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….The problem is this: we no longer have an agreed-upon understanding of what racism is.
So writes Scott David Allen in his excellent book, Why Social Justice Is Not Biblical Justice. He continues,
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.
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.