Race and Theology

Race and Theology

by Elaine A. Robinson

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White privilege and racial injustice persist in the Church; and despite a commitment to promote justice for all, racism is a reality of life, and has been since before the founding of our nation. In addition throughout most of our nation’s history, theology, as a discipline, has remained silent about racism and, at its worst, overtly supported racist practices.


White privilege and racial injustice persist in the Church; and despite a commitment to promote justice for all, racism is a reality of life, and has been since before the founding of our nation. In addition throughout most of our nation’s history, theology, as a discipline, has remained silent about racism and, at its worst, overtly supported racist practices.  This book, examines: 1) what racism is and how it functions, especially in the contemporary setting; 2) how the United States has claimed to be God’s chosen nation, yet systematically disadvantages persons of color; 3) how theology’s silence sustains racial injustice in the Church, rather than excises it; and 4) how reformulating theological discourse can contribute to racial justice within ecclesial communities and the larger landscape of society.    

The Horizons in Theology series offers brief but highly engaging essays on the major concerns and questions in theological studies. Each volume addresses in a clear and concise style the scope and contours of a fundamental question as it relates to theological inquiry and application; sketches the nature and significance of the subject; and opens the broader lines of discussion in suggestive, evocative, and programmatic ways. Written by senior scholars in the field, and ideally suited as supplements in the classroom, Horizons will be an enduring series that brings into plain language the big questions of theology. It will inspire a new generation of students to eagerly embark on a journey of reflective study.

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Race and Theology

Horizons in Theology

By Elaine A. Robinson

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-6537-7


America's Original Sin

Racism is particularly alive and well in America. It is America's original sin and it is institutionalized at all levels of society. —James H. Cone

One must suppose that in order to feel comfortable in the Christian faith, whites needed theologians to interpret the gospel in a way that would not require them to acknowledge white supremacy as America's great sin. —James H. Cone

Since the colonists first set foot on the shores of the New World down to the present day, racism has been a major motif in the narrative of the United States. It is, as theologian James Cone has suggested, America's "original sin." For a country founded on freedom, democracy, and equality, the racist history appears paradoxical. For a country that has been predominantly Protestant over the centuries, the racist history seemingly belies the notion that the United States is a "Christian" nation, for the love of God and neighbor can never serve as motivation for racist practices and rhetoric. Yet, democracy, Christianity, and racism have been intertwined for centuries. Any exploration of race, racism, and race relations in the United States demands a level of analysis that integrates the interlocking factors of politics, economics, religion, and power. There would be no racist history if not for the political and economic exigencies and objectives entangled with Christian theologies and biblical interpretations. Hence, untangling this knot has the potential to reform theological discourse in ways that more closely reflect the pre-Constantinian Jesus movement in the context of the contemporary setting.

What Is Racism?

Racism is at heart about differentiation and evaluation of superiority and inferiority based largely upon physical characteristics such as skin color, eye shape, hair texture, and visible cultural characteristics such as language and clothing. Often, racism is conceived of as an individual belief or practice reflecting a personal moral failure. Under this logic, a person who dislikes or discriminates against others based upon their race is considered a racist. Thus, one can position one's self as neutral or set apart from racist practices, history, and discourse by forwarding the claim, "I love everyone equally" or "I never ________ (owned any slaves), (took land from any American Indians), (interned any Japanese-Americans in World War II)," or more mundanely "(prevented any person of a different race from attending my church)." While individual racism is never to be condoned, when racism is construed as only an individual moral failure, a personal sin, then alibis abound and few racists exist today.

Racism, however, is a socially structured, systemic reality and must be approached on this level of analysis. Within the United States, racialized practices and logic are embedded in corporate entities, educational institutions, governmental policies, ecclesial bodies, and the mass media. Claiming ignorance or individual innocence serves only to reinforce the systemic nature of racism. Systemic or structural sin thereby suggests that society requires a form of repentance and redemption. It suggests that no earthly principality or power, nation or state, confederation or republic can ever represent the reign of God on earth. Some, indeed, may better express a life-furthering rather than death-dealing nature, but even the best human institutions will be subject to corruption and the seductions of worldly power. The Hebrew Scriptures are rife with examples of God's "chosen people" pursuing worldly ways only to be called to repentance and restoration. The church is no exception, which is why theologians such as Schleiermacher and Tillich considered the Reformation a continual process of repentance and reformation.

Thus, racism is not simply prejudice against different races, but is a product of power differentials within society. It suggests that racist discourse and practice enables some to prosper at the expense of others. Racism reflects the ability of one race to dominate other races based upon the logic of superiority and inferiority, and this power is vested in systems and structures that perpetuate, maintain, and re-create the divisions. The term "racism" was first used in the late 1920s in reference to the rise of the Nazis in Germany. By 1945, this regime would manifest itself clearly as a systemic form of prejudice, differentiation, power, and unimaginable evil, and it remains one of the most obvious, overt examples of systemic racist discourse and practice. There, too, politics, economics, race, religion, and power were interwoven. To reiterate, racism simply cannot be examined adequately in isolation from this complex web of relations.

Despite evidence to support the notion of systemic or institutional racism, this level of analysis remains under interrogation by scholars and generally unrecognized by the larger public of the United States. Although his argument focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on British society, Ali Rattansi argues that analyses of institutional racism inevitably fail to investigate the relationship of racialized practices to issues of class and gender and other complex phenomena. In Rattansi's view, "strong racism" or "hard racism" is defined "as the belief that separate, distinct, biologically defined races exist; that they can be hierarchically ordered on the basis of innate, and thus unalterable superior and inferior characteristics and abilities; and that hostility is natural between these races." Strong racism is no longer a tenable position, as the quest to discover a scientific basis for such beliefs has failed. Even though race is not a scientifically verifiable reality, racism continues to be a much discussed and often alleged feature of advanced societies. How then can one speak of racial discrimination in a "post-race" world? Rattansi argues that institutional racism is more likely to be a combination of factors that result in discrimination, and the term "racism" is misleading and should be abandoned.

In lieu of the maligned concept of racism, Rattansi proposes the use of the social scientific term "racialization" as a more apt concept. Racialization focuses on the degree or extent of racism or "racisms," particularly factors of strong racism, present in any situation or case of systemic racism. It moves away from the simplistic binary pattern of racist or not racist to discern degrees of racialized practice or discourse. Attention to racialization thus allows us to take into account arguments based on some form of biological determinism and cultural patterns, as well as to blur the superior/inferior distinctions since some racial stereotypes—the "clever Jew," for instance—do not lend themselves to neat categorizations. Although Rattansi does not pursue the notion of theological discourse, it could also be investigated as a dynamic within this concept of racialization and, in keeping with the argument at hand, should be investigated.

Rattansi's argument for thinking in terms of degrees or extent of racism has merit. Consider the National Basketball Association's 2011 lockout and the media frenzy around ESPN analyst Bryant Gumbel's remarks comparing Commissioner David Stern's approach to that of a "modern plantation overseer." The debate surrounding Gumbel's comparison focused on the question of whether or not Stern is a racist. It was exactly the binary logic to which Rattansi points. If, instead, we accept that racism is a multifaceted hydra that can manifest itself in a variety of ways depending upon historical and cultural factors, then instead of pondering whether or not Stern is racist, the conversation would ask: What elements of the situation at hand might exhibit and embody racist discourse and practice? Because racism can appear in multiple forms, resisting simplistic either-or arguments enables us to discern nuanced manifestations as well as quite overt ones.

Anthony Appiah, in a similar vein, questions the notion of racial identity as constructed in contemporary society. Appiah focuses on the complexity and multiplicity of "identity" as a term that first appeared in the 1950s to suggest that personal identity is shaped by race, ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, even sexuality. He argues, "Once labels are applied to people, ideas about people who fit the label come to have social and psychological effects." Appiah goes on to suggest a particular threefold structure to collective identities or groups related to features such as race and gender.

First, public discourse requires terms that can label certain identifiable characteristics. While the conceptual boundaries are not precise, the broad category is generally understood. Second, at least some of the people who bear those labels will internalize the category as part of their identity. In this sense, the label may shape a person's feelings, actions, or behavioral norms and, at the same time, will enable the person to locate himor herself within collective narratives. A person's personal story can be understood as part of a larger story. The third structure to collective or group identities shapes the patterns of behavior toward such labels or the treatment that these labeled or named groups receive. Discrimination can be considered one form of treatment, but behavioral patterns can also take a benevolent form.

Appiah thus demonstrates how race and other dimensions of identity are socially constructed. They are "real" sources of differentiation only in the sense that people will identify themselves or others as belonging to a certain group and act in response to those categorizations. These actions may or may not be consciously enacted. As Appiah claims, "The contours of identity are profoundly real: and yet no more imperishable, unchanging, or transcendent than other things that men and women make."

One example of the real, yet evolving nature of racial identity within the United States is the decennial census. The racial categories change from census to census in an attempt to better categorize the nation's demographics. For example, in 1990, there were five broad categories for self-identifying one's race: White; Black; American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut; Asian or Pacific Islander; and Other Race. Persons of "Hispanic" origin are both included in those racial categories and then separated out (thus, the well known, "White, Non-Hispanic" category). In 2000 and 2010, the census expanded the categories for racial identity to: White; Black or African American; American Indian and Alaska Native; Asian; Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander; and Some Other Race. Although persons of "Hispanic" origin may choose to identify as white, black, or some other race, persons of African descent or African and European or Anglo descent are expected to select "Black or African American," even though they might appear and live as white people. Meanwhile, "Hispanics" who do not consider themselves white or black simply opt for "some other race," despite the fact that on their birth certificates, many Latinos and Latinas were entered as "white," presumably meaning, "not black." Again, categories of race are fluid, shifting, and socially constructed, yet continue to have a profound influence on the lives of many persons.

Because his analysis focuses on the political realm, Appiah then demonstrates that within the context of a democratic society such as the United States, there has been a post-Enlightenment struggle to extend equivalent treatment to all members of the society, regardless of the other identities that shape them. Equal treatment should be extended by the state not so much to all groups, but to each citizen as citizen no matter his or her group or collective identity. Group status should be neither the source of political and social rights nor the cause for exclusion. To illustrate, Appiah notes: "It was an objection to the membership rights of whites (and the membership burdens of blacks) that underlay much of the opposition to the American Jim Crow and to apartheid." Appiah refers to this standard for the state as neutrality as equal respect." Appiah in no way conflates the theoretical democratic ideal with the reality of differential and discriminatory treatment within the United States. Instead, his intention is to consider the theoretical context for identity and to add complexity to much of the current debate.

Adding fuel to the fire, Appiah argues for the meaninglessness of the widely used concept of "culture" as well as "cultural diversity," offering evidence to the effect that, compared to seventy years ago, Americans are increasingly born in the United States, live outside neighborhoods that share their "national" origins, and speak English (despite the sentiment that Spanish is rapidly becoming a second language in America). If such distinctive marks or elements of culture are disappearing, what then does "culture" or "cultural diversity" signify? He further troubles the waters in his analysis of racial identities in the United States by suggesting they often function to undermine the social identity, which may have been intended as a source of strength and solidarity:

Many Americans believe that a person with one African American and one European American parent is an African American, following the so-called "one-drop rule" that prevailed in some conceptions of black identity.... While most Americans understand this to mean that some African Americans will "look white," they mostly suppose that this phenomenon is rare in relation to the African American population as a whole. But in fact, it seems that very many—perhaps even a majority—of the Americans who are descended from African slaves "look white," are treated as white, and identify as such. To put the matter as paradoxically as possible: many people who are African American by the one-drop rule are, are regarded as, and regard themselves as white.

In other words, African Americans may or may not "look" black or white and may or may not "pass" as whites in the society of the United States. Moreover, there may be many "white" persons who have no idea that according to the one-drop rule they are, in fact, African American. Identity, and perhaps above all, racial identity is a theoretically complicated, contested, and elusive subject.

Even as scholars debate the meaning of race, the praxiological reality, the lived expression of countless people, remains racist and racialized, even within the context of a post-civil rights society. Those whom the majority culture would deem "other-than-white" find it difficult to deny the existence of racism, even if class, gender, and other factors play a role in discrimination and the pervasive sense of disadvantage accruing to the logic of race. Yet for white Americans, even white Christian Americans, the notion of racial discrimination often evokes anger and denial accompanied by claims to individual or group culpability for failing to take advantage of existing opportunities extended through legal measures that prohibit discrimination based upon identity. This phenomenon, to which we shall return in chapter 3, is variously referred to as "color-blind racism," "racial realism," and "modern racism."

Contemporary racial discourse is marked by a few central assumptions. First, the logic suggests that civil rights legislation was successful and racial inequalities have been eliminated, though some individual acts of racism still occur. Second, any policies related to equal and fair treatment are now unnecessary, since the playing field has been leveled. With the first two pieces in place, the third assumption attributes any lack of success within the United States to the failure of racial groups to take advantage of the opportunities that exist. "Cultural" characteristics, as well as a persistent "victim" mentality, are deemed responsible for this failure. While it is true that overt forms of racism such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, and boarding schools for tribal children are a thing of the past, subtle and covert forms of racism embedded in institutional and social practices continue to manifest discriminatory practices in addition to this form of discriminatory rhetoric, as we will explore in chapter 3.

Racism, in sum, is not one practice or form of discourse, but an evolving and re-creating manifestation of the logic of superiority and inferiority, signaled by physical characteristics, but socially located and constructed. It has always been and remains a multifaceted hydra. Racism may take the form of laws, policies, comments and jokes, or subtle or overt practices within institutions. As a result, it cannot be construed as simply a matter of political decree, since economics, power, and religion also influence the shape of racialized discourse and practice. Moreover, silence or neutrality can function to reinforce racist discourse and practice.


Excerpted from Race and Theology by Elaine A. Robinson. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Elaine A Robinson is Academic Dean and Associate Professor of United Studies and Theology at Saint Paul School of Theology at Oklahoma City University (the second campus for Saint Paul).

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