What Is The Root Of Racism?

June 2, 2020 by C. Bryant Glisson

Having grown up in a university town, in which people from all around the world came to live and study, and having been raised by two parents who emphasized character and personal deference towards others, I confess that I have always found it odd that one person might look down on another merely for his having a different shade of skin. I can understand how at first and as a matter of ignorance one might make the mistake of thinking himself superior to another, perhaps upon encountering a handicapped person or someone who speaks a different language or who comes from an unfamiliar culture, but then I would expect a decent person with the least wisdom would be wary of his initial impressions and work to overcome his ignorance, thus leading him to correct his error. The idea that one man might fault another for the color of his skin in perpetuity, never questioning himself so as to see the absurdity of such a thing, is difficult for me to fathom, even to the point of seeming cartoonish. Yet these comic book villains are real and somehow manage to remain quite comfortable in the stronghold of their delusion, and I cannot help but wonder how. What is the root that allows racism to live and grow in the heart of man?

My fellow Christians will immediately inform me that racism is a result of sin, a natural consequence of mankind’s estrangement from God. But we cannot allow our curiosity to be satisfied so easily. While I do, of course, agree that sin lies at the heart of racism, knowing this by itself is entirely unhelpful in addressing the particulars of the issue, for every moral aberration stems from sin. If we are to combat racism in particular, then we must understand the particular incarnation that sin has taken within us that has allowed it to germinate and multiply in the way that we interact with one another. And as we think through this volatile issue, we must, at all costs, resist the temptation to follow our hearts, especially given the emotionally-charged nature of racial discussions and the real trauma that racist acts have inflicted on so many people over the years. When we allow our passions to guide us, we become like astronauts who arbitrarily launch themselves into space without any regard for where the ship is heading. If we fail to orient ourselves towards Heaven’s truth, the power of our passions will most surely propel us to disaster, and that is not something that we can afford on the journey ahead.

As a first step, we should begin by defining what it is that we are talking about. The political left has so pervasively confused and misused the term racism in recent years that it has become difficult to know what constitutes real racism. If a term is so broad as to be applicable under virtually any circumstance, then it has lost its meaning and can no more be rationally appraised than an angry grunt. It becomes the perfect weapon for the man who wishes to slander his neighbor but who is too lazy to justify himself in doing so. It is an emotional blade without any intellectual handle by which to extract it once a blow has been landed. If we fail to define our terms and then stick to our definitions, even when doing so means that we will “lose” the argument, civil discussion and the racial reconciliation that hinges upon it and which our world so desperately needs become impossible. How then shall we define racism going forward?

I would offer the following definition. Racism is the outworking of a person’s belief that he is either superior or inferior to someone else based upon his perceived inclusion in a group, primarily defined by skin color. This definition, I think, warrants some explanation. Allow me to explain.

First of all, racism is not just an abstract philosophy dreamed up by some academic in an ivory tower. Rather, it is the living out of a morally depraved philosophy of personhood, and because it is always connected with human action, it is always evil. Thus it is important to understand racism as an “outworking” of belief that does real harm to other people, as opposed to an idea that one might entertain in innocent curiosity.

Second, racism is a matter of mistaken belief. The outworking of that belief has real consequences and causes real pain, but the belief itself has no ground in reality. It is the lie which the racist must tell himself and to which he must regularly entrust himself in order to make his rotten desires seem tenable, though he knows full well that they are wrong.

Third, racism thrives upon perceived inequity, regardless of which end of that inequity one finds himself. We tend to recognize racism only in the man who thinks himself superior, since he is typically the one who takes on the mantle of “oppressor,” but the man who considers himself inferior has made precisely the same mistake as the one who thinks himself superior. He has simply erred in the opposite direction. And if someone is capable of thinking himself inferior to one man, why should we think him incapable of thinking himself superior to another? Why should we think that he will not strive to overcome his perceived oppressor and become the oppressor himself? Thus we must be careful to understand racism in terms of all perceived inequity and not only superiority.

Fourth, racism is a matter of perceived inclusion in a group. Because we finite human beings are so very limited and lazy, we like to congregate around categories that we can easily understand so as to experience a sort of superficial, effortless unity. We see this when men celebrate their favorite sports team’s victory or when they assemble to pursue a common interest. While in one another’s company, they may experience a sense of oneness as a result of whatever has brought them together, but those things do not in reality define them, nor do they unite them in any essential, lasting sense. “Race” is one of the more prominent of these contrived groups, none of which have any coherence in reality. And because these groups do not actually unite people, their inclusion in them is only a matter of their own perception. Fundamental to racism are these “races” to which men supposedly belong.

Fifth, modern racism focuses primarily upon skin color. I say “modern racism” because racism in ancient times all the way up to a few hundred years ago tended to be more tied to people groups than physical attributes, and in some ways still is. The idea that we ought to think more or less of one another based on something so obviously superficial as the color of someone’s skin is a relatively recent invention, which has been helped along a great deal by the advent of Evolutionary Theory. Nonetheless, racism in its present form is my primary concern here, so I will define it primarily in terms of skin color, although certain ethnic features may also play a part in how we match a person with his “race.”

Moving forward with this definition, let us pose the obvious question: Is skin color an adequate standard by which to divide people? Consider those whom we would call “black.” How many different skin tones come to mind? Personally, I have black friends whose skin ranges from very dark to very light. Some even have lighter skin than certain of my white friends. If skin color is to be used as a measure of one’s race, where exactly do we draw those hard lines, by which some are included and the rest are not? Of course, no such lines exist. No one calls himself black because he has consulted a chart of skin tones and discovered himself to be so, but because his parents identify as such and have raised him with this idea or because he recognizes certain common attributes between himself and others who so identify. He does not call himself black because he has objectively verified himself to be so, but because, for whatever reason, he has identified with a group whose members consider themselves black. But then this begs the question, how was it that these various members came to this conclusion about themselves? We could ask the same question of members of all “races” and would expect the same imprecise, subjective sort of answer of all.

A few questions occur to me at this point. If it is possible in some cases for a “black” man to have lighter skin than a “white” man, how can the terms black and white be meaningful descriptors? And if each of these groups include a wide range of skin tones, how can we objectively establish a cutoff at which point a man’s skin is too light to be considered black or too dark to be considered white? Finally, if we cannot offer objective reasons for whatever bounds we have set for the “races” in our own heads, how can we be moral people in holding them and in using them to weigh the worth of others?

As appearances do not seem to be of much help in arriving at an objective standard of race, perhaps we should consider what Science has to say. What genetic indicators separate a black man from a white one? While we may intuitively imagine that such things exist, many may be surprised to learn that, in fact, they do not. All men the world over differ in their genetic code only by a small fraction of a percent, and this small difference is enough to account for all of our individual particularities, whether the shape of our noses, the slant of our eyes, the curl of our hair, or any other aspect of our physical makeups. Skin color is among these differences, of course, but is no more genetically relevant than any other. To divide people according to their skin color makes as much sense as dividing them by their height or mouth size or hand thickness. And because all of these differences occur in ranges, even if we wanted to divide people according to such attributes, we would have to arbitrarily draw lines to do so, making our divisions a mere matter of opinion and not objective at all.

Now genetics does give us the ability to trace a man’s ancestry to some degree and to broadly discern the people group from which he descends. For example, we might look at a black man in America and conclude that he descends from a people group in Africa due to a high degree of genetic similarity between himself and that group, and this may lure us into concluding that we have somehow confirmed his genetic “blackness.” The problem with this reasoning is that, though we may rightly conclude that he is related to these people, we have no objective reason to assert the “blackness” of the original group, which itself has all ranges of skin color and other similarly inconsequential attributes.

To further confuse matters, people groups are not static, as we often like to think of them. People have mixed and mingled through the ages in all kinds of ways that we might never guess and have done so to the point that certain members within one people group may actually be more genetically similar to members of another halfway around the world than to their own neighbors. If that is so, then discovering the people from whom someone most recently descends can be no more helpful in categorizing him than his skin color, for whatever room we consign him to in the vast mansion of humanity, we shall always find it connected by so many corridors and stairs and secret passages to every other room. Just because we can empirically verify that a man has walked through a particular room does not mean that we know where he has come from. In the same way, just because we can verify that a man has a recent connection with some modern people group does not negate his having significant, prior connections to all kinds of other peoples.

What does all of this mean? It means that, genetically speaking, neither “black” people nor “white” people exist. Both are fictional categories into which not a single human being who has ever lived has fallen. There is no “gene of color” which separates what we call “black” men from “white” men. Rather, we are simply men, each presented in his own unique shade of brown. Furthermore, we are all related to one another. We are not brothers and sisters to each other in some idealistic, sentimental sense, but in our own flesh and blood. The same blood that runs through my veins runs through those of every other human being alive today—something that I often ponder on my visits to the blood donation center—and this is the reason that we are able to give of ourselves and sustain one another’s lives in cases of injury. Neither appearances nor people groups matter where blood is concerned—only our shared humanity. If “black” blood and “white” blood can sustain all men equally well when shared, regardless of a man’s skin color or origins, what does this say of our relation to one another? It would seem that the truth of who we really are is presently coursing through our veins, for any of us who care to know.

But sadly, many of us have no such desire. We find security and comfort in lumping ourselves together into these imaginary groups and in the same motion excluding ourselves from others. We take pride in calling ourselves “black” or “white” or “latino” or “native american”—so much so that the thought of yielding our place in these groups pains us deeply. Accusations of betrayal circle in our heads as we consider forsaking that sacred term of color which seems to unite us with so many whom we love. We do not consider that it is love which unites us and which will continue to unite us once we have done away with these deceptive labels or that our own pride is the very fuel which so often ignites in us to harm our neighbors or that our greatest security lies in removing our divisions rather than propping them up. So we continue to embrace the lie that we are what these invented categories claim us to be, that our “race” is an essential part of who we are, and it never occurs to us that we are so much more—one great family, whose every member is a reflection of the God who made him.

As long as we pretend that men are made of “races” and may legitimately be divided from one another along such lines, racism will live on indefinitely, for even if these “races” manage peace with one another for a time, the fundamental deception upon which racism depends for its existence remains wholly intact, ever inviting each “race” to compare itself with the next, find fault with one another, and unjustly elevate itself over whomever it deems defective. Key to the defeat of racism is the recognition that “race” exists only in our minds. Like any lie, it is a real idea with real and serious consequences, but it fails to portray the world as it actually is. And as with any lie, those who choose to believe it when they know the truth bear a measure of guilt for every consequence their self-deception produces. The fundamental sin of racism is not the lie, but our believing the lie when we know the truth. And we all know the truth (Rom. 1:18-23 ). The only question is, what will we choose to believe?

This brings me to the root of racism. Racism is not something that the government can legislate away or wage war against. It is not a societal issue that can be overcome with social progress or programs. It cannot be squelched with pleasant sounding words or shows of solidarity or acts of contrition or any other outward display. It can only be uprooted by the personal acknowledgement and living out of the truth.

I am what the world would call a “white” man, and there is nothing wrong with this terminology when it is used loosely, along with other physical descriptors, as means of distinguishing me in a crowd. All such language is a matter of approximation and is necessitated by our natural, human inability to describe reality as it is. I would never expect a passerby to discern the precise level of brownness of my skin on a scale of absolute white and black, for such an expectation would be entirely impractical and unrealistic. I would, however, expect him to pick up on the approximate shade of my skin and would take no offense at being labeled as “white” simply for the sake of expediting his ability to communicate what he has seen. We take such shortcuts constantly in the language that we use as a matter of practical necessity. We cannot help but use labels in this manner to some degree. The problem only occurs when these labels become a reality to us.

Though I may have what the world would qualify as “white” skin—though it is not really white at all—I am not a white man. In no way is the color of my skin essential to who I am as a person. I do not doubt that many in our modern day will insist that it is, so that they can heap upon my shoulders all the guilt due me as consequence of my “whiteness,” but this is the same error made by generations past who faulted men for their “blackness” or their “jewishness” or any number of other shades of men, so that they could attach to them their own supposedly inherent form of guilt and then punish them for it. We will not solve one injustice by creating another, for this would be like attempting to heal a severed arm by cutting off the other. Rather we recognize what is right and good and pursue it without wavering, doing everything in our power to make broken men whole again. That is the only path to healing and the only hope of real justice. Those who insist that we are the colors that we see in one another are the reason that racism exists, and it is the moral duty of every individual to exclude himself from their number.

What then do we make over the increasingly popular idea of “white privilege?” Is this just something that we have imagined? I suppose it depends on what we mean by the term. The ideas undergirding racism are a lie, but lies, when believed and acted upon have real-world consequences, and perhaps this is one of them. People with “white” skin may well enjoy an advantage in some respects over those without it, but why? It is not because society at large is racist and evil, but because people with names and families and individual consciences have erred in defining themselves and others by their color and have learned to give preference to people on that basis. The problem is not systemic as some might claim, but occurs at an individual, heart level, and that is where it must be addressed. If tonight we all came to see each other as human beings, painted in various earthen tones, then we would wake to find that this “white privilege” had vanished overnight. We cannot combat “white privilege” by establishing “colored privilege” in its place, as has been the practice of many in their nominal pursuit of diversity, for this is the same sort of error that led to the injustice that we are hoping to correct and will only result in greater injustice for all in the long run.

It is also important to note while on this subject that whatever privilege I may have as a “white” man is not innate to who I am, as if it were irremovably pinned to my back and demanding my constant penance. I have neither asked for this privilege nor earned it, nor do I feel any guilt for its having been forcefully conferred upon me by those who insist on judging me by my outward appearance, nor do I feel that I owe anyone anything as a result of some unquantifiable way that I unknowingly may have benefitted from it. Any privilege that I may have had in my life as a result of being white is not my sin, but the sin of those who unjustly and wickedly conferred that privilege upon me as a result of their own corrupt view of mankind, and it is they who are in need of repentance, not I.

Finally, because this “white privilege” is not a thing inherent to all white people, we must understand it to be circumstantial and varied in its application and not unique to the white “race.” For example, if I were being interviewed for a job by a white supremacist, I may well enjoy some advantage over candidates of color, depending on how corrupt my interviewer is, but I would have no such privilege when being interviewed by a man of integrity concerned only with character and qualifications. On the other hand, were I to be interviewed by a black man who categorically despised and mistrusted white people, I would be at a distinct disadvantage to a black candidate, who in this case would enjoy “black privilege.” Of course, this privilege is neither white nor black nor any other color, but purely a matter of timing and circumstance, and men of all colors may also, by no fault of their own, enjoy a certain level of privilege under the right circumstances and in the presence of the right people.

The popular response to this observation is to claim that only white people can be racist and to then define racism in a way that bolsters this claim. Sadly, this move seems one of convenience at best or outright moral cowardice at worst and in neither case has anything to do with principle or reason. It is like one football team’s being allowed to change the rules of the game, so that only the opposing team can incur penalties and so that they themselves may run out of bounds whenever it suits them without any repercussions. Their objective is to win at all costs. How they play the game is of little concern, as long as they can convince the other team to stay on the field, so as to give the impression of fair play. Ironically, it is the “colored team” who is hurt most by the moral cover that this sort of reasoning provides. Not only are their victories rendered repugnant by how they were gotten, but individual people of color learn to be less and less introspective about their personal failures as they blame struggles arising from their own moral deficiency on the other team. And in the long run, they become worse people and live less contented lives, for just as rot slowly spreads through the wooden beam in which it has taken hold, sin cannot help but degrade the human soul, and all the more so the longer it is left uninspected and unchecked in its spread. In the end, the soul that cannot acknowledge its own sin will be the one that breaks. All men without exception are sinners (Rom. 3:23 ), and every one of us is capable of racism. We deny this to our destruction.

Having said all of these things, what precisely is the root of racism? It is the willful belief in the lie of “race.” It is this lie which our culture has so deeply entrenched in us and which we must expel from our minds if we are to finally put racism to rest. And this cannot be done en masse, but only one heart at a time. Thus, the most important thing that I can confess as a “white” man is that I am not a white man, for if I make the mistake of finding my identity in my “whiteness,” then I will inevitably locate the identity of other men in their “coloredness,” whatever shade it may take. I will see them in the same manner that I have learned to see myself, and in doing so establish within myself the very divides upon which racism depends for its life. Merely working for peace is not enough. If I personally make peace with all my various neighbors of color but carry forward the lie on which racism is based, then I have only hidden racism’s wound for the next generation to uncover. I have healed nothing. The only way to heal racism in our society is to learn to see ourselves as God made us, one race, united in our diversity and dignified by the divine image which He instilled in us at creation.

At the creation, “God created man in His own image. In the image of God He created him. Male and female He created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it’” (Gen. 1:27-28 ). So have men done. Every man who lives today descends from these two people, and even these two come from the flesh of one man (Gen. 2:18-24 )—a man of dust (Gen. 2:7 ). And all of us share in this same flesh and blood and are formed by God of the same dust. Is it really any surprise that the children of Adam exhibit all the many colors of the soil from which their bodies derive? This is God’s way of reminding us of who we are. We are nothing in ourselves, mere dust made living beings by the God who created us, and when this life is done, our bodies will return to the ground from whence they came, exhibiting the same wonderful variety there that they did in life (Gen. 3:17-19 ). Perhaps I will be the white sand of the beach and you the dark soil of a flourishing forest or the red hills of some majestic canyon. Do not all such things each hold their own unique and enthralling beauty? I wonder, if we are capable of appreciating the beauty of the world that God has formed around us, can we not find it in what He has formed within us as well? Can we not for a moment peel open our sin-encrusted eyes to marvel at the goodness and richness of the variety with which He has decorated His crowning creation of mankind?

I believe that we can. By God’s mercy, through the Jew who died for men “from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” (Rev. 7:9-17 ), we can indeed stand as one, but only if we are willing to stand in Him, covered in His righteousness rather than our own (Isa. 64:6 ) and grounded firmly in His truth (John 8:31-32, 14:9 ). By faith the Bible assures us, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-28 ). Only the Prince of Peace can bring lasting peace among men (Isa. 9:6-7 ). But how can He bring peace among us until He has made peace within us by cleansing our consciences from dead works to serve the living God (Heb. 9:14 )? “To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled” (Titus 1:15 ). We cannot cleanse the world around us of hate until our own hearts—that fundamental seat of all our thoughts and desires—have been yielded to the one Man who never knew sin and who is capable of taking ours upon His shoulders, for the Father “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21 ).

We cannot heal anyone or any division until we ourselves have been healed and justly reconciled to our holy God, and Jesus came to do precisely this (Rom. 5:1-2 ). “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9 ). Only then, having been united with Christ and empowered by His Spirit (1 Cor. 2:12-13 ), will you have the strength of life and the love of God with which to uproot racism as you call your fellow men to stand with you in Christ. He is the living Head in whom we, the Body, have our life and breath (1 Cor. 12:12-13 ). All lasting unity resides in Him.