The issue of white supremacy in the United States is not confined to people of the past who spewed racial hatred, researcher and author Robert P. Jones told a Baptist gathering in Kentucky.
“When most white people hear the word ‘white supremacy,’ they immediately conjure up a kind of grainy black-and-white still photograph of the Klan burning a cross, but it’s folded and wrinkled, and it’s old and faded,” Jones said at an Oct. 8 forum hosted by Baptist Seminary of Kentucky’s Institute for Black Church Studies. “And one thing that does for us is it gives a reference to the word ‘white supremacy’ that is very far from us.”
However, Jones insisted, white supremacy is “close to home” and evidence of it can be seen in housing patterns across the United States. White Americans used redlining to segregate communities and then made sure that white neighborhoods enjoyed better public services than neighborhoods populated by other races, he said.
“White supremacy is nothing other than the idea that white lives are more valuable than others, that whites should enjoy better benefits, better jobs, better access to parks, better schools.”
“White supremacy is nothing other than the idea that white lives are more valuable than others, that whites should enjoy better benefits, better jobs, better access to parks, better schools, all of that,” Jones explained. “And that was a basic tenet of white society for almost all our country’s history.”
Sadly, he noted, U.S. Christians did not just “turn a blind eye” to the injustices but espoused teachings “compatible with that worldview.”
Jones is a BNG columnist and founder and CEO of PRRI, an organization that researches topics related to religion, culture and public policy. He is the author of the 2020 book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity and an earlier work titled The End of White Christian America. He was raised Southern Baptist in Mississippi and graduated from Mississippi College and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary before earning a doctorate in religion from Emory University.
His observations at the BSK forum were in response to questions by interviewer Lewis Brogdon, director of BSK’s Institute for Black Church Studies. The event was part of the “Autumn Celebration” of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Kentucky at Third Baptist Church in Owensboro. Jones also preached during the opening worship service of the CBF Kentucky gathering and led one of the meeting’s breakout sessions.
The roots of white supremacy in America can be traced to its earliest European settlers, Jones said. They viewed America as “ordained by God to be white Christians’ private promise land.” He said that conviction led to the enslavement of Africans and the unjust and cruel treatment of indigenous people.
In his most recent book, Jones delves into his own family’s history related to the race issue. His research turned up some disturbing truths. For example, his grandfather was among a group of deacons at a Baptist church in the early 1960s who took turns standing watch each Sunday on the church steps. Their purpose was to prohibit Black people from entering.
Learning about his family’s complicity in racism caused him much distress, he said. “There were moments when I was digging for the historical material, getting clear about my own family’s history, that I just had to step away and take a walk.”
During his sermon, Jones identified three ways white Christians can address white supremacy:
- Learn the truth of history. “If every white Christian and every white Christian church in America wrote a more truthful confessional history of our failures on the issue of racial equality, it would be a good first step toward real healing in our communities.”
- Build relationships across racial divides. “Casual connections and pulpit swaps are insufficient. We have to build spaces that generate real relationships. We can’t love all our neighbors well if we don’t know them.”
- Address “the unjust economic advantages that have accrued to white institutions since the founding of the country.”This is an acknowledgement of Jesus’ teaching that “where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.” He urged white congregations and individuals to give “significant contributions to historically Black institutions or nonprofit institutions that primarily serve people of color.”
The injury caused by white supremacy is not limited to people of color, Jones said. White people must “grasp once and for all how white supremacy has robbed us of our own heritage, of our ability to be in right relationships with our fellow citizens, with ourselves and even with God,” he said. “Reckoning with white supremacy for us is now an unavoidable moral choice.”
In the meeting’s closing worship service the next day, Kasey Jones, associate coordinator for outreach and growth for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Global, also emphasized the need to be honest about the past and to admit the harm caused by systemic racism.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I just want to encourage you to do the work,” Jones said. “It’s worth the journey. And when you struggle with the findings and the realization that death and harm may have been caused by the community you grew up in, by the church you worshiped in, and maybe even by the hands and feet of those that had been around your dinner table, don’t try to deny it or dismiss it. Sit with it and give it to God.”
She stressed the experience can open doors to a brighter future.
“There is a God that grants courage to consider new friendships, relationships and extension of family,” she said. “And there’s a God that can transform uncomfortable truths as a foundation to new, powerful ministry.”
Facing the clear and present danger lurking among white evangelicals today | Opinion by Robert P. Jones