The horrific murder of George Floyd on May 25 by a police officer in Minneapolis has renewed a sincere cry from many evangelical leaders, pastors and organizations to speak out against racism in America—and to lament our tragic history of slavery, segregation, and oppression.
Racism is a great and ever-present evil. As followers of Jesus, we must forcefully resist it in all its terrible forms. We must uphold the truth that all people, regardless of skin-color, ethnicity, sex, or socio-economic status, are made in God’s image and likeness, with inherent worth and dignity. This is particularly important for those who are victims of oppression. This has been a central teaching of the Disciple Nations Alliance since we began our ministry in 1997. Nearly all evangelical Christians agree on this point.
The problem is this: we no longer have an agreed-upon understanding of what racism is.
In a conversation I had with an evangelical pastor a few years ago, he suggested that racism was “prejudice plus power.” It only applies to white people, who, as he put it, hold a monopoly on cultural power. I had always understood racism as viewing or treating people in a particular way (typically as superior or inferior) based solely on their ethnicity or skin-color. Here’s how racism is defined in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary: “The belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
These are wildly divergent definitions. If you hold to the first, all white people are, by definition, racist, whether they acknowledge it or not, because they benefit from unearned privileges based on their supposed cultural dominance. It is no good denying this inherent racism, it can only be acknowledged, confessed, and lamented.
If you hold to the second definition of racism, then the first definition is, itself, racist, because it lumps people together based on their skin-color and views them in the same way, as privileged oppressors, whether they acknowledge it or not.
Douglas Murray, in his powerful new book The Madness of Crowds, describes this as “antiracist racism.” This definition, rooted in academic critical theory and “whiteness studies” exacerbates racial hostility by problematizing millions of people based on their skin color.
These two definitions are part of two larger, competing narratives about race in America today. Understanding these narratives is key to understanding the highly-charged racial climate we find ourselves in. It is critical to recognize that both narratives have roots in the black community. Both have historic and present-day black champions. Let’s examine the broad outlines of these two opposing narratives.
The Revolutionary Narrative
I’ll call one The Revolutionary Narrative. According to this narrative, existing systems and structures are so corrupted by racism that there is no possibility for reform. They need to be torn out root and branch to make way for a new social, economic, and political order.
The Revolutionary Narrative is rooted in an academic field called Critical Race Theory. It has steadily gained ground in the culture since the 1960s (and particularly in the past ten years), and I would argue that it is the dominant race narrative in America today. It is the exclusive narrative on race and racism taught in our public schools and universities, and aggressively promoted in mainstream and social media, as well as through celebrity culture and the entertainment industry, big business, and increasingly, through evangelical institutions and universities.
Historically, versions of the Revolutionary Narrative were championed by the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X. Contemporary popularizers include Robin DiAngelo, and Barbara Applebaum, academic pioneers of a branch of Critical Race Theory known as “Whiteness Studies,” Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, Atlantic essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York Times Journalist and head of the 1619 Project Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Black Lives Matter founders Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, to name just a few.
Here is my summary of the Revolutionary Narrative:
- It emphasizes systemic injustice and institutional racism. The problems black people face are sourced outside their community, in the larger society, and attributed to historic slavery and pervasive, systemic white oppression.
- Needed changes in the black community require white people to change. They need to own up to their “whiteness,” confess their complicity in oppression, and not defend themselves in any way. Defending themselves only makes problems worse by demonstrating their “white fragility.”
- The biggest problems facing the black community today are near-genocidal levels of police brutality and a systemically racist criminal justice system (while examples abound of this kind of hyperbolic language, here is a good representation), which Michelle Alexander describes as “The New Jim Crow,” as demonstrated by the fact that black people are arrested and imprisoned at a far higher rate than white people (relative to their share in the overall population).
- America, from its very origins, is a fundamentally racist and oppressive nation. Our history is defined by structural and systemic white racism and oppression against blacks, Native Americans, and other minorities. To this day, systemic white racism continues to reside in the very “DNA” of our nation. Ultimately, the only way change can happen is for these irredeemably corrupt systems to be unmasked, deconstructed, and dismantled.
- “Color-blind” is a racist sentiment. Those who use it demonstrate their insensitivity to the oppression, violence, and discrimination black people face. We need to be more aware of our skin color, not less—more aware of the countless ways skin color divides us, not less.
- Racism is mainly a problem on the political right. The Republican Party is deeply stained with xenophobia, bigotry, and white supremacy. According to the Democratic Party’s website, “While Republicans have opposed major civil rights legislation, we’ve worked to pass every one of our national civil rights laws. On every civil rights issue, Democrats have led the fight.”
- #BlackLivesMatter, and its advocacy against rampant police brutality, is the single most important civil rights movement in America today.
The Preservation Narrative
Most of us are aware of the Revolutionary Narrative at some level. But there is another race narrative that doesn’t get nearly as much attention. Far fewer people are familiar with its broad outline or its most prominent advocates. I’ll call it The Preservation Narrative. It affirms the goodness of the principles on which America was founded and seeks to preserve them while continuously working to reform our systems and institutions to more perfectly reflect these principles.
While the advocates of the Revolutionary Narrative would have you believe that the Preservation Narrative isn’t authentically “black,” this isn’t true. It has deep roots in the black community. Historically, it was championed by people like Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, Jessie Owens, and Martin Luther King Junior as exemplified in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Today, its most outspoken advocates are also black. They include Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former presidential advisor Robert Woodson, economists Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, conservative author Shelby Steele, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vanderbilt political science professor Carol Swain, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, author and activist Alveda King, Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, firebrand cultural critic Candace Owens, entertainer Kanye West, Harvard economist, and author Glenn Loury, and pro-life activist Ryan Bomberger, to name a few.
Here is my summary of the Preservation Race Narrative:
- It emphasizes individual dignity, personal choice and responsibility. It sees the evil manifesting in society as rooted in human hearts and minds. White racism persists, but it is far from the biggest challenge confronting the black community. Those challenges can be overcome by the actions and decisions of black people themselves with success not ultimately dependent on the actions of white people.
- The biggest challenges facing the black community today are: (1) The devastation of the black family. Fatherless households went from 35% in 1970 to 72% today. The black marriage rates are under 30% compared to 50% nationally. This has produced several generations of fatherless, alienated young men who struggle educationally, economically and socially and turn to criminal activity. (2) Abortion, which, plagues America in general and claims 259,336 black lives every year. (3) An educational system that traps far too many young people in failing schools and gives them no opportunity to opt out and choose schools that would improve their educational opportunities.
- Black economists Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell argue that the devastation of the black family is largely attributable to the rise of the modern welfare state, which financially incentivizes single-parent households. They say that the significant expansion of federal welfare under the Great Society programs beginning in the 1960s contributed to the destruction of African American families. According to Sowell, “the black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.”
- America has a tragic history of racial oppression and slavery which has caused real and ongoing damage to the black community. Yet our founding principles in the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) led to the eventual eradication of slavery and significant progress in racial equality. Today, America is one of the least racist countries in the world, and a land of opportunity for people of all ethnic backgrounds, which is why immigrants continue to flock to this country in huge numbers, including many with black and brown skin.
- “Color-blind” is a cultural achievement to be celebrated. It frees us from the scourge of tribalism. Rather than generalizing about people based on race, “color-blind” means seeing people first and foremost as unique individuals with agency and responsibility. This was Martin Luther King Junior’s famous dream—that his children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.
- The history of racism in America is the legacy of the political left, not the right. The Democratic Party defended slavery, started the Civil War (to defend slavery), opposed Reconstruction, founded the Ku Klux Klan, imposed segregation, perpetrated lynching, and fought against the civil rights acts of the 1950s and 1960s.
- #BlackLivesMatter is a radical, neo-Marxist revolutionary organization. It deceptively states that its objective is the uplifting of black lives and the black community, but in reality, it exists to exacerbate racial tensions as a means of dividing the nation, and fomenting social, cultural, and economic revolution.
Evaluating the Narratives
Like all narratives, truth can be found in both, but that is not to say that one is not more truthful than the other.
When presented with these two alternative views, the first instinct of many sincere Christians is to not pick sides—to stay neutral—or try to find middle ground. Many white Christians embrace the Revolutionary Narrative in part or in whole out of a virtuous desire to build relational bridges to the black community.
Both of these motives—seeking middle ground and building relationships—are understandable, commendable, and well-intentioned. But as Christians, our obligation isn’t to further any particular narrative, even with the best of intentions. Our obligation is to truth and love. That means we have to evaluate both narratives carefully. We need to affirm what is good and true and expose what is false and destructive.
As I examine both narratives in this light, here are my conclusions. Many Christians of good conscience will disagree with me, and I welcome any opportunity to dialogue, to be challenged, and to learn.
View of human nature
The Revolutionary Narrative is rooted in victimology. The basic message is this: No matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to get ahead because racist structures and systems are working against you. Likewise, if you are white, you are guilty of benefiting from these systems whether you realize it or not. I see this as a deeply unbiblical and destructive message.
The basic message of the Preservation Narrative is far more truthful in regards to human nature and far more empowering. Even if you face difficult challenges, you are not defined or limited by those challenges. As a human being, made in God’s image, you can make choices, and those choices matter in shaping your life, your community, and future history.
Many advocates of the Preservation Narrative will say something like this: In the United States today, regardless of your skin color, if you choose to graduate from high school, hold almost any job, and wait until you are married to have children—all in the realm of personal choice—you will be well on the road to flourishing (this formulation was first put forward by the Brookings Institute. See, for example, this piece: Three Simple Rules Poor Teens Should Follow to Join the Middle Class).
And if you are black, you can make these choices no matter what white people do, or don’t do.
Beyond this, the Bible makes it abundantly clear that there is no class of innocent victims or guilty oppressors. All of us are fallen sinners, more than capable of doing the most heinous evil. Any narrative that encourages people to view themselves as victims, and sources their problems in people with a different skin-color, is a horrible, false, and dangerous narrative.
The Bible teaches that, regardless of skin color, all of us deserve punishment from a righteous God. All of us are in desperate need of God’s grace and forgiveness. Our greatest enemy is not people with different skin color, but the evil inside our hearts. Ultimately, the solution to our deepest problems is the Gospel—the hope of inward regeneration and reconciliation with God made available through the cross of Jesus Christ. These are truths I live by, and teach to my children.
The Revolutionary Narrative continually repeats the generalized, hyperbolic charge of pervasive police brutality. The police are “killers” who have declared “open season” on young black men, and are perpetuating “genocide” against them.
Certainly, there are bad cops, and when they commit criminal acts, we all want them to be held to account. Almost nobody disagrees on this point. But the Revolutionary Narrative moves quickly from this point of agreement to inflated charges that the entire police force is systemically racist. This accusation amounts to a conspiracy theory and a slander against the police.
Tragically, this myth has taken root inside the black community to such a degree that many sincerely believe it. As a result, deep-seated fear and mistrust now exist between many in the black community and the police.
If the police were actually hunting down and wantonly killing black men, we’d expect hundreds, or maybe thousands of black deaths at the hands of racist police officers each year. The reality is very different. In 2019, according to the Washington Post database of police shootings, in a nation of 330 million people, a total of 14 unarmed black Americans were fatally shot by police. These were not innocent bystanders gunned down by racist cops; most were attacking police officers at the time.
Don’t misunderstand me, 14 lives lost to police brutality is 14 too many. Each life is precious beyond measure. But 14 is hardly a genocide. The reality today in America is that a police officer is far more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer. This fact is ignored by advocates of the Revolutionary Narrative because it doesn’t support the narrative.
We should be empathetic to the experiences black people have with the police. We should listen and try to understand, but we should also not perpetuate a myth. Affirming false beliefs is never a loving thing to do.
The criminal justice system
The Revolutionary Narrative indicts the criminal justice system as a whole as structurally racist. It bases this on the fact that more black people are arrested, charged, and convicted than white people when compared to their percentage of the overall population. But this analysis is flawed and deceptive. It completely ignores the relatively high levels of crime in the black community that drive higher levels of arrest and conviction. Black Americans commit serious violent crime at rates over three times their representation in the general population. For example, although blacks constitute 12 percent of the population, they consistently commit over one-half of all homicides. Blacks are not being arrested at higher rates because of their skin color but because of their behavior.
It wasn’t always this way. The dramatic rise of black crime parallels the breakdown of the black family starting in the 1960s and 70s. Crime rates inevitably rise when people of any skin color allow their capacity to self-govern to be eroded. Self-government is taught primarily in the family, the church, and the school. For the black community, since the 1960s, all three of these institutions have been weakened. The Preservation Narrative says that if we want to help the black community, we have to work to strengthen these vital institutions that impart virtuous self-government. I agree with this analysis and support organizations that share these objectives.
Far and away, the biggest source of violent death in the black community is abortion, and it isn’t even close. If there is a genocide in the black community it’s abortion. Yet nearly all proponents of the Revolutionary Narrative either downplay abortion as a social evil, or actively seek to expand the legalized murder of black children. This alone should prevent Christians from throwing their support behind the Revolutionary Narrative.
As Christians, our approach to history must be based on truth. We must allow history to guide us, rather than manipulating and distorting history to further a particular agenda. To focus exclusively on one aspect of history—either the good or the bad—is to perpetuate a lie. Unsurprisingly, the Revolutionary Narrative, as typified by the New York Time’s 1619 Project, focuses only on the bad parts of America’s history. Accordingly, the U.S. was founded upon systemic white racism, slavery, greed, patriarchal oppression of women, and the genocidal treatment of native peoples. This kind of manipulation of history is necessary for any revolutionary movement, but it is a despicable tactic.
The Preservation Narrative agrees that America has a tragic history of racial oppression and slavery which has caused real and ongoing damage. Yet our founding principles in the Declaration made the eventual eradication of slavery and substantial racial equality possible. While racism and slavery are common among all nations in human history, what makes America unique is our response to these evils. We eradicated slavery and have made tremendous progress since the Civil Rights era of the 1960s in addressing overt racism, eliminating barriers to equal opportunity, and recognizing the racial sensibilities of minorities.
There are many parts of our history that we should celebrate. Yet the Revolutionary Race Narrative either whitewashes them out of the history books or downplays or ignores them because they counter the narrative. Here are a few examples:
- The world’s first organized anti-slavery society was formed in Pennsylvania in 1774.
- The first legal ban on slavery anywhere in the world was in Vermont in 1777.
- Five of the original 13 states followed suit either during or immediately after the Revolution, passing bans on slavery between 1780 and 1784.
- The first federal ban on slavery, in the Northwest Territory, was drafted in 1784 by Thomas Jefferson and passed by the Confederation Congress in 1787. Its language would later be adopted directly into the 13th Amendment.
- Congress banned the slave trade at the first possible moment, in 1807, at the insistence of President Jefferson.
- Slavery was eventually abolished after a bloody civil war in which thousands of white people died to end this evil institution.
- Significant progress in racial equality was made through the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
- We elected the first black president in 2009, and the whole country celebrated this milestone, even those who disagreed with Barak Obama’s policy positions, as I did.
A truthful take on our past acknowledges America’s racist history in full, horrific detail, but it also remembers and celebrates all we’ve done to overcome the evils of racism and racial injustice, and is grateful for those who sacrificed much to bring them about.
Racism on the left and the right
The Revolutionary Race Narrative says that racism is a problem only on the political right. This is almost entirely false. Consider these facts:
- The Republican Party was founded in 1854 as an anti-slavery party. Its mission was to stop the spread of slavery into the new western territories with the aim of abolishing it entirely.
- In the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court case, the court ruled that slaves aren’t citizens; they’re property. All seven justices who voted in favor of slavery were Democrats. Both dissenting justices were Republicans.
- During Reconstruction, hundreds of black men were elected to southern state legislatures as Republicans, and 22 black Republicans served in the US Congress by 1900. The Democrats did not elect a black man to Congress until 1935.
- After reconstruction, it was southern Democrats who enacted laws restricting blacks’s efforts to own property and run businesses. And they imposed poll taxes and literacy tests, used to subvert the black citizen’s right to vote.
- The Ku Klux Klan was founded by a Democrat, Nathan Bedford Forrest.
- President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was deeply racist. He re-segregated many federal agencies and supported eugenics policies that targeted blacks.
- Margaret Sanger, a far-left progressive, was a racist eugenicist and founder of Planned Parenthood. Her birth control and later abortion movement have led to the death of more black lives in America than were killed during slavery.
- Jesse Owens, a staunch Republican, won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but was snubbed by Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt only invited white Olympians to the White House.
- The only serious congressional opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came from Democrats. Eighty percent of Republicans in Congress supported the bill. Democratic senators filibustered the bill for 75 days.
Why then, do overwhelming numbers of black people support the Democratic Party today? According to advocates of the Preservation Narrative, the answer is straightforward: the very same massive government welfare programs pushed by Democrats that have hollowed out the black family have created a dependence on the government dole, resulting in a majority of black voters supporting Democrats in order to keep the money flowing.
My aim here isn’t to indict Christians who support the Democratic Party. I know many and respect them. My aim here is to challenge the prevailing narrative about racism and politics in our country. It is a problem on both the left and the right, despite what the Revolutionary Narrative promotes.
As Christians, of course we agree that black lives matter. At the same time, we have to recognize that the organization that goes by this name is very discriminating in its advocacy for black lives. A select few matter—namely victims of white police brutality—but many more do not. When it comes to these black lives, the organization (BLM) is utterly silent:
- The millions of innocent black lives snuffed out through legalized abortion.
- The horrific number of black lives killed day-in and day-out as a result of inner-city and gang-related violence at the hands of other black people.
- The many black police officers killed in the line of duty.
- The many black children consigned to failing schools, with no choice to better their educational opportunities.
It isn’t hard to get accurate information on what Black Lives Matter stands for. Take time to read their website and examine their major funding sources. They are clearly a far-left revolutionary front group that uses race to further its revolutionary agenda. Here are a few things they openly advocate:
- The abolition of the family, replaced by a form of communalism where children are raised collectively—the very same policy which Marxist regimes from the USSR to Maoist China advocated.
- A society that is “queer affirming” and supportive of LGBTQ+ rights.
- The expansion of abortion “services” in the black community.
- The abolition of free-market capitalism, and the imposition of a form of Marxist collectivism.
- The defunding of the police.
Despite this, many Christians of good conscience support Black Lives Matter simply because of the name. The movement has attracted the support of thousands, if not millions, of well-intentioned Christians. This is a mistake. The policies of Black Lives Matter exacerbate racial tension and ultimately destroy black lives.
Christians who truly wish to see flourishing in the lives and communities of their black brothers and sisters should consider supporting groups that strengthen black families, strengthen black businesses, advocate for school choice, and fight against the scourge of abortion in the black community.
Many black-run organizations do just this but get far less public attention than the multi-million dollar funded Black Lives Matter. Organizations like The Woodson Center, or the Radiance Foundation, or The American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization.
Those advocating most forcefully for the Revolutionary Narrative employ tactics very similar to those used historically by Marxist revolutionaries. The narrative is sacrosanct. You can’t do or say anything that calls it into question or you will be branded a racist. And if you choose to remain silent, you will also be complicit in racism.
Anyone who dissents with the narrative can expect to be denounced as a racist and summarily bullied, shamed, intimidated, threatened, or fired. Advocates of the Revolutionary Narrative have little interest in engaging in free, open debate. They want submissive compliance. The bending of the knee is a perfect symbolic expression for the Revolutionary Narrative as a whole.
Christians should have nothing to do with these kinds of fear-based power tactics, or supporting in any way those that employ them. They are eerily reminiscent of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. We must remain a people committed to civility, respect, and free and open debate and dialogue in the pursuit of truth.
For these and other reasons, I am deeply concerned about the Revolutionary Narrative, and about inroads it has made into the church. It runs counter to a biblical worldview at many points, particularly in its understanding of racism, its view of human nature, and its drawing the line between good and evil between groups based on skin color, and its encouraging people to view themselves primarily as victims or oppressors, rather than image-bearers of God, and sinners in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. These are not simply untrue beliefs, they are destructive. They do nothing to build up, but only tear down.
In my view, the Preservation Narrative, despite the fact that it is increasingly vilified in the broader culture, is far more aligned to a biblical worldview and a truthful reading of U.S. history. The vast majority of its past and present black advocates are committed Christians. It diagnoses real problems, and proposes solutions aimed at addressing these problems in ways that will lead to the flourishing of the black community.
Scott Allen is President of the Disciple Nations Alliance