Robert P. Jones’ ‘White Too Long’ draws praise and spirited discussion from faith leaders
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — For Robert P. Jones, Tuesday’s webinar was a chance to discuss his significant book, “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.” And for the faith leaders who appeared with Jones during the event put on by Simmons College of Kentucky and Empower West Louisville, it was a chance to enter into remarkable conversation about the future of an inclusive church — if only it will proclaim the authentic gospel of Jesus Christ.
In addition to Jones, webinar participants included:
- The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
- The Rev. Kasey Jones, associate coordinator of strategic operations and outreach for Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
- Dr. Obery Hendricks, adjunct professor in the departments of Religion and African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University in the City of New York.
- The Rev. Dr. Kevin W. Cosby, president of Simmons College of Kentucky and senior pastor of St. Stephen Church in Louisville and other campuses.
- Chris Sanders, a Louisville employment law attorney who moderated the panel.
Jones opened by laying the foundation for his book, which takes its name from a James Baldwin phrase in a New York Times op-ed he wrote months after the 1968 assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. Baldwin wrote “in a moment of despair,” Jones said. “He like King hoped white Christians would stand on the side of rights for African Americans and never quite got there.”
Trained at a Southern Baptist seminary before entering academia (he founded and directs the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C.), Jones said he’s learned from reading Frederick Douglass, who noted that even in denominations (such as the forebears of the PC[USA]) that divided over slavery, white supremacy among northern abolitionists “was still very much alive and well.”
“Jim Crow laws were not just in the South,” Jones said. “That history is very much with us. It still lives in the DNA of white Christians today, and not just in the South.”
White supremacy is “about ordering a society in such a way that it protects and values the lives of whites against others,” Jones said, including by such measures as COVID-19 outcomes, wealth and the killing of unarmed African Americans by police.
Data that Jones cites in the book show that white Christians are more likely to hold racist attitudes than whites who aren’t Christians. What Jones calls the “Racism Index,” which is based on answers to 15 questions and ranges from 1 (least racist) to 10 (most racist) places white evangelicals at an 8 with mainline and Catholic Christians right behind at 7. Those who indicated no religion scored a 4, and African Americans scored a 2.
“There are many white Christians, and not just evangelicals, who say, ‘I don’t hold ill feelings toward African Americans. I don’t harbor that in my heart,’” Jones said. “That doesn’t quite get to being willing to say, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ White Christians can hold these two contradictory things together at one time, holding positions that will harm African Americans in policy, law and real social practices.”
“We have been living in a flawed reality with regards to how we carry out our faith,” Nelson said. “It has a lot to do with how we understand the context of our theology and how it’s used by some to have power over others — all while declaring there is holiness by baptizing themselves in the font on Sunday mornings.”
Nelson said his father, also a Presbyterian pastor and the former president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP during the civil rights era, could not enter a white Presbyterian church in Orangeburg, “and yet we were all Presbyterians.”
“We find cursory ways of addressing one another without dealing with this ongoing belief of superiority,” that “the poorest-off white person still feels better off than the most educated Black person. This is about superiority, a sickness of the soul,” Nelson said, “to understand that we did not come from the same God and are not endowed with the same rights and privileges.”
“We are in a place right now,” Nelson said, “where Christianity will have to find some racial sanity or give up what it is trying to do on this side of heaven. This is about power; let us be real about it because it extends to whiteness, who are excused for things that are dangerous and antithetical to the gospel.”
Kasey Jones said that as white congregations reach out to their Black counterparts, “the best way to do that is in conversation with Black leadership. Well-meaning white folks have gone into Black spaces and in some cases have done more damage than they helped.” In his book, she said, Robert P. Jones talks about how subtle the influence of white supremacy can be on white people. “For the majority of white Christians, that is their reality,” she said. “That self-awareness is important” so that “thinking can be more critical and freer into what’s taking place.”
“We really do need to pierce this veil of white Christian innocence, that we are good people who do good things,” Robert P. Jones said. “In many ways that is true, but it’s not the whole truth, and it’s not the truth we need to tell in this moment.”
Hendricks called “White Too Long” a “brilliant and courageous book,” a “melding of the confessional, statistical and historical.”
“Robert Jones defines the problem in a way that’s not widely understood,” Hendricks said. “White supremacist ideology is an ideology of personal and group interests. You don’t have to have animus to subscribe to it, and you don’t have to be of European descent. Evangelicals can support the president of the United States because they are so given over to white supremacy. They have no idea of how they are devaluing, oppressing, marginalizing and crushing other folk. This book explains the roots of it.”
It was left to Cosby, the pastor and Simmons College of Kentucky president, to have the last word. Racism, he said, is the mythology that everything of significance emanates from white people.
“We have made modest reforms only because of interest convergence, not any true, authentic transformation,” Cosby said. Except for a few years during Reconstruction, “there hasn’t been a time when America has been just to Black people,” he said, quoting another famous saying from Baldwin: “You cannot fix what you are unwilling to face.”
The most powerful statement Cosby said he has heard in recent months came from Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, who during the height of protests in the Bluegrass State, particularly in Louisville, home to the Presbyterian Center, said he will never know what it’s like to be Black. But he can do three things, Cosby said, quoting the governor: “I can listen. I can learn. I can act.”
“Here we are at this critical juncture in history,” Cosby prayed to wrap up the 100-minute webinar. Cosby implored God to “mobilize” the church.
“Help us be concerned not just about private policy, but about public policy that affects personal, private policy,” Cosby prayed. “Thank you for the prophetic tradition of the Black church and the white church. May we be true to that tradition, because to be true to it is to be true to you.”
View the Facebook Live webinar here.
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Categories: Matthew 25, Office of the General Assembly, Racial Justice
Tags: chris sanders, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, dr. obery hendricks, empower west louisville, public religion research institute, rev. dr. j. herbert nelson ii, rev. dr. kevin cosby, rev. kasey jones, robert p. jones, simmons college of kentucky, st. stephen church, white supremacy, white too long: the legacy of white supremacy in american christianity
Ministries: Gender, Racial and Intercultural Justice, Matthew 25 in the PC(USA): Join the Movement