white people. All of you. No, you don’t get an exemption because you have a black friend.

Specifically, I’m talking to white Christians. I want to look at our shared Bible and a particular way that Paul talks about sin. If it winds up having some appeal outside Christian circles, that’s great. But, for now, I’m a white Christian minister talking to mainly white Christians about our sin.

Also important is a distinction between racism and racial prejudice. You’ll see me talk a lot about racial prejudice here and less about racism. They’re different. Connected though they may be, they are different. Racism inevitably involves some power and some systems – it’s a race-based system of advantage and oppression. Racism can use racial prejudice like gasoline, but they aren’t necessarily the same thing. Racial prejudice is race-based judgment that types other people as different and inferior because of their race. Racial prejudice is often hateful, but always discriminatory. Racial prejudice is not always overt, and it can even seem nice, too.

What I’m talking about won’t solve racism, then. You could ship all the racially-prejudiced people in the world to the moon and still have racist structures and systems here on Earth. Those race-based systems can still work without racial prejudice. But that’s a discussion for another day. That’s another dimension of sin. So, what I’m talking about won’t solve racism – but, it might make racism easier to talk about if we’re all willing to admit the racist in each of us.

Today, we’re talking about racial prejudice as sin and how to name it and claim it, if you will.

III. Were We Born this Way?

I’ll make some claims here based on actual research. At the end of the post is a bibliography as well as a working copy of the essay on this subject that’s filled with footnotes for the curious.

Racial prejudice takes hold in us long before we have any right mind to make good judgment about it. Psychologists have documented racial prejudice first showing itself anywhere from 6 months to five years of age. We’re wired to form groups or cliques, tribes or clans. It’s in our bodies, blood and brains. And we start doing that based on race pretty early.

Normally, forming those kind of groups is a good and necessary thing. They’re necessary for survival. As we get older, we develop affinities for people in our group, understanding that they’re the ones who will protect and nurture us.

This love for people in our group, however, also has a dark side.

It develops alongside prejudice and sometimes malice toward those outside our group. Studies have shown that prejudice toward those outside our affinity group turns into racial prejudice pretty early in life. White children in particular develop a strong pro-white and anti-black bias between 3 and 6 years of age. These race-based judgments and prejudices endure and become fixed if we don’t address them consistently.

Does that mean racial prejudice is inevitable? We should probably ask that question, because we know race isn’t something encoded in our biology. There isn’t a gene that makes you white. There’s not a gene that makes you black. These groups have flexible boundaries that have changed and evolved over time. So, why would race-based prejudice seem so inevitable?

Well, it’s not. At least it’s not in our DNA.

Children can learn a lot more than we think they can, especially when they’re really young. We may not remember all the specific details of our life before we were six, but we were learning a whole lot. Studies show that children as young as six months of age can discriminate between pro- and anti-social behaviors. They can adapt to our social norms (which include race-based judgment) with remarkable speed and with little deliberate decision-making. Combine that with our natural tendency to form in-groups and out-groups, and you’ve got a recipe for racial prejudice.

We may not be born with racial prejudice, but we catch on fast.

IV. Decisions, Decisions

What keeps racial prejudice going? If we shame it so much, why does it still exist?

Racial prejudice is so persistent because it’s not just about what you think you think. It’s about what you think without thinking. It’s burrowed deep into your unconscious mind, the part it makes your brain hurt to think about.

Racial prejudice works without us having to think about it. It depends on short-cuts in our brain that we rely on for day-to-day function. You do lots of stuff without thinking, right? When you’re driving your car, hopefully you don’t have to think that much about using your blinker to turn. If you’ve cooked for a long time, you start to develop knacks for things instead of precise measurements. These are imperfect analogies for how some prejudice works.

This is one of my favorite ways to talk about cognitive short-cuts (I stole it from Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economics guy). Look at these lines:


You’re brain, if it’s like most of us, says the bottom line is longer than the top. However, as you may already know, both lines are actually the same length sans carets. The mind, though, judges faster than you can actually make an informed judgment. No matter how many times I’ve seen this illustration, I automatically think the bottom line is longer. Racial prejudice can work that way. It works faster than your conscious mind. It’s dependent on judgments and short-cuts your mind developed from childhood forward.

All this stuff has real-world consequences, too. The formation of racial prejudice results in implicit race-based bias that can act out in schools, hospitals, or even the local supermarket. This kind of implicit bias, many have speculated, drives a significant amount of police brutality even when officers claim they aren’t racist.

V. So, what?

A few conclusions from a quick look at some evidence from the sciences are worth noting.

  1. No one is exempt from racial prejudice. It’s starts early and apparently universally.
  2. Forming a racial prejudice isn’t just up to you. It’s not just a matter of will.
  3. Repudiation of this racial prejudice, on the other hand, must be a matter of will. Otherwise, your unconscious will make the decision for you.

In other words, we’re all racist and you’ve got to try to do something about it. It won’t go away on its own.

VI. Sin, Righteousness, and Slavery

What then? Shall we sin since we are not under the law but under grace? Certainly not! Do you not know that to whom you yield yourselves as obedient slaves, slaves you are to that which you obey, either of sin into death or of obedience into righteousness?

Thanks be to God that you used to be slaves to sin, but you have become obedient from the heart to the teaching with which you were entrusted. And now having been set free from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.

As indeed you yielded your members in slavery to impurity and increasing lawlessness, in this way yield your members in slavery to righteousness for sanctification. When indeed you were slaves of sin, you were free from righteousness. What profit did you have in the things of which you are now ashamed? Indeed, the end of those things is death.

Now, having been set free from sin, having become slaves to God, you have the profit of sanctification – and the end is eternal life! Indeed, the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:15-23

We need to understand three things Paul is talking about in this passage before we talk about what in the world it has to say about racial prejudice.

  1. Sin

What does Paul mean by sin? Sin is a pretty complicated concept in Paul, much more complicated than we normally give it credit for. Just in Romans, Paul talks about sin three different ways. In the first five chapters, Paul talks about sin as something we do. In the latter half of Romans 5 all the way through Romans 7, Paul talks about sin like it’s an agent in human history. The third way, in the end of Romans 7, Paul talks about sin as a kind of entity we personally struggle with. All of these things are true, and Paul means them all.

In Romans 6, Paul is talking about sin the second way – as a force in the world. Sin is a master that owns slaves (more on that later). Sin is not just your individual misdeeds. Sin is a tyrant that rules you and you owe it fealty. Sin is a despot that owns persons. Sin has humans in bondage, and we need set free. And, if you’ve read any Paul you know this, we can’t just free ourselves from sin. If sin was just an internal defect or a collection of misdeeds, we could save ourselves. No, sin is bigger than that. I once had an instructor that said we are occupied territory that has been colonized by sin.

No one is exempt from sin in this cosmic conflict. Sin’s rule is thorough and total. Slavery to sin (again, more on that later) was part of the human condition for Paul. As the ancient Scriptures said, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.”

  1. Righteousness

No translation choice has been as inadequate as the word “righteousness” in the New Testament. That’s probably an exaggeration, but it’s pretty bad. The cultural baggage with that word makes it hard to see what Paul is actually talking about. What is righteousness?

Righteousness is not just good deeds or the posture of a goody-two-shoes (i.e., self-righteous). Paul uses a word we see in our Bibles as “righteousness” that had an extensive history. The word is translated as “justice” when other Greek writers use it. It has a social dimension. Righteousness sounds individual (like a revival preacher) and justice sounds social (like an activist). In reality, it’s both.

There’s this old word early English translators of the Bible used that’s fallen out of our language. It’s called “rightwiseness.” Rightwiseness is about social justice and personal righteousness. It’s personal and interpersonal. It’s about the particular and the universal. It’s objective and subjective. It’s an all-encompassing just/good/right kind of thing. And that’s what Paul is talking about.

Rightwiseness is the opposite of sin. Rightwiseness is liberation from bondage to sin.

  1. Slavery

And that brings us to the distressing part of the passage from Romans. Paul’s metaphor of slavery is problematic, especially when talking about race. It was problematic when Paul used it, too, we should point out. Whenever we talk about slavery in the Bible, we need to recall its use as justification for race-based slavery in the United States. It has an awful history of interpretation that recalls the worst elements of our country. Every consideration of passages that involve slavery as a metaphor or otherwise should involve a moment of self-reflection about the horrendous history of race-based slavery in the United States and the Bible’s role in supporting it.

What was Paul doing when he used this metaphor?

Two things. First, he was calling back to the Exodus. Freedom from slavery to an oppressive power had always been part of the Jewish communities Paul came from.  The Exodus narrative of liberation is echoed in talking about freedom from sin. Second, he’s talking about slavery in the society around him. Paul thought that human beings were always slaves to something, an idea bolstered by the ubiquity of slavery in his context. Slaves, too, Paul believed, had certain obligations connected to their status.

Paul’s slave metaphor is attempting to explain that Christians have ethical obligations even when they aren’t under any sort of law anymore. Grace may not have rules, per se, but it has imperatives. You do something as a consequence of grace. You behave in a new way in a new system of relationships. There are clear habits and expectations that come in a transfer of allegiance from sin to rightwiseness. New practices, habits, and deeds come with the territory.

To be clear, before we move on, we should cringe at this metaphor. It speaks to a terrible system that was so much a part of life that it was hardly questioned by Paul. That’s awful. In fact, it’s not entirely unlike how blind we are to systems of injustice in our own lives.

VII. What now?

Paul’s talk of sin can help white Christians understand what the reality of racial prejudice has to do with them. Remember the three conclusions we had before?

  1. No one is exempt from racial prejudice. It’s starts early and apparently universally.
  2. Forming a racial prejudice isn’t just up to you. It’s not just a matter of will.
  3. Repudiation of this racial prejudice, on the other hand, must be a matter of will. Otherwise, your unconscious will make the decision for you.

If racial prejudice is a sin, which any Christian must confess, we know that no one is exempt from sin. Conclusion #1 supports such a claim. Racial prejudice has a grip on us not unlike the way Paul describes sin. If sin has such a tyrannical grip on the world and individual people, we should expect racial prejudice to work that way too, if it is indeed the sin we claim it to be. Racial prejudice inserts itself into our lives at an early age as a consequence of its ubiquity in our society. We are bound by it regardless of our good intentions. Racial prejudice doesn’t care about your good intentions. It perpetuates itself in each of us, and we all become columns supporting the malicious systems of racism in our society. Racism is part of sin’s dominion, and Christian teaching stipulates that none of us is free from complicity in sin. There is no one righteous, not even one.

Conclusion #2 resonates with Paul’s understanding that sin doesn’t care about your good intentions. We develop mental short-cuts, habits, and biases without intending to do so. It’s not just a matter of you telling yourself you’re not racist. That’s not enough. Racial prejudice, like sin in general, is so insidious and elusive in our lives that we don’t get to decide whether or not we’re subject to it. All have fallen short, as Paul might say. A quick example. Employers have been shown in studies that they are more likely to hire people with “white” names than “black names” with identical résumés. I doubt any of those employers thought of themselves as racist. I doubt many of them thought they were making race-based judgments. But that’s how sin works – it works without you.

Conclusion #3 has some answer in the New Testament. Bondage is not the end of the story. Liberation is possible, but it takes more than thinking your way out of racism. Paul makes clear that a dramatic change in commitment is required to respond to sin. The liberating work of God enables a human response to sin, a response to grace that results in a changed life. By consciously interrogating and changing our habits, assumptions, and tendencies, we can start to pledge allegiance to rightwiseness instead of sin. Because even though sin works without you, that does not relieve or absolve you of responsibility. Rightwiseness is not passive, justice doesn’t come with time, and righteousness isn’t automatic.

It takes work.

What kind of work? Psychologists in the UK found that conscious formation of counter-stereotypes can break or at least slow down the short-cuts in our brain that feed racial prejudice. Making yourself think slowly instead of quickly can combat race-based judgment. Promoting empathy through authentic friendship can help short-circuit some of your prejudice. And that’s authentic friendship, not just having a neighbor or a Facebook friend of a different race. In other words, bodily and social commitment to another person is required. If your body and your relationships aren’t on the line, nothing is going to change.

We need to understand that to tolerate and ignore the racist in each of us has terrible consequences. Paul says that the wages of sin are death. And we’ve seen that in our society. When we ignore the racist in ourselves, people die. And what’s so despicable about that is we aren’t the ones who are dying. Our black brothers and sisters, neighbors and co-laborers, they are the ones dying as a result of our inability to deal with our sin. This isn’t just about police officers. This isn’t just about other people. This is about you and me. Unless you have the gospel courage to name your sin and repent of it, people will keep dying.

My perspective and words are limited, but I felt this needed to be said. White Christians, the time to deal with this has long since passed. Nevertheless, God calls us to repent of our sin, and that begins with recognizing it for what it is – and how it works. We’ve all got a racist in us, and we need to be honest enough to point it out. Another world is possible, but not until you name the one that is, reject it, and join in seeking a better one.

VIII. Resources

Research from Various Sciences

Aboud, Frances E. “The Formation of In-Group Favoritism and Out-Group Prejudice in Young Children: are they distinct attitudes?” Developmental Psychology 39, no. 1 (2003): 48-60.

Bertrand, Marianne and Sendhil Mullainathan. “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2003). (accessed December 2, 2015).

Bowie, Janice V., Ann C. Klassen, and Salma Shariff-Marco. “Racial/Ethnic Differences in Self-Reported-Racism and its Association with Cancer-Related Health Behaviors.” American Journal of Public Health 100, no. 2 (February 2010): 364-374.

Fazio, Russell H. and Michael A. Olson. “Reducing Automatically Activated Racial Prejudice through Implicit Evaluative Conditioning.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 32, no. 4 (March 2006): 421-433.

Gibson, Bryan and Adam Lueke. “Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias: The Role of Reduce Automaticity of Responding.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 6, no. 3 (2015): 284-291.

Hardin, Curtis D., Brian S. Lowery, and Stacy Sinclair. “Social Influence Effects on Automatic Racial Prejudice.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81, no. 5 (2001): 842-855.

Johnson, Megan, Jordan LaBouff, and Wade C. Rowatt. “Priming Christian Religious Concepts Increases Racial Prejudice.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 1, no. 2 (2010): 119-126.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2011.

Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. “Understanding Implicit Bias.” Ohio State University. (accessed November 30, 2015).

Mebarak, Moisés and María Camila Navarro. “Formación de Prejuicios Sociales, una Revisión desde el Inconsciente Cognitivo y Psicoanalítico.” Panamerican Journal of Neuropsychology 8, no. 1 (May 2014): 88-106.

Salvatore, Jessica and J. Nicole Shelton. “Cognitive Costs of Exposure to Racial Prejudice.” Psychological Science 18, no. 9 (September 2007): 810-815.

Theological Resources (including commentary on Romans 6)

Barclay, John M.G. “Under Grace: The Christ-Gift and the Construction of a Christian Habitus.” In Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8, edited by Beverly Roberts Gaventa, 59-76. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013.

Damholt, Ronald. “Rightwiseness and Justice, a Tale of Translation.” Anglican Theological Review 97, no. 3 (Summer 2015): 413-432.

Eastman, Susan Grove. “The Shadow Side of Second-Person Engagement: Sin in Paul’s Letter to the Romans.” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 5, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 125-144.

Fitzmyer, Joseph. The Anchor Bible: Romans. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Goodrich, John K. “From Slaves of Sin to Slaves of God: Reconsidering the Origin of Paul’s Slavery Metaphor in Romans 6.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 23, no. 4 (2013): 509-530.

Jennings, Willie James. The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

Click here to read the longer academic paper that was the basis for this post.


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