Using our privilege to bless others

Race Issues
by Jarvis J. Williams

Posted on Tuesday, June 9, 2015, at 6:45 pm

American Christianity is rich with privilege. In addition to what we share with other believers worldwide—being saved by grace through faith apart from works (Ephesians 2:8-9) and Jesus becoming a poor human so that we would become spiritually rich (2 Corinthians 8:9—American Christians enjoy religious freedom.

Why, then, do many American Christians generally resist the concept of American white privilege? There is more than one complicated answer to this complicated question. But I propose at least one: The concept of white privilege seems to challenge the American idea of hard work and personal achievement.

Explanations of white privilege usually suggest that the American system has arbitrarily privileged white people over other races—especially African-Americans—since proponents argue that white people created the American system to benefit white people. The privileged whites—it is argued—socially constructed whiteness as normal and non-whiteness as abnormal. Marc Lamont Hill, an African-American professor at Morehouse College, recently agreed with this explanation. In an appearance on CNN he argued that white privilege is evident by the unmerited benefits white people experience in this country—as a result of a racist system—because they are white. Though offering some insightful points, Hill wrongly concludes that white success is largely unmerited and that whiteness is fundamentally to blame for injustice against blacks.

A white evangelical pastor recently offered his explanation of white privilege, describing himself as a racist because he is a white man born into the American, socialized system of white privilege with all its benefits. He wrongly connected American racism exclusively to whiteness and to the racist system he believes whiteness created, instead of connecting racism to sin and to sin’s impact on individuals and social structures.

When white American Christians hear such explanations of white privilege, they generally and understandably recoil, because these descriptions seem to suggest that whiteness is evil and that white American success is inherited instead of earned.

But there is a more balanced way to define the concept of American white privilege. Traditionally, the American system has generally—but not always—favored certain white people, a point supported by slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. The effects of this favoritism are generally evident today in some—but not all—aspects of American culture (e.g., education, the legal system, etc.). But American Christians should not deny that some form of privilege exists, even though affirmative action privileges some African-Americans in specific situations (although not with the police).  The question then becomes for American Christians: How can we use our privileges to bless others?

American Christians are not only spiritually privileged, but are also born into a privileged status of freedom and opportunity—and the vast majority of us have done nothing to earn these privileges. But many Christians in other countries are often born into an underprivileged social status, suffering numerous social disadvantages regardless of how hard they work. Regardless of our race and whether our privileges are graciously given or earned, American Christians should use their privilege to bless the underprivileged.

Jarvis J. Williams

Jarvis is associate professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and a former WORLD contributor.

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